“I bless and thank the big, black horse on whose back I have spent nine hours this day”.Dr. Sam Ramsay Smith, 1983.
The noble horse is a good choice for a national animal, and the Basotho (basoo-too) pony more than earns it.
Surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho (lessoo-too) is a small mountainous country along the spine of the Drakensberg range, and its “lowest point” is nearly a mile above sea level.
No surprise then that it’s also known as the Kingdom of the Sky, and that’s before you even get to the views.
The official languages are Sesotho and English, and in the words of Professor Sandra Swart, it has “more history than could be consumed locally”. For instance, saying it was founded in 1824 by King Moshoeshoe (mo-shway-shway), became a British colony for a while and then gained independence in 1966, is like saying Lord of the Rings was just Frodo taking a ring up a mountain.
But Lesotho’s early years are when the Basotho pony found a foothold.
Believe it or not, horses aren’t native to southern Africa.
Instead they were lugged over from Europe, Asia and the Americas by European settlers, namely the Boers, who were of Dutch, German and French descent. As for the Basotho pony’s family tree, it likely stretches back to ponies from Java, which, according to Hendricks, were mostly Mongolian. Not confusing at all!
If you also throw some Arabian and Persian horses into the mix, as the Boers did, you get a taller and more slender breed known as the Cape horse. This was just one type of horse traded, lost or stolen across southern Africa in the 19th century, and you could argue that the terrain of Lesotho, then known as Basutoland, shaped the Basotho pony almost as much as its relatives did.
The Sotho people, united by Moshoeshoe against the less friendly neighbours of the time, initially gained horses as strays, after skirmishes, or in retaliation for cattle-rustling. Moshoeshoe soon realised how kick-ass they were, and by 1842 he had a cavalry 200-strong. Horses became hot property, and by 1870, pretty much every man in Basutoland had one. So to say they liked their horses was a bit of an understatement.
So important were they that, according to Swart, they weren’t considered private property at first, and only chiefs were allowed to sell them. What’s more, the horses were often given awesome names like “valiant black” (Ntšo-Seqhobane), and inspired idioms such as “to eat the horse” (ho ja pere), meaning “to do the unforgivable”.
They weren’t confined to stables or paddocks either. Swart quotes one source claiming: “in this region these noble animals want to know nothing but open spaces. During the day they carry us: at night they regain their freedom”.
Unfortunately, in reality, this mainly meant no shelter in an area that can be cold enough to ski in, and a diet of “see what you can scrounge off the mountain”. If nothing else it toughened them up, and the horses of Basotho, mostly smaller Cape horses with the odd splash of English thoroughbred, soon gained a reputation as hardy and sure-footed. They also had a knack for keeping one foot on the ground while “tripling” (a loping movement), so they could go faster for longer over dodgy terrain.
By the end of the 19th century they were a recognised breed. But due to their size of around 14 hands (in non-horse speak: 1.4 metres/4.6 feet at the highest point at the back of the neck), they were technically ponies. Impressed by their stamina and stockiness, both the British and the Boers wanted their pound of (horse)flesh, and like many beloved things, the Basotho pony ended up “selling out”. Almost literally, in this case, thanks to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
The British army alone got their hands on 30,000 of them, and by the time the war was over, their numbers were massively depleted. More Arabians and thoroughbreds were brought in to “strengthen” the breed – much to the annoyance of the Sotho – but by the 1920s, Rosenberg et al. believed the “classic” Basotho pony was gone. Thanks to joint revival efforts in the 1970s by Lesotho and Ireland, it still exists today, if a slightly different brew with more thoroughbred and Connemara thrown in, and it can still do the neat one-foot “tripling” trick.
Regardless, it already had a place in the country’s heart, and Lesotho adopted two of them on its coat of arms after independence.
You can see it today on banknotes, and it’s still the most popular mode of transport in rural areas.
If you’re still wondering what all the fuss is about, I have a couple of stories for you. I found no fewer than three occasions where Basotho ponies took an epic journey and shrugged it off…mostly.
For instance, long-rider Laurence Bougault rode two Basotho ponies, Speedy and Putsoa, for over 3,300 km/2,050 miles on her trek through Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi back in 2001. But an even more epic journey happened 30 years earlier.
Back in 1970, British man Gordon Naysmith planned to ride from Lesotho to Germany in time for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Before you reach for a map, that’s a good 20,000 km/12,427 miles, and would take him through 16 countries as well as several brushes with injury and death. His wife Ria joined him for the first few legs, and you can read her equally epic and horrifying account here.
Needless to say it took a toll, with Ria returning to South Africa for health reasons, and one of the ponies very sadly dying. Not, however, due to the arduousness of the journey, but an overdose of horse sickness vaccine that even the hardiest mountaintop lifestyle can’t prepare you for.
If you’re frowning too hard, Ria said that the ponies were regularly checked over by vets. In fact, a case against the trek by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Zimbabwe was rejected when the ponies were found to be in very good health. It was another kind of regulation that brought the journey to an end.
It turns out that when you trek ponies between two continents, border control won’t be too happy with you, especially if said ponies have fallen sick at some point during. So the Basotho ponies got Naysmith as far as the Austria-Hungary border, but even when the Olympic committee’s secretary general offered him a replacement horse, Naysmith refused to swap mounts for the final leg and so never made it to the Olympics. As Sports Illustrated flippantly remarked, “he didn’t have a ticket anyway”.
And finally, the tale from which the opening quote originated: a South African doctor’s terrifying journey home through the mountains in pitch blackness.
In 1983, Dr. Sam Ramsay Smith accompanied the mounted Lesotho police to a crime scene. It was a remote settlement more than four hours away on horseback, and on the return journey, the sergeant left with the remains and the detective trooper with the suspect, leaving the doctor by himself.
Fortunately he spotted a local man heading back the same direction, and began following him at a distance. Then darkness fell, and rain, and he easily could have too, given the sheer mountain drop to his left, which the ferocious lightning was kind enough to remind him about. Not only that, but the waters of the Orange River, while calm at the outset, had risen as high as his stirrups. Terrified, the doctor clung to his pony, who seemed about as fazed as an officer at the station later, who shrugged and said that was what they were bred for, and that he “should have expected nothing less than a safe return”.
No wonder then that Basotho ponies are held in such high esteem, to the point that one was gifted to Nelson Mandela during his visit in 1995. It may have been an American appaloosa cross, but the dapple grey stallion was still from Lesotho, and therefore a symbol of and carrying all the kudos of a Basotho pony. And that’s all that matters.
Basotho Pony Fact File
Latin: Equus caballus
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, equus may have come from the proto-Indo-European word for horse (ekwo), which may be related to the word *ōku, meaning “swift”. The callabus is from classical Latin, meaning “work-” or “pack-horse”.
What? Stocky and hardy mountain pony which has a “tripling” gait. Named after the Basotho (also Basuto), or “south Sotho” people of southern Africa.
First recorded? It was officially considered a breed in the 19th century.
Where? Lesotho, a small mountainous country in southern Africa, although countless horses have been sold and traded worldwide!
How big? 14 hands, i.e. 1.4 metres / 4.6 feet high at the “withers”, or the highest part of the back of the neck.
Diet? Grasses and grains.
Endangered? The breed itself technically was, and Lesotho and Ireland clubbed together to save it.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Not especially – Basotho ponies still exist today and are found across the globe.
Note: “National animal” can be a pretty woolly concept, so the closest I got to an “official” list was scraped together by Hammerschlag and Gallagher from verified documents, and Minahan’s Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems.
Featured image credit: Photo 85190797 © Fabian Plock – Dreamstime.com
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“Basotho Wars 1858-1868“. 2011. South African History Online.
‘The Boers‘. No date. .Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
Bradford, Alina. 2014. “Zebra facts“. LiveScience.
“Cavalier“. No date. Online Etymology Dictionary.
Cothran, E. Gus. No date. “Horse“. Britannica.com.
Discover Wildlife. No date. “Zebra guide: species facts, where they live and migration“. BBC Wildlife Magazine.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Pony“. Britannica.com.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Sotho“. Britannica.com.
“Equus“. No date. Online Etymology Dictionary.
Frescura, Franco. No date. “Lesotho“. South African History Online.
Hammerschlag, Neil, and Gallagher, Austin J. 2017. “Extinction Risk and Conservation of the Earth’s National Animal Symbols“, BioScience 67(8):744–749.
Hendricks, Bonnie L. 1995. “International encyclopedia of horse breeds“. University of Oklahoma Press.
“Horse riding and pony trekking“. No date. Visit Lesotho Travel. Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation.
“Kenya: British couple continues horse ride from Lesotho to Munich for the 1972 Olympic Games“. 1971. British Pathé.
(Kobus) du Toit, J.G. 2011. “Riding High: Horses, Humans and History in South Africa“, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 66(2): 155-156.
Feltesse, Claire. 2004. “Sous l’œil des chevaux d’Afrique“. L’Eperon. [French]
“Laurence Bougault“. No date. Transboréal. [French]
Legum, Colin. No date. “Lesotho“. Britannica.com.
“Lesotho“. No date. The World Factbook/CIA.org.
“Lesotho profile – timeline“. 2018. BBC News.
Millin, Peter. 2007. “The renowned Basotho pony – selection and breeding“, SA Horseman, 2(3):31-34.
Minahan, James. 2009. “The complete guide to national symbols and emblems“. ABC-CLIO.
Naysmith, Ria Bosman. No date. “My horse, my husband…and I“. The Long Riders’ Guild.
Quinlan, Tim. 1995. “Grassland degradation and livestock rearing in Lesotho“, Journal of Southern African Studies, 21(3): 491-507.
Rosenberg, Scott, et al. 2004. “Historical dictionary of Lesotho“. The Scarecrow Press.
Smith, Sam Ramsay. 1983. “In Praise Of The Basuto Pony.” British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition) 287(6409): 1985-987.
“The Sotho Kingdom (1824-69)”. No date. Britannica.com.
Sports Illustrated Staff. 1972. “People“. Sports Illustrated Vault.
Swart, Sandra. 2004. ‘Race Horses – A Discussion of Horses and Social Dynamics in PostApartheid Southern Africa’. In Under Construction: ‘Race’ and Identity in South Africa Today, ed. Natasha Distiller and Melissa Steyn, 13–24. Heinemann.
Swart, Sandra. 2010. “Riding High: Horses, Humans, and History in South Africa“. Wits University Press.
Vandenbergh, Stephanie. 2011. “Breeds of Empire: The ‘Invention’ of the Horse in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa 1500-1950“, African Historical Review, 43(2): 135-136.
“The World Bank in Lesotho: Overview“. No date. World Bank.