Sumba Island, Indonesia -Sumba Sandalwood Pony is named after the fragrant tree that once covered the island. It is the only horse breed in Indonesia that is still closely related to the local economy, culture and religion.

Sandalwood pony is an energetic, agile animal with good endurance and friendly character. It is also the only horse breed exported to overseas from Indonesia: children’s ponies in Australia and racehorses in Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. They are also sought after by slaughterhouses in Sulawesi Province, Indonesia, where horse meat is a delicacy.

However, the proliferation of motorcycles and the perennial drought on Sumba Island, about 800 kilometers (497 miles) east of Bali, have forced more people to migrate from rural to urban areas. Some people worry that ponies will be left behind.

“On this island, motorcycles are now more valuable than horses,” said American hotelier and philanthropist Claude Graves, who has lived on Sumba for 40 years.

“Culture is dying. Only Pasola has been holding on,” he added, referring to the annual festival held at the beginning of the rice-growing season, in which riders threw spears at each other, ostensibly with human blood. Fertilize the soil. The spear is now blunt, but deaths of the rider and spectators will still occur.

Petrus Ledibani, assistant stable manager at Nihi Sumba, a luxury resort offering various horse-based activities, said that when his father was young, every Sumbanese child could ride a horse.

A sandalwood pony gallops on the beach of Sumba [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

“But now many children have never even ridden a horse-only those who own horses or participate in horse racing know how to ride a horse,” he said.

Horse trading

The sandalwood horse is one of the eight horse breeds officially announced in Indonesia. It has small ears, a short and muscular neck, and an unusually long back. Their ancestry can be traced back to the eighth century, when merchants from China visited Indonesia for the first time.

“They are called sandalwood ponies because the Chinese and locals replaced Mongolian ponies with sandalwood,” Carol Sharp, an Australian natural equestrian expert who built a stable in Nihi Sumba, told Al Jazeera. “Later they used Arabian horses brought by Middle Eastern merchants. Arabian horses are born to be very frivolous, and Mongolian horses are also fast, but stronger and more endurance, so this is a good combination. The short stature may be due to malnutrition over the centuries. They are not suitable for childbirth. There are many grasses on the island, but most of them are unnutritive.”

However, the Sumbani people who believe in Catholicism or Islam and are full of animism have discovered many other uses of ponies: transportation, status symbol, dowry, funeral offerings, and as a tool for storing wealth.

In the 1930s, Dutch colonists introduced track-style horse racing to the island.

A racehorse breeding industry that crosses sandalwood ponies with Australian thoroughbred horses has also emerged, and is now dominated by Indonesians of Chinese descent. But according to Sharp, many breeders in Sumba don’t care about the welfare of their animals.

“Due to the early start of the race, the hybrids have had a lot of back problems. I have seen 12 or 18-month-old foals on the track. They also interfere with them, inject steroids and give them energy drinks before the race. Or coffee,” she said.

The grass provided by Sumba Island is not particularly nutritious and is considered to be one of the reasons for the small size of the sandalwood ponies [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

“More people are also letting their horses run wild during difficult times to save feed costs. They don’t tend to last long. In 2019, we experienced a terrible drought. Horses fell like flies.”

Instagram sensation

Despite his poor health, Sharp realized that larger purebred sandalwood hybrid horses were more suitable for activities in the resort than sandalwood ponies and began to build a herd.

“They are trained to use fear strategies to run, so they are out of control at first. Anyone who tries to ride them will end up on the ground,” she said. “It was my job in natural equestrianism that helped them slow down the sunset ride along the beach-I passed these skills to the stable boy.”

Sharp also learned new skills from her stable boy, especially how to take the animals to surf, sometimes with a rider on his back to clean the animals. Over time, the bathing ritual evolved into a special activity in the resort.

When guests took photos and shared them online, the swimming horses went viral on Instagram.

“Sumba has always been called the country of horses in Indonesia,” said Jonathan Hani, a horse breeder in Waingapu, the sleepy capital of Sumba. “But when Nihi guests started swimming on horseback and people saw photos overseas, the exposure was very good for us. It put Sumba on the map. We have more international tourists.”

Resort manager Madlen Ernest also believes that during the coronavirus pandemic, horses kept the hotel running and provided food to more than 300 employees.

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

“Four months later, we reopened and targeted the Indonesian market. At first we were not sure if it would work, but things progressed much faster than expected because some Indonesian influencers who stayed here reposted the horse on Instagram. Photos of swimming.”

Drive to heaven

The Sumba Foundation is a charitable organization that provides drinking water, medical care, nutrition and education to approximately 35,000 people on the island. It also capitalizes on tourists’ love for the horses on Sumba.

“We let the children in the village take their horses to the beach to race. Tourists buy tickets to bet on their favorite projects, and all winnings will be used for specific projects,” said general manager Patrick Compau. “In our last game, we raised US$4,400 for a little girl with a rare genetic defect in her intestines. She needs surgery in Bali to save her life.”

Claude Grave, the founder of the charity, added: “We saw children as young as 8 take part in the competition and they were very proud. It’s great that we can raise money, but it’s great for me. In other words, children’s games are all about protecting culture.”

Despite recent changes in life on Sumba, horse breeder Hani believes that sandalwood ponies will always be part of the island’s culture.

“Most people no longer use them as a means of transportation because motorcycles are more convenient, but they are still used in all parts of our culture,” he said. “When a boy wants to marry a girl, they must give her parents a horse. When someone dies, the family must sacrifice a horse because we believe this will bring their soul to heaven.

“The horse is our best friend on Sumba and part of our family,” he said. “Having one is a symbol of pride. If a person has a horse, it means that he has a good character.”


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