» Article first published on Horsetalk.co.nz on January 8, 2012.
Scotland is an unlikely outpost in efforts to save a remarkable breed of small horses from a Greek island.
Carrying the torch for the Skyrian pony in Scotland is veterinarian Sheilagh Brown, of Overton Bush.
She took over Scotland’s only herd of the endangered breed in 2011 and hopes to play her part in building up numbers of the Skyrian, which stand at just 200 worldwide.
Roughly three-quarters of that number live on the Greek island of Skyros.
Brown, on a personal level, has found the breed to be calm, gentle and forgiving.
On a scientific level, she is fascinated by the breed’s unique genetic makeup.
Gus Cothran, Elisabeth Bomcke amd Nicolas Gengler have investigated the genetic makeup of Greek horses, including the Skyrian – one of seven native Greek breeds identified so far – and concluded that they are unlike any other horse breed.
“The Skyros pony is outstanding through having a distinct phenotype,” they wrote.
Three other Greek breeds were also analysed, the researchers noting that the closest relationships were with Middle Eastern-type horses. However, the Skyrian horses remained isolated, without any close relationship whatsoever, they said.
Brown, originally from Perthshire, said she also carried out an investigation for her undergraduate dissertation, by comparing certain aspects of the genetic makeup of the Skyrian, Caspian and Exmoor ponies.
“I concluded that the Skyrian was closer to the Caspian than it was to the Exmoor, but it appears unrelated to either breed,” she said.
“I would like to do some more detailed genetic tests and I have liaised with Greek colleagues to do this, but we have not identified a source of funding yet.”
The Skyrian pony arrived in Scotland in 2005, when retired vet lecturer Alec Copland, also an Exmoor pony breeder, imported five breeding animals from Corfu.
Brown went to see him in the middle of 2011 as she was looking to buy another Exmoor pony. He asked her if she was interested in taking over the Skyrian herd, which then stood at 14, to keep the breeding programme going. She agreed.
The numbers have since grown to 22. Some are now distributed among horse enthusiasts in southern Scotland to ease pressure on Brown’s grazing.
She has kept two of Copland’s original imports, a mare and a stallion, at home, as well as a mare, a colt, aged three, and two fillies born last year.
Brown intends to break in the colt, saying the breed is known as willing and co-operative learners, untroubled by tack.
“I am thoroughly enjoying breeding the ponies and looking after them,” Brown told Horsetalk.
“They really are exceptional in the relationship it is possible to build with them – they are so calm, gentle and forgiving when humans can be quite obtuse!
“Another unusual feature is their fine, shimmering summer coat, yet in winter, they develop the same thick coat of the Exmoor.
They also have the Exmoor’s short ears, but they do not winter so well, requiring concentrate feeds as well as forage just for maintenance,” she said.
“My stallions are also very docile and easy to manage.”
Brown said they seem to have features of horses of Northern European origin as well as features of the Southern Oriental types.
In ancient times, the breed lived throughout Greece. Today, aside from Scotland, there are only two other breeding herds in the world – one in their homeland, Skyros – one of the Sporades Islands – and the other on Corfu. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s Skyrian horses are on Skryos.
Farmers on Skyros used them for agricultural work, but the growth in the use of mechanisation from the 1960s saw their use fall away, and their numbers slipped.
Today, the Skyrian is one of the rarest horse breeds in the world, with fewer than 100 breeding mares worldwide. Greek authorities have acknowledged its rarity, and it has protected status.
The Skyrian Horse Society described the breed as friendly, social, robust and intelligent.
Skyrians stand at about 116 centimetres (11.2hh), with a body-type similar to that of a large horse.
The head is handsome, the mane being long and richly coloured, usually in a hue darker than the pony’s skin colour.
Compared to other horses, they have a big belly.
Their legs are slim, strong and wiry, with strong joints, the society says.
The tail is low set, tasseled and long. Often it reaches the hooves, which are small, hard, usually black in colour, and do not need shoeing.
A particular characteristic is the fetlock hair, or feathers.
Colour is usually a brown-red or chestnut hue, sometimes white or grey-brown, and rarely blond.
The Skyrian horse belongs to the species Equus Caballus but because of its small size it is designated Equus Caballus Skyros Poni or Equus Caballus Skyriano.
In ancient times, the breed lived throughout Greece. Today, aside from Scotland, there are five other breeding herds that Brown knows of in Greece. One is in their homeland, Skyros – one of the Sporades Islands – and another is on Corfu.
Another is based near Larissa, where Achilles Kaounas and his wife, Vaso, are try to promote the breed by hosting school visits on their farm and by participating in ecological festivals and other events.
To do this, they founded a non-government organisation, Hippolytus, in 2010.
Roughly three-quarters of the world’s Skyrian horses are on Skryos.