Endangered in its Homeland and in America

The ancestor of the Iberian breeds still exists. Some of America’s mustangs are a zoological treasure and of the same type – they represent a chance to rescue this endangered subspecies.

To some, the wild mustangs of the American West are just a nuisance, but to many, they are a treasure, a living legend and symbol of American history and of the free spirit of the West. As such, they are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which was passed in Congress in 1971. Before the "West was won" by Northern Europeans moving in from the East, in which process the wild mustang herds were badly mixed up through crossbreeding, all the mustangs were of Spanish descent. This held true for most mustang herds well into the last century. It was this "Spanish mustang" who deserved, above all, the preservation granted by the U.S. government as a symbol of American history, not the mongrel that eventually, towards the decline of the free range, came to roam the West, and still does.

American Treasure

What many people don’t realize is that even today, we not only have some truly Spanish mustangs out there, but some American mustangs still represent much more than just feral horses, and even more than what is vaguely described as "Spanish mustangs"!

The indigenous Iberian wild horse was known in Spain as marismeno, meaning "horse of the swamp", because it was the swamps and bottomlands of the rivers that remained an inaccessible wilderness even when most of the country was already settled and cultivated, and therefore that is where the wild horses finally had to take refuge. To this day, the delta of the river Guadalquivir is home of a wilderness area and wildlife refuge. The Portuguese anatomist, horse breeder and paleontologist Dr. Ruy d’Andrade discovered the last survivors of this subspecies in Portugal earlier in this century. Because he found them in the lowlands of the river Sorraia, that is how he named this kind of horse. He went on to document the authenticity of this form of horse as the main ancestor of the Andalusian and Lusitano, and to preserve it on his estate.

The incredible thing is, that this horse did not only survive on the Iberian peninsula, but among the wild horses in America as well! Although I had always been interested in mustangs, it was during my first visit to the Kiger mustang herd in southeastern Oregon when I first saw mustangs which resembled the Sorraia to an uncanny degree. That experience sparked an entirely new involvement, as I knew of the Sorraia’s struggle to survive. Later, I found the same form of horse in other mustang populations, for instance, the Sulphur Springs horses of Utah. I immediately conceived the idea that a separate population of Sorraia horses in America would mean a huge step towards a secure future for this endangered subspecies.

What is a Sorraia?

The Sorraia horse is, in contrast to what some authors have disseminated, not just a breed, but it represents the indigenous wild horse of southern Iberia that survived in the wild until the first quarter of this century. The whole Iberian peninsula, i.e. Spain and Portugal, had the same indigenous, or autochthone, horses; so "Iberian" is a better term than "Spanish". Some authors have called the Sorraia a pony, which is wrong. Based on its conformation, the Sorraia is definitely a horse. The Sorraia horse is the most important ancestor of the Iberian breeds such as Lusitano and Andalusian. It is this horse that contributed the proud carriage, the ability to flex at the poll, to collect and to work off the hindquarters to these breeds, and via the Lusitano and the Andalusian to all modern warmblood breeds. It also contributed a latent tendency for lateral gaits and the talent for cow work.

The Portuguese scientist Dr. Ruy d’Andrade found some of the Sorraia horses in 1920 in a remote area along the river Sorraia in Portugal. He saved the species by placing a small group on his estate and letting them multiply. Although he did make some selective decisions along the way, he tried to let mother nature be the decisive factor, concluding that this horse had evolved in this environment and that those embodying the subspecies best would survive. Dr. d’Andrade’s extensive studies documented the Sorraia horse as a direct descendant of one of the four forms of primeval wild horses from which all our domestic breeds derived, namely form III, which inhabited the south of the Iberian peninsula. That the Sorraia represents the indigenous South Iberian horse was and is acknowledged by other prehistorians of the horse, for instance Speed (Scotland), Etherington (Scotland), Ebhardt (Germany), Skorkowski (Poland), Zeeb (Germany) and Schaefer (Germany).

Paintings of horses on the cave walls at La Pileta, Spain, officially dated between 30,000 and 20,000 B.C., already show the subconvex heads and arched necks typical of Andalusians, Lusitanos and their ancestor, the Sorraia, as do ancient sculptures. The Sorraia is the horse that exemplifies the term "Spanish", or "Iberian", and there is no other horse as purely Iberian as the Sorraia. However, man-made Iberian breeds have in their veins, besides some non-Iberian blood, that of another kind of horse also indigenous to the Iberian peninsula: the Garrano, a pony inhabiting the mountainous regions in the north.

To quote Dr. d’Andrade, "The Sorraia horse differs clearly from the Garranos, the wild ponies of the mountains in the north. It shows many similarities to the higher-bred Andalusian. The Garranos are found in mountainous regions which receive much precipitation, where the pastures stay green all year and where the burro is not found. They are small, averaging 12.2 hands, brown in color, with a straight or concave profile and their teeth show Celtic characteristics.

"Let us now turn towards the second group, the Sorraias. They too are of rather small stature, average 14 to 14.1 hands, but are not as small as the Garrano ponies and still represent horses in the true meaning". Dr. d’Andrade found conclusive evidence in the teeth of the Sorraia horses: "As is well known, teeth are among the most common archaeological findings. They allow precise conclusions regarding the evolutionary state of an animal and are the most reliable elements for a systematization.The Sorraia horse’s teeth differ considerably from those of the Garrano pony and it therefore must belong to a different species of Equus caballus caballus. The pure-bred Andalusian’s teeth, though, correspond with those of the Sorraia horse." The Garrano has had a certain influence on all Iberian breeds and their New World derivatives, which is evident in the Lusitano, particularly in the Alter Real strain, Andalusian and more so in the Paso breeds and the Galiceno. In regard to the "Spanish Colonial Horse", it is known that it also carried a certain amount of other non-Iberian blood, i.e. form II blood (Draft) and possibly form IV blood (Arabian).

The four forms of primeval wild horses from which all our domestic horses descend are:

  • Two Northern forms: Form I, the pony, best represented by the Exmoor pony. This form is of brown color, has a mealy mouth and lighter coloring in the belly and flank areas. Form II, the ancestor of the draft horses.
  • Two Southern forms: Form III, ancestor of the Andalusian, Lusitano and Warmbloods, best represented by the Sorraia, other related horses such as the Akhal Tekke and the old-time Barb. Form IV, the ancestor of the Arabian, the original Caspian horse being the direct descendant.

What does the Sorraia look like?

A description of the Sorraia would be identical to that of the primeval form III horse: It is Roman-headed, which must not be confused with Roman-nosed. A flat forehead and a Roman nose would be a draft horse characteristic. The form III profile is subconvex, sometimes convex, all the way from poll to muzzle. The head is also typically fairly narrow from a front view, rather narrow between the eyes and even from a side view it tends to be not very deep. The throat latch is clean, affording a natural capacity to arch the neck. The chest is narrow, but deep. Due to prominent withers higher than the croup this is an "uphill horse". The back is of medium length. The hip is typically of good length and sloping, but not steeply dropping, and the tailset is not particularly low. Clean, fairly long legs with longer, round cannon bones are typical, and they have no excessive hair around the fetlocks and medium-sized feet. The size is around 14 hands, although some horses mature higher when properly cared for. Many Sorraias are kept semi-wild and have to fend for themselves without getting supplemented.

Sorraias are always of dun or grullo color. Iberian and other European experts are in agreement that this dun or grullo color is the original color of the Iberian horse. The Greek author Strabon (63 B.C. – 20 A.D.) described the Iberian horses as "duns with indistinct striping". St. Isidor of Sevilla described the color of the Iberian horses as "dosinus"= donkey-colored or grullo. "Dun" may be an insufficient description, as horses come in different types of dun coloration. A good example would be the Norwegian Fjord horse, whose dun color usually is different, even though it was received most likely from some ancestors of Iberian descent. The dun color was selected for by Norwegian breeders, but due to the dominating influence of the northern forms , it has the form I color pattern superimposed, resulting in duns with mealy mouths and often lighter belly and flank areas.

Przewalski’s horse is another example for a different kind of dun: it usually has a more reddish dun color, again with a mealy mouth and light, sometimes almost white, belly, flanks, and upper inside legs. Zebra leg stripes are not typical for Przewalski’s horse, which is, by the way, a different subspecies, as it has a different chromosome count than all other horses. Belonging to the Sorraia-type dun (and grullo) color are a "sooty" face, i.e. dark bridge of nose and muzzle area, dark lower legs with zebra striping and a dorsal stripe. Many have a shoulder cross, sometimes a double shoulder cross. Typical stripes on neck, back (sawtooth markings) and rump seem to be a trait in progress of disappearing, something that some experts blame on the heavy inbreeding of today’s Sorraias. Foals are often born with zebra stripes all over the neck, back and rump, which will usually disappear as the horse matures. Sometimes a certain amount of these stripes still remain even in mature horses. The ears are fawn-colored inside, black-rimmed and have a dark upper portion on their backside. The head may show "cobwebbing" on the forehead. Mane and tail are bi-colored, i.e. the black hair is flanked on both sides by light-colored, often almost white, hair. Another characteristic is the barring on the neck, sometimes extending from the underside of the neck or chest. This is not caused by a darker color, but rather by a different grain of the hair coat, and is more or less visible depending on how the light is reflected and how long the hair is. Wherever I found horses of this form, I also found this characteristic expressed at least to some degree – in horses from Portugal, from Oregon, Utah, Wyoming or Nevada.

A Chance for Preservation

Experts agree that the Sorraia shows no evidence of outside blood and modern Sorraias may look the same as they did thousands of years ago. The Portuguese zoologist Dr. d’Andrade did not create a breed when preserving the Sorraia horses, but he gave the last remaining individuals a sanctuary on his ranch. He kept them in a semi-wild state, and rather than selectively breeding them, allowed mother nature to be the determining factor by not feeding or supplementing these horses. As d’Andrade did not get any outcrops of other forms from his original seed stock, it can rightfully be assumed that they were of the true kind.

Today, Sorraias are bred by a handful of private breeders. Most are still owned by the d’Andrade family, with José Luis Sommer d’Andrade, grandson of Dr. Ruy d’Andrade and president of the Sorraia association, managing the family estate. His siblings own some and a few more are in other private hands outside the d’Andrade family. The Portuguese state breeding farm also has a small herd of these horses and several more are owned privately in Germany, France and Switzerland. The total number may not exceed 150 head, and they all stem from the original group of 7 mares and 4 stallions – that is how imminent the threat of inbreeding is!

The good news is that there are horses among the mustangs of the American West which resemble the Sorraia, or indigenous Iberian horse, to a T! They offer a chance to revitalize the species and put it on a healthy footing world-wide. "I gladly confirm that these mustangs should be preserved and support your endeavor wholeheartedly", wrote Jose Luis d’Andrade, president of the Sorraia breed association in Portugal. Professor Dr. Klaus Zeeb, Germany, wrote: "Due to their history, I would have expected the American mustangs to be related to this type of horse (Sorraia). However, if even today one can find individuals identical to the Sorraia among American mustangs, I consider it highly desirable, from a zoological and ethological point of view, that measures be taken for the conservation of these horses".

Contributed By: Hardy Oelke