Thriving in Poland meet a Hucul pony

Odrzychowa - At the foot of the wild Carpathian mountains in Poland near the Ukraine border, both countries are working to protect the Hucul pony, a small native horse breed that was on the brink of extinction just 70 years ago.

"When we began reintroducing the Hucul here about 40 years ago, there were barely 100 mares in all of Poland", Wladyslaw Brejta, who runs the stud farm that spearheaded the EU-sponsored Polish-Ukrainian breeding programme, told AFP.

"Today, there are nearly 1,500 [in Poland], which represents 60% of the population of this breed in Europe", he said, adding that the remaining population is very sparsely distributed through Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Native to the eastern Carpathian Mountains south of Kolomyya in Ukraine, the small, stocky breed was used to do everything from tilling fields to hauling logs and even carrying ammunition during both world wars.

After 1945, special breeding programmes like the one run by Brejta staved off extinction.

Polish farmer Stanislaw Dudek marvels at a herd of 40 ponies from the Odrzychowa stud farm, a village in Poland's southeastern Carpathian foothills, skirted by forests.

"They're happy here, they have everything they need: grass, water and space.

"They're fearless; bad weather doesn't bother them, nor do wolves. When in danger, they stick together to attack a wolf. All it can do is run away, if the poor thing manages", he told AFP

Marek Gibala, chairman of the Poland's Hucul supervisory commission, says the sturdy ponies are well equipped for the many challenges of mountain terrain.

"The Hucul has a strong, boney head, expressive eyes and a muscular neck.

"It has a strong frame and joints. It needs them to move around mountainous terrain, to clamber up and down steep slopes, sometimes very steep slopes", he says.

Ride'em cowboy

Adapted to tough living conditions, the hardy Hucul is also satisfied with little food and requires no special care.

Having been replaced by tractors on the farm, Huculs are now an attraction for tourists. They are even-tempered, easy to mount and happy to clamber through streams on long treks through the countryside.

"It can walk for several days, clocking dozens of kilometres a day, like on your typical trek through the Polish-Slovak mountains", says Gibala.

Riding instructor Magdalena Boron lauds the Hucul for its intelligence and coping skills.

"If it gets tired, it just stops, or slows down. Quite often my horse will just stop in the middle of a climb to catch its breath. It starts moving again once it does", she says.

The Hucul is versatile: good for both leisure and a range of equestrian sports, including horse-breaking, show jumping and trick riding.

Huculs are also used in Poland for riding therapy, which helps people with disabilities to develop physically and behaviourally.

But while it is thriving in Poland, instability in neighbouring Ukraine means it could take some time before the breed makes a comeback farther east.

"Given the current political and economic climate in Ukraine, you can only hope that their number won't go down", says Brejta.

"If the situation stabilises, we'll finally be able to think about returning them to their homeland. There's a lot of interest, especially at national parks. Unfortunately, you need money and that's what Ukraine lacks."

The head of the stud farm is responsible for a Polish-Ukrainian Hucul reintroduction programme that is backed by around $1.9m in EU funding.

"Today, the Hucul is no longer threatened with extinction in Poland", says Brejta.

"But the challenge of reintroducing it into its native land is a battle that's far from won."

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