I have always known it was a tremendous honor for the members of our herd to let me close to them during some of their most intimate and vulnerable times. To be able to lie down among a snoozing group of “unbroken” atavistically primitive young horses in a semiwild setting is a wonderful experience. Having itched and played my way into gentle relations with our three Sorraia Mustang fillies and their amorous purebred Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, I have made some marvelous friendships. But I had no idea that I would one day be witness to something even more amazing.
As part of our transcontinental effort to help save the Sorraia horse from extinction (see “Saving the Sorraias”, Equine Wellness, Jan/Feb 2008), we allow our stallion and mares to live together year round at the Sorraia Mustang Preserve on our Ravenseyrie ranch, providing them opportunity to breed in accordance with the rhythms of nature.
When we acquired Altamiro as a yearling from the Wisentgehege zoological park in Germany, we were told that Sorraia stallions typically do not become sexually fertile until age four. Altamiro just turned three this past May. Two of the fillies are turning four this summer, and the other recently celebrated her third birthday.
A big surprise
One day in mid-April, I was hanging out with the herd as they were finishing up their late afternoon hay. While pulling burrs out of Belina’s tail, I noticed Altamiro take a nice long whiff from Bella’s rear and curl his lip up. Bella parted her hind legs and made herself more “presentable”. This was what I had been waiting to see – some signs of the fillies being in heat.
I then worked my way towards Bella, who was calmly eating hay, and Altamiro, who was still spellbound by Bella’s backside. As I did so, I noticed a large membrane extending from Bella’s rear end. I gasped, thinking she had somehow suffered trauma and prolapsed her uterus. I stroked her abdomen as I tried to get a better look.
Just then Bella’s stomach contracted and the membrane (which was not unlike a water balloon) extended further. I could now see a leg and a hoof reaching out through the vaginal opening.
I was in shock. Bella, who had previously shown no outward indications of being pregnant, was having a foal! Yet I was so convinced that something was terribly wrong, that I failed to appreciate that she wasn’t the least bit sweaty, was still eating hay and, with the exception of her stomach contracting from time to time, seemed herself.
A legend is born
In less than 15 minutes, with wondrous ease, Bella delivered a foal onto the fresh snow. Bella stood up immediately, breathing heavily and looking bewildered. The foal, still encased in the membrane, was poking at it with his head like a chick trying to chip its way out of an egg. Altamiro, who had remained with Bella, took up the role of helpmate in the birthing process without hesitation, demonstrating atypical behavior for a stallion.
As the foal shrugged himself out of his amniotic pajamas, Altamiro began licking the fresh, wet body of his newborn son. Bella soon regained composure and began maternal ministrations along with Altamiro.
After a little while, Altamiro began prodding, poking, nipping and gently biting him in what appeared to be an attempt to induce his son to get up. Many near-risings and tangle-legged falls soon gave way to an unsteady, but upright posture.
Next, it was time for the ever-important first meal. Once again Bella patiently waited while Altamiro took on the job of stimulating his son to move around. Nudge after nudge, and nip by nip, he stimulated the foal to get familiar with the territory of his mother, and discover her udder. For the next while, the foal circled his mother and father, licking and mouthing at different sections of their bodies, eventually being rewarded with his first suckle.
A promising future
On his first full day of life, the robust colt was scampering around the rough terrain of his environment with the ease of a gazelle. We named him Animado, which means “lively” in Portuguese.
Animado’s amazingly tender and attentive father is shaping up to be the kind of horse that will be setting new records all his life. He is not only the first purebred Sorraia to come live in Canada, but he has sired the first half-bred Sorraia in Canada, and at a far younger age than his counterparts in Portugal, Germany, and the U.S..
Watching a live birth, outdoors, in a semi-wild herd situation, is an experience I will always treasure, and documenting the unusual maternal behavior of a stallion provides us all with a novel insight into equine behavior. We hope Animado is the first of many more Sorraia foals to come!
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. For more information on the Sorraia horse, visit www.sorraia.org.