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Puerto Rico is home to many wild horses, but how long will they remain an island?

In the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques, Wild horses don’t appear to be as carefree as they really are.

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I was on Vieques, a small island six miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, where I had traveled to kayak the island’s renowned bioluminescent Mosquito Bay. I was sitting on the concrete wall outside Antonio Rivera Rodrguez Airport. A chestnut and a palomino stallion, which reminded me of my own horses, were perusing the sparse grasses between dumpsters as I waited for a taxi. Of obviously, a horse has no place in an airport. Were these the wild horses that I’d read in romantic vacation articles and on resort websites?

According to Betty Gilreath, vice president of the equine rescue she co-founded three years ago, “It is very difficult to witness travel news and PR people praising the lovely wild horses of Vieques.” On Vieques, there aren’t any wild horses.

There are more than likely 750 horses on the island, despite conservative estimates to the contrary. All are residents’ property; when necessary, they are ridden and roped before being released to roam. Horses were grazing so close to the edge of the road on the bus route to the bio bay tour that I could nearly reach out and brush the flies from their shaggy coats.

The History of the Vieques Horses

Spanish colonists brought horses to Vieques, where they created the Paso Fino, a light-bodied horse famed for its endurance and quick-stepping stride. Later, mainlanders brought more animals to the island, mixing the bloodlines.

After the sugarcane industry collapsed in the 1930s, again in the 1940s when the U.S. Navy expropriated the island, and again in the 1970s when the military used the island for bombing practice, the horse population exploded as residents left Vieques. Numerous people were displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the island’s native grasses, which are the horses’ main source of nourishment, suffered extensive damage.

Nevertheless, according to Janie Chadwick, executive director of Vieques Island Animal Sanctuary, Inc., many Viequenses view animals as being as integral to their culture as sand is to a beach. The 105-square-mile island’s residents frequently claim 50 or more horses and use them for transportation. Others view horse ownership as a kind of entertainment. They take part in a cabalgata, a march from one place to another with stops along the way for food, drink, and socializing, several times a year, particularly during holidays.

Many riders attend these competitions with the intention of showing off their riding abilities as well as the horse’s brio, or vitality. When I see a well-groomed caballero, or horseman, riding a powerful sable horse back and forth in traffic along Highway 997 in Esperanza, I get a glimpse of it.

Disorder and Law

Allowing a horse to roam freely is considered neglect or abuse, per Law 154 of Puerto Rico. The rule of law is rarely upheld. There are a few excellent police officers who care deeply about animals, but they are constrained, claims Gilreath. For all the demands of the island, only one or two people are on duty all day.

Owner objections have followed haphazard removal attempts for the horses. A facility for rehoming hundreds of horses also does not exist. Many are prohibited from importation into the majority of developed nations because they are known to have piroplasmosis, a blood-borne protozoal infection common in Caribbean horses.

The neighborhood was divided. After a few stillborn foals sparked a conspiracy idea that using contraception would make the horses sterile, the uproar got worse. On the island, the HSUS left. My request for an interview was denied by them.

There is only one part-time veterinarian on Vieques at the moment. Even working full-time, one veterinarian can’t possible handle what we have here, according to Chadwick. There are many myths about caring for horses as well. For instance, branding with a hide is typical to denote ownership. Prncipe’s early mistrust of people was so strong, according to Clark, that he would kick her if she approached. How am I going to make this horse fall in love with me? I was usually crying, she recalls. I would frequently hear, “You need to be meaner to him,” from people.

Development and tourism have compounded the situation, as they frequently do. Collisions with the animals have increased as a result of the accompanying rush of cars. A horse owner is hesitant to speak up after a collision for fear of being blamed for the other party’s injuries and medical costs. Euthanasia by gunfire is typical in these situations.

The Present Is the Future

Animal rescue organizations established by American expats and supported by volunteers from Venezuela have offered everything from free immunization clinics to first aid training and middle school courses on horse care over the past 20 years. However, there is widespread distrust of white meddling due to the island’s turbulent history.

We’re not come here to call you bad owners, adds Gilreath. We’re telling you to call us if you need assistance.

In Gia’s case, a lovely pregnant mare who had a gaping machete wound to the leg had come to Hooves on the Ground. She had fully recovered and had just given birth to a healthy foal when she was rescued.

But there are hundreds of horses who are left to fend for themselves for every Gia, Principe, or Swizo. According to experts, the Vieques administration should be at the center of the solution. Numerous horse rescues have requested land for horse maintenance, but no approval has come through. Gilreath notes that even though a humane officer has been funded in the municipal budget for a number of years, the position has never been filled.

Residents, in the opinion of Gilreath and Chadwick, will speak up for change. Young Viequense men and women who take outstanding care of their horses include some truly good leaders, according to Gilreath. They are mentors for the younger generation and are highly respected.

A one of them is Clark. She rattles off a number of proposed remedies, including placing watering cans in every neighborhood and forming a community organization to teach horsemanship and stewardship to children in kindergarten through high school.

She also highlights the advantages of restricting development and the number of cars per household for the environment and animals. She asserts that we don’t require more hotels or Airbnbs. If we don’t create one more restaurant, no one will go hungry. Build more for locals rather than for tourists.

I departed Vieques as the sky became violet-pink at dawn, the air heavy with the aroma of flor de maga. A little gray mare with its face completely hidden in a garbage can outside of a tavern caught my attention as the cab rushed out of Esperanza. Through her matted coat, I could see her ribs. A plastic grocery bag dangled between her teeth as her head bounced up.

Donate to Hooves on the Ground, Our Big Fat Caribbean Rescue, and Vieques Island Animal Sanctuary to support the horses of Vieques.