Covered from head to toe in loose-fitting cotton clothing to protect her fair complexion from the sun, briars, insects and other perils of her island world in The Bahamas, Mimi Rehor is the primary and largely self-appointed protector of a band of stocky, skittish wild horses.
For the last several years, the horses have resided on a large citrus farm just north of the Treasure Cay resort on the island of Great Abaco in the northeast Bahamas, and Mimi has built a life around researching, caring for, and protecting these animals. She knows all 19 by names she has given them – Hadar, Alva, Sirius, Mimosa, Regulus and the rest – all named for navigational stars. And, like their namesakes, the animals have provided Mimi, a sailor herself, with direction as she strives to preserve them, giving her a special personal focus, and a unique purpose in the process.
It was more than a dozen years ago that Milanne (Mimi) Rehor and a friend sailed to Abaco from Miami on her 35-foot sloop. Glancing through the 1992 edition of the Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas, she had spied an intriguing sentence regarding the existence of wild horses on mainland Abaco. While there were about 30 in 1992, further research revealed that less than 40 years earlier there had been as many as 200. Their origin was unknown, and in the 1960s they had almost been wiped out by hunters.
A spark was lit in Mimi. And without knowing it, she began an Abaco odyssey that headed in the same direction as another diminutive woman campaigner in the American West by the name of Velma Johnston, aka “Wild Horse Annie,” whose efforts to stop the slaughter of American mustangs led to passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, legislation credited with bringing the American mustang back from the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, there were only three of the original Abaco wild horses left after hunters decimated them in the 1960s, and these three survivors, a stallion and two mares, had been relocated to the Bahama Star Farm. It was their 30 descendents that Mimi encountered in 1992.
Despite the bumps and bruises common to all free-range horses during mating periods, they are beautiful, watching visitors warily through their long tangled forelocks. Wavy, foot-long manes trail down deeply arched necks; their relatively small 14-hand stature gives them a look of compact power. Colors range from bay, dun and chestnut to a striking group of paints. Two mares are nearly exact mirror images, from their bi-colored faces to the large splashes of white across their withers. Spica, a nine-month old filly, peers from behind her paint mother, and the resemblance between mother and daughter is unmistakable.
The herd was once again diminishing when Mimi arrived on the scene with her preservation efforts. She established the Abaco Wild Horse Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the herd, in 1995. Her goals for the organization were substantial: procure a portable corral, which could be moved to wherever it is needed to segregate or protect mares in foal or injured horses; stock medical supplies in a mobile field unit; establish a preserve to provide a buffer around the farm; devise a method of tracking the horses, possibly with radio collars; run DNA tests to learn their origins.
The last goal, she knew, was a key to the horse’s ultimate survival. It contained the romantic essence and mystery that has fueled many an island horse legend and filled the pages of many books. A wild Chinquoteague pony, Misty, heroine of a best-selling children’s book by Marguerite Henry, left a generation dreaming of catching and gentling ponies of their own. Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series featured a boy whose life was saved and forever changed by a wild stallion when the duo were shipwrecked and washed ashore on a desert island. Many adult readers are familiar with Anne River Siddon’s bestseller, “Low Country”, which centers around a herd of marsh “tackies” whose existence is threatened by the development of an island off the coast of South Carolina.
Origin and bloodline are questions common to wild horse herds scattered across North America. Indigenous horses were lost to North America some 12,000 years ago, and they were not seen there again until Columbus brought 20 with him on his second voyage in 1494. Breeding stations were established by the Spanish in Hispaniola and Cuba, and as the Spanish influence spread across the continent, so did horse breeding. The Caribbean provided fertile breeding ground for horses for the new world, and the Spanish used them in establishing the first ranches of the American West. It was from these horses that the early mustangs are believed to have originated.
Their blood has been mixed for generations with both light and draft horses which escaped or were abandoned by farms and ranches, and today’s wild horses show traits common to a variety of breeds. Even the Assateague ponies made famous by Misty of Chincoteague have been the subject of the heritage debate. Though they are most likely the remnants of horses that swam to the island from the mainland, some believe they may have originated from animals escaping a Spanish shipwreck.
So it may be with Abaco’s wild horses. The theory received a major breakthrough recently when the Horse of the Americas Registry, which documents Columbian-era, Spanish-descended horses, registered Abaco’s wild horse herd based on research by equine geneticists. The small, rotund pintos and bays are now thought to be descendants of horses from Africa’s Barbary Coast, which the Moors transported to Spain, and which the Spanish used in the conquest of the New World. Mimi’s cause has taken on new focus and a new name: The Abaco Barbary Horse Project. It gained further credibility when the Horse of the Americas Registry wrote to Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie saying: “This designation … is an honor, and will bring positive attention to the Bahamas from horse enthusiasts and animal lovers worldwide.”
Already, the Bahamas government has commited to a park to be established in the pine forest adjacent to the citrus farm, which will be better suited to the horses. At present, however,the remaining “Abaco Barbs,” which suffer from obesity and misshapen hooves, still totter on extinction .
Despite the recent findings, some old timers in Abaco, which was first settled by American Loyalists in 1783, continue to believe the horses are the prodgeny of draft animals brought to Abaco by the lumber industry in the 1920s, specifically at Norman’s Castle, an area in west Abaco not far from the current Bahama Star Farm. Lumbering operations were abandoned in Abaco by the 1940s, and questioning Abaco’s old timers, Mimi says, has resulted only in the assurance that “those horses have been there forever.” Forever, Mimi suspects, is longer ago than the 40s. She believes the logging theory to be the least likely, as it would be unusual for stallions to have been used as draft horses, and leaving animals with a significant monetary value would have been uncharacteristic of industry, at least in that day and age.
Earlier bloodwork done on one mare had produced inconclusive results. DNA tests showed genes that were “rare in all breeds,” which didn’t rule out Spanish origins. The most recent tests limited the possibilities of origin and led to the current conclusion that the horses were indeed Spanish-era equines. Whatever their actual heritage, the horses’ limited gene pool has resulted in their being, in a sense, a breed of their own; a breed with independence and tenacity not uncommon to Abaco’s native human population.
Mimi Rehor herself has brought much tenacity to the project. Her work with the horses has brought her many things, from challenge and fulfillment, to victory and heartbreak. She speaks with love and sadness of Acrux, a four-year-old stallion who had to be put down some years ago because injuries to his face and lip had caused severe dehydration and emaciation. But she laughs gleefully and shouts, “Good for you, girl!” as a young mare is romanced among the lime and grapefruit trees by a strapping young stud.
The home they were given on Bahama Star Farm, a fertile 3,000-acre tract, saved their existence, a place with plenty of grass, limestone leaching calcium into watering holes, sandy soil to trim hooves, sugar cane, and leftover fodder from the time when the farm was a cattle operation. Mimi’s own non-profit Abaco Wild Horse Fund worked to eliminate barbed wire, control predators, protect the horses from harrassment, and limit harmful pesticides.
Mimi hopes that Abaco Boy Scouts will develop a guided bike tour excursion venture in the new preserve around the farm, which would help keep an eye on the area. And a program could be established to allow small groups of visitors to visit the horses on authorized guided tours, just as they do now to other Abaco parks.
“We want to encourage people who feel it is a privilege to observe them in their habitat, but they’re not really a tourist attraction,” says Mimi. “It’s an intimate experience, and has to be kept that way.”
For more information on the horses and the work of the Wild Horse Fund and the Abaco Barbary Horse Project, visit www.arkwild.org, or E-mail: [email protected] To reach Mimi Rehor, leave her a message at Critter Corner in Marsh Harbour at (242) 367-3353 or write to her at 2809 Bird Avenue, Apt. 170, Miami, FL 33133 USA.
Jim and Cathy Kerr are freelance writers living in Raleigh, NC. They also publish the quarterly magazine Abaco Life which can be seen at www.abacolife.com.