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.

By , Correspondent

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    Safety on safari: Former farm horses rescued from Zimbabwe land invaders now cart tourists along Mozambique beaches.
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Vilanculos, Mozambique

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.

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Viper snorts.

“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.

But when the Retzlaffs were given four hours to leave the farm that they’d lived on for decades, they decided to take their horses, as well their neighbor’s, when they fled. They grazed the animals on other farms, in back yards, even a private school’s cricket grounds. Soon, other farmers were bringing them horses, or telling them where to find animals to rescue.

“What Mandy and Pat have done is phenomenal,” says Moyra Charters, another former Zimbabwean farmer. “They couldn’t just walk away.”

Pat says he would go to farms that had been invaded and – sometimes stealthily at night, with the guidance of other former landowners – take the horses, which were often seen as useless by the new residents. (Most invaded farms went to Mugabe cronies rather than experienced black farm workers.) Almost all the horses he took had been corralled for days without food or water, he says. One that he saved had a spear in its side. Another had a hoof chopped off.

As the family tried to figure out what to do next, Pat spoke with an acquaintance who was developing property along the Mozambican coast and suggested Retzlaff bring the horses for riding safaris and beach walks. There was no existing horse culture in Mozambique, so there was a business niche to be filled. Moreover, the move would mean living on the breathtaking coast where they’d both vacationed as children.

“And really,” Pat says, “We had nothing else to do.”

• • •

It took three years to move the horses into Mozambique. Every time they went to the border, if they had even a single bale of hay for the horses to eat, they’d be turned back for trying to bring agricultural produce out of the country. But eventually, they managed to cross into Mozambique with the remnants of their old life – a bag of clothes, an album of family photos collected from friends, and their animals: farm dogs and more than 100 horses.

But the developer who’d suggested the move wasn’t yet ready for the horses. So the Retzlaffs set up shop not far from the border in a Mozambican town called Chimoio, where dozens of Zimbabwean farmers were starting to grow paprika and tobacco. They started a riding school. But when the Chimoio agricultural schemes started to flop, and most of the Zimbabweans moved on, the Retzlaffs knew that they needed to move as well.

So the Retzlaffs moved again, into a hurricane-damaged house behind a patch of mangrove and palms near Vilanculos. “I showed up here with 10 horses and not a penny in my pocket,” Pat says.

“And then we had the cyclone,” he says of cyclone Favio that hit the coast of Mozambique in early 2007 and all but ended tourism for months. The Retzlaffs say their neighbors helped them survive. Then, three months later, they had their first horse safari customer.

• • •

It is 6:30 a.m., and the sun is already strong across the Indian Ocean. The Retzlaffs, two volunteers from the United Kingdom, and a handful of Zimbabwean workers are getting the horses ready for a ride.It’s not simple: Horses need to be fed, groomed, and saddled before carrying tourists.

There’s nowhere to buy reins, bits, or saddle cinches in Mozambique, so Pat has fixed or made everything himself. In the evening, the Retzlaffs graze the horses and cut grass for them to eat. There’s no horse feed in Mozambique (and no cobbling or horse veterinary services).

After their slow start, they now have regular bookings. But it’s still hand-to-mouth.

“I used to have a wardrobe and shoes that I used to change into every day,” Mandy says, adjusting a pile of stirrups hanging from a wall. “Now I am bathing in a plastic bucket. But I guess you could have a much worse life. To wake up each morning and look at that bay,” she says, keeps her going.

Sometimes they worry about the future: with three grown children working elsewhere, the Retzlaffs worry that there’s no one to take over in the future.

“We’re here all the time for them,” Mandy says of the horses. “But you know, you get exceptionally fond of them. They’re family.

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