The wind is against us. We are walking among the holm oaks, rockrose shrubs and strawberry trees of the Giara di Gesturi, a massive plateau in southern Sardinia, Italy, in search of feral horses, but the pesky Sirocco blowing in from North Africa carries our smell, a disturbing oddity among the scents of myrtle and wild herbs.
Our guide, Roberto Sanna, who runs Jara, a company offering guided tours of the plateau, counsels silence to avoid frightening the herds. Barely exchanging whispers, we tread softly among wild pear trees, across grass carpeted with pink cyclamens and white camomile flowers, heading towards a pond where the horses often congregate to drink and eat the water crowfoot that floats on the surface.
The plateau is home to about 650 semi-wild horses — whose proper name is Cavallini della Giara — which are among the few feral herds remaining in Europe. Although they are officially classed as horses in Sardinia, they are smaller than most ponies at 11 to 13 hands, and their diminutive size is one of the reasons the breed virtually disappeared from most of the island.
“The Giara are either of Arab or Asian origin, and we think they were brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians or the Carthaginians several hundreds of years before Christ was born,” explains Sanna. “Because they are too small for adults to ride, and too temperamental for children, they aren’t of much use — so we think that, across the centuries, they were crossbred with other horses.”
“The horses’ coats are a silky, dark expanse against the clear blue of the sky”
This didn’t happen in the Giara di Gesturi, though. Here, hidden among the woods that cover the steep plateau, the Giara horses remained undisturbed for centuries. It helped that local farmers — some of whom used to spend much of the year in these woods, tending to goats and sheep, making cheese and living rough in stone huts roofed with rockrose and strawberry-tree leaves — eventually found a use for the minuscule breed. Every year, they would gather the herds, take some animals down to the village to thresh the crops, then bring them back up on the plateau.
“It’s what saved the horses,” believes Sanna. The practice stopped in the 1950s and for a time, the future of the breed looked grim but, by the 1970s, the locals had increasingly become aware of the Giara’s unique history and importance. The plateau was designated as a nature reserve and the horses were safe.
As we turn a corner, the dull blue waters of the pond come into view. The soil here is basalt, as impermeable as it is puckered, and the pond, or pauli, in Sardinian, is really a vast but shallow bowl filled with rainwater. A group of holm oaks block the view of the nearest shore, and the far shore is empty.
We brace for disappointment — until we move past the trees and spot them. A stallion and a mare are grazing on the shore no more than 20-30 yards from us, while a second mare and a very young foal are frolicking in the water.
With their long, flowing manes blowing in the warm wind, they are surprisingly beautiful, despite having big bodies over short, lean legs. Their eyes are liquid brown pools in a large, powerful head, their necks are strong and their coats are a silky, dark expanse against the clear blue of the sky.
The foal, with its sparse fuzz and short tail, is almost comically cute. It is a rare sight and Sanna himself is enthralled, despite being familiar with the horses. The Giara herds fend almost entirely for themselves — volunteers only step in when there is a severe drought or food shortage — and foals are often kept well hidden until they are a little bigger.
“These horses live like they would have done thousands of years ago,” Sanna explains. “They graze, drink from the springs and forage for crowfoot. We don’t even need to dispose of their carcasses when they die — the woods have many predators, including hawks, that do the job,” he continues, showing us a bone that has been picked clean.
“The foal, with its sparse fuzz and short tail, is almost comically cute”
Surprisingly, though, predators are hardly the horses’s biggest problem. Instead, their most insidious rivals are a herd of cows that has gone feral. We spot them as they arrive at the far end of the pond, a stain of placid, stolid red against the horizon.
“In summer, when it gets hot and dry, cows and horses compete for grazing and water,” Sanna explains. “The cows are incredibly powerful and when they plant themselves by a spring, no other animal can get close to it.”
Both the far-away cows and, unexpectedly, the much closer horses ignore us, at first. The stallion grazes, and rolls contentedly on the grass, the foal prances around among the grown-ups, and the mares are busy looking for crowfoot in the water. “They can’t have enough of them,” says Sanna, who believes that the plants may act as natural wormers.
When we step a little closer to take some pictures, however, the stallion becomes wary. Gently but surely, he encourages his little family further down the pond. The mares follow him quickly but the foal is inquisitive, as children are wont to be, and is having none of it. It takes a few tentative steps away from pond, towards us.
The stallion springs into action and, with a decisive, none-too-gentle kick, puts his wayward offspring in its place — quite literally. It’s time for us to beat a retreat before the stallion decides we deserve a good kicking, too.
To ensure the horses’ survival, the local authorities keep an eye on them and, as well as intervening in case of emergency, they have placed some horses with local studs outside the nature reserve to preserve the breed in case of epidemic or natural disaster.
To boost the horses’ perceived value and protect their future, the authorities have also begun breeding some mares to Arab stallions, creating a new breed, the Giarab, which brings together the speed and elegance of the Arabs with the strength, hardiness and agility of the Giara.
A few days after our horse-spotting trip, we meet a magnificent Giarab at a local livery yard. With its gloriously golden mane, graceful legs and powerful jump, it is a stunning creature, far more attractive than the gawky little Giara horses could ever hope to be — but, for all his beauty, he can’t compete with their wild charm.
Images: top, Giara horses by Oscar Carvajal via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0, bottom, herd picture by Luca Terzaroli via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, all other images of the Giara horses and the nature reserve courtesy of Carla Passino and Nicco Bargioni