I sleep on the sun-warmed roof of the house. As I wake periodically through the night, gently and instinctively awoken by rustling, I notice the moon’s progress across the sky. For the first time I am fully aware of how the night sky changes overhead, the simple revelation of something I already know: the planet is moving. Just a few feet to my left, at ground level, the quiet hoofbeats and occasional snorts of the horses sounds in the night. My senses inform me of when they are awake, when they are resting. Something sends them suddenly galloping to the far side of the field, but a restive energy sinks back over the herd before long.
I am in Skyros, Greece, a rural island in the central Aegean. It is the home of a breed of horse believed to be thousands of years old, though they currently number only a couple hundred individuals. My friends Amanda Simpson and Stathis Katsarelias have bred horses here over the past decade with the ostensible intention of preserving a piece of local history, and also because they have long been in love with these intelligent, idiosyncratic creatures.
One evening, late, after a simple meal of bread, tomatoes, and olives, Amanda rouses us all to follow her out into the fields. It is a full moon as we walk amongst the herds gathered around the remains of their hay, sleeping on the ground, looking out into the darkness. We sit on the ground, apart, and wait for the horses to come to us, stand over us, breathe into our hair and sigh and rest. A feeling of mutual understanding and connection hums through my body, like a prickling awareness of my roots reaching down into the soil.
Humanity domesticated the horse out of necessity thousands of years ago. Only in the past century or so has their practical use dwindled in many parts of the world, to the point where they are seen as an expensive pet, and horse riding a leisure activity rather than a means of transport. At Amanda and Stathis’ farm some of the horses are trained for riding, driving, and to be handled by children. Others serve no purpose at all. They exist, because they have a right to; because Amanda and Stathis see the inherent value in simple interactions between our two species, and because the people of the island do not want to see their horses disappear.
The horses run in herds, although their range is limited to the boundaries of the property. They live in a liminal state, neither wild nor fully domesticated. Although we are enchanted by the image of the wild horse, in reality, very few exist. Aside from Przewalski’s Horse of the central Asian Steppe, a unique subspecies, the horses we often think of as ‘wild’ – mustangs, brumbies – are technically feral, descended from domesticated ancestors who returned to a wild state. But in the scale of our joint evolutionary history, this period of domestication is just the blink of an eye.
There is something about the night time in Skyros, when the sound of bells has faded and the goats are locked away; when the lights are out on the island and the sky comes alive with stars; when the fences are indistinct in the darkness, creating a boundless wild space. It is a time when, sitting in the dust surrounded by small hooves, it is possible to imagine the past and a future with little resemblance to our present. A future in which horses have regained some of their original wildness. In our eyes more than anything, for we must wonder, have they really lost it – or have we simply made it impossible?
Working in proximity to horses opens up something in people. A sense of our own inherent wildness, brought out by a species we consider domesticated. We have shaped the way that horses relate to their surroundings by fencing in their ranges, adapting their diets, training them to work with us, and at the same time we have narrowed and shortened our own living space, dividing up and changing the wide world and the way we relate to it. In time to come we will need to re-evaluate the role that horses can play in the natural world. Perhaps the same goes for ourselves.
Read more biodiversity stories at VoicesforBiodiversity.org.
Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra.