Scientists Hope Retuertas Horses will Return to the Wild

Scientists Hope Retuertas Horses will Return to the Wild

There are only about 350 Spanish Retuertas horses in the world today.

Photo: Courtesy Diego Benita

Some American horse enthusiasts associate Spain with a sense of history and origin. Many American horses are descendants of Spanish horses brought over by 15th and 16th century explorers, and many of America's “native” wild horses are deeply rooted in Spanish equine genes.

But Spain has its own “native” wild horse, which dates back at least 3,000 years. The Spanish Retuertas horse has roamed the country’s marshlands for longer than recorded history. But because it wasn’t popular as a working horse, newer breeds took its place in domestication. The small, hardy, and genetically distinct Retuertas faced extinction in the 1980s, but conservationists rescued the breed by protecting it in the Doñana national park in southern Spain.

Today, that rescue effort has been doubled. As part of a much larger program called "Rewilding Europe," 47 Retuertas horses have been rehomed from Doñana to a 500-hectare (1,235-acre) private reserve in the western part of the Iberian peninsula called Campanarios de Azabas. Arriving in two groups—one in 2012 and one in 2013—the horses have settled into their new home and several new foals were born in the past year, confirming the effort's success.

But, unbeknownst to them, the horses have a job at Campanarios de Azabas, a nongovernment organization: The Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre (FNYH), working in collaboration with Rewilding Europe, chose these horses for their roles as herbivores in helping maintain the land in a natural way.

Working a land once used for farming, the Retuertas and Sayaguesa cattle will keep vegetation managed and encourage a return to the land’s natural flora, said FNYH’s resident forest engineer Diego Benito.

“This reserve is a dehesa (or, a mature Mediterranean forest), a very special landscape made by human activity,” Benito told The Horse. As such, the land requires significant time and effort to return it to its natural state, he said, and the Retuertas is the right candidate for the job.

And the job is right for the horse, as well. By offering such a vast protected area, the FNYH hopes to see the breed’s number strengthen significantly over the coming years. With no current need for population control, given the large amounts of land available, Benito said the future, long-term plan is to eventually move surplus populations to new reserves.

The ultimate goal is to see the Retuertas living as wild horses, without human intervention or management, Benito said.

“At the moment, the FNYH is obligated to carry out certain disease-control measures, but the final objective is to not manage the horses at all and to consider them wild animals,” he explained.

Despite the move of the 47 horses to Campanarios de Azabas, the Retuertas are still free to roam the 300 square kilometers (100 square miles) of the Doñana Park, he said. The last population estimate of the breed in Doñana was approximately 300 horses, bringing the total worldwide population of Retuertas in 2014 to about 350.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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