29 March 2012

Maltese Horses

Few people know that George Washington was not only the first American president, but also the first American mule breeder - and he can thank Malta for it. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, trying to create a kind of super agricultural animal, he sent out a request to a few European friends for their finest stock. He received a special present from the King of Spain - an Andalusian jack named "Royal Gift," almost the first of its breed to be exported from the Iberian peninsula. The Andalucian jack donkey was famous for its size, strength and hardiness, but Washington credited another animal for the success of his new mule.
The Marquis de Lafayette, a close friend of Washington's and a general in the Revolution, supplied a different, even more obscure, kind of donkey. The Maltese jack, known primarily for its vigor and fierceness, became the other ingredient in the American Mammoth Jackstock - a breed so popular that it reshaped the farming landscape of the southern states.
The Malta donkey was a mix of European and North African animals that was, for centuries, the main cart and draft animal of the archipelago. Today, despite its history, there are less than fifty Maltese donkeys in the world. They've been replaced by a new island equine love: the horse. Above, a man in Rabat eyes a friend's trotting pony.
In the heat of a late March afternoon, we stopped at the Marsa racetracks to watch a few trotters and riders work their horses in the sun. A water truck roared around the oval, kicking up dust even as it sprayed the track to keep it from turning to powder. The horses went in easy, looping circuits, the pounding of their hooves growing and ebbing as they passed. Close by, we could hear the slight metal noise of the harness, the whir and creak of the sulky. This is Malta's most popular spectator sport.
Malta is mad about horses, horse racing and horse riding. Before the British colonized the islands, horses were prized possessions, and riding was an important part of the culture. In a continuing tradition that dates back to the 1400's, an annual bareback race is held each June, reportedly a wild event. But the climate is too hot and dry, there's not much grazing land; donkeys were better suited to the temperature and were cheaper, horses remained rare. With the British came formalized racing, finer breeds and, in 1868, the Masa racetrack. What had been a fascination became an obsession.
Saddle racing grew in popularity for nearly a hundred years, mirroring the growth the sport saw back in England. But, in a historic twist, World War II destroyed much of Malta, and most of the race horses were slaughtered for food or killed during the bombing. When the British navy left, following the war, they took along the remaining thoroughbreds (and many of the best jockeys), leaving behind a country starved for races.
To fill the void, Malta embraced trot racing. The ponies were less expensive and easy to keep, jockies weren't required. It's grown into a craze - the official tourism website calls it "Malta's prime spectator sport," and total attendance is supposedly higher than at the national soccer stadium. Real horses have returned in the decades since, but ponies are still much loved. These two old men walked their steeds very slowly, having a jovial conversation.
Even in the middle of Malta's horrible traffic, navigating roundabouts and underpasses, one will find men and horses. Not only close by to the racecourse, which is now ensnared in a twist of motorway, but everywhere. Even parked outside stores. Some people actually seem to use the sulkies as a form of transportation - not much room for groceries.
In Valletta or Mdina, the horses you're likely to see are of the tourist-ride variety, but even these are interesting. The small, covered carriages they pull - called "karozzins" - are unique to the islands, though I have to admit that it's difficult for me to see why. I'm guessing it has something to do with the draping. They are generally tattered and faded, relics kept alive by pushy touts and romanticism.
It's easy to see why the horse's finer lines and more noble gait have enraptured the Maltese. Donkeys just don't fit into modern Malta. The country is ever more urban, with fewer fields to plow and more roads to clomp down. Life here is a little more glamorous, less hardscrabble than it used to be. It's also a small place, and riding from one town to another (or one coast to another) seems perfectly practical.

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