Rooisand Horses

Marlize Stander

From Frans van der Merwe, Kleinmond:

Over a period of thirty years we periodically observed the small group of free roaming horses year after year during our December holidays and saw them slowly increase in numbers. Interestingly enough in those years the majority of foals born were males, which tended to keep down the rate of population increase. … Of course when these males came to maturity there are fierce fights for supremacy which carries with it the honour and privilege, once a year, of mating with the few available females. As can be expected in a comparatively small group, a high degree of inbreeding has taken place. However, despite the severe narrowing of the genetic basis, the young stock remains remarkably sound.

The obvious questions are: Where do the horses fit in and what future do they have?

  • Ecologically the horses fit into the vlei like hands in gloves. Although much of the vlei is in private ownership, it is in effect treated as a nature reserve. Most nature reserves in South Africa carry a complement of large mammals. Horses are large mammals of the herbivorous kind like zebra, hippo, rhino, etc. They make excellent use of the abundance of grazing in the vlei and are virtually always in excellent condition. They tread footpaths through the ever more dense reedbeds thus opening up the necessary channels for drainage.
  • Politically they have no competition from other large mammals because there are none in the vlei.
  • Economically they threaten nobody’s grazing rights because there are no claims on the grazing rights.
  • Over decades this group of horses and their ancestors have adapted themselves remarkably well to their marshy habitat. Like horses everywhere they grow thick winter coats which give adequate protection against the cold winter winds. In the middle of winter and well into Spring when the water levels are high before the outlet at Kleinmond [or the berm at Meerensee] opens up or is breached, they are forced out to the fringes of the vlei, but in all the years I have never observed them out in the open veld which run from the edge of the vlei to the fence next to the tarred road. They do of course venture out into the dunes between vlei and ocean but not often. They absolutely prefer the flat marshy area in the centre. It may be that they feel safer there.
  • Other obvious adaptations are e.g. the big, saucer shaped hooves which is an adaptation to the soft, spongy surface. However, the hooves are most definitely not webbed, as one journalist had it. What is also remarkable is the soundness of the hooves and the limbs. On soft, sandy terrain, in other parts of the country horses’ hooves sometimes grow out too long and become grotesquely malformed. This is certainly not the case with these horses. Their hooves are perfectly shaped and apparently of sound texture, despite the soft and constantly wet underfoot conditions.
  • They have interesting grazing habits and their choice of diet must be excellent for them to remain in such good physical condition. They are often seen grazing in the shallow water, pushing the muzzle down under the surface to pull up and ingest mouths-full of water grass. But they also of course take the kweek and buffelsgras and even some of the edible shrubs as well as lots of fluitjiesriet on the sides and in the reed beds.
  • In social behaviour they conform to what is known about free roaming horses. The three mature and two juvenile stallions exactly know their respective places in the pecking order. One of the older stallions has for years been the constant companion of one of the older mares, which has never had a foal. So one of these two must be infertile. When a mare is on heat the younger stallions will challenge and if it is the first heat after foaling, the young foal is in danger of being kicked or trampled.The future of the horses depends on many factors. For the past 40-odd years the small group had no enemies and, fortunately for themselves and the owners of the vlei, their numbers remained small. They exerted no pressure on the environment to which they are ideally adapted. This happy situation may very well last for another 40 years if the numbers, in my estimation, do not go beyond thirty-odd animals.The horses are not wild in the true sense of the word. Although the present group and their ancestors for the past 40 years never had a halter over their heads and will react like any, in this case big and strong, wild animal when cornered or captured, they have recently become quite used to our presence when we visit them in the vlei and also I believe to the presence of riders from Botriver and Arabella who on occasion approach them on horseback.

Where do they come from?

They have become well-known and their existence has given rise to a number of fanciful theories and romantic tales about their origins. One of these is that they are descended from horses hidden from the British when horses were commandeered for the army in the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902). According to another story they swam ashore when the troopship Birkenhead sank near the coast. I believe that I have the true, but rather prosaic, story about their beginnings from the late Mr Jack Delport who was the son of the Caledon farmer who owned the entire stretch of land from the present farm Ysterklip (now the Arabella golf estate) to Kleinmond.

The distant forebears of our “wild horses” were farm horses, used for ploughing and hoeing and pulling wagons and carts and even riding before most of these activities became fully mechanised in the years following World War II. But, however prosaic their descent may be, for me and other students of horse breeds and types they are very special. They may be the very last representatives of what Schreuder (1915) called the Bolandse Waperd, a distinct and, in its hey days very useful offshoot of the famous Cape Horse of the 18th and 19th centuries which have, since the devastation of the Anglo Boer War been obliterated through injudicious crossbreeding. The exterior conformation of the vlei horses shows this relationship quite clearly and the more inbred they became the more obvious and fixed their resemblance to their true forebears showed up in the body conformation.

Content Source: F J van der Merwe, D.Sc Agric
Photo Credit top image: Marlize Stander, bottom image John Bradfield