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The Wild Horses of Patagonia: An Interview with Victor Moraga

Imagine stepping into a little-known sector of Torres del Paine National Park. In the silence, you patiently scan the forest to spot any sign of movement. Then when you least expect it, you see them, the wild horses of Patagonia, also called baguales, emerging from the trees, galloping, relaxed and carefree. Recently, we read Lady Florence Dixie's early encounter with the baguales, and Daniela and Carolina from our Cascada team told us about their experience on a Wild Horse Tracking tour. As the final part of our series on baguales, we interviewed Victor Moraga, an expert on baguales who runs Patagonia Bagual, to take a closer, more scientific look on these fascinating creatures.

What is the work that you carry out with the baguales?

We began to follow this group of horses in 2008. The main aim was to conduct a census. To do an accurate census, many hours of observation are needed. At this moment, more than doing a census, we are counting the animals, characterizing them by their fur and age.
Our objective is to determine the sex and identify all the individuals in the herd, but it is a task that requires time, human resources and patience.
Another interesting aspect which we are working on is the social interaction that exists between the various families that make up the herd. Specifically, interactions between stallions, mares and foals, mares and stallions, stallions and foals etc. We are especially interested in the single males that are looking for females.
Finally, a very interesting topic is the horses’ interaction with the puma, a very active predator in the area. The survival rate of foals, up to this year, is less than 20%. This determines the whole social structure and the population dynamic that regulate the herd.

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A close encounter with the wild horses

What’s a typical day of work like?

On a typical day, we wake up very early, have breakfast, grab our backpacks and equipment, and go out to track the herd. For the tracking, we have hidden cameras with movement sensors that help us to see what happened when we weren’t there.
Once we locate them, we set up our cameras and binoculars, and start observing. Ideally, we work far away from the horses, to make sure that we won’t change their patterns of movement or behaviour. With the help of our equipment, we count them and take notes about the individual horses that we have previously identified. Depending on the aim of the day’s work, we either stay in the same place, or try to approach them to collect more detailed information on the individual horses that we want to characterise and get a photo record of.

How long have you been studying the baguales?

We started in 2008, but scientifically speaking, it hasn’t been very consistent work. Our personal projects haven’t allowed us to devote sufficient time to obtain the results we have hoped for.

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Victor and his partner with their trusty binoculars

Why is it important to study the baguales?

For us, it’s important to understand what happens with the baguales of Patagonia, in order to contribute information to the scientific world, especially in the field of ethology (the study of animal behaviour).
The horses of the world, even though they share similar patterns of behaviour, are unique and different in every corner of the planet. The environment they inhabit determines their “culture”. This is why each species gives us information about what’s happening in a specific place. This herd of bagual horses is closely related to the puma, their predator, which exerts a strong influence on their patterns of behaviour. As we often say, the puma is the horses’ best friend. Without it, there would be little natural selection and as a whole species, the horses would become weaker. Our enemies make us stronger.

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The puma: enemy and friend

What do you hope to achieve by studying the baguales?

We have different objectives as a project and as researchers. As a project, we aim to engage with, among others, PhD students and doctors so that they come up with their own hypotheses and enrich our knowledge and the structure of our scientific study.
Personally as researchers, our challenge at Patagonia Bagual is to obtain photo records and determine the sex of each individual horse in the herd, and develop a field guide which can help you to see and understand the characteristics of each specimen. With the guide, we will be able to investigate the behaviour of the herd in detail.
At present, we have identified 30% of the horses. The homogeneity of their fur makes this task difficult and many hours of observation are needed to obtain reliable results.

What results have you got so far?

The most outstanding and unique result that came out of our observations, which is what makes this group of wild horses so special, is that the herd is made up of 98 specimens. In existing scientific literature, there have been isolated cases of herds made up of 20 or 25 horses, but here we’ve got 98.
In Venezuela, there is a group of feral or wild horses that number approximately 100 as well, but under conditions of limited space. In Torres del Paine, the horses are free, and they have thousands and thousands of hectares to run around. However, not only do they stay in just this one sector, but they are also a very tightly knit herd. Within this big group of horses, we have sub-families that co-exist and share the space in total peace and harmony. Each horse in the herd has its own space and is respected by others. They have strict behavioral patterns. When these are respected, there’s never a problem or aggressive behaviour. It’s beautiful to see when they are resting, so huddled against each other that you couldn’t squeeze anything in between.

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Getting photo records for each horse is an important part of Victor's project

What can tourists do to contribute to your work?

Tourists contribute with their abilities of observation and experience. The people who visit Patagonia are generally very interesting and possess knowledge in different fields. Each person who helps us is extremely important.
After an explanatory and introductory briefing on our work, we hand our tools over to the tourists so that they can help with the observation, note-taking, and photographs etc. In the study of horses, there is much to note down and observe, and tourists carry out these activities as a member of the scientific team.
It’s very pleasant and enriching to see people who perhaps have had nothing to do with horses turn into a scientist-explorer on meeting the herd, viewing and interpreting the reality of the bagual horses of Patagonia through a pair of binoculars.

Want to contribute to the research on baguales in Torres del Paine? Book a Wild Horse Tracking extension when you visit us at EcoCamp Patagonia!