Stallion hidden by high grass

The Abaco Wild Horse Project

By KC La Pierre

A Study on the Environmental Effects on the Horse's Hoof:

An introduction

Abaco Island in the Bahamas may offer one of the most extraordinary environmental laboratory settings we have ever seen for the study of the environmental effects on the horse's hoof. A controlled environment with a pre-existing control group of sixteen wild horses already exists on Abaco. These sixteen Abaco Wild Barb horses ranging in age from four to twelve years of age have been DNA tested and found to be of Spanish descent - which may in fact be the origin of today's Paso Fino. The Abaco Wild Barbs have in recent years been displaced into an environment that is by all accounts opposite to their natural habitat on the island.

For nearly five hundred years the Abaco Wild Barb horses have made their home in the Abaco Pine forest. There they found protection from the hot Bahamas sun. The ground in the forest is hard, made up of coral and limestone covered by a thin layer of topsoil. Fresh water is abundant there and grazing, though sparse, is adequate to sustain an estimated herd of nearly two hundred head. As the horses moved about each day in search of food, they maintained their hooves and overall health.

Bella before trim

There are a number of local stories that tell of how the herd found themselves near extinction in the early 1960's. It appears that the building of a simple road to allow for the harvesting of lumber by Owens Illinois in the early 60's had the largest impact on the Abaco horses. The road made it easier for hunters to access the forest with their dogs. It is said that the dogs chased the horses and the hunters would shoot the horses, some for meat, others simply for sport. In the early 70's while clearing land for a farm project, workers found horse bones everywhere. Three horses from the original herd were all that were left and were protected; when the herd had reproduced to about 35 head, the horses returned to the forest from which they came.

Bella after trim

The herd was said to be very strong and doing well when hurricane Floyd ravaged the island in September of 1999 causing huge amounts of damage to the forest. Frequent brush fires and increased pressures from hunters forced the herd onto a nearby citrus farm. Over the past four years the horses have decided to frequent the now established citrus farm most of the time, spending little time in the forest. Prior to that time they would visit the farm far less. They simply feel safer on the farm, and why on earth should they leave? The word that comes to mind is 'humiliated'; these once magnificent creatures now find themselves unsure of their very existence. This tropical paradise, though a safe haven, is killing them and they can't see the forest for the citrus trees.

Abaco Forest

How ironic that this change of environment has created a wonderful opportunity to study the environmental influences on the herd, more specifically its effects on the hoof. The citrus farm is made up of nearly 3000 acres of citrus trees - lemon, orange, grapefruit and lime. Between the rows of trees lie rich lush grasses that often reach shoulder height. The ground is soft and moist. The trees are sprayed often, sometimes with fertilizer, other times with pesticides or herbicides. The herd, now numbering only sixteen, has little need to move about as food and water are so abundant. Human intervention is commonplace and herd movement is frequently interfered with. The horses are severely overweight, are not reproducing and are experiencing severe hoof ailments.

KC works on front of tranquilized mare

Milanne Rehor, founder of Arkwild, Inc., a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the horses, had contacted me two years ago. Ms. Rehor expressed her concerns for the welfare of the horses and the health problems she had been observing. It was not until December of 2002 however, that I was able to make my first trip to Abaco. Upon arriving in Abaco Ms. Rehor, Robyn Lord and I wasted no time in proceeding immediately to the farm where the horses had taken up residence. We spent many hours observing the herd. The following day five mares were trimmed, three being treated for laminitis. Why was it that we were here at all? After all, these were wild horses and wild horses don't suffer from laminitis, do they? It was becoming clear that the environmental effects observed deserved - no, demanded - further study. I spent five days amongst the Abaco wild horse on that first trip. Recently I returned to Abaco for fourteen days, and with the help of Milanne Rehor, Robyn Lord, CEP and Susan Beale, DVM began to establish parameters for an in depth study of how the environmental changes these horses have under gone may be affecting hoof development. Nutritional factors, movement and social interaction will all be addressed in the study. Milanne Rehor, Mimi to her friends, has accumulated massive amounts of information on these horses over the past twelve years, all of which, when coupled with future data, will provide an invaluable baseline of information.

Bay stallion amongst the citrus trees

As these same animals will soon be returned to their natural habitat, the Abaco Pine Forest , the effects of each of these environments on hoof development can be studied. The Bahamas government has granted Arkwild, Inc. upwards of 3200 acres of forest to create a preserve for the horses. Plans are currently underway to fence in the initial 640 acres so that the horses can be re-introduced to their natural habitat. Never before has such an opportunity presented itself. We have in the past been able to study how taking a wild horse from its natural habitat and placing it into domestication has affected hoof development, though few formal studies have been done. Now we are able to study how environmental changes will affect these horses through a complete circle of environmental change.

Forest Road ; horses can be seen at end if you look closely.

Here we have a true herd of wild horses, DNA tested to be direct decedents of the Spanish Barb, a founding breed of the North American horse. For five hundred years the gene pool has existed on this island and to the best of our knowledge has not been interfered with. The herd is currently in an environment that may closely emulate our domesticated horses, less the stabling. How the horse's hooves have developed as a result of this environment can now be defined. Upon the return of these horses to the forest from which they came, we will be able to observe the influences their natural environment has on the hoof and the horse as a whole. This is an incredible opportunity.

Well-defined hind hoof

We owe the horse everything, for without these magnificent creatures, life as we know it today would not exist. It is our responsibility to do whatever we can to protect and preserve this herd, for they are the direct descendants of the founding horses that came to the Americas . Now these horses can help us once again - not in establishing a culture as before, but in helping us to help those horses who have survived domestication and those who suffer from its effects.

Foundered front; take note of white line stretch. Still shows well-defined back 2/3rds of hoof. 

Environmental studies will help us to understand the effects that changes in nutrition, exercise and social activity have on proper hoof development. With this knowledge we will be more capable of doing our best at providing the proper environment for the continued existence of this rare and beautiful treasure, while at the same time helping ourselves to better understand the horse at large.

© K.C. La Pierre, RJF, QEP 2003

About the author:

KC La Pierre , RJF, QEP, a professional farrier for twenty years and a traditional Journeymen Blacksmith, is the developer of the HPT Method, and educator of Barefoot Equine Podiatry. KC established the International Institute of Equine Podiatry, Inc. in 2000 with the hopes of furthering the awareness of today's conscientious horse owner, farrier, and veterinarian to the importance of proper equine foot care.  Internationally recognized as one of today's foremost authorities on the equine foot, he has conducted clinics and has lectured throughout the United States and abroad. His ongoing research and continued efforts to develop means of treatment for what he has defined as DHS, Deformed Hoof Syndrome, will undoubtedly reduce the suffering to which many of today's horses are subjected.  Soon to be released, "The Chosen Road - Achieving High Performance through Applied Barefoot Equine Podiatry" is a comprehensive book on the healing art of Barefoot Equine Podiatry and its tool, the HPT Method.