The Wild Horses of the Namib
Why are we so stirred by the sight of these rare populations of wild horses? Advertising and film use them as metaphors for freedom using images of horses running free with manes streaming in the wind. Are these wild and free horses symbolic the mystery of enchantment we have lost and yearn for?
Having served man at the cost of their natural lives, those of us who love all things wild and free, find ourselves deeply moved by the sight of these horses. And we cannot but have great empathy for domestic horses’ vanished freedom – having been moulded into creatures for human pleasure. There is no pleasure for them in solitary incarceration far removed from the spirit of freedom we so admire in their wild counterparts.
Could we too abandon the confining social ‘norms’ and live unharnessed and unfettered – well, that too comes at a price and for these horses it’s an adaptation to living in one of the harshest environments still able to support life. This is another aspect of their appeal – the embodiment of survival in an unforgiving landscape.
For the wild horses there is much to gain however from their freedom. The dynamic that comes from living in natural family groups, the bonds which are so important to all animals. We deny them that. And all that we attempt to bring under our dominion, to control and exploit…yet somewhere underneath it all something stirs, we know not what, but it haunts us nevertheless.
So unlike us humans, their lives and deaths keep pace with nature as drought and hyena predation keep the population from exceeding the carrying capacity of the land. Management practice has established these horses are best left to the rhythm of the natural world in which they are most comfortable. Older and weaker horses die in lean years distilling out the hardiest genes – nature’s own management plan.
Drought as a natural selection process can therefore be seen in a positive light as in years of plenty the population soars beyond the carrying capacity of the land. Their numbers fluctuate between 80 and 280.
The fluctuating and dynamic of breeding groups left to their own choices has been carefully recorded over decades. The research has identified each individual and has established that inbreeding is avoided as fillies disperse from their family groups and mares will not allow their colts to cover them. More stallions survive as the harsh conditions and additional energy output of bearing young takes a toll on the mares. Their weakened condition also subjects them to hyena predation. But in extreme conditions, mares just don’t come into season if conditions are not ideal for raising young. Again, keeping pace with nature.
In years of plenty a stronger cohesion is observed as family groups play together and there is an overall tolerance among individuals. In leaner years they are more fractious, but the only ‘abnormal’ behaviour in these horses appears in times of extreme drought or during capture. Mass capture occurred during the terrible droughts of the early and late 90’s proved disastrous for the horses. Unable to adapt to captivity, few survived their ordeal.
These once feral horses, after a century of freedom, are now part of the Namibian landscape drawing in both tourists and financial support for feeding programmes during extreme drought. But emotions run high when photographs of skeletal horses are spread across the world’s press. We tend to forget that this is precisely what being wild and free entails.
(Artist Amy Goodman donated these framed prints of her "Namib Desert Horse" to raise funds for the Wild Horses Foundation - available from Klein Aus Vista)
To realise on some higher level that our comfortable complacency is what tears us away from the enchantment of mystery. That the survival of the fittest in nature has its place. It ensures that the toughest, most resilient horses survive to breed even hardier horses to keep the mystique alive.
These are the decedents of those horses who gave their lives to shaping this harsh land. Is it not our lot to accept responsibility for their well-being? It seems like the right thing to do.
For donations to the current feeding programme the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation website has the means to donate easily from anywhere in the world via an ordinary electronic funds transfer. As the foundation is wholly a volunteer run organisation, all funding goes towards getting food to the horses in a way that is beneficial to their well-being.
For those horse lovers who dream of racing across open plains, join us on our Wild Horses Safari in May 2017. A 10-night mobile riding safari in some of the most beautiful desert scenery on the planet – culminating in a visit to the wild horses with researcher Dr Telane Greyling. 21 – 31 May 2017, email enquiries to email@example.com
Reference: Wild Horses in the Namib Desert, an equine biography by Manfred Goldbeck and Telane Greyling as told by Ron Swilling. Many of Ron’s expressions were used in this article.