Preserving the Rare Beauty of the Abaco Barb
Written by Tamra
For over 500 years, a mysterious herd of beautiful
wild horses has roamed the pine forests and sandy beaches of Abaco
in the Bahamas. Only in 2002, after a decade of research, were they
finally identified and designated by the Horse of the America's
Registry as the Abaco Barb, descendents of horses brought over at
the time of Columbus’s explorations - a new strain of the endangered
Spanish Barb and perhaps the purest strain in existence anywhere.
The struggling remnants of a once mighty herd of 200 are facing
extinction for the second time in their recently turbulent history.
“This is one of the top events of the ten years I’ve
been working to save these horses,” says Milanne Rehor, President
and Field Director of Arkwild, Inc., a not for profit U.S.
corporation that works to save small endangered populations of
animals. “The phenotype of these horses (characteristics that make
them Barbs) has been recorded on videos and stills . We developed a
tissue sampling dart so we could have three different sets of DNA
analysis done without having to tranquilize the horses to draw
blood. UCLA, University of Kentucky, IMD in Germany and Horse of the
Americas Registry all came to the same conclusion: “Spanish. ”
(Horse of the Americas Registry registers only horses of irrefutable
Columbian era Spanish descent.). In addition, many of the horses
show a rare color pattern, splash white. Geneticists have suggested
that a gene for this rare pattern may be developing. The lineage of
the Abaco Barb goes back to the horses of the Barbary Coast of North
Africa. In Spain the horses were developed into the Spanish Barb.
Throughout the world the Barb is recognized as critically
endangered. Abaco and the Bahamas are curators of possibly the
purest strain remaining in existence. “
There are at least 13 Columbus era Spanish ships on the reef strewn
coast of the islands lying just offshore Great Abaco, and Spanish
ships of the Conquest always carried horses so their presence on the
island makes sense. It would have been an easy swim across to the
‘mainland’ island where forage and water were abundant in the pine
forest of Great Abaco. The forest was an equine paradise.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. In the 1960’s a road opened up the
forest to boar hunters who shot the horses when their dogs chased
the horses instead of boar. A tragedy involving a young child who
kicked a gentle, captive wild horse when she climbed up on it, was
killed when the horse mistook the signal and bolted, dragging the
child to her death. Retribution was swift and cruel.
the 1960’s the herd was reduced to three horses. Several Abaconians
intervened and brought the three horses to a farm near Treasure Cay.
A herd of 35 built up again, yet since 92 over half the horses have
died. These losses were almost all entirely preventable. The
stallions fight, without medical care sometimes the wounds are
fatal. Mares have died giving birth; foals are killed by packs of
dogs, and in one case, by a human. Having lost the knowledge of the
forest as home, the horses stay closer and closer to the center of
the farm where they eat too much food raised with pesticides,
herbicides and chemical fertilizers, resulting in obesity. Not
enough movement results in extremely bad hooves. There have been no
foals since 1998, though there was one abortion (stallion rape) and
one fetus aborted for unknown reasons.
There came a drastic point where just 12 horses remained by
mid-2004. These are the last 12 horses left world wide! When asking
Mimi if she had any future plans of offering the Abaco Barb horse to
others around the world, she answered back "No, we have no plans to
let the horses off the island. They've been through enough and the
world of commercial horse dealing is not something which I want to
Throughout the world, Barbs are recognized as critically endangered.
The Abaco Barbs nearly went extinct in the early 1970's. Today they
are once again fighting for survival. The horses have been returned
to a preserve in their ancestral forest home. Their history, as we
know it today, follows.
Today, the young stallion Capella stands strong and proud among the
tough survivors in this once-mighty herd. Full of life and spirit,
he bears the beautiful white splashes, bright coat, and flowing mane
that are characteristic of the breed. His tough, compact body and
strong legs underscore the Abaco Barb's stamina and endurance - two
traits that will be crucial for the herd to rebuild and the breed to
Milanne Rehor, head of Arkwild, Inc. and Project Director for WHOA
(Wild Horses of Abaco Preservation Society), has worked since 1992
to save the herd and to publicize its plight. Hearing the call, the
Salmon Model Horse 4-H Club in Idaho began campaigning Breyer for an
Abaco Barb model to help raise awareness. Breyer is pleased to join
their worthy efforts with the introduction of Capella, and will
contribute a portion of all Capella sales to the fund.
In 1992 Rehor spent three months in the Abacos and brought to public
attention the fact that the horses, nearly exterminated in the 60's,
were making a slow comeback.
In 1992 there were about 30 horses living in the pine forests on
Great Abaco Island, Bahamas. Overcoming a harsh environment and
warding off continued wild dog attacks which destroy several foals a
year, the herd appeared to be no longer in danger of extinction. A
second trip in 1994 confirmed these findings and suggested continued
A third research trip was done (Dec. 1996 to July 1997). Grim
statistics resulted: the herd was down to 20 horses. By the time
Rehor got back in January, 1998, the herd was down to 17. As of fall
2004, the last remaining horses of the Abaco Barb herd is down to
19; l0 mares, 9 stallions.
overall goals are to provide these rare and beautiful horses with a
safe and secure future, whatever their origins, by educating the
public about the inappropriate human intervention that has prevented
them from once again reaching viable numbers. For information about
Arkwild and WHOA, visit