Sumba, Indonesia – Named after the fragrant trees that once covered the island, the Sumba Sandalwood pony is the only breed of horse in Indonesia that is still intrinsic to the local economy, culture and religion.
A witty and agile animal with good endurance and a friendly disposition, the Sandalwood pony is also the only horse breed in Indonesia that is exported overseas: as children’s ponies in Australia and racehorses in Singapore , Malaysia is in other parts of Southeast Asia. They are also sought after by butchers in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi where horse meat is a delicacy.
But the proliferation of motorcycles accompanied by perennial drought in Sumba, about 800 km (497 miles) east of Bali, is forcing more people to migrate from rural to urban areas and some are worried that the pony will be left behind. .
“Motorcycles are now more valuable than horses on this island,” says Claude Graves, an American hotelier and philanthropist who has lived in Sumba for 40 years.
“Culture dies.” Only Pasola has kept it going, ”he added, referring to the annual festival held at the beginning of the rice planting season in which mounted riders throw spears at each other to apparently fertilize the ground. with human blood.The spears are now blunted but fatalities of knights and spectators still occur.
Petrus Ledibani, assistant permanent director of Nihi Sumba, a luxury resort that offers a variety of horse-based activities, says that when the father was young, any Sumba child could ride.
“But now a lot of kids have never even ridden a horse – only those families who own horses or who are engaged in horse racing know how to ride a horse,” he said.
One of the eight official horse breeds published in Indonesia, sandalwood ponies have small ears, a short muscular neck and an unusually long back. Its lineage dates back to the eighth century when Chinese traders visited Indonesia for the first time.
“They are called Sandal ponies because the Chinese have exchanged Mongolian ponies for sandals with the locals,” Carol Sharpe, a natural riding expert from Australia who founded the stables in Nihi Sumba told Al Jazeera. “Later they were bred on Arabian horses carried by traders from the Middle East.” The Arabian is naturally a very flying horse while the Mongol is also faster but more robust with more stamina, so it is an excellent mix. But they are not good for work because of their small stature, probably because of centuries of malnutrition. There is a lot of grass on the island but most of it is not nutritious. ”
But Sumbanese, who practice Catholicism or Islam, enriched by animism, have found many other uses for ponies: transportation, status symbols, dowry payments, funeral sacrifices, and as vehicles to store wealth.
In the 1930s, Dutch colonists introduced circuit-style horse racing on the island.
A racing horse breeding industry that crosses Sandalwood ponies with Australian Thoroughbreds has also emerged and is now dominated by Indonesians of Chinese heritage. But many breeders in Sumba have little concern for the welfare of their animals, according to Sharpe.
“Cross-country riders develop a lot of back problems because they start running too fast. I have seen 12 or 18 month old foals on the track. They also interfere with them, inject steroids and feed energy drinks or coffee before the races, ”he said.
“Even more so letting their horses run away in lean times to save money on food. They don’t tend to last long. In 2019 we had a terrible drought. Horses fell like flies.”
Despite her poor overall health, Sharpe recognizes the larger purebred-sandalwood crosses are more suitable for activities at the resort than sandalwood ponies, and has done the construction of a herd.
“They were trained to run using scare tactics, so at first they were uncontrollable. Someone who tried to ride will end up on land, “he said.” That’s where my work in natural riding helped me slow them down for the sunset on the beach – skills I passed on to stable boys. “
Sharpe also learned skills from his stallion males, in particular, how to wash animals by taking them on the surf, sometimes with riders on their shoulders. Over time, the bathing ritual developed into a dedicated activity at the resort.
When guests took the photos and shared them online, the swimming horses went viral on Instagram.
“Sumba was always known in Indonesia as the land of horses,” said Jonathan Hani, a horse breeder in Waingapu, Sumba’s dream capital. “But when Nihi’s guests started swimming with the horses and people saw the photos overseas, the exhibition was very good for us. He put Sumba on the card. We had a lot more international tourists. ”
The resort’s director, Madlen Ernest, also acknowledged the horses kept the property afloat during the coronavirus pandemic and put food on the tables of more than 300 employees.
“Before the pandemic, almost all of our guests were foreigners, so when the international travel ban was introduced in April, we had to close it,” he said.
“Four months later, we have reopened to target the Indonesian market. At first we weren’t sure how it worked, but things took a lot faster than expected because some of the Indonesian influencers who have been here have posted photos of horses bathing on Instagram. “
A run to heaven
The Sumba Foundation, a charity that provides drinking water, health care, nutrition and education to about 35,000 people on the island, has also exploited the appreciation of tourists for the horses in Sumba.
“We have the children of the villages go to the plains with their horses for the races.” Tourists buy tickets to place bets on their favorites and all winners go to specific projects, “said CEO Patrick Compau.” On our last race, we raised $ 4,400 for a girl with a rare genetic defect. in the intestines that need surgery in Bali to save his life. “
Adds Claude Grave, the charity’s founder: “We’ve seen eight-year-olds come forward to compete, all proud. It’s nice that we can raise money, but for me, children’s races have to preserve the culture.”
Despite recent changes in Sumba life, horse breeder Hani believes the Sandalwood pony will still be part of the island’s culture.
“They are no longer used by most people for transportation because motorcycles are more convenient but they are still used in every part of our culture,” he said. “When a boy wants to marry a girl, they have to give them to their parents.” When someone dies, the family must sacrifice a horse because we believe it will take their soul to heaven.
“Horses are our best friends in Sumba, a part of the family,” he says. “Owning one is a symbol of pride.” If a person has a horse, it means they are of good character. ”