Quick! What do horses and gigantic stone statues of people and heads have in common? If you answered, “nothing,” well, prepare to be surprised. They do have something in common. They both reside on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui to its native population.
Famous mostly for the huge statues, called “Moai”, Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. It’s politically part of Chile, but it’s located a 4 hour flight from it, out into the Pacific Ocean.
The island is believed to have been first settled by Polynesians, although the date of the first settlement is unclear. It could be anywhere from 300 AD to 1200 AD, making it relatively one of the youngest inhabited territories on the planet.
For hundreds of years, the islanders lived with no known outside contact, until Europeans begin showing up in the 1700’s. There were a few visits, in which it’s noted that many, if not all, of the famous statues were toppled by the Islanders themselves, possibly not believing in their old leaders anymore. (The statues were all put back up, starting in the 1950’s). But after just observation, eventually everyone begin interacting, and the the island became a popular supply station for ships. After years of mutual benefit, eventually, there were some hostile visits from South America. Many of the islanders were stolen to be forced into slavery in Peru, and others died from disease. When the first missionary visited the island in 1864, the population was down to only about 100 islanders, from original estimates of 2,000-3,000.
The Moai Statues
The island is most famous for the statues. There’s always been a bit of mystery about the statues, but here is what is known:
- They aren’t just heads, some of them just got buried. They have full bodies.
- They are carved from the island’s volcano, Rano Raraku, and you can visit it to see partially completed ones.
- They were made to honor leaders of the the tribes. They are supposed to look different from each other, as they represent the unique features of the person.
- The larger the statue, the greater your tribe was, so they kept trying to make bigger and bigger statues.
- The biggest mystery is how they transported the statues across the island. Some theories are they rolled across logs, or they were “walked,” rocked back and forth using ropes. Also, aliens seems to be a theory. I don’t put much faith in that one, but some people do.
Now that you’re familiar with the statues, let’s talk about the horses.
The Origin of the Horses of Easter Island
Let’s loop back to the briefly mentioned missionaries. Aside from bringing the Roman Catholic religion with them, it’s said that they were also responsible for bringing the horses, too.
There isn’t a huge amount of information on why the missionaries specifically brought the horses, but I’m guessing it’s because they were looking to live on the island, and they were transportation. All previous visitors were sailors, who don’t carry around horses with them because it wouldn’t make sense to have a horse just to keep it on a boat all the time. But, the missionaries were so obsessed with their horses that there was no way they were leaving them behind, so took them on a multi-day (week? month?) ship journey to bring them there. Got to love that kind of horse obsession! (although I guess they weren’t too obsessed, since they left them there. Or maybe they realized that transporting horses is never fun.)
There’s very little information on what breeds were brought to the island. I have been unable to completely verify, but the original horses seem to be Spanish in origin, and the few horses have been brought in include quarter horses, thoroughbreds, and appaloosas. As there’s been very little influence from the outside, I would say these horses are essentially their own breed at this point. But unlike many horse breeds, there’s no official tracking or registry of any kind.
The Lifestyle of a Horse on Easter Island
Life on Easter Island is tough for horses. The land is not fertile, and vegetation struggles to grow. Storms throw salt onto the land, making plant life difficult. The island was deforested hundreds of years ago, possibly through the statue rolling, but also just for buildings, fires, and canoes, and now new trees struggle to grow.
The horses are left to wander the entire island. Despite the harsh conditions, the horses have thrived. Locals often claim, “We have more horses than people.” (May be slightly exaggerated, human population is around 7,000, horses seems to be around 2,000). There seems to be a mix of both feral horses and tamed horses, owned by individuals.
The horses are used for trail riding, specifically taking tourists on trail rides. Many of the areas of Easter Island are delicate, with no cars allowed, so taking a trail ride will get you into areas that are otherwise inaccessible.
While the trails are beautiful and unique, horse owners used to modern conveniences would likely struggle here. There isn’t a veterinarian on the island, let alone an equine vet. There’s no farriers on the island. While there may be traveling vets that visit the island, this is very much a DIY level of horse care. Despite this though, most of the horses seem to be well kept, even with their limited resources.
The horses of Easter Island are fascinating, and there’s so much more we could learn about them. Hopefully in the years to come, more information will be available on this interesting strain of horses.