Lesotho's National Transport - a brief history of the Basotho Pony.
Updated: Apr 21
The Basotho Pony has fascinating origins that can be traced back to the days of Jan Van Riebeek (1652) when ‘Cape Horses’ were first sent to the new settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. These Cape Horses (also known as Java horses), were a strong strain of Arabian, Barb and Persian breeds developed on the island of Java in the early 17th Century by the Dutch East India Company.
But how did this Cape Horse arrive in what is now known as Lesotho? Prior to the early 1800’s horses were unknown in the region. The twenty years between 1815 and 1835 saw a sweeping revolutionary change amongst the various indigenous ethnic communities of the country known as the Mfecane or Difaquane wars. The peaceful existence that the numerous tribes in the area had enjoyed was disrupted by these uprisings, and horses were seen in the region for the first time, many of which has been stolen and captured from the roaming Griqua tribes who themselves had ‘acquired’ them from White settlers.
Around 1829, Moshoeshoe, the King of the area known as Basutoland, was presented with a pony as a gift. The king was greatly impressed by this worthy tribute and started acquiring more of these wonderful animals. Some of the area’s tribes journeyed to the Cape Colonies for protection during this turbulent time and entered into service with the white farmers. It was normal practice to pay workers with stock, and after some years many of them returned to Basutoland with a number of horses, so swelling the population. Equine historians have ascertained that up until the year 1835, around 90% of the original oriental blood still flowed through the veins of these horses.
The Basotho Pony’s popularity grew mainly due to its valuable characteristics of docility, hardy hooves, endurance, good temperament, excellent constitution and a surefootedness that suited the often steep and narrow trails, making them ideal for the high altitude rugged mountain terrain. By 1870 practically the whole Basotho nation were mounted and the horse culture became firmly established. Horses had become the regions primary form of transport earning the country the title of the ‘Mounted Nation’. The census of 1875 shows that there were in excess of 8,000 horses in the Thaba Bosiu area of Basutoland alone.
1977 saw the true Basotho Pony facing extinction. The Basotho Pony Breeding Project was established in this year with assistance from the Irish government to help meet the demand for these ponies from various countries. In 1978 the National Stud was formed in a collaborative effort between the Lesotho and Irish governments. Both of these projects have been successful and happily the breed is still with us and not in decline as was predicted 40 years ago.
The population of the Basotho Pony population is now estimated to exceed 110,000, most of which are found in the foothills and mountainous areas where they are still used as the primary mode of transport of this mountain kingdom.
Article prepared for inclusion in the 2018 Clarens & Surrounds - the Ultimate Guide publication. Researched and written by Andrew Knapp - The Design Train
King Moshoeshoe being presented with his first horse (Image: Heritage Publishers)
The Lesotho Mounted Police. Independence celebrations 1966
(Image: blog www.beverleyoakley.com)