Equine refugees find a future in African tourism
Zimbabwean farm horses endangered by land takeovers were spirited away to safety in Mozambique by one determined couple.
Vilanculos, MozambiqueSkip to next paragraph
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The horse’s name is Viper. Which is enough, really, to make an inexperienced rider a bit nervous.
Mandy Retzlaff laughs at the idea and hands over the reins. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” she says, and gives a wink and a smile that can be either reassuring or devilish.
“Just let him know you’re taking charge,” instructs Mandy.
Easy for her to say. This is a woman who, with her husband, ferried 100 horses hundreds of miles through Zimbabwe’s worst political turmoil. And that was after they’d saved the horses from violent land invaders by sneaking into the farms where the horses were stranded. In short, Mandy seems to have a particular knack for taking charge, bucking and kicking notwithstanding.
She and her husband, Pat Retzlaff, were farmers in Zimbabwe when, in 2000, President Robert Mugabe encouraged the violent takeover of white-owned property. They were evicted – from six different farms, actually – and their savings disappeared with their country’s skyrocketing inflation (now estimated at more than 11 million percent).
But after an epic effort to save the farm horses – and themselves – they’re turning the experience into a new livelihood in a new homeland. They saddle up the horses they saved for equestrian-minded tourists visiting this Indian Ocean beach town.
Mandy glares at Viper, who still seems displeased with his clumsy load. She hands a lead to Dhuvai Musekwa, another Zimbabwean who fled, and who recently found work with the Retzlaffs’ Mozambique Horse Safaris. He keeps Viper in line during the walk along Vilanculos’ palm-tree lined beach and saves money to send to his wife and child in Zimbabwe.
“Don’t be afraid,” he says to the rider. “You get used to horse quickly.”
It’s hard for Pat Retzlaff to find words to explain why he needed to take the horses.
For him it was obvious, something that stretches back to his great-grandfather’s work with Olympic horses in Germany, before Hitler’s rise to power forced the family to flee to East Africa and a life of farming and riding. (A photograph of his ancestors with their prize-winning horses is one of the Pat’s only remaining possessions from Zimbabwe – he found it in a field after their house had been looted.)
“We’re animal lovers,” he says softly, and then glances at his wife’s challenging expression. “Well, Mandy not so much,” he adds, with a barely hidden smile. “I’m an animal lover. I’ve ridden all my life; I have a degree in animal sciences. And once you’ve owned a horse and have looked after it – well, it’s worse [to lose] than a pet, worse than a dog.”
“Pat has dedicated his life to these horses,” Mandy says. “They’ve become such a part of the family. It’s unimaginable that they wouldn’t eat.” She sighs. “We must be absolutely mad.”
When the land takeovers started in 2000, most white-owned Zimbabwean farms had at least three or four horses. As farmers fled threats of violence against them and their workers, many shot their horses, not wanting to leave them to starvation or abuse. Vets also traveled around the country, putting the animals down in a wave of mercy killings.
Although humane societies and horse rescue groups found homes in England and South Africa for many thoroughbred and racing horses, the farm animals seemed forgotten.