No-one knows how long horses have lived on the island of Skyros, Greece, and no records exist to pinpoint the start of their cooperation with man. During the winter when food and water were plentiful, the horses lived wild on the southern mountain. When summer came, and nourishment was scarce, they migrated north in search of water, and in return allowed themselves to be approached by farmers for threshing and other agricultural work.
Traditionally, the horses voluntarily came in from the mountain with foals at foot in May. They worked all summer while grazing fallow ground under the supervision of a herdsman, then returned to the mountain for the winter after the September rains.
Threshing of barley, wheat and chick peas was their main task, carried out by groups of five to ten roped together to tread around on packed clay or a circular stone floor to separate the crop from the straw. The threshing season lasted some 50 days to mid-August, and its conclusion was celebrated with festivities which included a horse show with the ponies displayed by young men and boys. Bare-back races, decoration of horses and riders, and a selection of the best horses were among the competitions.
Having grown up on the mountains, Skyros horses are sure-footed, strong in relation to their height, with a very efficient digestive system and high resistance to worm parasites. They are easy to look after, intelligent and generally good-tempered.
What these characteristics add up to is an ideal mount for children, and there could lie the future for this rare, endangered breed, the “Skyros horse”.