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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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, cant 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
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 dams mtDNA pattern
In such a
way, the Sorraia may have had an influence on our modern Lusitanos and
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
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,
feed, recognizing and avoiding potential danger, withstanding heat, cold,
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
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
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
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
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
The survival of this rare subspecies, or race, should not depend on individual
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
article is written by the renowned German author Hardy Oelke. To
learn more about these wonderful horses please visit www.sorraia.org