DECEMBER 1999 BACK ISSUE

Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 12/03/99; 2:00:00PM.


A Wild Iberian Horse Among Mustangs?

By Hardy Oelke

This is not about the x-millions of tax payers' dollars that go into the management of America's wild and free-roaming horse herds, or about whether the wild mustangs are treated humanely, or what numbers of them should be maintained. This is about the fact that without man's interference - actually, in spite of what man did, and keeps doing - even today a strain of horses exists among America's mustangs that represents a native wild horse of southern Iberia. What's more, this horse is almost extinct in it's homeland, and its remnants in America could one day play a crucial part in saving this genetic resource. That is, IF the last remaining individuals here won't disappear before people become aware of their special status.

The Sorraia horse was discovered in 1920 by Ruy d'Andrade, a renowned Portuguese expert of Iberian horses, anatom, zoologist, historian, and breeder. At that time, these horses were still living semi-wild in the inaccessible areas of the lowlands of the Portuguese river Sorraia. It was d'Andrade who recognized them as indigenous South Iberian wild horses, and he considered them ancestral to the Andalusian and Lusitano breeds. He gave some of them a refuge on his estate, and the d'Andrade family has been perpetuating that herd ever since. All Sorraias in Europe today go back to the few individuals that d'Andrade had secured back then. For decades, he let them live the life of a wild horse there and they had to fend for themselves, but more recently they are managed to some extent, and some owners even keep and breed them like domestic horses.

Not only is the Sorraia horse threatened because the whole population consists of only around 150 head, but incredibly high inbreeding is another factor - a man-made breed would long have succumbed to that degree of inbreeding and totally degenerated: They all stem from only 11 head. But to make things even worse, the remaining population is split into several groups, or herds, and there is no cooperation and no exchange taking place to speak of. Finally, they don't represent something profitable, so they are being maintained as a sideline, and not given much importance.

The Sorraia today, as a wild subspecies, most likely isn't pure any more, but comes awfully close, and are the closest thing we have left of that wild indigenous horse of South Iberia.

Now you may ask where the connection to the American mustang is. Can one really believe that these horses survived among mustangs? And how did they get there in the first place?

We don't have to believe it, we pretty much know it. What we know is: 1. That Sorraias all have a typical DNA pattern, one rarely found in other horses. 2. We know that Columbus made at least one shipment of horses to the New World which most likely were identical to those we call Sorraias today; and if that happened once, there is a good chance it happened more than once. 3. There are some mustangs that have the Sorraia DNA pattern. 4. And we know, and can see it with our own eyes, that among America's mustangs there are horses of the Sorraia phenotype. Some resemble the Sorraia so much that one cannot tell them apart.

This matter has been brought to the attention of the Bureau of Land Management, but they refuse to do anything to preserve this type of horse. What ought to be done is to establish at least one BLM Herd Management Area dedicated to preserving this type, something the BLM could easily do, and tax payers' dollars, would for once, be spent to protect and save some zoologically valuable horses. The Sorraia-type mustang isn't necessarily threatened to be killed today, although some might eventually end up in slaughterhouses nevertheless; it's imminent threat is to be crossbred out of existence.

There are no pure strains left for all we know, but some are still pure enough to not only represent the type in their phenotype, but reliably breed that way, too. They consistently pass on their characteristics to their offspring. So the name of the game would be to set them up where they won't be forced to mate with horses of other types.

Sorraia - A Portrait

Size: About 14 - 14,3 hh. Color: Dun or grulla, with dark ("sooty") face and muzzle, bi-colored mane and tail; leg stripes, shoulder stripes or patches, fishbone markings, cobwebbing on forehead is common, early horses were extremely striped on head, neck, withers, back, and legs. Conformation: Refined; with narrow Roman head, i.e. convex from poll to nostrils; ears medium-long, pointed, not "hooked"; neck long and slender, with clean-cut throatlatch; long shoulder; prominent withers, higher than hip; straight, medium-long back; sloping hip; narrow and deep chest; fairly long legs, fine-boned; pasterns of medium length, sloping; hooves medium-sized to small, oblong (mule-like). The horse has a tendency to look gaunt if not in top condition, with protruding hip bones. Action: Very agile; considerable knee action; often gaited; natural aptitude for collection/dressage maneuvers; extremely flexible laterally and longitudinally; tail never carried really high, not even when excited. Hair: Fine coated, but winter coat according to environment; very little fetlock hair. Disposition: Calm; very alert, always ready to flee; when captured and gentled, acting very sensibly; brave; accepting separation from other horses well.

For more information: "Born Survivors on the Eve of Extinction," by Hardy Oelke available at Premier Publishing Equine, Kansas, e-mail: hoofnote@midusa.net

Mustangs aren't found in the wild only, though. For years there have been private individuals dedicated to the preservation of the hardy mustangs, who have bred in captivity horses that came from mustang stock. Several mustang registries were founded over the years, the Spanish Mustang Registry, founded by Robert Brislawn, being the oldest one. The "Spanish mustang" had a reputation for being the hardiest, prettiest, and most sure-footed mustang, and most dedicated mustang breeders wanted - and still want - to perpetuate the "Spanish mustang." Only WHAT exactly constitutes a true Spanish mustang is a matter of much dispute and argument, and the guidelines of most mustang registries are not very convincing to a real horseman. In this context it should be noted that there are mustangs which absolutely resemble an indigenous Iberian horse, the Sorraia, and if any mustangs deserve the label "Spanish mustang," they, above all, qualify.

One mustang breeder who "has been on the right track" for years is Sharron Scheikofsky in South Dakota, who, along with partner Dave Reynolds, in operating their "Caballos de Destino" selected and bred horses for the right type. They didn't have much to go by and had no clear and detailed description of a Sorraia, but their efforts led to their having what may well be the largest group of Sorraia-type mustangs in private hands. When eventually finding out about the Sorraia and what it actually looks like, they were happy to realize that they had basically been breeding for the right characteristics all along. Under the name "Caballos de Destino" they still breed Spanish mustangs of various colors and lineages, but their "Sorraia Mustang Refuge" is dedicated to the preservation of the Sorraia Mustang. They feel an obligation to preserve these horses, even though it often hasn't been easy for them. "Somebody's got to do it," is their simple attitude.

What can be done to save these horses? People who have the means can follow Sharron Scheikofsky's example and set aside acreage for a band of horses that might not be what the mainstream horse lover is looking for, but definitely are a valuable genetic resource. Or support people like Sharron Scheikofsky and Dave Reynolds in their efforts, as they need all the help they can get.

Another thing anybody can do is become vocal towards their political representatives, or the BLM directly. The BLM will only act if forced by public pressure. They say they are not in the horse breeding business, and argue that their legal responsibilities won't allow for the assignment of a special Herd Management Area for Sorraia Mustangs, or that there are no funds to do this. All this doesn't hold water - they have done exactly that before, the Kiger Mustang HMA in Oregon is probably the best example. And what is taking place in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in Wyoming/Montana is management that borders on breeding, with all the "wild" horses named and bloodtyped - their goal happens to be to keep a certain mix out there, it could as well be to encourage a certain kind.

There also has been a "Sorraia Mustang Studbook" established, to keep records of mustangs of Sorraia type, regardless of where they were captured, or in what mustang registry they were bred in. The purpose is to inform about Sorraias, and keep track of Sorraia Mustangs, so interested parties can be given information as to where to look for them, or where suitable stallions are available. Registration is free. Write to: Sorraia Mustang Studbook, 58553 Halver-Othmaringhausen, Germany; phone 011-49-2353-2304; fax 011-49-2353-13541; e-mail oehorse@aol.com.


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