In herds, they roam the sloping pastures of the western Pyrenees, nearly unchanged descendants of prehistoric creatures whose heads are traced out in the cave dwellings of Cro-Magnon man.
Rustic and toughened from their spare existence in the mountaintops, they have survived eras of both veneration and abuse from Homo sapiens , who nearly drove them to extinction.
Today, man protects them, with warning signs to motorists: "Pottok Crossing," accompanied by a picture of a pony.
The Pottok, the Basque word for "little horse" (pronounced POH-tyok), is considered a rare survivor of the Upper Paleolithic period and among the oldest strains of horses in existence, dating back as far as 40,000 years.
Died in Coal Mines
For experts, the Pottok's exact origins remain as hazy as its numbers, estimated at between 3,500 and 6,000.
What is clear is that, until recently, the Pottok has survived in its native habitat, the mountainous Basque country of France and Spain, against all odds. Only in 1970 was the Pottok declared a breed unto itself.
"I saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Pottok who ended their lives in the coal mines," says Paul Dutournier, president of the National Pottok Assn.
Until about 30 years ago, the docile but sturdy ponies were used to pull coal carts, he says. Once they entered the subterranean tunnels, some never again saw the light of day.
Abused by Man
"When they no longer needed them in the mines, it got worse," Dutournier says. "They sent them to salami factories."
The Pottok also have been used to pass contraband between France and Spain. Loaded down with merchandise, the sure-footed ponies crossed the frontier passes in the darkness of night.
They have helped orange pickers in Valencia, Spain, moving under the heavy branches of orange trees with baskets on their sides. Gypsies occasionally used them in circuses. Until recently, they served as the regular means of transport for the rural Basque population.
Some experts speculate that the origins of the Pottok were less humble but far crueler than what followed.
There are indications that the little horses were prized by early man and that perhaps they were first used by man as sacrificial animals.
Cave drawings of horses found in southwestern France and northern Spain bear the distinct features of the Pottok, with its small stature, tiny, firm hoof, concave forehead, and flared nostrils. The Prejwalky, a heavy horse still living on the Russian steppes and considered the oldest living equine, is not represented in the drawings.
"Everything leads us to believe that the Pottok has lived in isolation in the mountains since the Paleolithic Era and that they are living witnesses to these little prehistoric horses," Antoine and Dominique Perret wrote in their 1980 book, "The Pottok, Little Horse of the Basque Country."
Descended From Ancient Horses
There is a theory that the Pottok may be descended from the ancient horses whose traces have been found in digs at Solutre in the Saone et Loire region. "But the most certain hypothesis remains that of the Pottok as a local race, which has retained its primitive state through the centuries . . .," the Perrets write.
Veterinarian Manuel Carrera, a specialist on the Pottok, says there is at least a "direct connection" between them and the prehistoric horses traced on the walls of grottoes in Lascaux and Isturitz among others.
He says the horses were likely the object of a cult for Cro-Magnon man, the embodiment perhaps of the strength and prowess needed to survive in the post-Ice Age.
"It is thought that the horses were so well-respected because they represented something mystical, magic," says Carrera, who studied the evolution of the Pottok for his doctoral thesis at the University of Madrid.
"There are those who say that primitive man killed the Pottok and then drank his blood to receive the strong qualities of the animal," Carrera says.
Dutournier, who like all rural Basques grew up with the Pottok, launched his campaign on the ponies' behalf in 1968, helping found France's National Pottok Assn.
A similar organization has been established in the Spanish Basque province of Guipuzcuana. In 1970, the principality of Monaco issued a Pottok stamp.
Although the effort to rehabilitate the Pottok has meant attempts to refine the breed for shows with standard nourishment and sometimes crossbreeding, most pure Pottok continue to roam the mountainsides.
The ponies are increasingly being used for pleasure, especially in France, says Carrera, who is veterinarian for the Spanish Pottok Assn. Tourists can take mountain rides on Pottok, and with their docile nature and minimal need for care, they are being promoted as a good pet for children.
For many Basques, known for their sense of independence and themselves thought to be the oldest ethnic group in Europe, the Pottok epitomizes the native spirit.
"The Basque," says Dutournier, "is as wild and carefree as his Pottok."