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 fiery and agile animal with good endurance and a friendly disposition, the sandalwood pony is also the only breed of horse in Indonesia that is exported overseas: as children’s ponies in Australia and racehorses in Singapore, India. Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. They are also sought after by slaughterhouses in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi where horse meat is a delicacy.
But the proliferation of motorcycles coupled with the perpetual drought in Sumba, some 800 km (497 miles) east of Bali, is forcing more and more people to migrate from rural to urban areas and some fear the pony not be left behind.
“Motorcycles are now worth more than horses on this island,” says Claude Graves, an American hotelier and philanthropist who has lived on and off in Sumba for 40 years.
“Culture is dying. Only the Pasola has maintained it, ”he added, referring to the annual festival held at the start of the rice planting season in which riders on horseback throw spears at each other to ostensibly fertilize the soil with blood. human. The spears are now dull but deaths of horsemen and spectators still occur.
Petrus Ledibani, deputy manager of the stables at Nihi Sumba, a luxury resort that offers a variety of equestrian activities, explains that when his father was young, all Sumbanese children could ride horses.
“But now many children have never even sat on a horse – only those whose families own horses or participate in horse racing can ride,” he said.
One of the eight official horse breeds listed in Indonesia, sandalwood ponies have small ears, short, muscular necks, and unusually long backs. Their lineage dates back to the 8th century, when Chinese traders first visited Indonesia.
“They are called sandalwood ponies because the Chinese traded Mongolian ponies for sandalwood with the locals,” Carol Sharpe, Australian natural riding expert who founded the Nihi Sumba stables, told Al Jazeera. . “Later they were bred with Arabian horses brought in by traders from the Middle East. The Arab is naturally a very fickle horse while the Mongol is also quick but stockier with more stamina, so it is a very good mix. But they are not good for the job because of their small size, possibly because of centuries of malnutrition. There is a lot of grass on the island, but most of it is not nutritious.
But the Sumbanese, who practice Catholicism or Islam sprinkled with animism, have found many other uses for ponies: transportation, status symbols, dowry payment, funeral sacrifices, and as vehicles for storing wealth.
In the 1930s, Dutch settlers introduced circuit-style horse racing to the island.
A racehorse breeding industry that crosses sandalwood ponies with Australian thoroughbreds has also emerged and is now dominated by Indonesians of Chinese descent. But many Sumba breeders care little about the welfare of their animals, according to Sharpe.
“Crossbreeds develop a lot of back problems due to the fact that they started running too early. I’ve seen foals as young as 12 or 18 months old on the track. They also interfere with them, inject steroids and give them energy drinks or coffee before races, ”she said.
“Plus also lets his horses run wild during lean times to save money on feed. They don’t tend to last long. In 2019 we had a horrible drought. The horses were falling like flies.
Despite their overall poor health, Sharpe recognizes that the larger Thoroughbred-Santalwood crosses are better suited to resort activities than the Sandalwood ponies, and set out to build a herd.
“They had been trained to run using fear tactics so at first they were out of control. Anyone who tried to ride them would end up on the ground, ”she said. “This is where my natural riding job helped them slow them down for sunset rides along the beach – skills I passed on to the stable boys.”
Sharpe also learned new skills from his stable boys, particularly how to wash animals by taking them into waves, sometimes with riders on their backs. Over time, the bathing ritual has evolved into an activity dedicated to the resort.
When guests took photos and shared them online, the swimming horses went viral on Instagram.
“Sumba has always been known in Indonesia as the land of horses,” said Jonathan Hani, a horse breeder in Waingapu, the sleepy capital of Sumba. “But when Nihi’s guests started swimming with horses and people saw the photos overseas, the exhibition was very good for us. It put Sumba on the map. We have a lot more international tourists.
Resort manager Madlen Ernest also credits the horses with keeping the property afloat during the coronavirus pandemic and putting 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,” she said.
“Four months later, we reopened, targeting the Indonesian market. At first we weren’t sure if it would work, but things went much faster than expected as some of the Indonesian influencers who stayed here reposted photos of horses swimming on Instagram.
A ride to paradise
The Sumba Foundation, a charity that provides clean water, healthcare, nutrition and education to around 35,000 people on the island, also capitalized on tourists’ appreciation for the horses. in Sumba.
“We bring the children from the villages down to the beach with their horses for the races. Tourists buy tickets to bet on their favorites and all winnings go to specific projects, ”said Managing Director Patrick Compau. “In our last race, we raised $ 4,400 for a little girl with a rare genetic defect in her intestines who needs surgery in Bali to save her life. “
Adds Claude Grave, the founder of the association: “We see children as young as eight years old participating in the competition, all proud. It’s good that we can fundraise, but for me, children’s races are all about preserving culture.
Despite recent changes in Sumba’s life, horse breeder Hani believes the sandalwood pony will always be a part of the island’s culture.
“They are no longer used by most people for transportation because motorcycles are more practical, but they are still used in all aspects of our culture,” he said. “When a boy wants to marry a girl, he has to give his parents horses. 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, part of the family,” he says. “Having one is a symbol of pride. If a person has a horse, it means that he is of good character.