Continuing our story of the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses from last month's issue of Horses For Life, in this article the author shares how she and her husband came to establish the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada.
"A neigh pierces the air and echoes forever..."
It is like a dream...
or a mythic vision?
Or is it, more rightly, a summons?
An ancient equine neigh - more felt in the breast than heard with the ears...
Shapely, smokey, convex-headed forms, dancing behind closed eyelids...
Has some delusional madness taken me over?
Epochal passings aplenty have not stilled the galloping of Iberia's ancestral horses. Then, and now, their hooves thunder over sensate earth...
I feel their vibrations mingling with my own heart's oscillation, our magnetic fields combining...
--"Come, be with us, dance with us...share our world!"
How could I not join them?
Was it all triggered by the book? Or were there other preparations along the way?
Surely there were.
After a handful of years showing dressage, I had acquired a passion for classical equitation and, leaving the competitive arena, immersed myself in the world of the old masters and the realm of artistic riding. Academic study of haute école - historical, biomechanical, philosophical - developed within me a considerable admiration for Iberian horses.
Always lovingly supporting and encouraging my interests, on the day of the 2004 Winter Solstice my husband, Kevin Droski, took great pleasure in presenting me with a copy of A HISTORY OF THE HORSE: Volume I/The Iberian Horse From Ice Age to Antiquity, by Paulo Gaviao Gonzaga.(This photo was not included in the original article, but I'm taking the liberty to include it here.)
Bibliomaniacally inclined, I have in my library already many special books - some antiquated and filled with period etchings, others more contemporary, swelling with glossy, artistically composed photography - each providing some meaningful element in my studies. It therefore surprised me when Gonzaga's seemingly ordinary book affected me so profoundly. From cover to cover the images of cave paintings and artifacts decorated with equine motifs stimulated a flush of curiously intense emotion. The review of ancestral horses in this book is one of the most concise accounts I had read thus far, and I found myself especially attracted to the Sorraia horses, awakening some dormant seed within me.
Gonzaga's book included a descriptive paragraph written by Ruy d'Andrade, who we learned in last month's article is the Portuguese hippologist credited with saving these Sorraia horses. When I read it, I was deeply moved. Describing these primitive horses' appearance after a long, harsh winter, d'Andrade wrote:
"But after the winter hardships, the months from April to June are easily enough to make them fat and, 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 the highest class of animal, on a smaller scale."
As with all germinations, latent potentialities await the culmination of key conditions which trigger the eruption of life. I had certainly read about the Sorraia before and had an admiration for its primitive form, but it wasn't until just this particular time that I felt the warmth of the sun elicit something out of previously inert soil.
You see, at the time of this book's arrival, Kevin and I were preparing our immigration to Canada, and were exchanging a groomed, limited pastoral setting for an expansive wilderness on a rather remote island in northern Ontario. During a maddening state of limbo awaiting the processing of our applications for permanent residency by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Kevin and I used this time to scour the internet for information on Manitoulin Island and life in Canada. After receiving Gonzaga's book, I also began to research ancient horses, specifically the Sorraia.
Google led me to the multi-faceted website provided by Hardy Oelke, where I learned more about the plight of the Sorraia and the potential of a surviving genetic resource among rare Spanish Mustangs which possessed the Sorraia phenotype. Sorraia Mustangs, he called them. Looking at the photos, something looked back at me, and I once again heard that piercing, prehistoric neigh. I quickly ordered Hardy's book, BORN SURVIVORS ON THE EVE OF EXTINCTION/Can Iberia's Wild Horse Survive Among America's Mustangs? (Kierdorf)
Expanding upon that which I had learned from Gonzaga's book, BORN SURVIVORS went even further. With his evocatively written vignettes and personal photos describing encounters with wild horses in the American West, Hardy skilfully interspersed constructive research findings and suggestions of how best to conserve and nurture the rare Sorraia Mustang lest its rich genetic resource be lost. Like rain softening the earth after the slumber of winter, Hardy's book became one more element in creating the right conditions for sustaining the awakened seed.
Hardy's website brought my attention to Sharron Sheikofsky and her partner Dave Reynolds and the horses of Caballos de Destino. Sharron and Dave breed authentic Spanish Mustangs in captivity on their ranch in South Dakota and have been selecting the Iberian form and grulla coloring as one part of their program for decades. Some of these selectively bred horses possess the distinctive phenotype of the Sorraia, and Caballos De Destino happened to be offering a few of them for sale among their other attractive Spanish Mustang youngsters. Here was another potent showering of rain, and soon an idea uncoiled a tentative tendril...
Would not our new property on Manitoulin Island be a wonderful environment to raise these ancestral horses?
Beginning with two fillies obtained from Caballos de Destino, our Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve was quietly founded in July of 2005. [author's note: the story of importing these semi-feral horses to Canada, and learning from them a new way of interacting with, and training horses will be the subject of a future article.]
In the pre-spring chill of 2006, Kevin gave me the financial thumbs up, and I enthusiastically began a search for the appropriate suitor to join Bella and Belina on the island.
Thankfully, Hardy Oelke himself agreed to review any potential stallion candidates because I was still very green in my skill of detecting the Sorraia phenotype within the various grulla and dun colored mustangs. The Sorraia phenotype is much more than primitive coloring as they have distinct conformational characteristics which set them apart from other horses - something we learned about in last month's issue of Horses For Life. My neophyte grasp of these matters was compounded by the difficulty of attempting to determine how well a young colt might mature (something even grey-bearded, experienced breeders find hard to predict) and also because I found something endearing about all the young weanlings and yearlings in the photos being sent my way.
With our finances limited, and because I didn't want to impose a mature stallion on our young fillies, it seemed prudent to narrow our search down to stud colts who were two years or younger. If Caballos de Destino had happened to have a non-related stud colt, I wouldn't have hesitated buying from Lady Sharron Sheikofsky again; however, for our preserve, Hardy thought it best to look for Sorraia types coming from different bloodlines than those represented in Sharron and Dave's herds.
There were many youngsters available from folks who were breeding mustangs in captivity out in the western United States...breeders with names like "Double L Kigers", "Spanish Sage Ranch", "Karisma Kigers and "Circle S Ranch"...each candidate, however, had one or more features that kept him from being the ideal stud colt destined to be the foundation sire of his own Sorraia Mustang Preserve.
I nevertheless kept up my search, knowing that one day "Mr. Right" would present himself.
Imagine my astonishment when Hardy relayed to me that there was a purebred Sorraia yearling colt, born at the Wisentgehege zoological park in Springe, Germany, which might possibly be for sale. This surprise, of course, was accompanied by a loud laugh on my behalf, for surely a purebred Sorraia (with less than 200 of these horses walking the earth world wide) would be far too costly for Kevin and I to consider. Hardy checked into the matter and in a day or two, relayed to us that the zoological park would indeed sell us the colt and the sum they were asking was within our reach.
Great news, right?!!!
Ah, but wait...
...sure we could buy this colt without incurring financial hardship. But flying a horse from Germany to Canada was an extravagance beyond our humble island means. How could I possibly even discuss this with Kevin, knowing that since our immigration we necessarily had to live extremely frugally, especially while much of our disposable income lay tied up in our yet unsold farm back in Michigan?
Of course this was all true...but you just know I had to at least discuss the offer with Kevin.
"NO!" he said, "It's absurd!...Duckie, we cannot do it!"
Yes, he was right. Considering our limited finances and our dedication to focusing on paying off our mortgage on Ravenseyrie - to assume the financial burden of importing a horse from Germany was a ridiculous undertaking.
So, "No" it was...
...besides, having once been a peon at a boarding stable where dressage queens were frequently importing horses from Europe, I knew our manner of living was far removed from the "well-heeled" lifestyles where such things were done.
So, this was impossible for us, right?
I don't remember sulking about it (perhaps Kevin remembers differently) but I do recall lying awake at night ruminating over what a huge contribution we could make to the plight of the endangered Sorraia horse by having a purebred Sorraia as a key player on our Sorraia Mustang Preserve.
While staring at the dark ceiling, listening to the soft slumbering sounds of Kevin next to me, I went over what I had been learning about the attempts to enhance the preservation of the endangered Sorraia horse by consolidating and nurturing the amazing atavistic anomalies in certain North American Mustang horses.
Twice before, Hardy had assisted in the export of purebred Sorraia stud colts from Germany to North America, with the high expectation that these Sorraia stallions would be bred to select mustang mares which exhibited the Sorraia phenotype.
First, in the spring of 2000, Erin Grey, a breeder/trainer of mustang horses in Oregon, obtained the yearling stud colt Sovina from Hardy, and after some initial anxiety due to his slow rate of sexual maturity (belated sexual maturity and fertility issues in stallions have been problematic concerns with the highly inbred Sorraias), Sovina sired three colts and one filly out of Sulphur Mustang mares. After a visit to Portugal, however, Erin Grey came away with the impression that the individuals there who were preserving the primitive Sorraia horse were displeased with Hardy Oelke's Sorraia Mustang Studbook (a simple registry to keep track of those mustangs which might serve beneficially in preserving the Sorraia phenotype) and his efforts to encourage breeders to consolidate the Sorraia characteristics by breeding like with like. From that point on, Ms. Grey relayed in the Sulphur Horse Association's forum that she would not breed Sovina to any mustang mares out of respect for the opinion of the breeders she met in Portugal.
The difficulties that arise, and for which Ms. Grey no doubt has cause for concern, is that too many times people who own dun or grulla colored mustangs begin referring to them as Sorraia horses. Even when a mustang horse exhibits identical characteristics of the Sorraia horse, it would be inappropriate and misleading to call it a Sorraia. There have been genetic tests done with mitochrondia DNA which link some mustangs to the Iberian Sorraia, and the existence of the Sorraia phenotype in some mustangs also reflects the survival of these ancestral genetics. The name Sorraia Mustang seems to me to be a good and proper moniker for mustangs which exhibit the Sorraia phenotype, whether a little or a lot. In Hardy's website, devoted to sharing information on the Sorraia Mustang, he writes, "The term 'Sorraia Mustang' was chosen because these horses have a mustang background. The goal is to preserve the Sorraia genes, not to deny their mustang background, or deliberately cover their origin and try 'selling' them as being the same as Portuguese Sorraias. Another aspect is: Portuguese Sorraia people appreciate the Sorraia Mustangs for what they are, and recognize their Sorraia ancestry. They would certainly frown upon anyone declaring their mustangs simply 'Sorraias', and would likely oppose the Sorraia Mustang project if they felt something 'fishy' was going on."
Whatever impressions Erin Grey has regarding the role the Sorraia Mustang may play in the ongoing efforts to preserve the Sorraia horses in Europe, we must counter with the words of one of Ruy d'Andrade's grandsons which Hardy has quoted in his website, along with important quotes from other Portuguese breeders of Sorraia horses who do support the preservation of the Sorraia Mustangs. José Luis d'Andrade states, "The mustangs definitely look as(sic) our Sorraias, which are, as you know, an endangered species. I gladly confirm that these mustangs should be preserved and support your endeavor wholeheartedly, also as president of the Sorraia association. As you know, it was my grandfather, Dr. Ruy d'Andrade, who discovered and rescued the Sorraia horses, and he, too, would be excited about these horses in America."
With the export of another of Hardy Oelke's purebred Sorraia stud colts, Tejo II, it seemed that once again the potential of bringing together the blood of the Portuguese Sorraia with the mustangs of Sorraia type in North America would soon be a reality. Karen Dalke of Wisconsin took delivery of Tejo II in 2001 and has had him in training for dressage, with a few tentative attempts at breeding to her own mustang mares which so far has not resulted in any foals. Tejo is a full brother to Sovina and is an extremely good looking stallion.
With sleep still eluding me and the methodical review of these two situations, it seemed to me that efforts to create a vigorous outcross by mating these Sorraia stallions with mustang mares showing atavistic Sorraia traits had lost momentum. While it is not essential to introduce the blood of a purebred Sorraia into the Sorraia Mustang populace in order to preserve the phenotype among this rare type of mustang, I kept thinking about a statement in Hardy's book, "There would be the possibility to introduce Sorraias from Portugal to America, to take a huge step towards consolidation of the subspecies."
Transported (corrupted?) by that particular ether that impregnates the mind when trapped in the dual agitated states of absolute fatigue and insomnia, I imagined that the good spirit of Dr. Ruy d'Andrade himself had aligned the fates in such a way that Manitoulin Island, in the great country of Canada, was being provided the opportunity to carry the torch, if you will, and participate in something larger than life - what a folly it would be to let such an opportunity pass us by!
The next morning at breakfast, I explained to Kevin all my thoughts from my sleepless night. "Are you sure, Kevin...there is no way?"
We began to study what type of paperwork and financial commitment was required to import a horse from Germany. A lot! But, in reality...not all that much more than what it would cost to have a horse trucked from western U.S. to Manitoulin.
Deciding to put off for a year or more some of the things we had hoped to accomplish on improving the farm, we found that while it would put us very tight, we could actually free up enough cash to be able to pay for flying the colt across the ocean after all.
Hardy immediately put things in motion and the process was soon underway. On August 23, 2006 in the after-10pm darkness, with a calm curiosity, not the least bit unnerved, the purebred Sorraia, sixteen-month-old, Altamiro, stepped into his new world at Ravenseyrie. I loved him immediately.
Two more charmed acquisitions have been made since then to complete our foundation herd. In April of 2007 a beautiful two year old Kiger Mustang filly, Ciente (an excellent example of Sorraia type) joined the herd, and just this past September we were fortunate to be offered the six year old mare, Sovina's Zorita. You can imagine our excitement at being able to add this half Sorraia/half Sulphur Mustang mare to our Sorraia Mustang Preserve.
Each of these foundation horses, Bella, Belina, Altamiro, Ciente and Zorita provided us with interesting experiences just getting them to the island, and the challenges of integrating them with our two domestic horses and three draft mules, all of whom share 360 acres of varied wilderness - but this article is too long already and we will save these stories for upcoming issues.
Likewise, we will certainly share in a future article the quick development the environment at Ravenseyrie brought out in these young, primitive horses, culminating in three foals born this year! The surprising birth of Animado in April, followed by the filly, Fada in May, and Animado's brother Interessado in August have advanced our efforts here sooner than expected.
It seems when one follows the summons of the ancestral horses, fanciful dreams become a beautiful reality in a very short time.
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 (Ontario, Canada) and also serves to share information on the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve founded by her and her husband. Ms. Gerard and her husband Kevin Droski live close to nature with their horses, mules, dogs, cats and geese up on Gore Bay's East Bluff overlooking Lake Huron's famous North Channel.