The wind blows as the sorraia herd moves across an open field on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. It’s a challenging environment, but these hardy horses, descendants of an ancient breed that roamed the Iberian Peninsula thousands of years ago, are more than a match for it.
Humans and horses have an astonishingly long mutual history. Some of the very first recorded images of horses – the simplistic but magnificent paintings found in numerous caves in Spain and Portugal – date back 30,000 years. Whether these ancient peoples looked upon the horse as a spiritual icon, a means of sustenance, or a beast of burden is open to interpretation. What is certain is that images of horses figure prominently in almost every area where early art forms have been discovered.
Wild horses today
Even in the 21st century we can find horses that have the same characteristics as those portrayed by the first human artisans. One example is the primitive wild horse from the Iberian Peninsula. In medieval times he was called “zebro”. Later, the Spaniards would refer to him as Marismeño, and we now call him the Sorraia.
Like Przewalski’s horse (the wild Mongolian pony), the Sorraia was pressed out of his natural habitat nearly to the point of extinction. In an effort to rescue them, zoologist and expert horse breeder Dr. Ruy d’Andrade gathered together a small breeding herd during the early 1900s. He named them Sorraia, after the river running through the region in which he first saw them. He provided them with a semi-wild refuge on his estate, and kept close records of their offspring. Dr. d’Andrade’s family and several other private breeders have continued this legacy.
Considering the obvious inbreeding (Dr. d’Andrade began with just eleven individuals) researchers are amazed at how intact these horses remain. They are sound, and apparently have no outward defects – domestic breeds would have fallen apart under like circumstances. Nevertheless, the Sorraia remains endangered; only around 200 horses exist worldwide. Just a handful are being used for breeding purposes and only one herd lives a truly wild existence on Vale de Zebro, a private preserve in Portugal. Reproduction rates are falling and the typically abundant primitive striping natural to these horses seems to be lessening.
Though troubles plague the Sorraia in Europe, something remarkable has been discovered among the Mustangs here in North America. While researching horses out west, German author and noted equestrian Hardy Oelke recognized, within specific strains of Mustangs, horses that displayed the same phenotype as that of the Iberian Sorraia! How is this possible?
The history of the Sorraia Mustang
Nearly everyone knows that horses, formerly extinct in North America, were reintroduced to the New World by European explorers and settlers. What is less well known is that the finely bred Spanish chargers Columbus hand picked to accompany him on his 1493 journey were unscrupulously switched with “common nags” – the aforementioned Zebro/Marismeño/Sorraia, which were so often captured from the wild and coerced into serving humans. Once in the Wild West, many immigrant steeds inevitably escaped and began reproducing, which is why we today find the atavistic phenotype of the primitive Iberian wild horse reemerging among the Sulphur Springs, Pryor Mountain and Kiger Mustang herds.
Starting a preserve
Hardy Oelke started a campaign to encourage the consolidation of Mustangs with the Sorraia phenotype, thereby establishing an alternate source of these rare genes that might one day prove a vital infusion to the bottlenecked bloodlines of Sorraia horses in Europe. In support of this work, my husband and I decided to establish a Sorraia Mustang preserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada.
We began by importing two yearling fillies of Sorraia type from Caballos de Destino, a ranch that selectively breeds Spanish Mustangs to encourage the distinct phenotype unique to the Iberian wild horse. Bella and Belina came to our farm from South Dakota in the summer of 2005.
We initially planned on finding the perfect Mustang stallion of Sorraia type to lend his efforts to our project. Then Hardy informed us of a purebred Iberian Sorraia yearling stud colt born at the Wisentgehege zoological park in Springe, Germany. By obtaining this colt to cross with our Sorraia Mustang fillies, we realized that our efforts would be, as Hardy wrote in his book Born Survivors on the Eve of Extinction, a “huge step towards consolidation of the subspecies”. So Altamiro came to us in August of 2006 and is the first Sorraia to make Canada his home.
Last spring we were pleased to find a Kiger Mustang breeder in Oshweken, Ontario who had a filly for sale of extremely good Sorraia type. It is our good fortune that most Kiger breeders eschew the Sorraia phenotype, preferring a stockier horse with a prettier head. Ciente was available at a price we could afford and we soon added her to the herd.
More about the breed
Altamiro and his young mares are all dark grulla in coloring with leg stripes, shoulder-barring (on Altamiro and Belina), and bi-colored manes and tails. Sorraias also come in various nuances of yellow dun with both color types being totally solid, showing no white markings on the head or legs. Our goal is to find the right dun colored mare to complete our foundation herd.
Sorraia horses average 14.2 hands and have a noble convex profile, clean throat-latch and uphill build. Their mitochondria DNA is unique and part of a phylogenetic cluster akin to the Lusitano and Andalusian, revealing the early connection to these types.
In Portugal, Sorraia horses are ridden by herdsmen to move cattle. Some have been used for endurance riding, carriage driving and dressage. Though adept at these disciplines, the area Sorraias excel most in is their ability to adapt to and survive in the most difficult environments. In fact it may be these environmental hardships that cultivated the unique body structure and coloring that have served this horse so well over the centuries.
Here at Ravenesyrie, our farm high up on Gore Bay’s East Bluff, the horses have access to 360 acres of varied terrain, grasslands, boreal forest and the ample North Channel shoreline. Altamiro lives with his fillies in the “big wide open” all year round, following the rhythms of nature. Sorraia horses typically don’t achieve sexual fertility until age four so it may be a few years yet before Altamiro’s offspring lend their fine forms to the landscape.
In the winter, we supplement their widespread foraging with mixed grass hay, but during other seasons they thrive on a variety of herbs, grasses, twigs, bark and leaves. In inclement weather, they take shelter in the snug woodlands on our property. We have no parasite issues and (with the exception of Bella, whom we are helping heal from a bout of mechanical founder) these horses require no farrier visits. I interact with the herd daily, groom them, and have begun light training – all of which occurs within the herd setting in whatever sector of the property they might happen to be.
This manner of horse-keeping is far removed from the days when I boarded my horse at a show stable and competed in dressage! I still have dreams of putting together exhibition rides here at Ravenseyrie for select audiences, set to music and demonstrating the artistic equitation of Haute Ecole – only this time on the bare, dorsal-striped back of a Sorraia with a leather loop around the neck instead of a double-bridle. My inspiration comes from Dr. d’Andrade’s own description of the primitive wild horse of the Iberian Peninsula after surviving a hard winter:
“With bones once more covered by flesh they change completely in appearance, especially the stallions, which in full flesh show a curved neck and so much changed, they look close-coupled and full of life, moving with a lot of elegance and gracefulness and become beautiful Andalusian horses that can rival Arabians as they become fine and swift, full of movement and fire. At such moments they reveal the Iberian form of a high class animal on a smaller scale” (A History of the Horse, Volume 1 by Paulo Gaviao Gonzaga, J.A. Allen, publishers, p. 45).
Given our prehistoric connections to this ancestral horse, assuring his continued survival is of paramount importance. That way, like our ancient ancestors, we can continue to record for posterity his unique beauty and strength for generations to come.
For more information on Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses, visit www.sorraia.org. To see more images of Altamiro, visit Leslie Town Photography’s website at www.myhorse.ca.
Lynne Gerard is an author, artist and calligrapher. Her business Ravenseyrie Studio and Gallery on the Gore Bay waterfront has attracted many tourists visiting Manitoulin Island and also serves to share information on the Sorraia Mustang Preserve founded by her and her husband.