The Lusitano horse has long been synonymous with Portugal – in fact the forefathers of the modern day Lusitano have been on the Iberian Peninsula for thousands of years. Whilst much has been lauded about the Lusitano horse’s prowess for Dressage, Working Equitation and Bullfighting, there is another not so well-known breed that is found in small numbers in remote pockets of Portugal – the uniquely beautiful Sorraia horse.
A touristic day trip with a difference:
Each year I travel to Portugal, my good friend Nicole Giger always has a treat or two in store for me. This year, in August, I was lucky enough to take a day trip to see the Sorraia in their natural habitat.
Nicole and I jumped in the car in Cascais, before meeting with biologist and tour guide Filipa Heitor in Lisbon. We then set off for the Herdade Agolada de Baixo which is one of the farms owned by the famous d’Andrade family near the classic bullfighting town of Coruche – about an 80 mins drive to the east of Portugal’s capital city.
The Andrade Legacy:
The Andrade name is synonymous with the Lusitano horse. There are four foundation stud farms of the Lusitano breed. These are Coudelaria Nacional, Veiga, Alter Real, and the Andrade, whose bloodlines helped form the breed we know today. Ali Baba carries famous Andrade blood on his dam line via the stallion Icaro – so visiting this farm was somewhat of a homecoming for me too!
We were greeted on arrival by Constança Oliveira e Sousa – the great granddaughter of Dr Ruy d’Andrade, the man who (re)discovered the Sorraia horse and began a breeding program that would see these horses brought back from the brink of extinction.
Dr Ruy d’ Andrade was a politician, a leading agronomist, zoologist and horse expert. He noticed that the Andalusian and Lusitano horses all shared ancestors and he had also noticed that some of these horses were born with striped, straw-coloured coats – however a large number would grey out and lose their stripes into adulthood.
One day in 1920 Ruy was on a hunting expedition on the banks of the Sorraia river, mere kilometers from the farm I was now standing on. He came across a group of some 30 feral horses, more than half of which were light coloured duns, whilst others were grey and many were striped. Ruy was quoted as saying “They looked totally wild or primitive, as if they were a type of zebra or hemiones.”
Ruy was so taken by the herd of wild horses, he managed to acquire 10 of them to bring back to the farm here to study and breed them. His intention was to reconstruct this primitive type of horse to see whether or not they had really played a part in the modern day Lusitano and Andalusian breeds.
Ruy was a great scientist with an enquiring mind, and he kept many great records of his Sorraia herd, measuring not only their height, but also the perimeter of the thorax and cannon bone, along with colour and markings and so forth.
A farm with a history:
Constança took us for a guided tour of some of their expansive farm. As we bumped along farm tracks in the back of her army-green Land Rover Defender I remember feeling like I was back on safari in the bush of South Africa. The fields were full of cork trees, eucalypts and pines, and the vegetation was sparce but beautiful. She treated us to some tales of the farm’s rich history.
One unique factor is that the farm has its own closed water system fed by a huge dam. Surprisingly, one of the crops grown here (thanks no doubt to the water system) is rice – with some extensive rice paddies on one end of the property – a stark contrast to the almost desert like landscape on other parts of the farm in the middle of the hot Portuguese summer.
There have been horses on this particular Andrade family farm since 1937. Most of the land is fairly poor in terms of grazing, so the horses had to be hardy types to survive. Along with the herds of semi-feral Sorraia, there are many beautiful Lusitano broodmares. These mares are true to the famous Andrade type and are stamped with the brand on the rump that tells their family of origin.
In 1974 there was a Portuguese Revolution against the Government of the time. There was an uprising against landowners and farmers by the farm workers and Portugal was thrust in chaos. Many wealthy Portuguese families fled to Brazil. Ruy’s son, Fernando d’Andrade had to remove the Sorraia horses from the land as it was being invaded by the local townsfolk and workers. In order to keep the family’s beloved Sorraia’s safe, he shipped them off to the national stud at Alter Real and later on some of them were sent to Font ‘Alva Stud.
When Fernando died in 1991 his lands and horses were split between his four sons and daughters and a new chapter for Dr Ruy’s descendants (and their horses) began.
My first encounter with the Sorraia:
We finally came to the far corner of the farm where our party of three was dropped off to walk the rest of the way to where we knew the herd to be grazing. Along the way Filipa told us about some of the different flora that was growing in front of us, from wild herbs to different trees and grasses.
There were a few small hills to navigate in the summer sun, and some amazingly old history to be discovered including the well-preserved remnants of a water fountain from 1762 that just happened to be amongst some overgrown bushes.
Eventually we came across the Sorraia herd that live in a semi-feral state on this Herdade (the Portuguese word for farm). Grazing happily a wee distance from us, they seemed unaware of our presence for quite some time. Filipa has a great knowledge of these horses from her time spent watching them in the natural habitat for her PhD – she spent an entire 5 years studying the natural behaviours of the free roaming Sorraia horses at Alter stud and Herdade de Font’Alva. It was great to have Filipa on hand to talk about the horses and answer the many questions I had about them.
The Sorraia have a very distinctive look – the herd featured two quite different coat colours, mouse dun and a more yellow buckskin. Primitive stripes could be seen on their legs, along with dorsal and even shoulder stripes on some. The mature animals seemed to vary in height from 14 to 15hh.
The stallions here get rotated between breeding populations to reduce inbreeding. Constança has split her herd, and runs a separate band of stallions. Her eldest mare is now 16 years of age, and all fillies are retained in the herd. Now there are more groups of breeding herds scattered around Portugal to help ensure the breed survival which is a relief given that their numbers are so small and they are so rare.
The Sorraia under saddle:
Back at the stables the rider for the stud, João showed us the 6-year-old Sorraia stallion “Nero” under saddle. In Portugal they are now sometimes seen in riding schools and private facilities – they are known to be kind horses to ride and are well suited to small adults and children. Their natures are calm and their gaits are expressive. In general they are not as “hot-blooded” as the Lusitano horse.
I found a quote from Dr Ruy d’Andrade describing the attributes of the Sorraia as a ridden horse in comparison to the heavier ‘garrano’ type of small horse that ended up in Argentina, Brazil and other countries discovered and colonized by the Portuguese and Spanish.
“Our type of Sorraia horse seems more definitely a saddle horse, less perfected perhaps, but retaining the qualities that characterise it, such as vigor, swiftness and courage: mobility at turning; fastness at starting and stopping; a fine mouth; sensitive and fine at the spur.”
I was lucky enough to be offered a ride – although dressed for summer in a baseball cap, shorts and trainers, I am never one to shy away from the opportunity to jump at such a rare opportunity. Heck, I’ve even sat on curly coated Canadian horses, Icelandic Ponies and others on my journeys around the globe. This stallion didn’t disappoint. He was very well trained and had a generous and easy nature about him.
A lunch to remember:
It was an honor to be invited into the Andrade family home for lunch. Being a Lusitano Breeder and supporter sure does have its perks – not to forget my good friend (and sometimes Lusitano purchasing agent) Nicole Giger who managed to plan this amazing day trip for me. Lunch was held in the main house, a sprawling farmhouse with a large patio and entertaining area. A four-course meal was served by the staff and the family were a delight to be hosted by. We had great conversations on all sorts of worldly things, from university life in the USA ( Constança was a Harvard Business School Graduate) to rugby and even opera, and of course the horses featured as well.
These old farm houses are my favorite places to visit in Portugal. They tell a family’s rich history and weave a tapestry of farming bulls, horses and agriculture. You know you are in a special place where the antique furnishings have not been purchased from a store, but instead have been in situ for generations.
A project to preserve:
There is a big push in Europe for “Rewilding” projects – where corridors of land are being returned to their natural state with the hope and intention to bring back wildlife. One such corridor is in Vale do Coa, on the Spanish / Portuguese border and there are two groups of Sorraia horses living there at this moment in time.
If you are keen to visit Portugal and see these wonderful horses for yourself, all the information you need can be found at the following link
Nicole is happy to help organize your visit – she can be contacted via email: email@example.com
The stud farm's website can be found here: CoudelariaSA
Sorraia fun facts:
The life expectancy of a Sorraia is approx. 20 years
There are only around 200 Sorraia horses in the world and they all derive from the 11 horses preserved and bred by Dr Ruy d’Andrade.
There is only small genetic variability – this bottleneck has been caused through the very low number of horses and inevitable inbreeding
All pure Sorraia horses are branded, microchipped and DNA tested for paternity analysis.
The Andrade family still have the largest holding of Sorraia horses to this day and are passionate about keeping this breed alive.
How do we know the breed is so ancient? Cave paintings show horses of similar type and markings, plus the horses are rustic and resilient.
Ancient historians reported seeing striped horses and the word Zebro was Portuguese for “striped horse”. This then gave origin to the word Zebra when the Portuguese first met the striped African equids.
The Iberian Peninsula was a refuge for all sorts of animals including horses as it was one of the only areas in Europe that didn’t freeze in the last ice age.