A campaign is gathering momentum to save the small horses of Skyros, an ancient and rare breed whose numbers have been dwindling rapidly since the 1960s, when agriculture on the island became mechanized. At a conference this week organized by the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, experts from around Greece engaged in a lively debate on how to preserve the breed and to create a sustainable demand for the ponies. Including genetic scientists at the University of Thessaloniki (where there is a herd of 40 of the animals) probing the breed’s DNA, Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food officials, Skyros’s mayor and a woman who has been breeding the horses on Corfu and is now using them in a program for children, the meeting appeared to demonstrate that a critical mass had been reached in the campaign, according to Professor Michalis Skoullos, the conference coordinator. Professor M. Avdi, head of Thessaloniki University’s agriculture department, outlined a program she has undertaken to evaluate the genetic makeup of the Skyros horse population and the degree of inbreeding, knowledge that is vital for any planned breeding program. Of the 69 animals examined in the program, there was full genealogical data for 58. Of these, 20 were found to be inbred to an average degree of 0.10, considered high. The project aims to set up a register for the horses, a center for controlled breeding, and a program to isolate non-purebred stallions, among other activities designed to increase awareness among breeders and the public about the importance of biodiversity. Several moves have been made in the past by the State and by individuals and private groups, but the main problem appears to be a lack of a central agency for registering the animal population and creating a centralized studbook and database. It was suggested that the municipality of Skyros should perhaps play a major coordinating role, in cooperation with the university and private organizations such as the Silva Project on the island of Corfu, which has been breeding the animals in a program that started out as a hobby for Sylvia Dimitriadis Steen in 1996, when she was given four ponies to care for. At the moment, the project has 23 purebred Skyros ponies, five of which are this year’s foals. «The Skyrian pony makes an ideal mount for children. Their small size and good nature give the children confidence around ponies. We have an enclosed arena where the children can safely be taught to ride and they are also taught the basics of caring for a pony. In the future, we hope to give children with special needs the opportunity to ride our ponies,» said Steen. Linda Maroudi cares for three aged Skyros horses on her property on the island. They are what has remained of a group of horses from an equestrian center set up by her late husband Constantinos in the 1960s. «Perhaps it was an unnatural way for the animals to live but it did help bring the numbers up and created an awareness of the need to preserve the breed,» Maroudi told Kathimerini English Edition. Breeding possibilities are currently restricted by the ban on exporting mares from Skyros, dating from the time when the horses were a vital part of the local farming economy. If this law were to be scrapped, it would open the way to encouraging breeding centers in other parts of Greece. As it is, it is rumored that horses are being smuggled off the island, many of them destined for a fate far worse than ending up as pets. Other problems are the past practice of gelding stallions to make them more useful in captivity, crossbreeding with donkeys and the threat to the horses’ natural habitat from overgrazing by goats and other livestock. However, unrestricted breeding is not the answer to the survival of the species, according to Thessaloniki University’s Professor Apostolos Zafrakas, since any population has to be sustained by its environment. At the moment, it is believed that a maximum of 1,000 individuals can be supported in the wild on Skyros. One of the main criteria for the survival of a species is the demand for it, the economic value put on it. When used commercially on the island’s farms, they were ridden and driven by children. Zafrakas said one solution now would be to encourage young people to engage in horse breeding within agro-tourism programs, special programs by municipalities and equestrian associations such as horse races and other equestrian events, carriage races and horse-riding excursions. Thessaloniki University and the Silva Project are the two main systematic breeding programs in Greece at the moment. Steen said it was important to create smaller, separate units in different parts of Greece, since an epidemic could wipe out an entire herd. Part of the island culture The Skyros breed is the only one of the six native species of horse in Greece that is still purebred. Along with the Shetland pony, they are the rarest small breed of horse in the world. Various current criteria for defining the Skyros horse are height (ranging from 102-122 centimeters at the withers for males, and 100-119cm for females). Alec N. Copland, a professor of veterinary anatomy at Edinburgh University, who has made an in-depth study of the breed, describes them as having «a definite ‘horse’ character, alert and vigorous, with prominent eyes, short ears, wide muzzle and strong neck, a wide, deep rib cage and plenty of room between forelegs, with a low-set tail. Their color is usually brown and bay, with black points. A dark dun stripe along the back may be present.» In 1997, there were 162 of the breed living in the wild on Skyros, although about 40 of these were taller than the accepted height for Skyros horses, indicating mixed ancestry. In 1950, when they were still a part of the island economy, there were about 2,000. Rounded up from the hilly south of the island, their natural habitat, to work in the spring harvesting, they were part of the island’s culture. Horse races and parades were held at the end of summer before they were released again in fall. This year, the municipality of Skyros is planning to revive these races in late August. For further information, see «The Skyros Pony,» Gema Publications and the Silva Project, and the website www.skyrianhorse.org.