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A ride to heaven: Why Sumba loves the Sandalwood pony

Sumba, Indonesia – Named after the scented bushes that when coated the island, the Sandalwood pony of Sumba is the solely breed of horse in Indonesia that’s nonetheless intrinsic to the native financial system, tradition and faith.

A spirited and nimble animal with good stamina and a pleasant disposition, the Sandalwood pony can also be the solely breed of horse in Indonesia that’s exported abroad: as kids’s ponies in Australia and racehorses in Singapore, Malaysia and different components of Southeast Asia. They are additionally wanted by abattoirs in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi the place horse meat is a delicacy.

But the proliferation of motorbikes coupled with perennial drought in Sumba, some 800km (497 miles) east of Bali, is forcing extra individuals to migrate from rural to city areas and a few fear the pony is being left behind.

“Motorbikes are now more valuable than horses on this island,” says Claude Graves, an American hotelier and philanthropist who has lived on and off in Sumba for 40 years.

“The culture is dying. Only the Pasola has been keeping it going,” he added, referring to the annual pageant held at the begin of the rice-planting season at which mounted riders pelt spears at each other to ostensibly fertilise the soil with human blood. The spears are actually blunted however fatalities of riders and spectators nonetheless happen.

Petrus Ledibani, assistant secure supervisor at Nihi Sumba, a luxurious resort that provides a wide range of horse-based actions, says when his father was younger, each Sumbanese youngster may ride.

A Sandalwood pony gallops alongside the seashore on Sumba [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

“But now many children have never even sat on a horse – only those whose families own horses or are involved with horse racing know how to ride,” he mentioned.

Horse buying and selling

One of eight official horse breeds gazetted in Indonesia, Sandalwood ponies have small ears, a brief muscular neck and an unusually lengthy again. Their lineage dates again to the eighth century when merchants from China first visited Indonesia.

“They’re called Sandalwood ponies because the Chinese swapped Mongolian ponies for sandalwood with the locals,” Carol Sharpe, an professional in pure horsemanship from Australia who based the stables at Nihi Sumba advised Al Jazeera. “Later they were bred with Arabian horses brought by traders from the Middle East. The Arabian is naturally a very flighty horse while the Mongolian is also fast but stockier with more stamina, so it’s a very good mix. But they’re not good for labour because of their small stature, probably because of centuries of malnourishment. There’s lots of grass on the island but most of it is not nutritious.”

But the Sumbanese, who practise Catholicism or Islam peppered with animism, discovered loads of different makes use of for the ponies: transport, standing symbols, dowry funds, sacrifices for funerals and as automobiles to retailer wealth.

In the Nineteen Thirties, Dutch colonists launched circuit-style horse racing to the island.

A racehorse breeding business that crosses Sandalwood ponies with Australian Thoroughbreds additionally emerged and is now dominated by Indonesians of Chinese heritage. But many breeders in Sumba have little concern for the welfare of their animals, in accordance to Sharpe.

“The crossbreeds develop a lot of back problems due to being started racing too early. I’ve seen foals as young as 12 or 18 months on the track. They also interfere with them, inject steroids and feed them energy drinks or coffee before races,” she mentioned.

The grass on provide in Sumba shouldn’t be notably nutritious and is believed to be one among the causes for the Sandalwood ponies’ small dimension [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

“More also let their horses run wild in the lean times to save money on feed. They don’t tend to last long. In 2019 we had a horrible drought. Horses were dropping like flies.”

Instagram sensation

Despite their normal poor well being, Sharpe recognises the larger-built Thoroughbred-Sandalwood crossbreeds are higher suited to actions at the resort than Sandalwood ponies, and went about constructing a herd.

“They’d been trained to run by using fear tactics so at first they were uncontrollable. Anyone who tried to ride them would end up on the ground,” she mentioned. “That’s where my work in natural horsemanship helped slow them down for sunset rides along the beach – skills I passed onto the stable boys.”

Sharpe realized new expertise from her secure boys, too, particularly, how to wash the animals by taking them into the surf, typically with riders on their again. Over time the bathing ritual developed right into a devoted exercise at the resort.

When visitors took pictures and shared them on-line, the swimming horses went viral on Instagram.

“Sumba was always known in Indonesia as the land of horses,” mentioned Jonathan Hani, a horse breeder in Sumba’s sleepy capital Waingapu. “But when guests at Nihi started swimming with horses and people saw the photos overseas, the exposure was very good for us. It put Sumba on the map. We got a lot more international tourists.”

Resort supervisor Madlen Ernest additionally credit the horses with protecting the property afloat throughout the coronavirus pandemic and placing meals on the tables of greater than 300 staff.

“Before the pandemic, nearly all of our guests were foreigners so when the international travel ban was introduced in April, we had to close,” she mentioned.

“Four months later we reopened targeting the Indonesian market. At first we weren’t sure if it would work, but things picked much faster than expected because some of the Indonesian influencers who stayed here reposted photos of horses swimming on Instagram.”

A ride to heaven

The Sumba Foundation, a charity that gives potable water, healthcare, vitamin and schooling to about 35,000 individuals on the island, has additionally capitalised on vacationers’ appreciation for horses on Sumba.

“We get kids from the villages to come down to the beach with their horses for races. Tourists buy tickets to place bets on their favourites and all the winning go towards specific projects,” mentioned normal supervisor Patrick Compau. “At 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 charity’s founder: “We’re seeing kids as young as eight turning up to compete, all proud. It’s great that we can raise money but for me, the kids’ races are all about preserving the culture.”

Despite the current adjustments in Sumba life, horse breeder Hani believes the Sandalwood pony will at all times be a part of the island’s tradition.

“They’re no longer used by most people for transport because motorbikes are more convenient but they’re still used in every part of our culture,” he mentioned. “When a boy needs to marry a lady, they’ve to give her dad and mom horses. When somebody dies, the household should sacrifice a horse as a result of we consider it should 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.”

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