From Skyros to Scottish skies

Last spring, I met some unusual and really delightful ponies. I’d read about them in one of the local papers in south west Scotland and was curious to find out more. They certainly looked right at home in the Scottish Borders, in the fields belonging to vet Sheilagh Brown where they live. However, their ancestors were used to the much hotter and drier, although equally challenging, environment on the Greek island of Skyros.  I discovered that the Skyros ponies I went to see have a long and interesting history.

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Affectionate and curious, the Skyros ponies seek out the company of humans

The origins of the Skyrians and how they came to be associated with the island are lost in the mists of time, but they are certainly ancient. They are one of the breeds included in Elwyn Hartley-Edwards’ “Standard Guide to Horse and Pony Breeds” in which he mentions that parallels have been drawn with the horses of the Parthenon. The small horses on the famous frieze are clearly tough, fiery little animals. Looking at Sheilagh’s Skyros ponies, it seemed to me that there were certainly similarities; but the most striking thing about the Skyrians was their fineness. Their legs were clean and straight, their feet strong, dark and hard and the quality of their limbs would have graced any ridden show pony. I could also see similarities with the Caspian type of pony (or small horse).

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A soft grey coat, which grows very quickly in winter, is typical of the ponies.

They are typically grey in colour, a rather warm-coloured grey with rose or dun tones. True dun is also frequently seen, and also a rich dark brown and a red bay, often with mealy muzzles. The breed description mentions a tendency to cow hocks but that wasn’t obvious in most of the ponies. In profile, their noses are straight and distinctive without any trace of concavity. They have broad foreheads and calm, curious eyes. From the start, they showed an interest in our arrival but they were neither pushy nor alarmed.

“That is one of the most noticeable things about the Skyros ponies,” explained Sheilagh as her gelding Danila (Danny) gave her an affectionate nuzzle. “They are very curious about humans and actively seek them out.  They are known for this sociability on the island.”

I soon learned that they are exceptionally docile and relaxed. The mares in particular realised very quickly that we were harmless and carried on grazing whilst one foal came right up to investigate us. Just as Sheilagh’s gelding Danila had done, the foal put his nose up towards Sheilagh in friendly enquiry. I was rapidly gaining the impression that the Skyrians bond quickly and their temperaments struck me as being ideal for ponies for small children.

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Looking right at home in the Scottish Borders – a Skyros foal and his mummy

Although the very early history of the Skyros ponies may prove difficult to discover, their more recent history is much better known. They were used for centuries in an unusual agricultural role. For most of the year they lived freely on the island, being brought in only during harvest when they were harnessed up to three or four together and used for threshing the corn. They would receive additional feed during the winter to help them survive. As in other places, when mechanisation took over, the ponies ceased to have a function and their future became very uncertain. As tourism began to flourish in the 1970s, various options, including racing, were attempted to ensure the continuity of the ponies of Skyros. However, as the 20th century drew to a close, it was clear that they were endangered and serious action would be required if they were to survive.

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The foals are affectionate and curious, their dams calm and trusting.

And that is where the connection with Scottish Borders region comes in. Steps were taken on Skyros and on the Greek mainland to ensure the survival of the ponies and in 2005 five animals – three fillies and two colts – were brought over to Scotland by veterinary surgeon Alec Copeland who had a long-standing personal and professional interest in the Skyrians and other endangered ancient types such as the Exmoor pony. By 2010, when the Skyros ponies came into the care of Sheilagh so that Alec could concentrate on some of the other endangered breeds, their numbers had grown to 14. A further eight foals were born in Scotland in 2011. In 2012 there were another four births, but one foal sadly died. Two surviving colt foals are those featured in the photographs accompanying this blog.

I wondered how the ponies coped with the Scottish winter. The season can be harsh in their homeland too, of course, but the recent bitter winters with deep, long-lasting snow that we’ve seen in the UK have been exceptional even for Britain.

“They do grow a thick coat,” said Sheilagh (and the remnants were still visible when I went to see them in May last year). “They also need a lot of supplementary feeding in the winter. I’ve found that Dodson and Horrell stud cubes provide the best all round nutritional support for them.”

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This colt foal shows the mealy muzzle that some of the Skyros ponies have

Sheilagh advised me that the Skyros ponies have been the subject of several scientific papers and were believed to be entirely separate from the seven known breeds of the Greek mainland. It has been concluded that they are phenotypically unique, and of course equids that have lived for centuries – possibly even millennia – literally in isolation on an island provide a very rich subject for investigation. However, funding that was provided for a time by the Greek government in order to support this endangered breed is now no longer available and the few projects, such as the Silva Project, that were attempting to ensure its survival now have to be self-sustaining.

These are uncertain times for all horses and ponies and in parts of Britain there is a serious equine welfare crisis. Sheilagh is aware that the horses and ponies with the best chance of survival will be those for which there is a genuine requirement. Clearly these unusual and little-known ponies don’t fit into any of the standard classes of use in the UK. There are no showing classes for them and their size at maturity (around 11 hands) means they are only suitable as ridden ponies for small, lightweight children. However, their outstandingly amiable natures are a real plus and I am sure they would make excellent, sensible driving ponies. There is one equine growth area where they are proving to excel, too: that is in the emerging field of equine assisted therapy and riding therapy. Shortly after my visit, Danny was off to his new home and his new role with an organisation called Festina Lente in Ireland. I wish Sheilagh, Danny, and the rest of the Skyros ponies all the best for the future.

Miriam Bibby

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