Rescuing a rare breed: the Skyrian horse

• Category: Interviews

The Skyrian horse breed is the most famous representative of Skyros island. Strongly connected to the history of this Greek island, it is believed that the Skyrian horse is a horse breed native to Greece. It was originally brought to Skyros by Athenian settlers in the 5th century BC as a native pony that ranged freely over the country those times but eventually it is to be found mostly in Skyros today.

Although the Skyrian horses are short in size, their physical appearance is more similar to that of a horse than a pony. As this breed is known since the Greek antiquity, many theories have been put forward about the history of the Skyrian horse. For example, many compare the Skyrian with the horses depicted on the Parthenon frieze.

Today the population of Skyros horses is very reduced with about 160 horses living currently on the island. We talked to Amanda Simpson who runs the Skyros Island Horse Trust, a Skyrian horse rescue farm on the island, and asked her to describe her project.

How did the Katsarelias-Simpson Project for the protection of the Skyrian Horse begin? Did you have any background in taking care or working with horses?

The Katsarelias-Simpson Project began in 2005 when my partner and I rescued our first horse. Stathis Katsarelias is a Skyrian artist and ceramicist and I have studied performing arts with MA in dance therapy. In 2006, we rescued three more horses and set our aim to protect the Skyrian Horse in its homeland, by creating a safe place for the horses to live and by increasing the quality of this extremely rare breed through selective breeding. Also we wanted to create a place where locals and foreigners would learn more about the value and worth of this breed. We are now called the Skyros Island Horse Trust and are working to become a British Charity.

As for my background, I grew up in the UK and had my own ponies and horses which I was solely responsible for from 11 years old. I also worked in riding schools until 20 years old when I went to university to study theatre and dance. I returned to horses when I was 38 years old due to spending a lot of time in Skyros and meeting Stathis who had grown up around the Skyrian horses and had been painting them since an early age. It was the combination of the two of us and our passion for horses that created this project.

How many horses are you looking after today?

We are presently looking after 38 Skyrian Horses, 16 of whom we have bred. 12 horses live in our farm due to old age, health problems or because they were at risk of neglect. We live on-site with the horses 24/7.

Where is your farm located? Do you accept visitors?

Our first base was in Molos in 2006 but three years later we were luckily offered this farm on the northern part of the island on the road to the airport in the area of Trachi, very close to the ancient site of Palamari. Since 2009 our base is here in Trachi. We are open to visitors but by appointment only, either through email or by phoning.

What is your aim regarding the Skyrian Horse? Apart from their rescue, is there any activity in which these horses are engaged?

We work with our horses from a natural/intelligent horsemanship perspective and run workshops and seminars on this theme. We also work with people with communication skills in relation to working more effectively and humanly with ponies. We believe it is important to understand the spirit of the horse and connect deeply with horses so that people will no longer see the horse as an object but they become friends.

I teach intelligent/ natural horsemanship skill and I am also beginning a project with equine agility. We have local children who attend regular natural horsemanship seminars with us on a weekly Sunday basis and we also run seminars during Easter holidays. Our main aim is to give people the opportunity to understand the language of horses and begin to communicate with them more effectively not by using force but rather by understanding their language, which is all based on body language and kinesthetic empathy.

I also run training sessions with adults in equine assisted learning and body awareness. We host up to 15 international volunteers every year. These volunteers are a mixture of university students either studying equine, agricultural science and doing their practice with us (we also have trainee vets who volunteer), or young people who are having a year off before university to search on which direction they want to follow and wish to explore horses. We also have people who have finished university and are taking time out to explore their options.

Which seasons do you accept volunteers and what would their duties be?

We accept volunteers all year round but we do request that they have some farm or equine experience. Their main work is in helping us care for the horses, watering, helping to feed, cleaning the horse fields and also helping with other tasks, such as fencing, keeping the farm tidy, etc. If there is good weather and time, we also often do training work and ground skills with the Skyrian horses.

How did the Skyros Horse Festival begin? Will there be another festival for 2015?

The festival began last year, the year of the horse, and was set up by ourselves as a means of profiling the Skyrian Horse in all its different guises. The second festival will take place from July 19th to 21st, 2015, and the full programme will be available in May. Generally there will be activities such as performances, art exhibitions, workshops, a mountain safari, walks around the island and more.