Here I Am, Wild and Free
Updated: May 26
Stirred, as we often are, by the sight of these rare populations of wild horses - emblematic of freedom as, with manes streaming, they fly through our dreams and imaginations. Are they symbolic of the mystery of enchantment we’ve lost and yearn for? Perhaps…
Horses have served man at the cost of their natural lives, and those who love all things wild and free often find ourselves deeply moved by the sight of these extraordinary ‘free’ horses. And we cannot but have empathy for the vanished independence of domesticated horses, moulded as they are into creatures for human pleasure. There is little pleasure for them, far removed as they are from their spirit of freedom we so admire in their wild counterparts.
We find ourselves, perhaps wondering if we too could abandon confining social norms and live unharnessed and unfettered - well, that too comes at a price. For the Namib’s, as Namibia’s wild horses are called, it means adaptation to living in one of the harshest environments still able to support life. And that is perhaps another aspect of their appeal - the embodiment of survival in an unforgiving landscape - or is it survival? We have to consider that is our point of view, not necessarily theirs. Theirs is to adapt to circumstance, conserving energy when necessary and expending it in times of abundance.
For the wild horses, there is much to be gained from freedom. The dynamic that comes with living in natural family groups, the friendship bonds which are so important to all animals - we humans tend to deny our horses’ 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, it haunts us nevertheless when we see these extraordinary creatures in their wildness.
So unlike us humans, their lives and deaths keep pace with natural cycles of drought and plenty, of predation too, which prevents the population from outgrowing the carrying capacity of the land. The results of management practices in the past has established these horses are best left to the rhythm of their natural circumstances in which they are most comfortable. Older and weaker horses die in lean years, distilling out the hardiest genes - natures’ own management plan.
Drought and a natural selection processes can, at times, be seen in a positive light as in years of plenty the population soars beyond the carrying capacity of the land they are confined to. The fluctuations and dynamics of breeding groups, left to their own choices, has been carefully noted over almost 3 decades. Careful recording of the life and death of each individual reveals that inbreeding is avoided by fillies dispersing from their family groups, and mares never allowing their colts to cover them.
More stallions thrive in this desert environment than mares, who carry the additional energy output of bearing young, which takes an enormous toll ‘living on the edge’ as they do. In their sometimes compromised condition, they are more vulnerable to both drought and predation, yet again nature intervenes and mares will often not come into season during prolonged drought until conditions are ideal for raising young. Always in step with nature…
In years of plenty a strong cohesion is observed as family group play together and there is an overall tolerance among individuals. In leaner years they tend to be more fractious, yet the only ‘abnormal’ behaviour in these natural horses has been observed in times of extreme drought or during capture. Mass capture occurred during the terrible droughts of the early and late 90’s which proved disastrous for the horses. Unable to adapt to captivity, few survived the ordeal.
These once feral horses, after a century of freedom, are now a rich part of the Namibian landscape, drawing in both tourists and financial support for feeding programmes during extreme drought. Emotions run high when photographs of skeletal horses are spread across the world’s press - it is then we tend to forget that this is precisely what being wild and free entails.
Image right above indicating the effect of human interaction - many horses are killed by vehicles as habituation to feeding on the roadside results in them standing on the road verge and even in the road.
Acknowledging the work done by the volunteer-run Namibia Wild Horses Foundation whose fund-raising efforts are to be commended. All images above by Teagan Cunniffe - prints of her work can be ordered from (https://www.teagancunniffe.com/prints/) part of the sale of prints goes to the foundation.
Another artist who has contributed a percentage of the sale of her extraordinary graphite artwork of the Namib's - order at https://wildartt.com/wild-horses-of-the-namib/
For those who dream of flying across the open plains of the Namib desert, join us on our Wild Horses Safari in May each year as we ride though some of the most extraordinary desert scenery on the planet.
Reference: Wild Horses of 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