Saturday, January 24, 2009

Recently Published Articles / I

To make up for some lapses in journal entries, I thought I would take this opportunity to share with readers some recent articles I've written. The first article I will be sharing was published in the online magazine HORSES FOR LIFE, a subscription periodical that boasts a readership in forty-three different countries and covers topics from Classical Equitation to Rare Breeds. I was very honored to be asked to write a two part article about the Sorraia horses and our efforts here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve. The editor, Nadja King, was very kind to show interest in these horses and provided me an opportunity to write the articles in ways that most magazines never allow space for. Thank you, again, Nadja, for the "free rein" you allowed me, it was such a pleasure to have no word-length constraints.

Many of you who have been following this blog have already read these articles, for others who do not have a subscription to HORSES FOR LIFE, you might appreciate the opportunity to find out more about the history of the Sorraia. The reprinting of these articles here will not be in the same, attractive "virtual paper" format available on the HORSES FOR LIFE website, but I will paste in the photos and illustrations that were in the original version.

It is cool here and slightly moist. The darkness divides itself, making room for the dancing of a crude oil lamp, its subtle light warmly illuminates the cramped, sacred space. I sit upon a bed of fragrant pine boughs and ready myself for the ceremony.

The venerable crone, adorned with dried seeds, braided horse hair, feathers, hollow bones and polished teeth makes haunting music with each poised movement. "She of the Horse" prepares the sacrament, blesses it and presents it to me on the flat of her ochre stained hand. I gather her offering into my own palm.

The three dried mushrooms seem like strange living creatures as the flickering lamplight flirts with their twisted forms. I look to "She of the Horse" for reassurance, but her eyes are fixed and de-focalized on the wall of the cave...she is softly chanting. I put my trust in the goodness of our intentions and ingest the sacrament, chewing each mushroom with slow deliberation and allowing myself to slightly sway with the rhythm of the chant.

Nothing happens, at first...

And then, as the crone's voice becomes louder and is joined by the chanting of her two male assistants, I feel their hands lift me. I am astonished to realize my legs have no strength of their own! I am carried into a deeper recess of the cave, where the light does not penetrate at all, and yet, strangely, I can see. I am placed upon another bed of pine, but instead of sitting, I am kneeling before a raw umber stained section of cave wall. I feel a bit disoriented and slightly afraid. The smell of yarrow and cannabis sativa wafts out from the small, ritual sensor the crone keeps with her always. It's aroma soothes me. I regard the cave wall before me. There are deep crevices here and there and an evocative relief pattern to the otherwise smooth surface. My skin is being pricked from the inside out by so many unseen thorns, but the sensation is not wholly unpleasant.

I hear the sound of hooves approaching. A neigh pierces the air and echoes forever...

And then...there they are!

The horses!

How can this be?

Elegant forms of several dorsal striped, long-necked horses flow over the cave wall and play out a scene of a carefully executed equine dance, as if for my entertainment. These horses collect exquisitely on their haunches, performing poised leaps, joyful turns and rhythmic "on the spot" maneuvers. Before they dash off into the crevices within the wall, I hear the voice of one of them say, "Come, be with us, dance with us...share our world!"

"She of the Horse" strokes my face and I awaken in the dark, confused. One of the assistants brings forward flickering oil light, and there, painted on the wall are the dancing horses, floating free. They were not there before. Am I dreaming? I reach out to touch them and notice my hands and arms are covered in pigment. I trace a finger across the smoke-coloured croup of one of the horses and look at the crone, questioning.

"You have done well here!", she exclaimed. "The ancestral horses allowed you to paint them...this means you have been invited to their world, in flesh and in spirit. They will teach you now, as they have taught those who came before us and as they will teach those who have yet to come."

Above drawing is after a charcoal image in the "Horse's Tail" chamber in cave of Altamira in Northern Spain

I realize I have been looking too long at the Upper Paleolithic artisans' fantastic images, captured in photos and printed in the pages of scholarly books on parietal art. My romantic flight of fancy into the prehistoric world of horses has taken great poetic license with piecing together a possible explanation for the exquisite renderings of equines we see all over European caves dating back as far as 30,000 years ago.

Thirty thousand years ago! Greek mythology pales by comparison!

Whether these Upper Paleolithic people 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 the images of these ancestral equines figure prominently in most every area where mankind's first forms of art have been discovered.

How remarkable it is that even now in the 21st Century we can find in our midst horses who exhibit the same characteristics as those portrayed by the sure hands of the first human artisans!

"A neigh pierces the air and echoes forever..."

Researchers continue to quibble over whether wild horses descended from just one ancient type or from more than one type. However it appears that Ebhardt's classification, which divides ancestral horses into four distinct types, is presently accepted as the most probable. While many people are well aware of Przewalski's horse (the wild Mongolian pony) which displays the characteristics of Type II, too few people know about the existence of a carefully preserved specimen of Type III. We find both types of these horses were documented in the artwork created by Upper Paleolithic peoples. For the purposes of this article, we are focusing upon Ancestral Type III.

In his book, A HISTORY OF THE HORSE/Volume I: The Iberian Horse From Ice Age to Antiquity, Paulo Gaviao Gonzaga describes Ebhardt's type III horse form thus:"Type III had a long head with a small narrow forehead and convex profile, a fine delicate muzzle, straight jaw, small teeth, long ears and eyes placed higher on the head, a long neck and clean throatlatch.

"The prominent withers, higher than the rump, reached far on to a medium to long back, long inclined shoulders, narrow chest and body, and sloping croup. Long legs, cannon bones and pasterns ended in oval, medium sized hoofs [sic] with no feathering. These characteristics made him capable of moving with collection, placing the hind legs under the body mass and the nose vertically, the ideal requirements for a good riding horse.

"Probably the dark mane, with intermingled light-coloured hairs at the bottom, was long and lay on the neck, although some sub-types may have had upright manes. The coat was dun or grullo (mouse dun) with a darker face. Type III always had a dorsal black line, and zebra stripes on the legs and very often also on the shoulders." (pp. 30-31)

This description very keenly describes a well known wild horse that dwelled in the southerly realms of the Iberian Peninsula. Prior to the mass agricultural cultivation of the landscape in the region, these horses flourished in the area, along with other wild horses (likely specimens with various combined characteristics of types I, II and III of which the extinct hybrid referred to as the Tarpan is just one example). Our ancestral Type III horse was described in antiquated texts with the name, "zebro", "marismeño, "encebra" and "cebro" depending on which territory of the region they happened to be. There remain, even today, locations in the landscapes of these areas (such as the Vale de Zebro) that retain names inspired by the horses which inhabited these regions in earlier times.

Early human inhabitants would capture horses from these wild roaming herds and used them extensively in daily life and warring raids. However, as local breeds were developed according to the needs and predilections of the people, the ancestral wild horses were soon considered sub-rate and deemed suitable only for use by peasants. The continuous cultivation of the landscape marginalized the dwindling herds of wild horses, forcing them into less hospitable realms in the mountains and forests where they managed to maintain a tenuous existence into the twentieth century.

It was our good fortune that during the last days of this tenacious wild horse a gentleman of great knowledge chanced upon a group of zebros while on a hunting expedition in 1920. Acclaimed Portuguese zoologist, Dr. Ruy d'Andrade, a noted breeder of exquisite Lusitano horses, was so moved by the primitive characteristics of the horses he saw on this fateful hunting trip that several years later he decided to acquire a breeding herd to preserve on his own property. The horses he had originally observed were no longer there, however some of the landowners in the vicinity kept and bred horses, a few of which conformed to the primitive phenotype d'Andrade had so carefully documented from his earlier expedition. From these private owners' herds, the esteemed hippologist was able to select seven mares which displayed the characteristics of the ancient zebro. Using four stallions, also of identical primitive type, d'Andrade was able to establish his preserve and documented a consistently homogeneous offering of offspring.

Purebred Sorraia stallion, Altamiro of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve
Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada

Dr. d'Andrade gave these horses the name Sorraia, linking them to the river that ran through the "Sesmaria" estate in Coruche where he had first seen them. If not for this gentleman's efforts, and the subsequent dedication of his son and grandsons (and later that of the Portuguese National Stud and a handful of individuals in Germany), the Type III ancestral horse of the Iberian Peninsula would have completely vanished altogether.

Or, perhaps not!
Altamiro, with Belina and Fada

"A neigh pierces the air and echoes forever..."

Our next great man on the scene is the German author, horse trainer and equine specialist, Hardy Oelke. A long time admirer of the American Paint Appaloosa and Quarter Horse breeds, Oelke had travelled numerous times to the United States to research the origins of these domestic horses. In the 1980's Oelke included in his visits the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Ranges where he happened to notice a very curious thing. At the time, while never having seen a Sorraia horse in the flesh, Oelke was nonetheless very familiar with this ancestral equine's precarious flirtations with extinction (even now fewer than 200 Sorraias exist worldwide!) and was therefore stunned with excitement when introduced to the Kiger Mustangs. Here in the rugged North American west, half a world removed from Iberia, roaming as free as in ages gone by was the quintessential Type III ancestral horse! The striking similarities between many of these Kiger mustangs and the Sorraia horses in Portugal heretofore had gone unnoticed and unappreciated by horse folk in the United States. Inspired and energized, Hardy Oelke began a parallel journey that day and soon immersed himself into the historic and scientific study of the Sorraia horse and their phenotypical twins which he came to call Sorraia Mustangs.

Ciente, 2 yr. old Kiger Mustang filly on the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve

Historic texts tell us the evolution of the horse took place in North America, with unrestricted movement taking place between here and Eurasia when land connections still existed. We've been told, however, that horses in the Americas became extinct along with other large mammals, with a variety of speculations as to the cause.

Most everyone knows that the reintroduction of equus caballos to the New World came by ship across the Atlantic, along with the European explorers and subsequent colonization of the continent. What is less appreciated is that within the intrepid man's own journals we are made aware that the finely bred Spanish chargers Columbus hand picked to accompany him on his 1493 journey were unscrupulously switched with "common nags" (our afore-mentioned zebro, marismeño, encebro so often captured from the wild and forced into serving peasants of the era).

It appears that the primitive ancestral Type III horse, in the form of the Iberian "zebro" was one of the first equines to revisit the Americas. Given these "nags" proved admirably suited to the rigors such an expedition were fraught with, it is likely that among subsequent shipments of horses from Iberia, more zebros travelled in the bellies of great ships in slings alongside their high bred cousins. And so among the melting pot of the many immigrant steeds (French draft, English coach, Spanish destrier and others) who later managed to escape their enslavers and adopt a feral existence, reproducing extensively and migrating north, south, east and west in all of the Northern Hemisphere over several hundred years, we find the atavistic phenotype of the primitive wild horse of the Iberian Peninsula reemerging among the Sulphur Springs, Pryor Mountain and (especially) the Kiger Mustang herds in the western United States.

Referring once again to Gonzaga's work we note, "One important phenomenon verified many times over (with the Mustang and the Sorraia, for example) is that the original 'types' tend to come back when domestic horses escape from man's control and revert to feral status, or even sometimes when selection is abandoned. When this occurs, characteristics resulting from cross-breeding will be eliminated and the animals will revert to the original wild form and from then on will not change again, no matter the number of generations." (ibid, p. 34)

Arrogant man, haughtily disdainful of primitive qualities and always eager to impose his ideas of "improvement" upon nature, repeatedly made an effort to "upgrade" the mustangs - with each well-meaning manipulation representing the personal tastes of those humans living among mustangs during different time periods. This was man's preoccupation when he wasn't attempting to outright exterminate these feral horses altogether in obvious and not so obvious ways (a practice we see going on currently under the "protection" of the U.S. BLM).

While some folks who breed mustangs in captivity have come to prize the primitive coloring of the Type III ancestral horse, they unfortunately make attempts to breed away from certain key conformational features, preferring wider heads, heavier legs and broader croups...many even disdain the noble, aristocratic convex profile, favoring instead the look of an Arabian style head for their mustangs!

Even today, many years after Hardy Oelke published his observations and scientific findings on the link between the Sorraia and some of the North American Mustangs, we find precious little support to nurture the phenomenon nature has played out for us to learn from. This means the future of the Sorraia Mustang - the perfect example of the ancestral Type III horse existing in North America - is even more precarious than that of the Iberian Sorraia in Europe.

That the primitive Type III ancestral horse, tens of thousands of years later, continues to resurface like a fossil pushing up from ancient soil, seems to me like some sort of shamanic magic. Research continues to determine the exact science behind such "magic", but the playful enchantment of the beautiful forms of these horses displayed in cave paintings is more convincing to me than any science. These compelling horses have charmed my very being, enticing me and my husband to give them a place to reappear in the flesh here at Ravenseyrie.

"A neigh pierces the air and echoes forever..."


--Clottes, Jean and Lewis-Williams, David. The Shamans of Prehistory (1996 Harry M. Abrams, Inc. New York)

--Cordeiro, Arsénio Raposo. Lusitano Horse Son of the Wind (1997 Edicoes Inapa, Lisbon)

--Curtis, Gregory. The Cave Painters (2006 Anchor Books, New York)

--Gonzaga, Paulo Gaviao. A History of the Horse (2004 J.A. Allen, London)

--Hancock, Graham. Supernatural (2005 Century, London)

--Leroi-Gourhan, André. The Dawn of European Art (1982 Cambridge University Press, London)

--Oelke, Hardy. Born Survivors on the Eve of Extinction (1997 Kierdorf Verlag, Germany)

--Oelke, Hardy. Sorraia Folheto Informativo,

--Oom, d'Andrade and Costa-Ferreira. Stud Book da Raca Sorraia (2004 Associacao Internacional De Criadores Do Cavalo Iberico De Tipo Primitivo-Sorraia)

--Ramos, Pedro A. Saura. The Cave of Altamira (1998 Harry M. Abrams, Inc., New York)

--Ryden, Hope. America's Last Wild Horses (2005 The Lyons Press, Connecticut)

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