The 21st Century is not turning out to be a great time to be a horse. Economic fears, crazy weather, high hay prices, neglectful (for whatever reason) owners and the specter of vast herds of marauding "unwanted horses" probably have some horses here in the USA lying awake at night, if they read the newspapers.
But what if horses were simply banned? That's the problem in Romania, an eastern European nation with a strong desire to play by the rules set up by the European Union. Romania was granted EU membership this year, and with the privilege of all the EU economic benefits comes pressure to comply with rules, one of which is that horses are banned from major roads.
Surely the law was made to protect horses. The problem is that Romania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and horses are the tractors, trucks and sports cars of the nation's rural classes. According to this video, horses are being abandoned, since horsemen face stiff fines if they are caught on the road.
Romania's situation is truly unique. During the Communist years, horses were replaced by tractors. But when the fuel ran out after the country switched governments, the people had no means of transport or farming power. People left the economically-strapped cities and moved to the country. And they turned to horses. Unfortunately, the country's horse knowledge had been erased by decades of factory-scale farming with machines.
Recently the International League for the Protections of Horses (ILPH) has sent teams of farrier and saddler (harnessmakers) to Romania to assist with upgrading local skills to insure that horse welfare standards are up to the EU required levels. ILPH estimates that one million horses are working for their supper in Romania. That's one horse for every 27 Romanians. And the country's vehicle registration counts 750,000 horse carts with license plates. And those are just the registered ones.
Heifer International (a.k.a. "The Heifer Project") has been supporting a project in Romania's Transylvania region to preserve one of the world's most endangered horse breeds, the Furioso North-Star horse. Only 600 Furiosos remain in Romania and Heifer is working to place mares who will be bred by project-owned stallions on family-owned farms.
One of the new industries in Romania is tourism, which relies heavily on horseback trek adventures in the mountains. Maybe someday they will be trekking on native-bred Furiosos.
Romania's horses are not unwanted. In fact, they would probably gladly take a few shiploads of our unwanted horses. In fact, the half-draft PMU offspring would be perfect, as long as we sent horse missionaries to help with education. What they need is a highway management program that gives everyone a share of the road, and some support for the programs that are helping the horses there.
Critics say that horses are a symbol of poverty, a stigma that Romania is trying to erase. But if people can't afford cars, trucks, tractors and the fuel to keep them going, Romania might become a model for a horse-drawn transitional rural economy that both cares for its horses and its people.
To learn more: the BBC has a good article by Nick Thorpe about the horse ban in Romania and its effects on horses and people.
A Romanian woman and her relatively well-cared for Furioso North-Star horse. Notice that this woman's wagon is loaded with what looks like fresh-cut willow switches. Photo by Heifer International.