The Sorraia Horse
By Hardy Oelke

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This group of Sorraias lived practically wild on a large estate of one of the d'Andrade grandsons until 1999. They are now managed to a degree.
Photography by Hardy Oelke
When the Sorraia horse was discovered in 1920, few could believe that a wild horse subspecies could have survived that long in Europe. A few decades earlier, the Mongolian wild horse had been all but wiped out, with just a few specimens saved in zoological gardens, and the East European Tarpan had become extinct even earlier. There were already zoologists ready to deny the Tarpan the status of a true wild horse, just because they hadn't had a chance to study and scientifically describe the Tarpan before he vanished forever. Zoologists had ignored him until it was too late.




They were going to do the same with the Sorraia, even though the Portuguese scientist who discovered this horse, Ruy d'Andrade, did his level best to study the Sorraia, preserve him, and make the zoological community aware of him. In this respect the Sorraia shares his fate with the English Exmoor pony: although significant evidence exists for the Exmoor to be not a man-made breed, but a remnant of an ancestral wild horse, many, if not most, zoologists wouldn't hear of it. Wild horses in our civilized Europe? Come on!

When the last specimen of the Mongolian wild horse were discovered and captured, it was a totally different issue - the Mongolian steppes were far enough removed that European scientists would take interest in these horses and readily accept that they were indeed not just wild-living horses, but wild horses in the zoological sense.

Going back to the Sorraia, it must be noted that Iberia was largely ignored by zoologists in other European countries. The vast expanses of Russia and Asia held an allure that smelled of discoveries and potentials. They automatically also looked for the cradle of domestication there, and to this day the hints, and even evidence, for the first domestication of the horse to have taken place in Iberia can hardly be found in scholarly works. In a new scientific work, however, scientific evidence for a domestication center in Iberia has been published (JANSEN ET AL., 2002, "Mitochondrial DNA and the Origins of the Domestic Horse", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 99 (16), 10905-10910).


The reason wild horses could survive in the lowlands of the Sorraia river was that the area used to be a fairly inaccessible wilderness which served as a hunting ground for the Portuguese Royalty until the early 1900s. It was on a hunting trip there that Ruy d'Andrade happened to see a band of wild horses he later named "Sorraia", after the river. He later tried in vain to relocate that herd, but found horses of the same phenotype in several places in the general area of the Sorraia river. As a zoologist and paleontologist, he finally decided he had stumbled on an ancestral type of horse, and that it needed to be preserved. He acquired seven mares that possessed the characteristics he considered typical according to his studies, and left them to fend for themselves on his property, which fortunately was large enough for such a project. He tried four different stallions on them. His theory was that living wild, without the help of man, in their own habitat, would result in Mother Nature's purifying the small population, and bringing out and consolidating their original characteristics and abilities.

 
This is a Lusitano mare, roaming a pasture at river Tejo, which shows such strong Sorraia characteristics that at first glance she could be mistaken for a Sorraia.
Photography by Hardy Oelke
 Ruy d'Andrade found out that the Sorraia exhibits some strong similarities with the Lusitano, Andalusian, and Barb horse. It was especially the teeth, the molars in particular, which he studied and found to be the same in the Sorraia as well as the above mentioned breeds, and quite different from other horse breeds. The general build of the skull is also similar in the Lusitano/Andalusian, and Barb, and different from other breeds. D'Andrade concluded that the Sorraia is the wild ancestor of the Andalusian and Lusitano.




Today's whole Sorraia population goes back to those seven mares of Ruy d'Andrade's, and the four stallions he utilised, although they were eventually narrowed down to only one direct paternal line. The inbreeding they have thus been forced to suffer is tremendous, and any man-made breed would long have succumbed to it. However, if the Sorraia has suffered any ill effects, it doesn't show - Sorraias are still very hardy, fertile, able to live off the most meagre feed the land has to offer, surviving without barns and the help of man.

 In the Sorraia, we still have a primitive horse of South Iberia, thanks to the efforts of Ruy d'Andrade. However, with the benefit of modern technologies, namely DNA analysis, we have better insight in any ancestral role the Sorraia may have played. It isn't quite as simple and clear-cut as d'Andrade saw it. In fact, mitochondrial DNA analyses showed the Sorraia to be of different origin than the Andalusian and Lusitano (se again the above mentioned work by Jansen et al.) This means that the Sorraia cannot have been the ancestor of the South Iberian breeds, This is in contrast to d'Andrade's theory, who thought the Sorraia to be the main ancestor of these
breeds. If that were the case, then at least a large percentage of these horses should have the Sorraia mtDNA pattern.This most advanced technology did confirm, however, the special status of the Sorraia horse. It proved that d'Andrade indeed recognized and preserved a horse of singular status, and an invaluable genetic resource at that:

 
Some Sorraia mares in a pasture typical for Portugal - studded with cork oak and live oak and sometimes olive trees.
Photography by Hardy Oelke

Some people would like to see the Sorraia as just another breed, one that d'Andrade created, and one that's just based on color, namely the dun and grulla color. They claim that all d'Andrade did was pick some dun and grulla horses and keep selecting for this color. If that had were the case, then today's Sorraias would have the same mtDNA type as is found in Lusitanos and Andalusians. Iberia's horse population is predominantly of a certain mitochondrial DNA type, and it is incredible that d'Andrade unerringly chose
horses of a rare and totally different mtDNA type, only through his expert eye and just going for the primitive characteristics he had first seen in that wild band! His expert's eye had indeed picked individuals of a different race, or subspecies, one that is now, and must have been then, extremely rare.

When discussing the primitive status of the Sorraia it must be considered that this horse has no history as a man-made breed. Ruy d'Andrade was maybe the most respected authority on Iberian horses of his time, and one of the most important breeders of Lusitano/Andalusian horses - he would have known about the existence of such a breed, and wouldn't have considered the Sorraia a primitive, ancestral form.

That the Sorraia had a significant influence on the Andalusian and Lusitano, especially the latter, can’t be denied, even though it can't be proved through DNA analyses (yet). The Sorraia characteristics of many Lusitanos and not a few Andalusians are too obvious. The author has seen Lusitanos which were practically indistinguishable from Sorraias. It is possible though that this influence came through male lines. The mtDNA is passed on through the maternal line only, so any influence through the paternal line will go unnoticed in the analyses.

In a scenario with a remnant population of wild horses and extensively-kept domestic horses, it has always been the same story the world over: wild stallions stealing domestic mares, or, if not stealing them, at least breeding them out in the fields. Such a stolen mare may later be reclaimed, but she might have conceived a foal by the wild stallion. Trouble with wild stallions was one of the main reasons why wild horse populations were hunted
and eliminated all over the world. Such reports exist about wild Tarpan stallions, stallions of the Mongolian wild horse, and also of feral stallions (mustangs) in the American West. Wild stallions were always notorious about stealing and breeding domestic mares.

Knowing how the Iberians kept their domestic horse herds out in the fields, it is quite logical to assume that many a foal was sired by a wild Sorraia stallion. These mares would have had the mtDNA pattern common for Lusitanos and Andalusians, so any of their foals
sired by a wild Sorraia stallion would have inherited many of the Sorraias characteristics, but also its dam’s mtDNA pattern… In such a way, the Sorraia may have had an influence on our modern Lusitanos and Andalusians.

In order to establish a possible relatedness of certain American mustangs and the Sorraia horse - which seemed likely because of strong phenotypic similarities -, hair samples were taken by the author and analysed by a German institute. The state-of-the-art method to do this, and the only reliable one according to Professor Dr. Klaus Olek of the former Institute of Molecularbiological Diagnostic in Germany (now Biopsytec Analytik GmbH), is mitochondrial DNA sequencing. The relatedness between these mustangs and the
Sorraia was proved, because it was found that the Sorraias all have a typical mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) pattern. This pattern found in another horse
scientifically proves a relatedness beyond any doubt.

Why is the Sorraia threatened to become extinct?

A population that numbers around 200 head is extremely threatened by any biologist's standard. At least half of these are non-breeding animals - older horses, stallions that aren't being used as studs, or youngsters. But that is only half of the story. The population in Portugal is divided basically into a few groups: four d'Andrade family members (grandchildren of the late Ruy d'Andrade), each has a band of Sorraias; the Portuguese National Stud; and a few private breeders with just one or two mares. All these horses stem from d'Andrade's herd. None of these breeders seem to invest a lot in the
preservation of the horses, or seem to place any special value on them. The National Stud has not been showing any real effort, or expert plan for preservation. They are keeping as studs animals that needed to be gelded, and on the other hand have sold stallions of good type.

The most disturbing factor is that hardly any exchange of stallions took place. Only recently has the National Stud leased a stallion from d'Andrade, because the stallion they had used managed to sire only one foal in 2000. Why they didn't give their other stallions a try, remains a mystery. So, in each of the little groups, the inbreeding is intensified even more, and unnecessarily so. This holds true for another major group which is in Germany. They in turn go back to 7 animals bought from d'Andrade and imported from Portugal in the early 70s by the late Michael Schaefer, when the Portuguese revolution gave rise to great concern regarding the future of these horses. There has been no new blood from Portugal used in that operation since!

As an example for what is taking place, one private Portuguese breeder outside the d'Andrade family may be mentioned: She had 5 stallions, most of which were of good type. She was using those for sports activities and bred her mares to a stallion leased from the National Stud - the only exchange of blood the author had witnessed until then. However, her mares had very little to none of the typical zebra stripes, and the stallion she leased was unlikely to be able to improve on that, as he had none himself. He also had a
star on his forehead and for that reason alone should not have been used as a stud…
This breeder sold a colt and a filly (half siblings) to another private owner. The colt bred his half sister, as those two were the only Sorraias this person owns. It would have been easy enough for him to get another stallion that is at least not a half brother to the mare…
One of the d'Andrade family sold one year all his stallions of breeding age except one as geldings. In one blow, he decimated the available total pool for stud horses by some 30 per cent. Besides, the one he selected to keep may not have been the ideal (most primitive) one. The one he kept was more pleasing to the eye of a Lusitano breeder…

Actions like that of individual breeders wouldn't be so significant if a man-made breed consisting of sufficient numbers were at stake. But the Sorraia horse is too important an animal and a treasure for the whole horse world to let its fate be decided by the whims of individuals who could decide tomorrow that they had no use for them anymore anyway and send them to the butcher, or to buyers that don't appreciate them for what they are. The National Stud is concerned primarily about their modern breeds and their sales.

A number of Sorraias are now in private hands, as due to some books and articles, the horse-related public is slowly becoming aware of them. In Germany, there are a small number of parties now that own breeding stock, including a zoological garden with a small breeding group. Some feel the Sorraia's chance for survival lies in promoting them as mounts and carriage horses. This entails risks, however, as it could become counterproductive in the long run. People who are using them in the way other horses are being used will inevitably change them in type and disposition. They will be breeding for what they perceive as beauty, ability, sweet disposition, etc., and will try to treat and fix whatever soundness problems might crop up, while Mother Nature selects strictly, and differently. A wild horse doesn't have to be pretty, doesn't have to be cooperative, doesn't have to have comfortable gaits - all it needs to be able to do is survive, is finding
feed, recognizing and avoiding potential danger, withstanding heat, cold, and
bad weather; it needs to have qualities different from what humans perceive
as desirable in a horse.

Wild horses are admired for their soundness and surefootedness, while domestic horses of whatever breed are plagued by unsoundnesses virtually unknown to wild ones. Whenever man intervenes and starts breeding for his goals, the soundness and other qualities which enable wild horses to survive tend to disappear.

In an ideal situation, a preserve would be created where a group of Sorraias could live wild and unmolested, without or with as little human interferring as possible; where stallions again could fight about their harems, where the weak would be eliminated by Mother Nature, and where ethologists and scientists of other disciplines could do meaningful studies. Such an operation would ideally be in Portugal, or Spain, but it could be almost anywhere where there is enough land. With Exmoors and Polish Koniks being used in Great Britain resp. Holland on large tracts of land in renaturalization projects, it should be possible to also do something for the Sorraia - before it is too late!

An Interview with Hardy Oelke

Q: How and why did you become involved in the protection of the Sorraia horse?

A: Besides training, riding, and showing horses, I've always been interested in different breeds and especially in primitive horses. So I had known of the Sorraia when I stumbled across certain American mustangs in the early 90s which I thought looked a lot like Sorraias. I felt they might represent a valuable offshoot of the Sorraia and needed to be preserved, but in order to be sure, I had to study the Sorraia first-hand. Going to Portugal and doing so, I became convinced that these mustangs had to be directly related to the Sorraia and I have subsequently been able to prove that. I also couldn't help but notice the circumstances under which the remaining Sorraias live in Portugal. Ever since I've tried to find a solution to ensure the Sorraia's survival as a primitive, ancestral horse.

Q: You say the relatedness of the Sorraia and some mustangs were proved - how was that done?

A: In order to establish such a relatedness - which seemed likely due to strong phenotypic similarities - I approached several geneticists and instituts. Finally, the Institute of Molecularbiological Diagnostic (now Biopsytec Analitic GmbH) in Germany informed me that it could be done through sequencing of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). I took hair samples of a number of Sorraias and also of many mustangs of different strains and had them analysed
by that German institute. The state-of-the-art method to do this, and the only reliable one according to Professor Dr. Klaus Olek, is mitochondrial DNA sequencing.

The relatedness of certain mustangs and the Sorraia was thus proved, because it was found that the Sorraias have a typical mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) pattern, or type. If this type is found in another horse it scientifically proves a relatedness, i.e. a common ancestry, beyond any doubt.In subsequent analyses of Lusitano and Andalusian horses however, something very significant was detected: most of these horses had the same mtDNA type, but one very different from the Sorraia's*). By the way, the Barb horses we
tested had the same mtDNA type as the Andalusians/Lusitanos.

Q: But this result is in contrast to d'Andrade's theory, isn't it?

A. Yes, d'Andrade thought the Sorraia to be the main ancestor of the Andalusians/Lusitanos. If that were the case, though, then at least a large percentage of the latter would have the Sorraia mtDNA type. But that is not so. As hard to swallow as this is for anyone thinking along the same lines as Ruy d'Andrade, it proves one thing: the horses d'Andrade selected for his preservation project were truly of a special status!

Q: Why is that?

A: Picture a country populated by horses of a certain mtDNA type, and then consider that the most primitive horses found there - and the Sorraia is undoubtedly that - all have a different mtDNA type. Without the advantage of our modern technologies, going by morphological traits only, d'Andrade's expert eyes had picked individuals of a different race, or subspecies! One that is now, and must have been then, extremely rare.

Q: Has d'Andrade's theory that the Sorraia is an ancestral form of horse been challenged by other scientists?

A: I haven't come across any evidence for this to have been the case in his days. However, lately some claimed that all d'Andrade did was select some duns and grullas from the common herds and start his own "color breed". Such an origin for the Sorraia is irreconcilable with the mtDNA results. (besides, to accuse a scientist of d'Andrade's reputation of such doings is downright irresponsible anyway), because if the horses d'Andrade thought to be primitive ones and which he preserved had not been special, if all they had going for them were their dun or grulla color, then they would possess the same mtDNA type as all
the other horses in southern Iberia.


When discussing the primitive status of the Sorraia it must be considered that this horse has no history as a man-made breed. Ruy d'Andrade was maybe the most respected authorities on Iberian horse breeds of his time, and one of the most important breeders of Lusitano/Andalusian horses - he would have known about the existence of such a breed, and wouldn't have considered the Sorraia a primitive, ancestral form, if it were indeed an old domestic breed. Again, the mtDNA findings clearly document the singular status of the Sorraia.

Q: However, it didn't confirm d'Andrade's theory of the Sorraia being ancestral to the Lusitano and Andalusian, right? Does that mean it is not an ancestor of these breeds?

A: It would be hard to deny that the Sorraia had a significant influence on the Andalusian and Lusitano, especially the latter, even though it can't be proved through DNA analysis (yet). The Sorraia characteristics of many Lusitanos and not a few Andalusians are too obvious. I have seen registered Lusitanos which were practically indistinguishable from Sorraias.An explanation could be that this influence came through male lines. The mtDNA is passed on through the maternal line only, so any influence through the paternal line will go unnoticed in the mtDNA analyses.

Q: How could such an influence have come about in the formation of these breeds?

A: In a scenario with a remnant population of wild horses and extensive breeding of domestic horses, it has always been the same story the world over: wild stallions stealing domestic mares, or, if not stealing them, at least breeding them out in the fields. Such a stolen mare may later be reclaimed, but she might have conceived a foal by the wild stallion. Trouble with wild stallions was one of the main reasons why wild horse populations were hunted and eliminated. Such reports exist about wild Tarpan stallions, stallions of the Mongolian wild horse, and also of feral stallions (mustangs) in the American West. Wild stallions were always notorious about stealing and breeding domestic mares.It is quite logical to assume that many a foal in Iberia was sired by a wild Sorraia stallion. If these were mares with the
mtDNA type common for Lusitanos and Andalusians - which the mtDNA study strongly suggests - any of their foals sired by a wild Sorraia stallion would have inherited many of the Sorraias characteristics, along with its dam's mtDNA pattern. It is quite possible that in such a way, the Sorraia has been ancestral to our modern Lusitanos and Andalusians.

Q: Do all Iberian horses have the same mtDNA type, except the Sorraia?

A: No. Most Lusitanos and Andalusians do, and the rest has another mtDNA type. However, this other mtDNA type is also very different from the Sorraia's mtDNA type. The many pony breeds in northern Iberia have not been analysed yet and they may have yet another mtDNA type.

Q: Why is the Sorraia threatened to become extinct?

A: A population that numbers around 200 head is extremely threatened by any biologist's standard. And at least half of these are only non-breeding animals - older horses, youngsters, and some geldings. But that is only half of the story. The population in Portugal is divided basically into a five herds: four d'Andrade family members (grandchildren of the late Ruy
d'Andrade), and the Portuguese National Stud. The latter go back to horses that were donated by d'Andrade. The National Stud has only recently shown interest in, and concern for, the Sorraias. There "track record" in increasing the herd has been poor. They still keep stallions that needed to be gelded, and on the other hand have sold stallions of good type. However, in 2001 and 2002, they leased a stallion from José Luis d'Andrade to improve
on their herd.

 
An 8 year old Sorraia stallion, main sire of one of the d'Andrade herds
Photography by Hardy Oelke
The most disturbing factor is that practically no exchange of stallions was taking place. In each of the little groups - with the exception of the above mentioned stallion -, so the already incredibly strong inbreeding is intensified even more. This holds also true for another major group which is in Germany. They go back to seven animals bought from d'Andrade in 1974, when the Portuguese revolution gave rise to great concerns regarding the future of these horses. Since then, no new blood from Portugal has ever been used in that herd!

Mares have been left open on purpose in recent years by some breeders - they are being waisted. And this although it's the broodmares that are crucial to the Sorraia's survival!
The survival of this rare subspecies, or race, should not depend on individual breeders' whims.
The Sorraia horse is too valuable and important as a genetic resource!


Q: Would it help if more people would acquire Sorraias for their private use?

A: I guess it would on a short-term basis. At least it would increase their numbers. Quite a few Sorraias are now in private hands. Through books and articles, I've been trying to make the horse-related public aware of them.In Germany, there are several private parties now that own breeding stock, including myself, plus I could persuade a zoological garden to maintain a
small group.

Some feel the Sorraia's chance for survival lies in creating interest among private individuals and promoting them as mounts and carriage horses. However, that could become counterproductive in the long run: People who are using them in the way other horses are being used will inevitably eventually change them in type and disposition. They will be selecting for what fills their eye, for certain abilities, a sweet disposition, etc. They will treat soundness problems that may occur, rather than eliminate such horses.Mother Nature selects differently. All a wild horse needs to be able to do is survive, is finding feed, recognizing and avoiding potential danger, withstanding heat, cold, and bad weather; it needs to have qualities different from what humans like to have in a horse. The Sorraia still has these qualities, but will inevitably lose them if breed like any other breed.

Portuguese vaqeiros (herdsmen) riding Sorraia geldings. The lance-like stick they use to prod and throw cattle with is called a pampilho.
Photography by Hardy Oelke
Q: But the Sorraia can be used for riding purposes and other sports?

 A: Absolutely. There have been Sorraias advanced to the highest level of dressage. They are also used herding cattle, mainly working the bull-fighting kind. Some were used as carriage horses and did well even in tough competition. However, Sorraias aren't as uniform in their susceptibility as man-made breeds are, which have been selected for certain traits for generations .They have a special disposition that differs from most other horses, and their
willingness to cooperate beyond a certain point differs considerably. Some are hard to tame and train, others don't pose too much of a challenge. Once a person earned their trust, it's amazing what they'll do for that person.

But this is where I'm afraid they would lose their identity if they became more popular for domestic purposes. People would try to mate only the useful ones and inevitably lose something essential



Q: In an ideal world, what could be done for the Sorraia?

A: In an ideal situation, a preserve would be created where a group of Sorraias could live wild and unmolested, without or with as little human interference as possible; where the weak would be eliminated by Mother Nature, where the young ones would grow up socially as Nature intended, where stallions again could fight about their harems, and mares make a choice about stallions - and where ethologists and scientists of other disciplines could do meaningful studies.

Such an operation would ideally be in Portugal, or Spain, but if that were difficult to realize for some reason, it could be almost anywhere where there is enough land. With Exmoors and Polish Koniks being used in Great Britain and Holland on large tracts of land in renaturation projects, it should also be possible to do something for the Sorraia - before it is too late!

That Sorraias are capable to survive in climates less hot and dry is proved by mine, which have been doing well for a number of years now in Germany, living out in the pasture all year round. They grow a thick winter coat and proved that they can handle our more severe winters here, at an elevation of around 400 m, without problems.

*) Jansen, Forster, Levine, Oelke, Hurles, Renfrew, Weber, Olek, "Mitochondrial DNA and the Origins of the Domestic Horse", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 99 (16), 10905-10910 (2002)

Hardy Oelke, the author of this article has also written a book on the Sorraia entitled "Born Survivors On The Eve Of Extinction" For further information or to order the book please visit: http://horsesonly.com/books/inprint/born_survivors.htm

This article is written by the renowned German author Hardy Oelke. To learn more about these wonderful horses please visit www.sorraia.org


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Updated: October 2005.