A horse but smaller — that’s what Shetland ponies are and what 22-year-old Johanna Maria Wurtz walked with from Spain to a barley breeding placement at the James Hutton Institute in the Carse of Gowrie. Named Hechizo, this little horse with a big spirit made the incredible trip side-by-side across Europe with his owner, who plans to keep him by her side as she carries out work for her dissertation.
How did this adventure begin? Wurtz bought herself a pony for her 18th birthday, and has since spent every day with him. Then, the international student with plans to study in Dundee in October realised she did not agree with the environmental costs for Hechizo to follow her to Scotland. A sustainable plan to journey on foot ensued.
The pair travelled first to Spain from Germany, before going to France where Wurtz’s father met them and gave them a lift to England in July this year.
“The most adventurous, natural, cheap and sustainable way to get from the centre of Spain to the Scottish East Coast for my Erasmus research placement at James Hutton Institute Invergowrie in Dundee was definitely walking — so we began this magical journey together,” she tells us.
After winning support for her ideas en route to Invergowrie (where she found a place for Hechizo to stay while she completes her studies in Dundee), she decided to set up a foundation to support small farming firms and rural families around the world. The charity, named La Via Campesina can be found here. Getting a little more personal with Wurtz, find out below what makes this special human-pony bond so unique:
What drove you to study agriculture in Scotland?
I’ve finished the required modules for my bachelor’s of agriculture with specialisation in plant sciences back home in Germany at Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg. With a deep interest in genetics and inheritance, I wanted to do my bachelor’s dissertation on crop breeding and I asked my professor for a place in an English-speaking country so I could get the technical vocabulary to read and write scientific papers.
In order to complete the required six months of work experience, I did three months of work placement in Spain during the lockdown. It took place at the Lusitano stud farm Yeguada la Perla near the city of Segovia.
I got to realise my long-term dream of working with the Portuguese breed, and especially enjoyed the work during foaling season, when we could perform insemination and ultrasound examinations of the mares.
Tell us about Hechizo, we want to know the story!
My most beloved 14-year old Shetland pony, Hechizo, which means magic or spell in Spanish, goes by the nickname Chito. He’s just everything to me.
Having lived all 22 years of my life in the same flat — apart from travelling, work placements and a school exchange programme in 10th grade to Ecuador for two months — I started my studies right after school. I felt like I needed something completely different.
Hechizo is really independent and curious, which makes him the perfect companion for adventures. He loves exploring … even if fences are in his way.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how have you overcome them?
The idea of getting together a rough plan for our long trek took quite some time. The most important thing was trying to pack and get everything before leaving Germany in February this year.
Of course, Hechizo and I were sometimes pretty exhausted. It wasn’t always easy, but usually after a good night’s rest both of us couldn’t wait to move on even though our feet were pretty sore. The most incredible thing was, I never felt like we couldn’t make it, and I never wanted to give up.
This was just another life we got accustomed to. The most important thing was: trust. We had trust in ourselves and each other, the people we met and the universe! It amazed me that Chito would lay down to sleep, tethered beside the tent at a crowded campsite. This proved how much trust he had in me to bring him to a safe place.
What does Chito’s diet consist of? Was it a challenge to get him fed?
During this whole epic journey, I’d let everything just happen and go with the flow. I didn’t have anything planned except my work at the institute in Dundee which commences in October this year. The only thing I knew was that I had to go north.
Heading north was also the reason why Chito always found enough grass to eat, and I had also packed some oats and barley with us. As a part-bred Shetland pony, he doesn’t really need much more, so food wasn’t much of a problem.
What are your plans for the future?
Now we have arrived in Scotland, happy and safe, I’m about to start my research on the genetic background of spring barley, which I’ll be occupied with for the next six months. I have no idea what comes after that …
Planning ahead in time wouldn’t have worked out for me anyways, especially due to COVID-19. I would have missed out on the best encounters, and I loved the freedom too much! I was able to react spontaneously to the weather, our moods and the invitations by the amazing human beings we met along the way.
I think the most amazing thing about it was all the lovely people I got to meet. I knew from the start that I would be satisfied having adventure time with my most beloved pony, but I never anticipated the amount of amazing people I got to meet on the way.
What do you think this recent adventure has taught you?
The recent publicity was a completely new challenge for me. I am a generally really shy person, but I loved being able to inspire others by just living my dream and being positive. I feel the most important lesson was to trust that everything was going to work out. Trust in Chito, in myself, in people, and the universe. I felt like I was able to restore some of my faith in humanity.
Wurtz has now found the perfect place for Hechizo to stay near Invergowrie while she completes her six months in Dundee. If you’re nearby, keep an eye out for Hechizo and give Wurtz some virtual cheers on her Instagram, or on her blog which she regularly updates.
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