A unique breed of only eleven miniature horses, known as the Rhodian Pony, found only on the island of Rhodes, is threatened by extinction.
Efforts to save the breed began in 2001 when the organization Phaethon was established. The non-profit, based in Archangelos on Rhodes, succeeded in herding and creating stables for the Rhodian Ponies. The organization’s volunteers have worked to ensure the survival of the unique miniature horses as well as sensitize the local community to their plight.
A handful of people made a great effort to save the remaining Rhodian Ponies in 2000— which at that time numbered only six. For months, they placed food in specific areas in order to gain the trust of the six petite creatures. They were able to tame them and guide them to the farm they created on an estate outside Archangelos. They then created Phaethon, the association for the protection of miniature horses of Rhodes.
According to Phaethon President Iakovos Leventis, “Initially, our goal was to protect the population. In Rhodes, at that time there were no veterinarians with the specialized knowledge required for this type of miniature horse. We reached out across Greece and Europe for scientists that specialized in this. Fortunately, doctors come to us annually voluntarily. We have managed to keep the ponies alive as well as increase their numbers.”
Miniature horses descendants of ancient breed
The Rhodian Ponies are the descendants of an ancient breed. They reach a maximum height of 31 to 45 inches (three to four feet) but are perfectly proportioned, with traits similar to that of full-size horses. They have very luxurious manes and tails. Although they are identified as “Rhodes Ponies,” aside from their petite measure, they do not have the traits of ponies.
The Rhodian Ponies have long been linked to the island’s cultural traditions. Used by farmers for hundreds of years in tilling the fields, there are many depictions of them in popular folk art.
According to residents of the village of Archangelos, Rhodes Ponies numbered as many as 150 creatures in the 1950s. By 2000, their numbers had dwindled to just six miniature horses.
Phaethon’s goal has been to make the Rhodian Ponies an attraction for tourists visiting the island. They have created facilities for visitors to view the horses, which, in turn, boosts the local economy and establishes the miniature horses as an element of cultural heritage to be sustained.
The Rhodian Ponies are purebred, having evolved and adapted to local conditions. They have been the companions of local farmers for centuries, availing themselves to assist in caring for the land. Modern technology through heavy machinery made the miniature horses redundant when it came to the heavy labor necessitated on the farm. They were then set free into the mountains, but because they had grown accustomed to humans, they returned to villages.
The farmers were not happy about their return, however. Although the miniature horses had helped them to do the hardest of chores before heavy equipment replaced the petite creatures, the same farmers chased them away. The miniature horses trampled the farm fields and many farmers shot them because of the damage they wreaked on their fragile crops.
Greatest depletion of Rhodian ponies during WWII
The miniature horses, known as Equus Caballus Caballus, suffered the greatest depletion of their numbers during WWII. After the Armistice in 1943, the Italian front split in two, and the soldiers, who had remained loyal to Mussolini, turned their fire on the Italians, who had surrendered. Many of the “hunted” Italians of Rhodes took refuge in the mountains of Rhodes, and, to satisfy their need for food, they killed a significant number of the miniature horses.
The petite creatures who survived found refuge in the island’s stone mountains near Archangelos and Malona. The miniature horses became independent, wild, and unruly, renouncing their human interaction.
The tale of these miniature horses is told by grandparents to their grandchildren and, now, local guides are sharing the region’s folklore with tourists. Almost every farm in Rhodes had at least one such miniature horse as a part of its livestock, and the tale has been turned into a book. The Phaethon organization has ventured into publishing two books in Greek about horses. Book sales are used to both sensitize the community about this rare species as well as provide financial support.
In the 1980s, a total of thirty miniature horses were documented as existing on Rhodes. In the decades that followed, however, their population decreased dramatically.
Themistoklis Karakaidos is the Phaethon team member who tends to the miniature horses daily. “With his love and constant work, the eleven horses have the care they need,” stated Leventis. “Every day we receive visitors but few in numbers, because people know very little about their existence. All our voluntary effort has focused on the survival of the horses. No time has been devoted to promoting the program to the Rodites and the tourists.”
“Such a large task cannot be left to volunteers alone,” adds Leventis. “It requires the effort of the entire island. The miniature horses are an important, unique element of the island, a divine gift. In any another destination, the miniature horses would be the area’s best attraction. The Swiss ‘Safe Foundation’ has included Rhode’s miniature horses as one of the 600 ‘must see’ items in Europe.”
He states that “most of [the] cost of the miniature horse’s food has been supplemented by Archangelos’ Municipal Authority budgeted from funding for feeding the deer, but that is not enough. The creatures require medication, healthcare, maintenance of the facility, staff to support them, and so much more.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on sustaining the miniature horses financially as well. According to Leventis, the lockdowns stopped scores of local school children that would come before the coronavirus pandemic by the bus load from visiting the facility.
The Phaethon estate is just two miles off the highway that links the city of Rhodes and Lindos. The road to the estate is paved and leads directly to the entrance. It receives visitors daily, with an entrance fee of just over a dollar.
The estate has a covered coffee area, and parents can enjoy a coffee or a snack as their children are introduced to these unique miniature horses since they are the last of the breed on earth.