An almost fantasy-like feeling emerges from this section of stabling at the Coudelaria Nacional
Alter do Chão, Portugal
Alter do Chão, Portugal
Note: Unless otherwise identified, all photos are taken by the author, Lynne Gerard.
Day three of my week in Portugal fell on Thursday, September 29th and was devoted to strolling through the extensive network of buildings, courtyards and pastures of the Fundação Alter Real close to the city of Alter do Chão. Housed within this complex (first established by royal decree in 1748) are the Coudelaria Nacional (National Stud), the Alter do Chão Professional School of Rural Development, and the Serviço Nacional Coudélico (National Horse Registry) and the Molecular Genetics Laboratory. The Fundação Alter Real organization maintains oversight of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art located in Lisbon, and probably other groups and organizations which I did not catch the names of. The complex is sprawled over 800 hectares, of which I wandered just a fraction of, since my primary reason for being taken to this beautiful facility was to see the Sorraia horses that live here.
It was clear that my hosts during this once in a lifetime trip to Portugal had a great familiarity with this property, so were moving at a brisk pace from stable to stable and many times I had to pass on taking photos of the myriad of things that captured my fancy because I was afraid I would lose sight of Hardy and Rose and become lost in the tangle of unfamiliar buildings.
Hardy had arranged to meet with Francisco Beja, the coordinator of the stud farms. We found him in one of the manèges with an older couple who were observing one of the the younger Alter Real stallions being ridden. I believe I heard Francisco say there are sixty stallions presently in training.
Francisco and Hardy discussed the Sorraias--the four mature stallions in training and also the younger stock-- while Rose and I wandered nearby taking photos. The architecture and light repeatedly begged to be recorded on my digital camera. Before I share photos of the Sorraia horses we looked at, I will let readers look through a sampling--in no particular order-- of some of the photos I took of the buildings and other interesting elements:
This is not a staged photo...these handcrafted brooms are actually used in the stables. Unique, lovely and probably very efficient!
There was a café and a gift shop on the premises, but both were closed when I visited Alter. A museum of sorts (coach house?) was open and I took just a couple of photos because early equestrian elements do not hold the same interest for me as they used to years ago, when I was thick into French Classical Dressage and Baucherism.
I was glad to see this little tribute to the man who is responsible for the initial preservation of the Sorraia horses. One little curious bit of info--Dr. Ruy d'Andrade died on December 20th, 1967, the same day that your author celebrated her seventh birthday. For a much more thorough review of this great man's life, please follow this link to an article written by Hardy Oelke: Ruy d'Andrade
Hardy and Rose wait outside a building where several antiquated Iberian skulls are housed. After a lady fetched the key to the cabinet, Hardy brought the skulls out for Rose to take photos of. I took a few, too...here is one:
I was very excited to get to see up close and personal my very first, real live Olive tree, with olives ripening in the sun:
Hardy laughed when I took this photo as he said during the course of my trip I was sure to see many Olive trees far more impressive than this one. And there was a more impressive one in one of the courtyards at the Stud:
Taking a break to cool off in the shade on a hot autumn day in Portugal are Rose Oelke and your dutiful author, Lynne Gerard
(Photo: Hardy Oelke)
(Photo: Hardy Oelke)
I did get to view all four of the Sorraia stallions, one of which I thought looked especially nice, though it is rather difficult to get decent photos when horses are in a stable.
I also took photos of two of the stallions who were part of an exhibition team that soon would be traveling to France by special lease arrangement, to be used as breeding studs and competitive driving, if I have my memory of what Francisco said right.
We left the facility for an hour or so to let Francisco have his lunch while we went in search of our own and then met back later in the afternoon. I once again was treated to a raucous ramble at breakneck speed, this time knocking knees with Rose as we sat on the hub benches holding onto anything we could to keep from being thrown to the floor in the back of a well used Land Rover. A drive like this is something Francisco obviously makes numerous times in the course of the day, so I was confident that we would not actually collide with the narrow archways and gates and hairpin turns around buildings as he deftly drove us (at a crazy-fast pace) out of the network of structures and off to the pastures to see some of the young Sorraia colts.
The Sorraia colts were in a bachelor group comprising a mix of Alter Real, Lusitano and Arabians:
Though the Sorraia colts in this group were very shy, one outgoing Lusitano youngster was always trying to get a scratch from me and even followed me back as we were leaving. I turned to give him one more itch along with verbal praise before walking back to the Land Rover as you see captured in this photo:
Lynne Gerard bids a farewell to an inquisitive young Lusitano stallion at the Coudelaria Nacional, Alter do Chão, Portugal. (Photo: Rose Oelke)
Francisco had another bit of business he needed to tend to, so he let us go to visit the mares and foals on our own.
I found myself impressed with quite a few of the Sorraias at the National Stud who seemed to me overall much more uniform in type than I expected. I also felt good about the youngsters that have been born at Ravenseyrie. It was a good experience to get to see the Sorraias in so many different settings and to see that our offspring, though half Sorraia and half Sorraia Mustang are of as good or better type than the Sorraias I had seen so far in Portugal. I think this bodes well for the preservation efforts! And I still had several more days ahead of me to visit with even more Sorraia horses, of which I will write about soon.
Also on "display" at the equestrian complex at Alter was an aged Przewalskis stallion and some amazing falcons:
When we left the complex and drove back to Alter do Chão, it was getting on into evening time. We drove by a small tack shop that was still open and stopped in to have a look at the offerings there. There was a time in my life when I would not have walked out of a tack shop without a riding bit or a crop, or a leather nose band, etc. But that part of me is in the past, along with the part of me that used to dream of going to Portugal and taking riding lessons on a finely bred Lusitano or hacking across the landscape visiting different Portuguese villages on horseback. I suppose living with "wild" horses and gaining a feeling for them as "persons" with lives of their own takes one beyond concepts of keeping them as animals to use for work or pleasure. No matter how elegantly appointed the stables may be, when I see horses confined to a box, separated from their own kind by iron bars and completely dependent on humans to satisfy their every need, I realize I much prefer to be with horses out on the ranges, braving the elements and moving from one great vista to another.
I recall while on the last leg of my return flights I was sitting next to a man named Jared, who grew up on a farm. From his perspective, he felt that the majority of animals would happily exchange their freedom to live a more comfortable life where all their needs are supplied by humans. In his experience, he felt the cows they raised had it made because they were protected from the harshness of nature and never had to worry about not having enough to eat or being attacked by predators (at least until their human caregivers decided it was time to "harvest" them for food.) We talked about the possibility of some animals being co-conspirators of the domestication process, and this may be indeed be so--or was at least in the beginning before agriculture and animal husbandry gave themselves over to factory farming. Yet there is something that moves us humans on a deeper level when seeing horses living fairly autonomous lives in a natural setting. I extend this to cattle and other "livestock" as well--I saw some stunningly beautiful bulls living semi-wild lives in Portugal and they, too, take one's breath away with how much more "presence" they seem to have.
Among the stabled Iberian steeds I saw at Alter, most had lost this presence and seemed rather haunted in spirit, or absent and resigned...there were a few however, that still had the fire within and their noble sense of "I AM" was vibrating outward through their iron bars. Many of the Lusitanos whom I have in seen videos working with bulls still retain that strong presence--and this I find heartening...that some horses and humans can come together in a domesticated life without losing that essence of freedom and a sense of independence that inspires respect and awe.
Though it was an informal excursion to this mecca of the Iberian horse at Alter do Chão, it was one that I will treasure for its useful, yet incredibly visually appealing buildings, its beautiful horses and for its own grand role in preserving the surviving "Iberian Tarpans" known as the Sorraia.