A Beloved Pony in Svirče

Published in About Animals

This is the story of a pony who has captivated the hearts of all around him in the quiet inland village of Svirče on Hvar. He is a walking symbol of unconditional love!

Sale-Tomica with Veronika and her father Stipe Sale-Tomica with Veronika and her father Stipe Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Not so long ago, almost every household in Hvar's farming villages had at least one donkey or mule for transporting loads and people, while some also had horses. Indeed, the donkey is the symbol of Dalmatia. The beasts of burden were especially good or even essential for work in the fields on Hvar's steep hillsides. Nowadays very few local people have working equines on the island, and even fewer keep them once they are too old or unfit to work.

Stipe brought Tomi back from his walk for the photo-call. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

But there are exceptions. Sale-Tomica is a 33-year-old pony who has a happy home with a doting family in the inland village of Svirče. His owner Stipe Milatić came across him by chance in 1989 while on a business trip to Bosanska Gradiška, a town in north-eastern Bosnia and Hercegovina. Stipe was captivated by this little foal who was just a year old. Such young ponies were a rarity on Hvar at the time, so Stipe brought him home. The foal's name was originally Sale, Bosnian-style (pronounced Sah-leh), so Tomica (Tom-eets-ah) was added to give him a Dalmatian identity. He is known as Tomi for short.

Stipe's mother Katarina described Tomi's arrival in Svirče with affection. Katarina and her late husband Mate used mules for their farming work, first one called Rasim, and later Nebojša. Mules were more useful to the family than horses at the time. Their fields were a long way off, and there were no access roads for motor vehicles. When Tomi arrived, he was not really needed as a working animal, but everyone loved him because he was small and extremely sweet. Later the situation changed: Nebojša was naughty, so he was sold, and Tomi, now bigger, took his place. When access roads made it possible for motor vehicles to reach the fields and woodlands, Tomi's job was to carry loads of wood to the car. He worked sturdily for some twenty years.

Katarina Milatić described Tomi's charmed life. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

He was always a family pet, loved also by Stipe's wife Tanja, his sister Lucija and Stipe and Tanja's children, Matej, Katarina and Veronika, who grew up riding him. When Tomi was no longer needed for the field tasks, Stipe's late father Mate wanted to give him to some other family who could still make use of him, but Stipe would not hear of it, he had loved this pony as a pet from the start. At one stage Tomi was loaned to Dragomil (Dragan) Kolumbić up on the St. Nicholas' Peak (Sveti Nikola, locally known as 'Vorh') the highest point on Hvar. However, Tomi didn't like being outside alone in the dark. He quickly worked out how to escape, and found his way safely back home one night, all by himself. The family was delighted to welcome him back with open arms, marvelling at his cleverness - it's a long way from St. Nicholas' Peak to his home on the other side of Svirče.

Veronika and Stipe Milatić. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Now some ten years into his retirement, Tomi is extremely well cared for and wants for nothing. He has his own stable, offering shelter, security and comfort. In the beginning he would be taken out and tethered in a neighbouring field to graze, but he often broke free and ran off, once or twice causing himself damage, especially to his ears; fortunately he always managed to get home. Nowadays his walking is limited, especially in winter, when his legs get stiff. He is encouraged to keep moving, and is allowed out on his own. Most days he goes for a little walk in the grounds around his home, which are free from the pesticides which blight most of the vineyards a little further away.

Tomi with Veronika and Stipe. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

As he has grown older, Tomi has begun to suffer from health problems. The Milatić family have done their utmost to nurse him through every setback. When he had bad constipation, local vet Dr. Prosper Vlahović and his assistant spent the best part of a night putting him right. Now he has special food: finely ground oats from the Pukanić Mill (Mlin Pukanić, link in Croatian) in Velika Gorica near Zagreb, bran, and soft hay from Jaska (Jastrebarsko), a town halfway between Zagreb and Karlovac.

Tomi's teeth are in need of attention, and in 2022 the plan is for an equine dentist to be brought to the island. Jana, who rescues donkeys and other animals in Dol, has been working on this for some time, as the dentist will only come if there are sufficient patients to make the trip worth while. Dr. Prosper is actively involved, and is planning to accompany the dentist to observe the specialist treatments when the visit is organised. One of the spin-offs of people like Stipe and Jana keeping their animals into older age is that Dr. Prosper is rapidly gaining invaluable experience in equine medicine, which is one of his special interests.

Tomi's halter being removed. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Tomi's hooves were another major problem, and there was no-one on the island who had the tools and expertise to deal with trimming them.

Bartol Župić and Šime Ivković at work. Photo: Milatić family album.

A stroke of luck saved the day: when Ivan Čapeta from Dicmo visited the Milatić family and saw how difficult it was for Tomi to walk, he alerted two friends from Sinj. These two, Bartol Župić and Šime Ivković, are great horse-lovers who spend time in their local stables and have long practical experience of hoof problems like Tomi's.

Excess material removed from hoof. Photo: Milatić family album

They came by motorbike to the island without delay, bringing the necessary tools, and removed a massive amount of excess material from Tomi's hooves, allowing him to walk more freely again.

Once free, Tomi headed into his stable. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Some people have urged Stipe to send Tomi to the knacker's for meat, a suggestion the whole family rejects outright. They are determined that Tomi will live out his life to its natural end, and they will spare no expense or effort to keep him comfortable and happy. As Katarina said, if one has animals, they must be looked after properly. In past times, every house in Svirče, including theirs, kept goats for milk, alongside the beasts of burden. Now just a couple of other villagers have horses, only one keeps goats.

After his arduous photo session, Tomi tucked into his special oats. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The Milatić family has demonstrated a rare level of true unconditional love towards Tomi. He is not their only pet. They also have several rescued cats, which they treat with equal care, love and respect. Their efforts are well rewarded, as they clearly derive a lot of pleasure from their animals. Other local families and individuals also love and cherish their animals, and in many respects, the Milatić family is not unusual among island families. But they are setting an exceptional example of the highest standards of care.

Tomi, Veronika, Stipe, pictured with the author. Photo: Mirko Crnčević

For many locals, it is unthinkable to lavish so much care, love and money on an animal which is apparently no longer of any practical or commercial use. But since tourism has overtaken agriculture as Hvar's main economic activity, the island's animals have a different kind of importance. Every year Eco Hvar receives complaints from visitors whose holidays have been spoiled by seeing cruelty towards animals; those people are unlikely to come to the island again. On the other hand, guests, especially those with young children, love seeing contented animals. A visit to the Kod Kućera Family Farm (web page mainly in Croatian), or a walk or yoga class with Jana's donkey family are always sure-fire hits as holiday activities.

One of the happy cats rescued by the Milatić family, basking in the sun on January 24th 2022. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Happy animals reflect the society they live in. Their value in enhancing Hvar's image as a peaceful, welcoming tourist destination should not be underestimated.

© Vivian Grisogono January 2022.

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