The Nooitgedachter : Origins
Maret Van Rensburg
The Nooitgedachter is a proudly South African breed, with a rich history tied to the importation of the first horses to the most Southern tip of Africa. This article details the history, the dilemmas and the future of the Nooitgedachter breed. The Nooitgedacht Horse Breeders’ Society deemed it reasonable to explain to the broader public where the breed finds itself, as well as the way forward - a perfect opportunity to get to know one of the rarest breeds of the world and to help preserve their legacy.
To understand the true origin of the Nooitgedachter horse, one must first understand the origin of the Basuto pony and Cape Horse. Like with most breeds of the world war, disease and socio-economic circumstances influenced the flow of genetics greatly.
Cape Horse Connection
During the early Colonial times in Southern Africa there developed a type of light riding horse called Cape Horse. The legacy of the Cape Horse lives on in the Nooitgedachter of today.
The Cape horse developed from the first horses that arrived in the Cape and Government records show that they were Javanese ponies, Barbs (North Africa) and Arabian horses. In 1778 a great number of horses were imported from South America and they were of Spanish origin, these horses were highly esteemed for their beauty, their gentleness and good service. Though a relatively small number of Spanish horses came to our shores, they were revered by the locals and used extensively to upgrade the local horse-population.
According to an article by Schreuder and Mackenzie (1935) horses were the first export product of the South African livestock-industry. In 1769 there was a considerable amount of horses exported to the British Colony of India to serve as cavalry mounts and for transportation. In 1854 there were also exports to help fight the Crimean War. The Cape Horse became legendary for their bravery in battle and hardiness even in the harshest conditions. What they lacked in size they made up for by getting their riders back to safety more often than their counterparts.
From 1850-1899 there was a sizable, stable population of Cape Horse and the Basutos. Colonials who settled in the Cape had a horse-centred culture, an eye for breeding horses and depended on horses, donkeys and mules for their livelihoods.
Photo 2. Hendrik van der Merwe (Bitter-einder) with the horse he fought the whole of the Anglo-Boer War.
Photo 3 (Wikipedia): Roman-era Caltrop used to maim horses, donkeys, elephants, and camels. This was done to slow down oncoming soldiers and cavalry in order to create space between two armies. Needless to say, maimed animals rarely recovered.
During the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 to 1902, the local horses with their stamina, bravery and work-ethic, turned out to be superior to the remounts imported by the British Army. After the war, however, the horse populations in both Basutoland and South Africa were endangered by loss of quality and numbers. Fortunately, pockets of good quality horses remained.
Basuto Pony Roots
The Basuto pony originated from the Cape Horse. People of Lesotho acquired these horses as spoils of war and trade with the Colonial inhabitants. As a result of harsh conditions and in-breeding; there was a loss of height and nobility associated with the Cape Horse, and the Basuto pony largely developed as a result of the extreme environment and stockman ship at the time. An extremely hardy and surefooted thick-set pony with great stamina and courage developed through natural selection in this harsh environment with its rocky hills and mountains and very little human intervention regarding horse-husbandry. From historic accounts and more recently genetic evidence it is established that the Basuto originated greatly from the Cape horse and this allows us to have more insight into the origins of the Nooitgedachter breed.
Example of modern day Basuto pony. They are extremely surefooted over difficult terrain. Large eyes with a fine muzzle reminds us of its Eastern ancestry. Picture photgraphed by Dewald Kirsten
The Nooitgedachter project was started as an initiative of the South African Department of Agriculture in a broader program to save some relevant indigenous farm animal breeds from extinction and to breed a specific farm/work/riding horse, adapted to the region.
The introduction of inferior Thoroughbred stallions in the 1900’s is today sited as one of the driving forces to the massive decline of quality in Basuto pony population and it is believed that pure Basuto have almost reached extiction. Other reasons for the Basotho pony being on the brink of extinction was due to the introduction of unsuitable horses into the genetic pool, the introduction of diseases foreign to the very susceptible Basotho Pony, and the Great Blizzard of 1902.
Developing the Nooitgedachter Breed
Mr. A.W. Lateganmade a strong case to the Department of Agriculture that the indigenous stock of different species of domestic animal are facing extinction. During a meeting on the 27 December 1951 the Secretary of Agriculture compiled a committee consisting of Prof F.N. Bonsma, Mr. Lategan and Prof. Bisschop. The budget for acquiring horses was £1000. The acquired horses were arranged to be kept on the Veterinarian Research Station near Ermelo, called Nooitgedacht.
The project started in 1952 (Development phase: 1952-1965) on the Veterinary Research Station. Development of the breed started with a relatively homogenic genetic pool (of sufficient type) very similar to the Basuto type horses. Six broodmares (Patrys 1, Patrys2, Steenbok, Kwartel 2; unfortunately, the other two mares perished, and 1 stallion (Vonk II) of J.A.N Cloete's stud, near Molteno. Mr J.A.N Cloete kept good record of the horses he bred. The Cloete-horses were already very strongly related; all claimed to be progeny of a single Basuto Stallion (Punch) brought from Lesotho in 1902. Interestingly, at the time the Department of Agriculture could not find any other colony (pool) of
homogenic horses representing a typical indigenous type of horse. They therefore decided to start this project with the horses found at Mr Cloete’s farm.
Photo 5 (Nooitgedacht archives)
Vonk II: Foundation Stallion of the Nooitgedacht breed and considered to reflect the correct Basuto pony type.
Establishment Phase (1952-1965)
Dr. Nien Barrie (Veterinarian and Official overseeing the Basuto Pony Project) realised early on that the initial breeding-stock were too in-bred and they went in search of supplementary stock again. Mr A.J. Lategan found 5 mares from Mr Willemse (Giddies Hope, Memel District) of sufficient origin and type. Very little information is available about the Willemse mares. The Committee selected 5 so-called pure Basuto-mares from Mr Willemse's herd namely: Violet, Miesies, Nonna, Ounooi and Bloubok. Four of the mares were bay and only one a very dark dapple grey (the Cloete-mares were all grey) ranging between 14hh -14.2hh. The Willemse-mares are all referred to as Basuto's, except Bloubok; she was referred to as a Basuto-cross in the documentation. Even-though the Willemse-mares clearly were related to each other somewhat, at least the likelihood of them being related to the Cloete-mares were very low.
Thus, begun the Establishment-phase of the then named Basuto Pony-project. Selection criteria was very strict and only 1 in 4 foals made the cut to be used further in the breeding programme. Soon it was decided that there were not sufficient quality stallions with predominantly Willemse-blood to use on the Cloete-mares and the Committee went in search again for suitable stallions to be used solely on the Cloete-mares. This time they decided to use the pure-bred Arabian stallion, Rommel (Mr RP Botha - Viljoenskroon, Free State); as well as a boerperd-Arabian cross stallion, “Defense” (a son of the pure-bred Arabian stallion imported by Gen. Louis Botha) owned by Mr PJ du Preez (Ermelo-district)).
Consolidation Phase (1965-1975)
Eight daughter studs were established on carefully selected farms to increase the population and help with further development. The Nooitgedacht farm was running out of space and there were increasing pressures regarding the financing of the Basuto Pony Project. Participants were pre-screened, and each "new" stud were sold a breeding unit consisting of one stallion and two mares (R80/stallions and R50/mare). By the end of 1967 there was already 8 daughter studs and by 1968 another 4 studs were established.
During 1967 under the tutelage of DA (Department of Agriculture) the "Nooitgedacht Indigenous Pony Breeders Society" (“Nooitgedacht inheemse ponie-telersvereniging”) was established with Mr. J. Triggol, H. Ahlers, C. Steenkamp en W. Bosman as the founding committee members.
Expansion Phase (1975-1990)
In 1976/7 the Projectat the Nooitgedacht research farm came to an end... During 1976 more than half of the stud were sold at a dispersal auction. In 1977 the core of the stud was also sold.
At this stage there was still enthusiasm for this unique indigenous horse breed with its exceptional temperament. Prices at auction was notably high and a new era was entered with the expansion phase of the breed held entirely in private- ownership.
1984 saw the year that the Nooitgedachter was internationally recognised as the first South African horse breed with unique breed caracteristics. This marked the expanding phase that lasted until 1990.
True to South African style there were some name changes....
Initially it was decided to call the breed Nooitgedacht Ponieperd (direct translation would be Nooitgedacht Hony – quite appropriate if you think about it); then in the 1970 it was changed to Nooitgedacht Ponie (direct translation: Nooitgedacht Pony). As some Nooitgedachters grew up to over 15 hh, it was decided to change the name from Nooitgedacht Pony to Nooitgedacht Horse. Today the name of the Breed Society is the Nooitgedacht Horse Breeders’ Society of South Africa, but the horse is generally referred to as the Nooitgedachter or Nooitie for short.
Modern Era (1990 –present)
The Nooitgedachter has gained in popularity due to its trainability and amenable temperament, but at the same time has developed into a competition horse to be reckoned with. Affectionately known as Nooities, they have earned their place in the competition and social equestrian world.
These days they may range in height between 13.3hh and 16.2hh, giving the breed a wide rider base. Being versatile and hardy they may be found showing, show-jumping, dressage, endurance riding, EETO, working equitation, western riding, driving, doing duties on wildlife-ranches, or working on livestock farms.
They are low maintenance, hardy, good-doers and have hearts like lions. It's nice to know that the time spend with your Nooitie will be a pleasant and rewarding experience. With excellent work-ethic it's also much easier to achieve your riding goals, having not to over-invest time and money. Because of their temperament, schooled Nooitgedachters can be given time off whenever your busy schedule demands it. Nooitgedachters are very intelligent but inherently calm; they must be quick off the aids but not nervous or uncooperative; – always looking after their rider. These are characteristics of a true-to-type Nooitgedachter, making them such a relevant breed in an era when horses are mainly used for recreation. From workhorse, to happy hack, to competitive children's mount, to week-end-warrior, to serious amateur adult; the Nooitgedachter has so much to offer in all disciplines.
Destalsmit's Waaksaam Staal and Breivilo Eldorado showing off their spoils at the National Championships. Extra-ordinary to see two stallions calmly being handled in each other's company.
Thanks to Prof F. van der Merwe, dr Stroebel Hofmeyr, Hennie Ahlers, Lizelle Smit and Liezl du Toit for historical articles and documentation.