It’s a story as old as the hills… that of man and horse. However, this one is played out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the Marquesas Islands, “the Land of Men”. Polynesians discovered horses in the 19th century and have tamed and worked with them over the years. Today, under the pressure of globalization, these horsemen are in danger of disappearing. Some of them are resisting however, continuing to hold the tradition.
In the middle of the yard is a frightened foal. Tied to the branch of a tree, it has just been caught in the hills of Ua Huka, “Island of horses”. A 29 year-old warrior stares it down. Arms and body covered in tattoos, the man slowly approaches the animal, holding a rope in one hand and delicately stroking it with the other. This is a vital moment. From here on the man will establish his role as master of this animal. Vohi knows what to do with horses. The man is as one with his steeds. He talks to them all the time, he even whinnies like them. His favorite call is the cry of desire. “Men are like stallions”, the Marquesan says flirtatiously, he has horses under his skin. Quite literally, he had a stallion tattooed on his back a few years ago. Vohi has always lived around horses; it was natural for him to get them indelibly marked on his flesh. He chose the image of a horse rearing up on its hinds, just like the feral horses he captures.
Catching horses is a perilous endeavor. Lying 1,300 kilometers northeast of Tahiti, the island of Ua Huka offers a real change of scenery, with its rugged landscape. During periods of drought, the southern half of the island looks a lot like the Far West, with red soil, a suffocating climate and a blazing sun. The Marquesan desert can be hell for those foolish enough to take it on.
Horses in Marquesas : a tradition
But this inhospitable land is a paradise to Vohi. The horseman often roams the mountainsides of his island looking for wild horses. Here, the suare as they’re called all belong to somebody, you must negotiate with the owner. “You can often barter them for a crate of beer”, he tells us with a sly grin. The man never tries to capture a horse by himself; it is a manoeuver that requires agility and great strength, and maybe also a touch of madness.
You probably need it to put up with the blazing Marquesan heat and the flighty wild beasts? Vohi is a toa, a Marquesan warrior. Despite his slight build, the young man is powerful. He fears nothing, much less capturing wild horses. It is an art that he has perfected. He’s the one who directs his colleagues during the operation, during which everyone has their strategic position. Some are waiting in ambush near the ridgeline; others are hidden way below on steep trails. Hats and arms raised, the cowboys gather the horses into a herd. Their aim is to steer them into a steep-sided valley where they can be trapped. It’s a scene worthy of a Western, only the deep blue Pacific Ocean in the background reminds us that this is in fact the Marquesas.
Skillful and efficient, the riders catch one of the panicked animals with a lasso. Barely before we have time to understand what’s happening the warriors are upon the animal holding it to the ground, hooves tied and mouth open. The animal struggles and fights, but the men keep a firm hold. Vohi takes a knife from his pokoo, a sheath made of goatskin, slicing into the animal’s palate. “We remove the protruding flesh so that they can feed more easily. I don’t know if it’s done elsewhere, we say that it’s only done in the Marquesas!”, the horseman explains as he rolls a cigarette and watches an iron heating white hot. The animal will be branded; the man leaves his mark on the horse and becomes its owner. But this superficial mark of ownership won’t prevent the animal from being set loose again. “We capture the yearling foals to get them used to the rope and let them roam free until they are four. Then, we capture them once again to finish breaking them in.”
The legacy of Marquesian horsemen
Vohi is an unusual character. In the village, he is often watched by the curious. “ When they see me brushing my horses’ manes, they say that I treat my horses like a wife.” The horseman chuckles at the island gossip mongering. He doesn’t worry about that, but he does worry about the younger generation. The man is nostalgic for a time before there were cellphones. Today, the youngsters have their eyes glued to the screen and are slowly disappearing into their virtual world. “In Hane, my children and a couple of their friends are the only ones that know how to ride.” Vohi laments, “But we should be passing the skill on, today we are starting to forget the effort required and reality of life in our islands.” Vohi and his wife Ornella, whose eyes sparkle when her gaze settles on her husband, have four children: three boys and a girl. The two eldest sons follow Vohi everywhere, the youngest isn’t old enough yet, even if he does already try to neigh like a horse, imitating the sound his father has perfected. It is only the daughter that does not ride; the parents consider it too dangerous. “Even if it has been caught and trained, a horse remains a wild animal. You can’t be sure how it will behave; it’s easy to get hurt.” For a long time in the Marquesas, it has not been considered appropriate that women ride horses. Even if she grew up around them, Ornella is not comfortable in the saddle. She prefers to watch her husband teaching her sons how to train and ride them. It is a long and difficult apprenticeship, taking place on land and in the sea.
The strong currents and big waves are just one danger. The horses are often scared; the sea is not a friendly environment. You must be able to control the horse with a strong grip, calm it reassuringly and guide it with care. Falls are common, but the water cushions the blow. The island’s valleys, rocky ground and steep summits are also dangerous. Horses are often the only means of travelling along the steep trails where the vegetation has taken over. A moment’s distraction and you can easily get caught by an unexpected branch, and find yourself on the ground hurtling down the abrupt mountain slopes. The challenge is two-fold because you must master your mount as well as the elements of nature.
Vohi passes his knowledge on to his children, but he does not make his living from it. His main source of income is coprah, the primary economic activity in the Marquesas. Every week, he collects coconuts on his family’s land and then dries and sells the coconut meat to Tahiti’s coconut oil factory the Huilerie de Tahiti, who uses it to make monoï. Most of the island’s inhabitants make a living like this, but Vohi is one of the few to still use horses for the work. “They help me carry the sacks to the car that is parked down below; it makes it easier to carry the heavy load."
The last of the Mohicans
Horses arrived from Chile in 1842 with the French Admiral, Abel Bergasse Dupetit-Thouars, who also proclaimed that the Marquesas were a French Protectorate. The soldier offered a horse to the chief Iotete, a famous warrior from the island of Tahuata. This is the most common version of the story, but the origin of the Marquesan horse is still a little uncertain. In 1595, the first European navigator to discover the Marquesas was the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana. The explorer was finally chased away by the islanders; however, it is highly likely that he left several of his horses behind on the archipelago, which then went feral. Regardless, and despite the robust constitution of these Marquesan horses, there are fewer and fewer of them every year. The severe droughts that have been hitting the island have decimated the herd. For this reason horses are brought in from New Zealand and Australia, and are interbred with the Marquesan horses. Paco owns several who are among the finest in the archipelago. This Marquesan Charles Bronson has settled on Hiva Oa, the island sung about by Jacques Brel who had fallen for the place. The earth is rich, the vegetation lush, landscapes rugged, starkly contrasting... It is a real tropical paradise.
Paco blends right into the background. This cowboy with a busted jaw loves nature, the untamed wilderness that he rides through on horseback. The man is an unequalled rider and trainer of horses, the oldest in the Marquesas. Despite his age, he hasn’t lost his touch. This expert doesn’t work for long stretches of time with the young wild stallions; he devotes just twenty minutes a day to breaking them in. It’s only a short moment but it requires a huge amount of energy, it is all a question of strength, skill and concentration. “Every day is another phase. To start with you pull its tongue, so that he gets used to the bit, then you start putting a sack on its back so that it gets used to carrying a rider’s weight, you get it to trot at the end of a tether… When you train horses, you watch the way they behave, their endurance and their personality.” Paco has long been a role model for the young riders, some of whom have become exceptional horsemen themselves.
Jérémy is one of the best horsemen in the Marquesas. The thirtyyear-old is famed across the islands for galloping and prancing with his horses like no-one else. “They say that I am Toanuihoiva, the warrior that goes far”, he emphasizes with pride, a horseman whose verve veers away from Paco’s wisdom. He is one of the champions of the traditional horse races that are held during the Heiva, the festivities held in July. In the middle of the 19th century, these horse races were a highlight of the celebrations, with the best riders from the islands competing against each other in a bareback race on the beach, wearing simple pareu and headdresses made from plants. In the Marquesas they are still held on the beaches in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva and Vaipaee on Ua Huka, but are starting to slowly disappear. Jérémy never misses one. He likes showing what he can do. He is a kind of Marquesan “Bartabas” (a famous French horse trainer and showman, editor’s note). He guides his horses with a grace that sends shivers down your spine. Jérémy doesn’t whinny but he does dance with his stallions. The man has a connection with his animals. Before taking part in a frenetic gallop across a local beach, he calls upon his ancestors, using a powerful Haka puaka, the traditional war dance of Marquesan warriors. This ritual gives him the strength to excel. “My horses too. They understand my every gesture, my movements,and sounds.” Jut like Vohi and Paco, Jérémy is an artist who refuses modern ways. He is one of the only people to still prefer a horse to a 4x4 truck, and nature to cyberspace. But, as the fable of the Little Prince and the Fox (a well-known French children’s story written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) reminds us, “man had forgotten this truth”.
Suare : horse
Toa : warrior
Tane : man
Vahine : woman
Pareu : an item of clothing made from a single length of colored fabric decorated with Polynesian patterns
Haka puaka : pig dance