That’s the ethereal nature of the wild horses that roam the Rooisand Nature Reserve near Kleinmond, a small coastal town in the Overberg region of the Western Cape. Unlike the well-documented Camargue horses of southern France and the Namib desert horses of Namibia, they have remained a relatively undiscovered and undisturbed phenomenon.
Bruce Boyd, one-time Cape Town fashion photographer, observed the wild horses and he believes theirs is a heritage that needs to be celebrated and preserved.
“I am passionate about these horses. No one looks after them, and most people are unaware of them” he says. “Yet their presence is a reminder that animals can survive enormous hardships and establish a cohesiveness in the harshest of environments.”
Five years ago, Boyd decided to give up the glamour and sophistication of fashion photography to record the lives of these free-roaming horses.
“I don’t live too far from Kleinmond and would spend my spare time following their movements and photographing them. In a way, it is these animals that have reawakened my love of art photography. They are a national treasure.”
In all, he says, 20 wild horses are roaming free on about 500hectares of wetlands near the mouth of the Botrivier and another 15 in Fisherhaven on the other side of the lagoon.
“It is a surreal experience to watch as they graze in the shallow marshy land or canter across the dunes, following their leader, the biggest, strongest stallion. They often fight and are covered in scars. But that’s what life in the wild is. It’s tough and unforgiving and is something to respect and admire.”
There are plenty of stories about where the horses originate. Some say they are descendants of horses hidden in the vlei during the Anglo-Boer War.
One of the more trusted theories is that they were brought to the area by early Dutch settlers and survived a massive cull when the role of horses on farms became redundant.
There are also rumours they are descendants of the eight cavalry horses that swam ashore when The Birkenhead sank off the coast, near Gansbaai, in 1852.
“I think this is the fascination,” says Boyd. “They are like ghosts of the past.”
Boyd’s journey has enabled him to get close to the horses. During the winter months, he says, they grow a thicker fur that shields them against the frigid breeze and icy rain. Their hooves are saucer-shaped and manage soft, wet underfoot conditions well.
“On one occasion, deep in the marshes at dawn, I was able to get close enough with my telephoto lens to record an exhausted mare and wobbly foal the day after giving birth. While I was clicking away, the foal got to its feet and started to walk towards me. It walked right up to me and we touched noses. I was definitely the first human it had ever seen. It was very special. The only problem was that it happened so fast I didn’t have time to change my lens.”
Observers like Boyd say they are in remarkably good physical condition. This is thought to be because of their grazing habits and are often seen grazing in the shallow water, pushing their muzzles down under the surface to ingest mouthfuls of water grass.
They also eat the buffalo grass, the edible shrubs in the reed beds.
“They play an important role in nature, keeping the clogged waterways open with the paths they have made over the years.”
The reserves where the horses roam is situated less than 5km outside Kleinmond on the east side between town and the Botriver lagoon. To get there you would need to drive all the way to the bottom and follow the wheelchair-friendly path that snakes through the reserve. Most of the time you will have to venture off the path.
“You might not see them at all because they move from one place to another constantly. But that is part of the magic,” says Boyd.
The worrying aspect, he says, is the area is flanked by communities where gangsterism and poaching is rife.
In a more recent development, a landowner split their habitat in two with a fence that crossed the Botriver wetlands.
“By doing this project I hope to raise awareness about the horses which could be a very valuable part of ecotourism. These horses make Kleinmond truly unique and they are very special to me.”
You can see more of Boyd's work on his website, www.bruceboyd.co.za