Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vale de Zebro

I received this gorgeous picture book in April of last year and have been meaning to post a review of it here in the Journal of Ravenseyrie for quite some time. I felt this book had such potential importance that I didn't want to just tap out a brief synopsis of it. Finally, I came up with the idea that an interview with the author himself would serve to provide additional insight into just how meaningful the Vale de Zebro refuge in Portugal is and how it can be influential on a worldwide basis.

Here then is my interview with Hardy Oelke:

Ravenseyrie: Your devotion to the preservation of the Sorraia horses took an exciting turn when, in 2004, you were able to release back into the wild a group of Sorraias which had been bred in captivity. Part of what you feel is vital for these horses is the capacity to live autonomously in a wilderness setting. Could you explain why you feel this is so important for the Sorraias and what impact it has on preservation efforts?
Oelke: It is important for several reasons: One is Mother Nature's merciless selections, the survival-of-the-fittest situation. In domestic breeds, Man is selecting for traits and abilities he likes, and invariably loses soundness, vitality, sureness of instincts, etc. In the Vale de Zebro Refuge, any animal that can't make it without human help will not survive. So the project serves to restore the original qualities of these horses. Also, within the scope we can offer there, the horses make their mating choices; it's not the breeder who decides which mare is bred by which stallion.

A related aspect is social structure. There are few places left on this earth where horses can still live in families, where mature stallions, mares, foals, immature stallions and immature mares of several generations are allowed to live together, to freely interact and find their own balance and organize their social structure. This is something one cannot observe anymore in free-roaming mustangs, for instance, due to the constant interventions by the BLM, each of them tearing apart what social structures a "herd" may have had.

Yet another reason is wild behavior. In wild, primitive horses, that is a valuable quality. North American mustangs are proof that over centuries of fighting against, and running from, predators and of being hunted by Man, such wild behavior is restored, but in Europe we don't have that kind of situation. Koniks living in a basically wild situation have not redeveloped wild behavior, not even after many generations. When I had my first encounter with Sorraias, most behaved wilder than anything I had experienced before, except wild mustangs, so I regret that this is rapidly disappearing, and hope to restore it in the Refuge's horses. I'm happy to report that, since its beginnings, a definite development into that direction has taken place.

Ravenseyrie: Here in Canada, the feral population of horses on Sable Island has no natural predators and has not been managed in any way by humans for the past 70 years. The Sable Island horses' numbers are controlled by seasonal weather patterns and forage availability. This natural "culling" is so well maintained that a balanced ecosystem has resulted which now depends upon the presence of these horses on the landscape. Do you see the Vale de Zebro establishing a similar contained, self-maintained ecosystem, or do you expect you may have to occasionally remove horses from the preserve?

Oelke: A: The Vale de Zebro Refuge is definitely not large enough for an experiment like that. We are certain that we will have to remove horses from time to time, but the plan is that this is the only interference we allow. Also, the available forage is not for the horses alone, but is diminished to a degree in times of strong vegetation by a herd of cattle. This is also considered of vital importance, as the cattle grazing interrupts the life cycle of horse parasites, so this practise will keep the parasites in check.

Ravenseyrie: Presently, the Sorraias at the Vale de Zebro have split into two bands. How many bands do you feel the five square kilometer environment can support?

Oelke: At its present size, there will only be room for two bands, as far as I can see, with the possibility of an additional small bachelor band. We aim at keeping the total number of horses at around 20. This is not ideal, but it is the best we can do. We want to avoid a situation in which the land cannot sustain the horses all year round, and they would have to be fed at some time during the year. That would be counterproductive in many ways. In my opinion, leaving them to themselves as much as possible has first priority.

Ravenseyrie: I can imagine that the owners of the property are aware of the vital role they are providing in allowing the Sorraias to live a wild existence alongside the cattle which inhabited the area these past five years. What feedback have you received from these generous landowners?

Oelke: The owners are well aware of the importance of the project, and have been very supportive and idealistic. The cattle are not permanently in the Refuge, only at times when the vegetation is very lush, and allows the cattle grazing.

Ravenseyrie: They are to be commended, and I hope other idealistic owners of fallow lands (worldwide) make it possible for more of these types of preservations projects involving wild horses to come into being.
Have there been, or are there plans for the future, to have the Vale de Zebro habitat studied for the effects the Sorraia horses are having on the environment?

Oelke: Yes, definitely. But we are even more looking forward to studies of the horses' behavior, especially social behavior. Already some interesting observations have been made, some of which I mention in the book.

Ravenseyrie: And your book also shows lovely photos of the abundant variety of flora the property contains which studies are now demonstrating to be much healthier for horses than high protein/high sugar grasses and legumes.
Though there are many individuals who are making an effort to breed Sorraias and Sorraia Mustangs in captivity, do you feel that more focus needs to be given to creating more natural habitats that allow for family units to dwell together in a varied environment?

Oelke: Absolutely. While there have been Sorraias and Sorraia Mustangs that made good riding or driving horses, and it is absolutely legitimate to use them like that, this cannot be the answer to the preservation, or even rescue, of the kind. In the long run, the peculiar characteristics and abilities will only be preserved in a natural, wild setting. Whenever horses are bred for whatever Man has use for, there are traits that get lost. Only the survival in the wild ensures the preservation of the animal as a whole, as the marvelous combination of instinct, strength, frugality, fertility, surefootedness, balance, and not the least: beauty.

Ravenseyrie: With the shift in management of the public range lands in the United States favoring the interest of grazing cattle and indigenous wildlife, the mustang horses are being culled to a point of jeopardizing sustainability. While I feel it will be a tremendous loss to the world if free range horses are eventually removed from public lands in the United States altogether, are private preserves similar to the Vale de Zebro a viable option for some of these mustang horses?

Oelke: I certainly hope that wild horses are not going to be removed from public range land, that would be a great loss indeed because of the part they played in America's history. With respect to private preserves, something similar is already happening, has been happening for many years. I'm referring to ranchers who have been taking care of thousands of (formerly) wild horses for the BLM, which had found no adopters due to their physical makeup, or their age. They are using their private land, but they work for the government, of course. Then there are so-called sanctuaries, usually private initiatives, and depending on donations, which take care of a great number of unadoptable horses. They all do so with no regard to the special status some mustangs have -- they take them on as they come, in all colors and sizes and shapes. Regrettably, there isn't a single one devoting its efforts to the preservation of the Sorraia Mustang, in my view the most important and valuable mustang that exists.

Ravenseyrie: While I have a soft spot for all types of horses and feel even the mangiest mustang deserves its freedom, I would certainly feel especially disappointed if those North American mustangs which maintain a high degree of the Sorraia phenotype are lost through the changes in policies presently manifesting themselves in the United States. In what way do you suggest that Sorraia Mustangs (as well as other special strains of mustangs) can be preserved as a continued presence on public land in a way that is sustainable and acceptable to all parties involved?

Oelke: All it would take is the willingness on the part of either the BLM, or whatever other department may have authority over a herd, to manage a herd for Sorraia characteristics. The management of public lands is geared toward sustenance, no matter where. So far, the wild horses were largely viewed by the BLM as a burden and a problem, it would take a public vote of sorts to persuade a BLM office to manage a herd for that type. Not that any existing herd could even be a candidate, and the concept of "planting" a select group of horses in a cleared area is something most BLM officials shy away from, or declare to be not within their legal power, and funding would also be a problem. Also, it would have to be a fenced-in area, because otherwise these Sorraia types might interbreed with non-Sorraia types. Not many Herd Management Areas meet these requirements. However, every one of the many ranches holding unadoptable mustangs for the BLM would. The best chance may be that a large rancher will take a shine to these horses and decide that a band of 15 or 20 head of wild horses wouldn't make much difference on his land...

Ravenseyrie: Other wild horse forms, like the Przewalski horse and the Polish Konik, have received enthusiastic support from preservation groups, and have successfully been reintroduced to native habitats. The Konik horses, especially, have been recognized for the value in maintaining grassland habits which benefits all manner of biodiversity. Your project at the Vale de Zebro is the only one of its kind for Sorraia horses. What can be done to expand the numbers of Sorraia horses and encourage other property owners in Europe and elsewhere to participate in conservation efforts that incorporate Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses into similar projects?

Oelke: I wish I knew, and I would start working on it immediately. All I can hope is that the Vale de Zebro will become a role model and that sooner or later there will be another opening for a preserve. I am constantly putting out feelers, but so far, nothing has materialized. I would be more than willing to cooperate with or assist another project.

Ravenseyrie: If more individuals became involved in establishing preserves like the Vale de Zebro, what suggestions do you have for re-homing "surplus" numbers of horses that such projects are likely to generate?

Oelke: I wish we would be having that problem! Obviously, a new preserve could become a home for surplus horses of an already established one. We are approaching that point a Vale de Zebro in the immediate future, save something drastic would happen. As long as no other preserve is available, surplus horses will go to private owners, possibly breeders. Private breeders play their role in preserving the Sorraia horse, but they can't be the sole answer, for the above-mentioned reasons.

Ravenseyrie: Would you ever consider the PZP equine contraceptive as a viable option for maintaining sustainable numbers in preservation projects, as opposed to manipulating numbers through physical culling of "surplus" horses?

Oelke: No, or let's say, I hope to avoid that. The reason is because it interrupts the social structure. I would rather remove an animal or two of a given generation than not have that generation present at all. So far, we don't have that problem, anyway, as Sorraias are hard to come by, and I feel we'll find ready takers whenever we will be in a position to offer surplus horses.

Ravenseyrie: In these modern times, for most cultures and societies, horses are no longer necessary features of daily life and have rather become luxury "items" used for pleasure or equestrian sports. With the current depression in worldwide economies, such a luxury is something many people can no longer afford. When so many humans are struggling just to "get by", why should they care about the precarious existence of a small, primitive type of horse?

Oelke: That's a tough one. There will always be people who look at things only from a profit perspective, and others who are idealists. In our times, the profit hunters seem to rule, but fortunately, there are still people who are not solely driven by the almighty buck, but take interest in, and place value on, other matters. I think it is fair to say that nowadays the awareness regarding genetic diversity, and in the decline in the numbers of species, is higher than in recent decades. As far as the precarious existence of primitive horses is concerned, and why people should care, there is a great fascination that every horse person feels -- and not only horse people -- when observing them. There is also the fact that wild species as well as their primitive descendants possess traits and abilities that get lost in modern breeds. There will be a time when man-made breeds may be in dear need of a hybrid vigor that only the primitive cousins can provide, not only in horse, but in other livestock as well. Finally, they are worth preserving for their own sake, for future generations to enjoy. Man has wiped off this planet an incredible number of species and subspecies already, once they are gone, they are gone for good. What wouldn't I give to lay my eyes on a Tarpan in the steppe of southern Russia! And I know there are many like me...

Ravenseyrie: One last question for you, Hardy. "TAL DER WILDEN PFERDE / Vale de Zebro / The Valley of the Wild Horses" is a limited edition, self-published book, resplendent with hundreds of photos making it an expensive undertaking--what prompted you to create this book, knowing that the return on your financial investment would be barely covering your expenses?

Oelke: The Vale de Zebro refuge is not accessible to the general public, and any considerable number of visitors would defeat its purpose, but I wanted to share the views and atmosphere via the photos and some of the observations with those who cannot experience it first-hand. I hope that it is also serving as a promotional tool to hopefully convince others to engage in a preservation project. My main driving force to produce the book, however, was the desire to put in print the latest information regarding the Sorraia horse as a subspecies, or more correctly, the zebro, in particular the reasons why the zebro cannot have been a hemionus (half ass), like some authors claimed.
It was most generous of Hardy Oelke to participate in this interview and I'm so glad that he found the means to present the public with this book on the Sorraia horses and the Vale de Zebro refuge.

The text of this book is written in both English and German, with brief excerpts of d'Andrade's writings in Portuguese and has been kept in small type (almost too small, I find) so as to make room for more of Hardy Oelke's excellent photography. Many photos are documentary in nature, revealing elements of the Sorraia's life in this preserve, others are more ambient with the effect of sweeping one to an otherworldly place, filled with magical light and primeval equines so harmoniously blending into the landscape one wonders if they are real or imagined. Thankfully, they are real and are thriving in the Vale de Zebro!

This full colour 11 x 8 x 1/2" book was published as a very limited edition and is available for purchase for 44,- Euro plus shipping and handling.
To Order please write Hardy Oelke at

Monday, January 25, 2010

Touching Faraway Places / Ravenseyrie and the Hungarian Connection

An equine skull which I found down the steep section of the bluff here at Ravenseyrie. I was told that there hadn't been horses on this property since the 1930's. Alford Fogal believes it might be the skull of the last horse his father had, who's name was "Old Babe". It's amazing that I chanced upon it--and full of interesting portent...

This brief journal entry shares with readers the epilogue which I wrote yesterday for a book a Hungarian researcher is putting together using material from the Journal of Ravenseyrie.

András Madocsai, author of Napkelet Lovai [trans. Horses From the Orient] (scheduled for publication this spring) approached me last September with an interest in writing a book about the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve. András has a special interest in ancestral horses, specifically with the Hungarian Hucul horse, and has followed the Journal of Ravenseyrie for some time. András appreciates the type of preservation effort Kevin and I have established here on Manitoulin Island and extols the value of bringing together the Portuguese Sorraia and select North American mustangs of Sorraia type in a wilderness habitat.

Below is an article written by András, recently published in the January issue of LOVAS NEMZET. If you click on each image, you can see an enlarged version. (Astute readers will notice two of the photos are from Ravenseyrie.)

Feeling that many of the Journal of Ravenseyire blog entries lend themselves to chapters of a story that his Hungarian countrymen would enjoy reading, András approached me on writing a joint book. Unfortunately, I did not think I would be able to devote the time to such a project but suggested if he could weave a flowing thread from the material already presented in the Journal of Ravenseyrie, I would give my blessing to his translating my words into Hungarian (no small task!) and incorporating my photos into book form.

András has been hard at work and completed the translations, layout and title for the manuscript. The title András has proposed is, RAVENSEYRIE: New Home of Ancient Horses / An Untouched Microcosm in the Dawn of the Apocalypse. All that remained was for me to write an epilogue, which I finally got around to doing and thought I would share here in this journal entry as a means of letting readers know about this transcontinental project.

When I first realized that András had chosen the word "apocalypse"as part of the title for this book, I felt repulsed by it. Just to read that word, "apocalypse" conjures up thoughts of cataclysmic endings, destruction, death and hopelessness. Not wanting such thoughts to be part of any book about Ravenseyrie, I considered asking András to please craft a different title. Instead, I waited several days, and thought deeply on this title and the implications it necessarily generates...Having paused for this contemplation, I finally concluded that András was right to form this title and attach it to the story of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve.

The world is indeed experiencing destructive changes with the potential for cataclysmic endings. And, once again the noble equine is being marginalized, abused and in many cases nearly annihilated (as is the present situation with the North American Mustang at the hand of the United States government.)

Over the long history of horse/human relationships, the most primitive of horses, the "ancestral" stock was first revered during the dawn of domestication and later despised, as humans sought to improve upon what nature had spent eons perfecting, only to find, time and again that the primeval genetics of native wild horses contain an intelligence, strength and vigor which resists complete dilution and atavistically remains in many rustic horse types even today. How fortunate for us!

With the loss of biodiversity growing day by day, we are, indeed, apocalyptically vulnerable, but not without a capacity to right wrongs...the situation is not hopeless, it is hopeful! And the primeval horses can serve as one means of giving something back to the environment.

It is vitally important that we gather up these remaining ancestral horses, reunite them with their natural habitats and support them in ways that help them once again flourish. Already we have excellent role models to follow like those in the Netherlands, England and Latvia where conservationists have created nature preserves incorporating wild herds of Konik horses as part of "re-wilding" efforts designed to maintain open grassland habitats which support a complex tapestry of biodiversity at risk of being overtaken by encroaching forest.

The story András has pieced together from my online blog, The Journal of Ravenseyrie is indeed a microcosm of what wonders can be achieved even on a smaller scale. With more nations becoming involved, alongside individuals like Kevin and me here in Canada and Hardy Oelke in Germany, the preservation of ancestral horses is not just beneficial for the human spirit, but essential for the health of our good Mother Earth. We are engaged in this preservation effort not only for ourselves but for all of creation.

I hope you have enjoyed the beauty of Ravenseyrie as translated and edited into book form so sensitively by András Madocsai. May you experience vicariously what I do in living this wilderness life with the horses and come to realize, as I did, the goodness and intelligence in all of Nature and how vital it is for us to preserve and nurture this wonderful realm within which our very existence depends.
--Lynne Gerard
Manitoulin Island, 24Jan10

When the book is published, I will be sure to let readers know. There may be some of you out there who can read Hungarian and desire a copy. Until then I wish András Madocsai continued good research and reporting on the value of preserving ancient lineages of horses. Thank you, András, for your interest in Ravenseyrie.

In closing, I am sharing several photos taken by my friend Annemiek when she visited two of the nature reserves in the Netherlands where wild, free-roaming herds of Konik horses play an essential role in maintaining the open landscape. We'll read more about these horses when I complete my journal entry on the Tarpan. Thank you Annemiek, for these terrific photos!

A large herd of Konik horses at the Oostvaarderplassen nature preserve
(Photos: A. Stuart)

Konik horses on a nature preserve near Arnhem in the Netherlands
(Photos: A. Stuart)

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Zebro Hide and the Sorraia

In the book, DAILY LIFE IN PORTUGAL IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES there is a mention of the use of zebro hide to make sturdy and resilient outdoor footwear:
"But the rough, arduous life of those days required outdoor shoes of leather, almost in the modern style. These were made of well-oiled zebro hide or calfskin; those of better quality were of deerskin, sheepskin, or polished goatskin." pg. 45

I can personally attest that the Sorraia horse has a tough hide, which would no doubt make for excellent work boots. The skin of Altamiro and his half-Sorraia offspring, is different than that of our domestic horses and also different than that of our draft mules and the density of their hair coat (Zorita and Altamiro, especially) is also noteworthy...its incredibly short and thick. In summer it is sleek, yet maintains an incredibly density. The skin ripples more underneath the hair and sometimes even appears to sag a bit around the eyes (more noticeable in the youngsters) and the overall sense reminds me of what I imagine an elephants skin would be like.

The most telling piece of evidence I have, however, for the resiliency of the Sorraia hide is frequently demonstrated by the "hard knocks" Altamiro can take from the heels of his pasture mates. Mistral, our Arabian gelding, is also one who rarely backs away from being kicked and has weathered some pretty severe hard knocks himself...but he always sports a crescent shaped hairless scrape or cut after such encounters. With Altamiro, he always comes away completely unscathed.

See for yourself in this bit of video footage taken last week during one of Altamiro's sneaking away from his mares and foals to come and rough house with the other herd. In this instance he and our draft mule Jerry are "horsin' around":

I'm taking this as another bit of evidence that the Sorraia is indeed the Zebro of antiquity. ;-)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pleistocene Horses, The Zebro, The Tarpan and the Sorraia / A Shared Ancestry?

Belina and her 2009 filly, Encantara

Author's Note
New information has been added to this journal entry on 09Feb11 and is identified by this symbol:

Long before men of letters began to chart equine ancestry, informative "clues" found their way into buried earth, painted caves and ancient literature, titillating us with a variety of possibilities regarding the origins of present day horses. The clues are vastly scattered, incomplete and tangled with professional points of view. Making matters even tricker to gain a consensus on, the technology utilized by the scientific community continues to find new ways to interpret old data as well as developing novel tests which generate entirely new data. Following taxonomic twists and turns, determining equine relationships and reviewing theories of origin and domestication has never been more confusing (at least for lay people like myself) and at the same so exciting.

My interest lies in the enigmatic progenitors which are responsible for the archaic horse that today we know as the Iberian Sorraia.

Last month, Spanish Sulphur Horse enthusiast, Kimberlee Jones, left these comments in the Journal of Ravenseyrie: "The Sorraia has no documentation of being a wild horse nor having a history before the 1920's. So, comparing them to a real wild horse like the Przewalski horse is a leap. What I am saying is that they have no history. Thus, nothing to support claims of them being a wild horse nor of being an ancestral horse."

In his book, Born Survivors on the Eve of Extinction, Hardy Oelke has written: "The Sorraia has absolutely no history of a domestic breed, only that of a wild animal, and even as such it had fallen into oblivion and become almost extinct until its rediscovery earlier this century." [20th-lg.] This perception is reiterated on Oelke's website dedicated to the Sorraia.

Ms. Jones is stating that because there is no documented history of the Sorraia originating from wild, undomesticated horses, they must, therefore, represent a man-made breed developed by Portuguese zoologist, Dr. Ruy d'Andrade, in the early twentieth century.

Hardy Oelke perceives the same lack of direct evidence on the Sorraia's ancestors as proof that they did not originate from domestic breeds (of which the Iberians have kept scrupulous records for hundreds of years) and instead must be a remnant of indigenous wild fauna that remained obscured until d'Andrade discovered their presence while on a hunting expedition in Coruche near the lower Sorraia river.

When faced with such different perceptions regarding the origins of the Sorraia horses, many people maintain that it was historically impossible for there to have been any true wild horses surviving into modern times in Iberia (the land famous for its long documented history of breeding the exquisite Lusitano and Pura Rasa Espanola [Andalusian] horses) and that at best the atavistic horses which, in the 1920's, Dr. Ruy d'Andrade had observed living a wild existence in such a remote region were simply feral horses of highly mixed heritage...(although horses of highly mixed heritage are as a rule not homogenous in appearance and behavior as are the Sorraias.)

Mares and foals on the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve - 2009

Why did d'Andrade, a renowned zoologist, hippologist, author, historian and expert horse breeder, not come to the same conclusion?

Why, after examining all the evidence available to him during that time period did d'Andrade document that the archaic looking horses he saved from extinction were most assuredly a surviving remnant of the indigenous wild horse of southern Iberia? Why did he find them to be so different from the domestic horses as to describe them as "generally in all aspects absolutely wild, or primitive, as if they were a species of zebra, or a hemionus (half-ass) species"? Why did he on the one hand suspect these primitive horses were closer to Equus stenonis than Equus caballus and yet on the other theorize that they might be the ancestral forebear of the very Lusitano horses he had been expertly breeding for years?

Dr. Ruy d'Andrade was perhaps the most respected and trusted hippological voice in Iberia in his day and he would certainly know that in the Sorraia he had discovered a repository of ancestral genetics...if not 100% pure any more, certainly recoverable through selective breeding based on their unique phenotype. Indeed, we owe d'Andrade a great deal of respect for saving the loss of such a link with antiquity.

But how does one feel assured that these horses do indeed provide us with a genetic link reaching back to the Pleistocene? Where's the proof? How does one gain such proof knowing the horses d'Andrade put upon his preserve have no documented pedigree? If these horses (like so many indigenous peoples) had passed down through tens of thousands of generations an oral tradition of their origins, they are keeping mute on the subject. Until we relearn to communicate with horses via direct perception and become privy to their storehouse of knowledge on the subject of their origins via heart-based cognition, we will have to dig around in the dirt and scientific articles to further our understanding of these matters. [Humor me, this little joke of sorts, that perhaps only readers of Stephen Harrod Buhner's work can appreciate.]

In reflecting upon these questions and the opinions of those who discredit the Sorraia by defining it as modern man-made colour breed, as so often happens I realize that linear thinking by its own nature is prone to missing important evidence, or dismissing it, because it doesn't fit the accepted scientific paradigm. There is a phrase I have come across in my studies of equine origins, human origins, Paleolithic art and other prehistoric themes--"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

And yet, if we look into a broader plane of potential sources of information and compare it collectively with the living presence of the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses, we see that indeed we have quite a bit of evidence to support the supposition that these horses represent, not a completely pure form of ancestral equine, but a definite genetic repository of primitive traits remarkably similar, if not identical to certain types of prehistoric wild horses.

[To read more information for and against the prehistoric heritage of the Sorraia read this journal entry:  The Sorraia's Prehistoric Relatives / Countering an Historian's Critique ]

I look upon the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses as though they are the visual image on the box top of a jigsaw puzzle. When we open the box, we find our job of putting the puzzle together properly is made more challenging because some of the puzzle pieces are missing. (In fact this same situation is apparent for the Przewalski horse and the Tarpan.) We are fortunate, however, because we still have the picture on the box top (the Sorraia in the flesh!) to assist us.

Archaeologists typically do not have the luxury of possessing the box top to their puzzles, and so in trying to put their puzzle pieces together they are forced to guess, extrapolate, surmise, theorize, etc. as to what full image their bones, teeth and related data might reflect. What a subjective task! How easily misinterpreted!

Fidalgo (Altamiro x Belina)

A skull, a cannon bone, a tooth with its enamel folds reading like a map...are these the only acceptable indicators of the existence of a creature--especially when one takes into account how many creatures lived, died and decayed and how scant and random the fossil record is by comparison? Catastrophic occurrences, geological disruption and the efficiency of organic decay all affect the archaeological record, making whatever we find just a small glimpse of an incomplete image of all that was.

To try to gain more clues, providing us more puzzle pieces, the best researchers incorporate other types of information which might include oral traditions, folklore, historic literature, language usage, settlement patterns, environmental influences, etc.

Within the writings of Ruy d'Andrade, Hardy Oelke and Paulo Gaviao Gonzaga we find many of these other types of information have already been discussed and certainly with greater scholarliness than I'm capable of, so please seek out their writings by consulting the bibliography at the end of this journal entry. I will however highlight this information and include some additional elements which my own searchings have chanced upon. I don't expect the "evidence" presented here to satisfy those who believe the Sorraia is not a wild subspecies of Equus, but I do hope that sharing this information within the Journal of Ravenseyrie prompts those interested to understand why some concerned individuals are diligent in their desire to preserve the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustangs.


Most of us have seen the evocative images of horses painted or etched in European caves and carved into useful or decorative objects, and it is obvious that a many of those images which continue to get reproduced in articles and books bear a striking resemblance to the Asian Wild Horse, more familiarly known as Przewalski's horse--but this is not the only equine form represented.

Having studied a variety of sources to further my own technique of rock painting, I can relay to readers that the reproduced images of Paleolithic horses represent a small fraction of the actual images present from this time period. Copyright infringement keeps me from scanning those supportive images I have found in books and reproducing them here, however, as you can see, I've done simple tracings of them to help illustrate this journal entry. The books I used for these tracings are listed in my bibliography for those who'd like to see for themselves the photos I've referenced.

Not a one of these images is "proof" that the horses depicted are THE ancestors of the Sorraia, however, I bring them to our attention because they certainly suggest a related phenotype which has survived into modern times.

Most every book, article or breed website dedicated to Iberian horses will point to images in Paleolithic art as reflecting the heritage of their horses. The prehistoric likenesses of the Sorraia are most often recorded as coming from the caves at Escoural in Portugal and La Pileta in Spain. There are other likenesses to be seen elsewhere, as you can see from my tracings interspersed within this journal entry, certainly enough to dispel the misconception that (as quoted from an email I received from a Sorraia debunker) "IMO, the cave paintings look like the Mongolian wild horse, not a Sorraia."

In his book, A History of the Horse, Gonzaga quotes A. Rosenfeld (who is relaying Zeuner's thoughts from [A History of Domesticated Animals (London, 1963)]:
"Zeuner has suggested that some at least, of the horses represented in Palaelolithic art are more like the tarpan than the Przewalski horse. He refers particularly to the frieze of small bi-chrome horses of Lascaux."

Horses in Lascaux cave - image from Wikipedia Commons
Later, Gonzaga quotes Miklos Jankovich discussing the obvious variety of horses represented in Paleolithic art:
"One such variety, apparently about the size of Grevy's zebra among modern equines, and perhaps striped (since some European pony breeds show vestigial stripes on the legs and blurred marks on the shoulder, in combination with an eel-stripe), represents the unknown factor in the ancestry of our domestic horses."

[Perhaps this small equine which Jankovich says "represents the unknown factor in the ancestry of domestic horses" is the late Pleistocene horse Equus caballus antunesi, (Cardoso and Eisenmann 1989), see updated bibliography for links. I have only just begun to try to understand whether or not E. antunesi may figure into the prehistoric heritage of the Sorraia. So far I have only found the one paper (in French, and I cannot read French) but the description of a small, slender horse in southern Iberia in the late Pleistocene is certainly intriguing enough to keep checking into.]

Commenting on this Gonzaga writes, "Very interesting is the description above of 'vestigial stripes on the legs and blurred marks on the shoulder', typical of the Sorraia of Portugal. It is also important to repeat that during the Palaeolithic, such a rich and varied collection of art and such strong proof of the presence of indigenous wild horses existed nowhere else other than Iberia and Southern France."

Further evidence that some of the images in Paleolithic art reveal an equine form much more reminiscent of the Sorraia than the Przewalski horse, I'll bring up R. Dale Guthrie's hefty tome titled, THE NATURE OF PALEOLITHIC ART. In this book Guthrie offers his own sketches based on the thousands of images he has viewed in person or seen in photos, many of which show long-necked, cleaner-limbed horses with convex profiles, indistinct or possibly falling manes and the absence of the "mealy" mouth colouring. This book also contains many examples which resemble the Przewalski horse, among other prehistoric pony-type equines. Those images featured which bear a more Sorraia-type resemblance are listed as belonging to these locales:
Cosquer (France), Momtastruc (France), La Paloma (Spain), Altamira (Spain), Montrespan (France), Teyjart (France), Pasiega (Spain), Trois Freres (France), Lascaux (France), Gabillou (France), Mayenne-Sciences (France), Pech-Merle (France), Pont d'Ambon (France)

Unfortunately, though Guthrie discusses striping patterns in equines, he does not offer any contemplation on the obvious phenotypical variation which occurs in Paleolithic art, sometimes even within the same location as those images the are more Przewalski-like. Like so many authors, Guthrie considers Przewalski's horse to be the only living representative of horses which lived during the Pleistocene neglecting to mention the fact that other living specimens of primitive equines (like the Exmoor pony for example) also fit the "descriptions" revealed in Paleolithic art. Not even the Tarpan figures into Guthries work here, but then this book was not intending to take up the multi-origin of equines controversy.

Photograph from Lascaux cave – Prof saxx / Wikipedia

Sedutor (Altamiro x Zorita)

Within the data base of Paleolithic images which I have reviewed, many display colouring which resembles grulla (mouse grey), with dark muzzles and uniform to dark colored underparts, unlike the tan and reddish (yellow dun) of the Przewalski types which also have light muzzles (mealy mouth) and light underbellies along with distinctive differences in conformation.
Equus ferus przewalskii- image from Wikipedia Commons

With the amount of Paleolithic art discovered, and so little of it reproduced for viewing, it is not inappropriate for us to expect there are many more images which we haven't viewed that share characteristics with the Sorraia, even if they are not as abundant as those which reflect the Przewalski horse type. My conclusion is that there are a sufficient amount of images from this prehistoric period that share similarities with the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustangs as to suggest a potential ancestral relatedness.

On now to some other puzzle pieces that lend support to the Sorraia's origins reaching back into antiquity...


The Greek historian and geographer, Strabo left us a puzzle piece in his "Geographical Sketches" c. 14 A.D.) regarding the presence of wild horses in Iberia:

"Iberia produces many deer and wild horses."
(Book III, Chapter 4 pg. 107)

A marginal reference to be sure, and gives no hint as to the phenotype these wild horses displayed, but at least confirms that wild horses were present in the region during that time period.
The Sorraia stallion, Altamiro on the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, Manitoulin Island


The bishop of Seville, St. Isidore, compiled a comprehensive encyclopedia of his time ( c. 615 and early 630) within which he writes:

"The dosinus horse is so called because its color is that of an ass (de asinus); it is also known as ash-colored (cinereus). These originate from wild stock, which we call equi-ferus, and therefore they cannot be used as city horses.

"There are three kinds of horses: one well-bred, suited for battles and riders; the second common and ordinary, suited for draft work, not for riding; the third originating from a mixture of different species, which is called a hybrid (bigener), because it is born from different species, like the mule."

While the good bishop has not provided a significant morphological overview of the wild horses which were present in Iberia during his time, he certainly gives us a good clue that those wild horses were grullo (mouse-dun) that they were not donkeys, or half-asses or hybrids, but nevertheless were distinct from domestic horses.


There have been historic references to the zebro (who's name alters slightly depending on location) as a moniker for specific geographic locales, a species of game animal and a supreme quality of hide. Curiously, the zebro itself has been a mysterious and controversial creature, with one group of people concluding it to be Equus hydruntinus (European wild ass), and another group of people convinced it was as Equus ferus (a wild horse). Which is it? Myself and others consider the zebro are the southern Iberian form of equus ferus (making them a Tarpan variant, but more on that in a separate journal entry) and we also feel that the Sorraia is a living remnant of the zebro. Let's have a look at some of the zebro wrangling which has taken place and perhaps understand a bit better why the Sorraia is the best candidate fitting the description of the zebro.

As we read about the ambiguity of the Zebro, we should keep in mind that for many years Equus lambei (the Yukon Horse) was classified as a half-ass until the mid-1990's when a partially mummified carcass was discovered which clearly demonstrated that this equid was definitely a horse and not a hemione or asinus.

The description of animals living around Chinchilla (southeastern Spain) as found in a passage from the medieval hunting treatise, El Libro de la Monteria, tells us about the "encebras" (zebros), which are coloured like rats, with dark muzzles, whinnying like mares do and though small could run faster than typical riding horses--clearly bringing up the image of the Sorraia horse to mind and not the pangare modified dun colour or strident braying of a wild ass.

Equus asinus - image from Wikipedia Commons
In a paper titled, "Man-made Desert: Effects of Economic and Demographic growth on the Ecosystems of Arid Southeastern Spain, the Environmental History" in addition to discussing the alterations in the Iberian landscape and environment over the centuries due to the invasive activities of humans, the authors (Latorre, et al) highlight the animals considered worthy game as documented in King Alfonso VI's hunting manual:

"This and other texts from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries describe the same animals, as well as roe deer, wolves (Canis lupus), the common crane (Grus grus) -a bird associated with open oak woodlands, otters (Lutra lutra), and an exotic and mysterious animal known in the Middle Ages as zebra or "encebra" in Spain and Portugal." What were zebras doing in Europe? They were, in fact, a wild equine breed, probably the extinct Equus hydruntinus."

Miguel Telles Antunes came to the same conclusion that the Zebro was Equus hydruntinus, but concurs with colleague Vera Eisenmann that e. hydruntinus was actually Equus hemionus (half-ass) and not Equus asinus (wild ass, donkey). He lists under his "evidence" segment that the only skeletal material of this half-ass discovered in Portugal are two teeth! The rest of his "evidence" (which is admirably exhaustive) deals with toponyms and medieval documents. While his assessment of places names coupled with the two teeth and other obscure mentions of zebro in public records and the aforementioned hunting treatises demonstrated to him that the Zebro was an hemione and not a horse, it is not universally accepted, hence the reason the Latorre paper says the zebro was only "probably" the extinct Equus hydruntinus. Likewise in Orlando, et al's paper, Geographic Distribution of an Extinct Equid (Equus hydruntinus: Mammalia, Equidae) Revealed by Morphological and Genetical Analyses of Fossils, they say of E. hydruntinus only that it "may be mentioned in Portuguese manuscripts dating to the Middle Ages."

Zorita, Segura and Encantara

The trouble with a definite determination of whether the Zebro was a wild horse like the Sorraia or a half-ass like the onager received great debate as documented in a rather long article Carolina Michaelis de Vasconcelos' Forgotten Sketch of an Unfinished Monograph on E(n)-Zebra 'Wild Donkey' author Yakov Malkiel tells us of the many etymological studies that had been undertaken by literary scholars who determined to understand what animal the "zebro" referred to, since it had been used in prose and poetry over the ages, and how it differed from the word "zebra" which we know today refers to the black and white striped equines in Africa. Writes, Malkiel,
"We have then, before us, not just one problem, but two separate problems, of equal relevancy but entirely different scope: (a) the actual etymology of medieval a-, e(n)zebra, shared by Old Portuguese and Old Spanish: almost certainly the Latin compound equiferus, lit. 'wild horse'; and (b) the transfer of one variant of this polymorphic label to an entirely different animal species, under historically verifiable conditions."

While the the monograph remained unfinished, it appears that certain scholars believe that the author (though perhaps inconclusive regarding whether or not the zebro was a wild horse) nevertheless found evidence that "the e(n)-zebra had served Moor and Christian alike as an intermittently domesticated, but temperamentally still wild, animal, on a par with, and in the company of, either the horse and the mule" because it was ridden and also it was used for its meat and leather. This concurs with the historical references other authors have highlighted when regarding the zebro.

Equus hemionus - image from Wikipedia Commons

Ending our information regarding the zebro, and whether it was a half-ass or wild horse, let's consider a paper written by Diego Arceredillo in 2008 titled, Morphometric Differences Among the Equids of the Upper Pleistocene From Valdegoba (Burgos, Spain). When comparing dental patterns of equid molars Arceredillo determined the smaller teeth belonged to E. hydruntinus and the larger belonged to Equus ferus and writes, "However, the most representative horse in Europe during the Upper Pleistocene is E. ferus. This horse present the own [sic] features of caballoid equids and is represented at most sites on the Iberian Peninsula." Unless E. hydruntinus exploded in presence in the Iberian Peninsula in later ages, it would appear more likely that only E. ferus was abundant enough to have inspired the many historical mentions of the "zebro".

No one puts the matter to rest more succinctly as does Hardy Oelke on his website, in his five point explanation why it is much more likely the zebro was the indigenous wild horse of that region.

From what we know of the Sorraia, and the Tarpan and the wild horses historically reported to live in Iberia, I find it surprising that researchers haven't considered that the Zebro was a variant of the Tarpan (E. ferus ferus or E. gmelini, depending on who you ask) and that its phenotype has survived extinction in the form of the Sorraia.


According to the Portuguese Sorraia breeders website, The Associação Internacional de Criadores do Cavalo Ibérico de Tipo Primitivo - Sorraia, the group of about 20 primitive horses Ruy d'Andrade came upon when hunting on the Sesmaria estate belonged to Sr. Antonio Anselmo. From what I can tell (using google translator as an assistant) the text does not say that these primitive horses were the result of specific breeding, rather that they were wild equines who had survived in relative isolation from the higher quality horses due to their remote location and the harshness of the environment which could not support the domestic breeds.

Where did Sr. Anselmo acquire them? Did they simply turn up on the estate one day after fleeing from a loss of habitat elsewhere in the region? Or did he "stock" this estate with them as a novelty game animal? There are those that feel the horses were always there, and they have good reason to feel this is so. When I have something more definite to add on this part of the story, I will include edit it in later.

After the death of Sr. Anselmo the website states the herd was broken up and dispersed among different farmers and it was from these sources d'Andrade recovered the nucleus of a breeding herd to place on his own estate as a preservation project, selecting those which most matched the sketches and field notes he made from his first encounter with Sr. Anselmo's herd.

[Thanks to the generous assistance of Constanca Oliveira e Sousa, great granddaughter of Dr. Ruy d'Andrade I have learned that "Sesmaria" is not one particular estate, but rather a sort of "commons" of uncultured lands under shared ownership where semi-deserted herds of horses, lacking in commercial value, lived free range lives reproducing in freedom. The land owners would come and take a horse when necessary (d'Andrade wrote of how they were used to thresh grain) and return it to the sesmaria when the work was done. It was one of these isolated free range herds that d'Andrade notice while on that fateful hunting trip. The particular group he saw was very wild in appearance and behavior and quite uniform in their characteristics. However, years later when Dr. d'Andrade decided to begin a conservation of these horses on his own estate, the horses on the sesmaria were gone and he had to instead select individuals that were now on private breeding farms in the region. Sr. Anselmo was one of the breeders who had among his horses some of these primitive wild types. How fortunate d'Andrade was to have still been able to find specimens that conformed to the phenotype he had originally seen! It is from these individuals that the preservation of these horses began. This information has been compiled from correspondence with C. Oliveira e Sousa in June of 2010]

While no claim of absolute purity is being made, it is of vital consideration to know that the horses d'Andrade brought to his estate where not domestic horses of varying breeds placed together to recreate the indigenous wild horse of the southwest Iberia--like the programs designed to recreate the extinct Tarpan (which led to the Heck horse and the Konik). The Sorraia are autochthonal fauna that were recovered, reunited and allowed to reproduce in their original forms. Whether these horses are the product of generations of offspring from never-tamed wild equines dwelling in the region since the Pleistocene, or escaped captives which became feral, or represent a self-actualized landrace of modern caballine are debates that are likely to remain unsettled. What is uncontroversial is that the behavior, form, colour and reproductive reliability of these Sorraia horses, in addition to the discovery, via mtDNA, that they possess their own unique genotype, clearly demonstrates that these horses are markedly different than domestic horses lending validity to the voices which claim them to be a surviving form of equus ferus.


Having laid out the puzzle pieces that we have to shape together the origins of the Sorraia and recognizing that many questions presently remain unanswerable, I'd like to demonstrate that this is no reason to completely reject the idea that the Sorraia is a form of equus ferus and deserves the same consideration that are given to the Tarpan and Przewalski's horse. Indeed, one can make the case that the history and origins of the Sorraia are less questionable than those of the Tarpan and the Przewalski horse because of the way the foundation for preserving the Sorraia from extinction was undertaken by Ruy d'Andrade.

I'm going to quote from the introduction to the article QUATERNARY HORSES: POSSIBLE CANDIDATES TO DOMESTICATION by Vera Eisenmann, who is perhaps the most respected and devoted researcher of equid paleontology. When an individual of this caliber recognizes the difficulties in exactly determining the origins and appropriate classifications of horses, we should not be so ready to overlook the information that has been part of the story of the Sorraia simply because it is incomplete or misunderstood. Writes M. Eisenmann:

Ever recurring questions about modern horses are: How many species and/or subspecies there are? Are the "Tarpan" and the "Przewalski horse" the same "thing"? How closely related are they to the fossil Pleistocene wild horses? From what stock(s) do the domesticated horses spring?

The very recurrence of the questions is a proof that definitive answers are difficult to give. This paper is no exception and will only try to present some evidence relevant to the questions above.

Before that, two points must be recalled and stressed. Whatever was the "Tarpan", it presently available osteological remains are limited to one complete skeleton (St Petersburg: ZIN 521) and one isolated skull without mandible (Moscow: MGU 94 535). Other specimens labeled "Tarpans" are the result of tentative genetic 'reconstructions' by crossing domestic horses and selecting what individuals appear in their exterior morphology more like to the extinct 'Tarpans'. The other point concerns the "Prezewalski horses". There is every reason to believe that from the moment when they began to interest the international community, and been bought in numbers by zoological parks, these animals were crossed with domestic horses. In result, it is very doubtful whether any presently living animal can be considered as a genetically pure wild "Przewalski horse".--Vera Eisenmann
A Przewalski's horse, named "Vaska" , the first to have arrived in Europe, and trained to accept a rider - image from Wikipedia Commons

It's time that the Sorraia was researched more extensively. While there are quite a number of research papers published which are either devoted to the genetics of the Sorraia, or use the Sorraia as an example in data comparison--all noting that the Sorraia represents a form of differentiated horse yet without a consensual definition, I'd like to see more being done within the broader field of archaeology and morphometric comparisons to pin down the relationship of the Sorraia to the Zebro and to the Tarpan providing even more pieces to the puzzle. So far, excepting for the genetic research on existing Sorraia horses, I have not found any research that has been published regarding an archaeological or historic basis for these horses as being a wild subspecies or a man-made breed one way or the other. I do not doubt a link with antiquity is there--the physical image of the "puzzle" itself gallops over the wide expanses here at Ravenseyrie, along with his dynamic family of mares and foals. Its a timeless image and one we are very, very fortunate to see--it came so close to being forever lost.
Note: There will likely be some updates and edits to this journal entry. (And an entry on the Tarpan will follow at some point.)


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


--Arceredillo, Diego. Morphometric Differences Among the Equids of the Upper Pleistocene From Valdegoba (Burgos, Spain) 2008

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--Eisenmann, Vera. Quaternary Horses: Possible Candidates to Domestication, 1996 -

--Groves, Dr. Colin P. The Przewalski Horse: Morphology, Habitat and Taxonomy retrieved from the internet here:

--Hamilton-Smith, Lieut. Col. Charles. Mammalia Horses, excerpted from The Naturalist's Library vol.XX 1866

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--Latorre, Latorre, & Sanchez-Picon. Dealing With Aridity: Socio-economic Structures and Environmental Changes in An Arid Mediterranean Region, 2000

----Latorre, Sanches & Latorre. The man-made desert: Effects of economic and demographic growth on the ecosystems of arid southeastern Spain, 2001

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--Luis, Basto-Silveira, Cothran and Oom. Variation in the mitochondrial control region sequence between the two maternal lines of the Sorraia horse breed, 2002

--Luis, Basto-Silveira, Cothran & Oom. Iberian Origins of New World Horse Breeds, 2006

--Luis, Bastos-Silveira, Costa-Ferreira, Cothran & Oom. A lost Sorraia maternal lineage found in the Lusitano horse breed, 2006

--Luis, Cothran and Oom. Inbreeding and Genetic Structure in the Endangered Sorraia Horse Breed: Implications for its Conservation and Management, 2007

--Malkiel, Yakov. Carolina Michaelis de Vasconcelos' Forgotten Sketch of an Unfinished Monograph on E(n)-zebra 'Wild Donkey', retrieved from the internet here: -

--Orlando, Mashkour, Burke, Douady, Eisenmann & Hanni. Geographic distribution of an extinct equid (Equus hydruntinus: Mammalia, Equidae) revealed by morphological and genetical analyses of fossils, 2006

--Royo, Alvarez, Beja-Pereira, Molina, Fernandez, Jordana, Gomez, Gutierrez and Goyache. The Origins of Iberian Horses Assessed via Mitochondrial DNA, 2005

--Vila, Leonard, Gotherstrom, Marklund, Sandberg, Liden, Wayne & Ellegren. Widespread Origins of Domestic Horse Lineages, 2001


--The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online