On the westernmost island in the Ryukyu Archipelago, at the very edge of Japan, live the indigenous Yonaguni ponies. Since ancient times, these small horses were treasured by the islanders as they carried rice and sugar cane around the rugged island. As years passed by, larger horses and vehicles arrived. The Yonaguni ponies were superseded, and their numbers dwindled. The future however is bright, as the Yonaguni Pony Society promotes these special horses as a key part of Okinawan tourism, education, medicine, wellness, and agriculture. Experience this unique aspect of Okinawan life, with a beach ride or a friendly equine encounter.
The Yonaguni pony is one of eight horse breeds native to Japan. It is also known as the “shima-uma” (island horse) or Ryukyu horse. At just 110 centimeters to 120 centimeters high and weighing around 200 kilograms, they are much smaller than racehorses that stand at around 160 centimeters to 170 centimeters high and weigh around 500 kilograms.
In 2020, there are just 130 Yonaguni ponies alive (according to the Japan Equine Affairs Association). Most of the population lives semi-wild on Yonaguni Island. Historically, the Yonaguni ponies were essential for farmers, their strong legs and hooves are capable of carrying heavy loads, and they also have a calm personality. Trainers of the Yonaguni pony describe them as tranquil, kind and very easy to handle. Their beautiful expressive eyes, and the habit of lying on the beach after a ride, make them particularly adorable.
Advances in mechanized agriculture mean farmers no longer rely on Yonaguni ponies, but these diminutive horses are finding new roles in modern society. Founded in 1982, the Yonaguni Pony Society promotes the conservation of the breed on Yongauni Island and their place as a key part of the community. Stables homing Yonaguni ponies have been established on the main island of Okinawa, on Kume Island and on Ishigaki Island. At these three locations outside of Yonaguni, people are able to ride the ponies along beaches and into the hills, and in doing so these amazing horses are introduced to a wider audience.
In April 2020, a new facility for the ponies will open on Yonaguni. Alongside horse breeding, it will offer recreational riding, therapeutic riding, animal assisted education, and horse training. This wide range of activities will allow the Yonaguni Pony Society to share the joy of interacting with these unique indigenous horses with as many people as possible.
Ms. Nakagawa of the Yonaguni Pony Society explained, “I want to bring to reality, a society where the gentle and clever Yonaguni ponies can live together with people.” At Umikaze Horse Farm in the south of the main island of Okinawa, the Yonaguni ponies are introduced to local children from nursery and elementary schools. It gives the children an opportunity to discover and interact with the ponies. They are also working towards developing the Yonaguni ponies as therapy animals, and even the horse manure is utilized for local farming.
The best way to learn about horses is to interact with them. The Yonaguni Pony Society has various fun programs based around the theme of “Let’s play with Yonaguni ponies!”. Popular activities include a pony ocean experience during the summer months (from May to mid- October) and enjoyable rides along the beach.
“Umi-uma-asobi” (water horse play) is the name for the pony ocean experience program. Riding on the back of a pony in the water is special, but for many, the highlight is swimming with the ponies as you hold on to their tails. Even if this is your first encounter with a horse, or you’re not a strong swimmer, the experience is a delight due to the calm gentle nature of the Yonaguni ponies. Other options include rides along the idyllic Okinawan beaches, or up to one of the local castle ruins.
Along with Umikaze Horse Farm, you can visit Kumejima Uma Bokujo on Kume Island, and Ishigakijima Umahiroba on Ishigaki Island, which also offer a variety of enjoyable activities. Take this amazing opportunity to get up close with Okinawa’s indigenous horses, the adorable Yonaguni ponies.
Posted on January 31st, 2020
Text by Chris Willson
Chris Willson is a British photographer, videographer, and travel writer based in Okinawa over 20 years.