The Giara horse is undoubtedly one of Sardinia’s most well-known wild animals. It is not a pony, despite its low height at the withers, but a real horse with a small build. Over the course of time, the hostile and uncontaminated environment of the Giara has selected ungraceful, hardy and skittish animals, with a proud personality and indomitable spirit.
The horses in Sardinia
In Sardinia’s typically cereal-growing regions, the horse plays a much smaller role than the ox in powering farming apparatus. Instead, it is more commonly employed as a means of long-distance transportation, though not by farmers who, if using it, do so in place of a yoke of oxen, adapting the various pieces of equipment and carts at the attachment point. The horse is also a prestigious means of transport for medium and large landowners, be it saddled or fastened to a gig.
The most common work horse breeds in the countryside of southern Sardinia are known as inglesa, àraba and de sa Jara. Su kuàddu inglesu (‘the English horse’) is the largest and most robust, more suited to drawing carts than to more intricate work such as ploughing; su kuàddu àrabu is of smaller build, stocky, tame yet skittish and high-spirited; su kuaddéddu de sa Jara (‘the little Giara horse’), otherwise called su kuàddu sardu (‘the Sardinian horse’), is small, quite strong, lively, at times rebellious, but hardy. In these cereal-growing regions, and in Sardinia on the whole, mules are extremely rare, while hinnies are totally absent. Horses are exploited in agriculture for an average of twelve years. Naturally, the above breeds are for the most part far from pure-bred.
How to know about Giara Horses
Mesomorphic, small build, with weight varying from 170 kg to220 kg; height at the withers between 1.28 m and 1.32 m for males, and 1.25 m and 1.27 m for females; dark bay, liver chestnut or black coat, rarely displaying any particular markings; chest lying close to ground with slightly sunken back; short, narrow croup, low-set tail with thick hair; square-shaped head with wide jaws and abundant forelock; strong neck with thick, often double mane; not particularly muscular thighs; thin limbs and long cannons; long pasterns; small but strong and healthy feet; frequent limb conformation defects, often due to rickets, generally affecting area around hocks, which are frequently cow- or sickle-hocked.’ (L. Gratani)
Giara horse Breed Standards (data supplied by Agris – Sardinian Agricultural Research and Innovation Agency)
Region of origin: Giara plateau, southern central Sardinia
Coat: bay, chestnut, black
Head: square-shaped, strong jawbone and forehead with abundant forelock
Neck: strong with thick mane
Shoulders: fairly straight
Withers: slightly low
Back: long and somewhat hollow
Loins: fairly long
Croup: short and generally sloped
Breast: sufficiently muscular
Chest: not very deep
Limbs: normally thin but strong
Joints: not very thick but strong and regular
Gait: energetic and sure-footed
Limb conformation: often irregular
Feet: small and strong
Other characteristics: ungraceful, frugal and able to acclimate to unfavourable conditions
Measurements at 30 months:
Height at the withers: 125-135 cm (12.1-13.1 hh)
Girth circumference: 130 cm (51 in)
Cannon circumference: 14 cm (5.5 in)
Height at the withers: 115-130 cm (11.1-12.3 hh)
Girth circumference: 120 cm (47 in)
Cannon circumference: 14 cm (5.5 in)
The Origins of the Giara Horse
The discovery of the fossils of Atalonodon monterini and Lophiodon sardus* dating from the Eocene epoch (55.8-33.9 million years ago), both unearthed in the marlstone of Terras de Collu (Gonnesa), does not provide strong enough scientific evidence to confirm that the Giara horse is a regional endemism. Furthermore, the fossils of the horse, excavated in a cave stratum datable to the Neolithic (in Grotta Filiestru), are considered intrusive, and would therefore indicate the first trace of the horse in Sardinia as the bronze statuette of the Arciere saettante in piedi sul dorso del cavallo (‘Shooting Bowman Standing on Horseback’ – Salìu, Sulcis – CA). The first examples of documentary evidence are, however, much more recent. In 1540, Sigismondo Arquer states that in Sardinia there is ‘a large number of horses of which many are wild and without a master’. He describes them as strong, agile and beautiful. Many further descriptions follow by authors such as Fara, Alberti, Marmol, Martin Carillo, del Cetti, and Lamarmora among others. That said, it is clear that the origins of the Giara horse and its presence on the plateau are somewhat debatable. However, over recent years, further data on this topic has been gathered thanks to studies by important researchers and to the work carried out by the Ente Regionale dell’Incremento Ippico (Regional Horse-breeding Agency). L. Gratani writes of a connection ‘perhaps with greater veracity to the Barb than to the Arab’, just as Manunta and Cancedda strongly challenge a potential Mongol lineage, being more inclined towards the likelihood of an Aryan descent of the species.
Life and Habitat of the Giara Horse
As far back as can be remembered, the Giara horse has lived wild on the Giara plateau, only being taken into town by its respective owners to be used for threshing during the spring. Strong winds, extreme temperature ranges and very short periods of snowfall are all factors that have contributed in making the Giara a habitat that has hardened the animal over time. In the past, even water, now available throughout the year in special drinking troughs, could only be found in is mitzas (natural springs) or in Is Paulis (shallow pools of water), which used to dry up with the arrival of the summer heat. An interesting study carried out by Professor Cancedda from 1972-1981 describes the organisation and behaviour of the horses on the plateau. It identifies a population of 712 horses, of which 587 (82.4%) form 48 ‘harems’ or family units, comprising one stallion and females with their foals. It describes 45 of these harems as being made up of a maximum of 16 and a minimum of 8 horses, as non-territorial, moving like closed rings and living in the same territory whilst rarely meeting each other. 79 males without harems live outside the droves, subdivided in small groups of a maximum of 4 members or living alone. 46 young females live isolated temporarily, or form pairs among themselves. The remaining 3 groups are territorial and graze over a vast area, barely crossing each other’s paths.
* Fam. Lophiodontidae (related to Tapiridae) and distant relatives of the horse, tapir and rhinoceros
The Museum features in-depth texts, images and interesting documents on the origins and life of this fascinating animal.
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