Claudia Moreno, Founder of Galapagos Horse Friends encourages you to visit the Galapagos Islands, made famous as the location where Charles Darwin first gained insights that, many years later, led to his publication of On the Origin of Species, introducing the scientific theory of evolution through natural selection to the world.
You will fly into the airport on Isla Baltra and from there take the short ferry ride over to Isla Santa Cruz from which you can begin your explorations of the Galapagos Islands.
There is much to see. Choose one of the locations where you can watch the most impressive giant Galapagos tortoises munching away on native vegetation. By all means, take a boat ride out to one of the outer islands (only four of the fourteen islands of the Galapagos have people living on them), where you will see black marine iguanas climbing out of the ocean onto rocks to warm themselves in the sun, Blue Footed Boobies, stunning looking birds, nearly three feet tall with a wing span of five feet, with bright blue feet and yellow eyes, that are so tame you can walk right up to them because they evolved with no natural predators. Their image and name appear on many low-brow humor souvenir items. If you’re a diver, take a SCUBA trip and swim with giant manta rays or, at the right time of year huge, gentle whale sharks. Spend some time in Puerto Ayora, the economic center of the Galapagos. Go to the fish market where you will see the days plentiful catch, browse among the many shops, and if you enjoy art, visit The Angelique Gallery where you are apt to meet the famous painter Sarah Darling at work on one her colorful paintings of Galapagos animals, boats, and landscapes.
And by all means make arrangements to visit Claudia at Galapagos Horse Friends up in the beautiful rolling green hills of the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. There you will meet twelve of the most trusting, friendly horses in all of the Galapagos, 7 of them born on the farm and 5 of them rescued, two as very young foals. You are apt to meet some of the volunteers who come from all over the world to spend a couple of weeks, or a few months, helping Claudia care for the horses.
To understand why Galapagos Horse Friends exists and how it came to be, we need review a bit of Claudia’s history and some aspects of the famous Galapagos islands that very few tourists know anything about and would be disturbed if they did.
There were no indigenous people on the Galapagos. For centuries before Darwin arrived in 1835 on his historic voyage as the young Naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, these rocky, volcanic islands had been used as a way station for pirates and whalers, taking on water and live tortoises that could survive without food or water for up to a year, providing meat for the crew. A few years before Darwin arrived, Ecuador established small penal colony had been established and throughout the 19th Century the Galapagos was used by Ecuador as a brutal prison for political prisoners. Several other settlements were established and failed during the 19th Century, possibly leaving behind horses. In the early 20th Century Norwegian and then German settlers farmed sugar cane and coffee, bringing with them horses from Europe. In 1940, Quarter Horses were introduced from the US, but with the creation of the National Park in 1959, further introduction of horses was banned. in 1980 the human population of the Galapagos was only 5,000. Today is over 25,000, the rapid rise due to the growth of the tourist industry, mostly poor Ecuadorians seeking a better life on the Galapagos working in service sector jobs and bringing with them cock fighting, dog fighting, and attitudes toward horses.
Horses have escaped or been released since the earliest settlers arrived and feral populations are living in forested areas of Park lands. No one knows how many are out there or anything about their genetics. Goats were causing enormous environmental damage but have been brought under control through a large scale extermination program. The managers of The National Park, which controls 97% of the land of the Galapagos, and The Agency for Regulation and Control of Biosafety and Quarantine for Galapagos (ABG), the agency responsible for the management of introduced species, do not view feral horses as having any significant environmental impact, so they are not studied or managed. Given that feral horses may have been breeding for nearly 200 years without human intervention under the unusual selective pressure of the Galapagos environment, some propose that they may have evolved into a breed of their own.
Claudia was born and raised in Germany where she trained and practiced as an optometrist but had a sense that her calling was elsewhere. She was drawn by the exotic mystique of the Galapagos, moved there in 2003 and, speaking three languages, found work as an interpreter in the international tourist industry. With her modest income and frugal lifestyle, she was eventually able to buy a hectare of land in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, and began to build a small house.
She had always had a great fondness for horses and enjoyed riding, but it was the emotional connection with horses that mattered most to her, helping her cope with trauma she had experienced as a child. Living on the Galapagos, she was initially shocked and then increasingly angry as she witnessed, again and again, serious neglect and abuse of horses. Bits are used that have been banned in the US because they can break a horses jaw. The customary way to break a young horse, usually before it is a year and a half old, is to put one of these bits in its mouth, tie it to a tree, put heavy sacks of concrete or sand on it’s back, and leave it there for a week, until it gives up. It is then considered to be ready to ride.
In 2012, Claudia decided she was going to do something about the way horses are treated on the Galapagos, stopped construction work on her house, and committed herself to reducing the suffering and improving the lives of the horses of the Galapagos. She is changing cultural values to respect horses as the sentient, sensitive animals she knows them to be; she had found her calling.
She bought two neglected mares, in poor condition, from a neighbor. Soon they were with foal because owners of stallions do not control them. She rescued more horses, rented a farm to have enough pasture land (there are no feed stores on the Galapagos), and spent all the time she wasn’t working and what little money she had giving them the best life she could, to live safely as a herd in the green pasture lands of the highlands.
Her strategy for changing the way horses are treated is to change the minds of the residents of the Galapagos, one person at a time. She opens her farm to local families and school groups so that children have a chance to get up close and personal with very friendly horses that are treated with respect, kindness, and caring.
Many adults who come with their children express that they accepted the way they have seen horses treated all their lives as “normal”, but intuitively they didn’t feel it was right. Seeing the very different way that Claudia treats her horses and experiencing her horses willingly approaching the with trust and affection, it is not unusual for adults to cry. She is changing hearts and minds.
For years Claudia has been doing all this out of her own pocket and the assistance of over 100 volunteers from all over the world who come stay with her for a couple of weeks or a few months helping care for the horses and assisting with these open-farm events.
In late 2018, during a lull in tourism, she nearly lost the farm she is renting because she didn’t have the money to pay the rent. She had no other place to take them, facing a horrible dilemma. Horse meat is not uncommon on BBQ grills in the Galapagos, particularly during political campaigns when candidates are looking for a cheap way to feed a gathering of supporters.
Through a friend who has lived on the islands for 30 years, contacts were made in the US, a benefactor was found, the 501(c)3 Galapagos Horse Foundation was created and has been providing financial support, administrative oversight and, in collaboration with Claudia, developing a long-term plan for sustainability, including building a capital fund to buy land that can provide a permanent, secure home for Galapagos Horse Friends.
Claudia is collaborating with Christina Marz, Founder of the Horse Guided Empowerment horse therapy program, headquartered in mainland Ecuador, to offer retreats at Claudia’s farm which will provide income and enable Claudia to become certified as a retreat leader. Claudia’s herd, now 12 horses, is well-suited to horse therapy given that they are very open and trusting and, because they have lived as herd, the social dynamics of the herd can be incorporated into horse therapy programs.
For example, there are no equine veterinarians on the Galapagos. Galapagos Horse Friends is providing leadership on basic aspects of horse veterinary care. We flew a vet in from mainland Ecuador to castrate two stallions humanly, with anesthesia, and antibiotics but the vet did not insist on a tetanus vaccination regime prior to the procedure. One gelding is doing fine. The other died of tetanus. Learning our hard lesson, Claudia’s herd are the first horses ever vaccinated against tetanus on the Galapagos, or we thought they were. Equine tetanus vaccine is not available on the Galapagos, but we managed to get enough in to do the first round of vaccinations but were not able to get the second dose in time due to Ecuadorian policy on who is permitted to transport vaccine.
We sent one of Claudia’s employees to a three-day equine medicine workshop in Quito, the capital of Ecuador on the mainland, where he learned some valuable information and met some veterinarians from the US who are interested in discussing ways they may be able to help. At the same time the workshop completed, 12 days of riots started in Ecuador that shut down transportation across the country, stranding him in Quito, unable to return to the Galapagos. The riots started after President Moreno imposed austerity measures insisted upon by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), including removing a 40 year-long subsidy on fuel that suddenly caused the price of diesel fuel to double, heavily impacting poor, rural, indigenous farmers, which was cruelly ironic given that Ecuador’s economy, partly based on oil exports, has been impacted by the decline in world oil prices. Seven people died, Moreno backed down, the fuel subsidies were restored, no one knows what the IMF will do next, and the employee made it back to the Galapagos.
The Ministry of Tourism, which controls every aspect of tourism on the Galapagos, is encouraging Claudia and sees GHF as part of a vanguard of innovators who are creating new forms of tourism that are respectful and caring of not just the needs of tourists, but also of the needs of the people who live on the islands, and of the Galapagos itself.
Claudia’s little house still has no doors or windows, but she has 10 dogs she rescued to help ward off the chill of the night in the highlands, her horses are safe for now, and good things are coming together that will enable her to continue her personal mission that comes truly from her heart; to improve the lives of the horses of the Galapagos,
“Sowing confidence, harvesting love”, as she says
There are many ways to become involved with Galapagos Horse Friends. Arrange to visit or volunteer on the farm, or sign up for an Empowerment with Horses retreat. If you are a practitioner of another style of horse therapy and and have interest in offering retreats of your own on our farm, Claudia would be happy to have a conversation. The horses are not biased toward any particular approach to horse therapy. If you can legally travel with equine tetanus vaccine, we would be delighted for you to bring us some. If you are a veterinarian and have interest in participating in clinics on the islands, we would love to talk with you. If you are interested in a study of the population and genetics of the feral horses of the Galapagos or would like more information on our long-term plan for Galapagos Horse Friends to be self-sufficient or our capital fund for land, there is information at the link below about those things too.
Claudia would like to thank Dr. Amber Bowen, DVM, Sonoma County equine veterinarian, for telling Sandra Van Voorhis, Sonoma County Horse Council Board Member, about Galapagos Horse Friends while they were working together during the fires last year, and a big thank you to Sandra for coming with her daughter Indigo to visit Claudia, schlepping that computer, hard drive, and those windbreakers along with them, for writing her article introducing Galapagos Horse Friends and for inviting us to contribute to the article that was published in the Sonoma County Horse Council Journal, Winter edition, 2020.