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Karakachan Pony - Ponies & Breeds

The Karakachan pony is a local breed, and one of the oldest breeds in Europe. It developed in the country Bulgaria as a result of nomad breeding, the most primitive kind of livestock breeding. The Karakachan people are Balkan nomad people and breeders of livestock. Because of their extremely conservative breeding traditions, they have saved the most primitive and pure breed of sheep, a livestock guarding dog breed, and a mountain horse. In contrast to other Asian nomad people, who use donkeys, Karakachans use only horses as a means of transportation. Of all the primitive horses in the entire region, it is the Karakachan pony that is considered the most consolidated breed.

According to experts, this breed became so consolidated through extensive use of close. The Karakachans have used these horses for transportation of their complete household during their seasonal migrations between summer pastures and winter pastures. The pasture has always been the only source of feed for these horses. Horses which were not used remained all year round high in the mountains, fending for themselves, even during cold winters, They also had to protect themselves against predators. Every Karakachan man used to own 50-100 horses in the past, but now, 10-15 is common.

The Karakachan pony is relatively small (about 12 hands or a little more). It is compact, with good muscling. It has a wide forehead, perfectly-set, strong legs, and exceptionally solid and tough hooves. They often work bare-footed. This breed is known in the region to be exceptionally strong and tough.

After the government took the livestock away from private owners in 1957-58, there was no use for the breed anymore on the state farms. The horses were killed and used for chicken and pig feed, and are still being sold for meat (mostly to Italy). Also, the state farms tried to "improve" the Karakachan pony by crossing these horses with Huculs, Kabardin horses and Haflingers. The government does not have policy to save the native horse breeds, and their valuable qualities are not recognized.

This breed is listed in in category II in the Red Data List of autochthon forms of domestic animals (part of the National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy of Bulgaria), meaning it is classified as a critically endangered, disappearing form. The numbers have decreased so much, that it will disappear in few years unless urgent measures are being taken. Some of the remaining ponies live semi-wild in the Rila and Rhodopes mountains. The Karakachan pony can also be found semi-wild in the Pirin and Stara Planina mountains and in the Kraishte region. There is hardly any selective breeding taking place, they reproduce uncontrolled under natural circumstances. Some of these ponies are used as pack horses, to carry wood on pack saddles from forests to settlements, they are being bred traditionally.

Why is this breed so valuable that it should be saved? It represents one of the oldest forms of domestic stock in Europe. These ponies are still close to their wild ancestors. They were selected in a way and under conditions that cannot be repeated. The Karakachan pony is as a result very high in vitality and excels in adaptability to varying conditions. These ponies almost never get ill and are totally unpretentious to the feed base. As a result of Mother Nature's selections, they have strong bodies with form-to-function conformation, vital energy and a tough constitution. They should be saved for research purposes and could render meaningful results in immunology, nutrition, reproduction, etc. Their rich genetic potential could be of great importance in the future. They are adapted to the specific local conditions, and hold great economic potential in the low-productive mountainous areas of their homeland.

The Karakachan pony is still irreplaceable in mountains, where it is used as a logging horse, carrying wood down to the settlements without damaging the natural forest ecosystems. It has a good disposition and has proved its worth as a riding and recreation mount, especially in mountainous regions where other breeds may even be dangerous to ride. It is very cheap to maintain, as it is able to feed off the land year-round and does not be kept in a barn in the wintertime. And - last but not least - it is an integral part of the Bulgarian culture and customs.

There is hope for the Karakachan pony in a project as part of one of three National Parks in Bulgaria, on the Pirin mountain range in south-western Bulgaria. It is a World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention (UNESCO) site, with several strict nature reserves. The alpine pastures here provide very good conditions for livestock grazing in the summer time. A nucleus group has been obtained as part of a preservation project, and a studbook has been started. The horses will be bred and used in the traditional way. The herd will be allowed to roam free, except in cases when they are needed for work. Thus, the Karakachan pony may be saved after all. They are expected to become one of the main attractions for tourists, who can make trail rides through the mountains.

Article © Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos ©Oelke or Oelke Archive.

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