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Thursday, March 31, 2011

When horses attack: The battle of stallion 'boxers' fighting for mating rights

By Ticky Hedley-dent

Hooves at the ready: These two stallions stand on their hind legs and prepare to throw the first blows in the annual battle for supremacy over the pick of the mares

Hooves raised and nostrils flaring, two stallions rear at one another in a timeless battle for supremacy. Spring has arrived on the blossoming plains where the horses live in wild seclusion — and with it, the mating season.

It’s an annual ritual among the herd in which its stallions fight to secure mates from the pick of the mares.

In these extraordinary pictures, the stallions, each weighing almost half a ton, stand on their hind legs like boxers preparing to throw their first ‘punches’ — fierce blows of their powerful hooves.

The battles are often bloody and charged with testosterone, but in the end one stallion will win his conjugal rights, while the vanquished must slink away and lick his wounds.

The victor will then typically mate with ‘a harem’ of eight or nine mares — a manageable number which ensures he can control them, while reserving the rest of his energy for chasing the other stallions away.

These pictures were taken by wildlife photographer Vedran Vidak, who has spent many days observing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat of West Bosnia’s Cincar mountain range.

‘Since they live on their own without human interference, they truly accord with Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest,’ he says.

Heavyweight contest: Two stallions rare up onto their hind legs and clatter their hooves against each other in a bid to dominate the wild herd in the Cincar mountains in Bosnia

Brawl: A powerful bay horse goes to bite the other beast while using its front legs to jab its opponent's neck

‘Each stallion has to show off. He has to prove he is the dominant male and that his strength and perseverance are incomparable with any other.’

The herd of 200 horses has recently come down from caverns some 4,000ft up in the mountains, where they spend their winters to preserve their strength.

For it can be a bitter climate there, with the Bosnian landscape battered by ferocious storms and blanketed in snow from October to May. Yet still the horses have survived, even flourished.

It’s believed the herd was formed back in the Seventies, when villagers who had been working in Western Europe returned to the region with tractors and agricultural machinery — releasing their redundant workhorses into the wild.

At first, there were only a couple of dozen animals roaming together, but over the years the herd’s population has grown.

Kick boxing: A white animal battles it out with a black horse on the grass-filled plains after emerging from the deep valleys where they spend the winter

Life is easier in the spring and summer, when grass is plentiful on the plains. In winter, however, they must scavenge for what plant life they can find.

There are reports of horses being killed on the roads when, driven by hunger, they have come down from the high plains to lick salt — laid down to protect against ice — from the asphalt.

‘The horses’ existence is a rare phenomenon,’ says Velija Katica, a professor at Sarajevo University’s veterinary faculty.

‘It’s incredible that they have survived in such difficult conditions with little food and no veterinary care, in a region where winters are so severe.’

Shake hands: These two ponies touch together their front hooves as they nervously jostle for position

Still friends: A small bay pony rests its head on the back of its dapple grey friend in a break from the clashes between the larger stallions aiming to dominate the herd

Unfortunately, she adds, not all the locals like the wild horses. Many villagers
complain that they ruin their crops — which may explain some reports of horses being killed for dog meat.

Last year, however, a group of local nature lovers launched a petition to protect the herd, and officials in the nearby town of Livno have earmarked funds to conserve the animals.

They argue that the horses have become a tourist attraction, and that increasing numbers of people come to watch and photograph them every year.

According to Vedran Vidak, spring is the best time to see them, ‘when they begin to release the energy they have been storing over winter’.

It is also the time when you might just be privy to one of nature’s most thrilling displays: the battle of the stallions.



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