STOLOVI, Serbia (Reuters) – A herd of about 40 mares, stallions and foals graze lazily on dry grass over the rugged Stolovi mountain in Serbia’s southwest, one out of three such bands of wild horses in the Balkan country.
The horses, mainly from the sturdy Bosnian Mountain Horse breed used as pack animals and in agriculture, were brought to Mt. Stolovi in the 1970s by their owners who hoped to save on feed costs.
Away from humans, the animals gradually became feral, reverting to behaviour more closely resembling that of wild horses, 73-year-old farmer Slavoljub Nikolic said on Thursday.
“They (horses) … foaled here, suffered, multiplied, and so it went on,” Nikolic said.
The Stolovi herd is the second biggest in Serbia. One in the southern Suva Planina mountain counts around 100 horses, while the other in the Vlasina plateau numbers just 20.
Nikolic said he and other farmers sometimes climb the mountain to bring the horses a sack of corn or treats such as carrots and apples. During hot summers they also water horses from a cistern.
Horse breeding in Serbia declined over the decades to around 14,000 animals in 2021, from more than 290,000 in 1975, when almost every other rural household had a horse, mainly due to the modernisation of agriculture, state statistics data show.
“No one needs horses for work any longer,” Nikolic said.
With plenty of good grass and open spaces, the animals are healthy and mainly die from predators and old age.
“For 52 years I did not see … a single one that died … from an illness,” Nikolic said.
Horses from Mt. Stolovi would sometimes escape stables when people tried to bring them back to the valley, and return to the mountain to face wolves, bears, horse thieves and harsh winters.
“They can dig through snow (for grass), hide in ravines … , they know every slope, every corner,” Nikolic said.
Tourists and loggers also pose a threat to the herd. Recently, visitors had spooked the herd and a horse was killed when it tumbled into a ravine, Nikolic said.
(This story has been refiled to change the dateline)
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Louise Heavens)