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With its wild ’80s-rock-star mane, muscular body, and charismatic nature, the Skyrian horse has become a sort of cultural icon for the Greek island of Skíros. But today, there are fewer than 300 of these horses left worldwide, maybe 200 if counting only purebreds.
Stathis Katsarelias was drawn to the breed and its cultural significance. “I felt this duty because I’m from Skíros,” he says. “As a Skyrian, we should care about them.”
“They will grab your soul and your heart,” says his partner, Amanda Simpson.
In 2005, Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias started Skyros Island Horse Trust. From the beginning, its mission was twofold: take care of the existing population on Skíros and selectively breed the horse to create a more robust breed. When they started the project, they took in horses from locals who could no longer care for them, as well as some starving horses wandering on the mountainside. They started with four horses. Today, there are 35.
“When I see them here, and I understand that they feel safe, and that they feel secure, and that they are relaxed, this gives me the strength to go on,” says Mr. Katsarelias.
Amanda Simpson can’t remember the last time she bought a new bar of soap. Her friends at a local resort give her the half-used bars and small bottles of shampoo left behind by tourists. Sometimes her mother sends her money from England, but with a caveat: Please don’t spend this on hay. Which of course she does, because everything goes to the ponies.
But these are not just any ponies. They’re a rare breed called the Skyrian horse, and they’re endemic to the wind-swept island of Skíros in the Aegean Sea. They’re rumored to be the same horses depicted on the Parthenon frieze, are genetically distinct from the modern domestic horse, and have perhaps been on the island for more than 2,000 years. Today, there are fewer than 300 left worldwide, maybe 200 if counting only purebreds, and they are facing not only a changing economy but also a genetic bottleneck that could put them on the same path as other rare breeds before them: extinction.
Ms. Simpson and her partner, Stathis Katsarelias, are trying to save the breed. In undertaking their work, they’ve given up almost everything.
For both of them, working with the Skyrian horses was the rediscovery of a childhood love. Mr. Katsarelias, a native of the island, remembers that as a child, he was always drawn to the horses and would find any opportunity to be around them. Ms. Simpson, who grew up in Gunthorpe, England, began riding horses at the age of 2. She rode through her teenage years, until she had a serious accident and her parents sold her horse.
“I always had the passion inside me, but it wasn’t the right time,” Mr. Katsarelias says. “The right time came when I met Amanda, and found that she had the same passion.”
It all started with a single foal, a gift from a friend on the island. Shortly afterward, they encountered a group of veterinarians trying to catch some ponies in a field and something clicked.
“You could see that they were Skyrian, that there was a breed there, but it was a mishmash,” Ms. Simpson says. “We could also see that their conditions were really bad. They were all really thin.”
Mr. Katsarelias was drawn to the breed’s cultural significance. “I felt this duty because I’m from Skíros,” he says. “As a Skyrian, we should care about them.”
With its wild ’80s-rock-star mane, muscular body, and charismatic nature, the Skyrian horse has become a sort of cultural icon for the island. Its image is featured on virtually every travel guide about Skíros, and the gift shops in town are full of pony keychains, stuffed toy ponies, and pony T-shirts.
For Ms. Simpson, the allure of the breed is not only about aesthetics. “They are special, but more in terms of their character,” she says. “They might be tiny, but you don’t feel like that when you’re connecting to them. They’re very powerful, and they have a very powerful character. They’re quick, they’re clever, they’re deep, they’re bright, and they will grab your soul and your heart.”
Of the eight remaining horse breeds endemic to Greece with viable populations, the Skyrian horse is the most genetically dissimilar to the others, meaning it’s the rarest. That’s the finding of a 2011 study on the genetic variability of the Skyrian pony that was co-written by Gus Cothran, an equine geneticist at Texas A&M University.
In 2005, Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias started Skyros Island Horse Trust. From the beginning, its mission was twofold: take care of the existing population on the island and selectively breed the horse to create a more delineated and robust breed.
The shifting industry of the island, from agriculture to tourism, meant that locals had less need for the horses. For some people, it was pure economics, and they couldn’t afford to keep a horse as a pet. When they started the project, Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias took in horses from locals who could no longer care for them, as well as some starving horses wandering on the mountainside. They started with four horses. Today, there are 35.
Michael Gaganis is an equine veterinarian with the Greek Animal Welfare Fund who has been treating the horses at Skyros Island Horse Trust since 2013. He says that Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias’ reputation is well known, not only for improving the quality of life for the horses, but also for creating awareness within the community.
“Being a vet, I always try to find the bad things, but these horses are calm, relaxed, and happy, and I notice this in how they respond to me when I am treating them,” Dr. Gaganis says. Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias “are making a big difference, I am sure of that. They have devoted their lives to these horses.”
In their 2011 study, Dr. Cothran and the other researchers also found that the Skyrian pony was facing challenges – a small population size and low genetic variability – that would make it difficult to conserve. According to Dr. Cothran, low genetic variability means a breed is more susceptible to diseases and has an increasing risk of infertility.
A loss of one rare breed has implications for the horse species as a whole. “Rare breeds make up more than 50% of the total genetic diversity of the horse species,” Dr. Cothran says. “When you lose a rare breed, you’re losing more of the total diversity of the horse species than you might expect.”
Foals and a studbook
Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias started breeding early on in their project. If they knew of a horse on the island that had particularly pure Skyrian traits, they would approach the owner and either offer to take it in or purchase it. In the early years, they were producing seven to eight foals a year. Finances have prevented them from breeding the past few years, but they’ve been working with the Skyrian Horse Society and Greece’s agricultural ministry to collect DNA samples of their herd. These samples are being used to create a registered studbook of all the Skyrian ponies in Greece, which can then be used in a selective breeding program.
It’s been two years since Ms. Simpson and Mr. Katsarelias have had the time or the money to leave the island. Caring for the horses consumes them, as does feeling that nothing is ever enough.
When Mr. Katsarelias needs strength, he only needs to look at the horses.
“When I see them here, and I understand that they feel safe, and that they feel secure, and that they are relaxed, this gives me the strength to go on,” he says. “We have given them a life that they did not know before. I know for sure that [these horses] would not exist if we did not help them, so this gives me the strength to continue.”
For more information, visit skyrosislandhorsetrust.com.