A quarter-century-old project to repopulate the steppes of Mongolia with wild horses was kept alive as four animals made the long trip back to their ancestral home from Prague Zoo.
Driven to extinction in their homeland in the 1960s, the Przewalski's horses survived in captivity before efforts began to re-introduce them to the arid desert and mountains along Mongolia's border with China.
A Przewalski's horse peers out of a container on the way to Takhin Tal National Park, part of the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, in SW Mongolia. June 20th 2017. Reuters/David W Cerny
Zoos organized the first transport to Mongolia of the strong, stocky beasts in 1992.
For the past decade, Prague Zoo has been the only one continuing that tradition and it holds the studbook of a species whose ancestors - unlike other free-roaming horses such as the wild mustangs of the United States - were never domesticated.
A Przewalski's horse leaves it's container after being released in Takhin Tal National Park, part of the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, in SW Mongolia. June 20th, 2017. Reuters/ David W Cerny
The zoo completed its seventh transport last week, releasing four mares born in captivity in the Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark in the Gobi desert. They will spend the next year in an enclosed area to acclimatize before being freed.
A veterinary doctor covers a tranquilised Przewalski's horse from the sun at the acclimaisation enclosure in the village of Dului Dobrejov near the city of Tabor, Czech Republic. June 18th 2017. Reuters/David W Cerny
There is a problem with naturally managed horses: they have become used to having opinions. In fact, they are smarter than the average horse.
This isn't just a matter of speculation: scientific research has shown that rats in enriched environments with the opportunity for complex social interactions and voluntary exercise show improved memory function and perform better in learning tasks. Their brains develop more neurons and neural pathways.
Learning better is a good thing, for sure, but there is more to the effect of natural management than the purely intellectual. The horses have become used to making decisions and thinking for themselves. Indeed, it is that freedom which is part of what enables this mental development. So far from robots, these thinking equines grow in personality and individuality.
Lucinda McAlpine deals with this on a daily basis. Ten times or more.
"I have given them freedom to choose," she says, "and I can't take it away entirely just because I want to ride, or they will lose some of their trust in me. And that is a difficulty for people who have been conventionally trained in dressage. So we have had to adapt."
"And this I believe: that the free exploring mind of the individual [....] is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for:the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea [.....] which limits or destroys the individual. That is what I am and what I am all about." John Steinbeck, East of Eden.
Come on Mum, pick me!
"If I get it wrong, I will know at once," Lucinda explains. "They will be unwilling to come out of the herd. They'll put their heads up when the head collar is presented, or be unwilling to have the saddle on. I don't want that so I have to get it right.”
I watch as she rides Richie in the outdoor school. His dam, brothers and sisters are now either back out in the field or up in the yard awaiting their turn. Rich has immense power. He is a sensitive horse who is inclined to get anxious if he feels he is not achieving.
"These naturally managed horses," Lucinda says, as I watch, my camera dangling round my neck, and Rich, the eldest of her home bred horses, stretches into the snaffle, "they are keen from the get-go. It's so different from when I was doing dressage the conventional way - and it was all leg,leg, leg, then spurs and a schooling whip. With these, their muscles are already warm and loose - because they haven't been standing in a small space, they have been moving around the field. And because they are so free, they are so much more generous and expressive, they haven't been stressed by anything, and so they try incredibly hard. The biggest problem is making sure they don't do too much!
"I have to make every moment fun for them," she says. "I can't afford for them to work too hard and feel stiff and sore the next day. I want that eagerness, so that we get all that wonderful expression. And that means that I have to adapt to what they can do on a given day. I am not saying that I don't push them beyond their comfort zone, but I am incredibly careful not to push them into the tension zone."
This makes sense to me, as I have experienced the apathy and sourness of my horse after intense training that took him well into tension. Nowadays, we have a mutually agreeable attitude to dressage... We 'play' with bits and pieces of lateral work in between a canter up the field or a big trot through long grass. It is easy for us of course as I am not expecting Jet or myself to attain any heights of excellence!
"Do you think it is possible to 'do' dressage to a high level while giving the horse freedom to express opinions?" Lucinda asks me as she canters past on Richie. I tell her that I don't know, but if anyone can, she can. "It certainly isn't possible if you allow your ego to take control," she says. "it takes humility to listen to the horse."
Rich is moving with freedom, his athletic body loose, back swinging.
A swinging tail indicates a horse without tension.
Lucinda explains that sometimes they will feel stiff or tight, and might feel anxious about doing a certain manoeuvre, but she might feel confident that it will ease the tension. That is what she calls 'ridden physiotherapy', and the horses end the session moving better than before it. But on other occasions, their tension might prohibit useful work.
"Work only benefits these horses when they are relaxed. Sometimes, they just can't do what you want. The next day, it might be totally different, but it is never worth trying to force them. So if they can't do it, we don't do it."
We walk back up to the yard. Lucinda jumps off her horse and turns to me,
"It's all about feel. But not just the feel in your hands. You have to develop the feel in your heart."
First published by Trot On in 2013.
To find out more about Lucinda McAlpine visit her WEBSITE.