Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Week in Portugal / Day Two

O Rio Sorraia

My second day in Portugal dawned with a brief coolness that after a few hours was chased away by the hot, hot sun. When the dining room opened at 7:30am, I met the Oelkes for the breakfast provided for us by the kind staff at the Hotel O Novo Principe. Morning cuisine in Portugal is a self-serve offering of processed cold cuts, cheese, bread, sweet rolls, cereal flakes, fresh fruit, juice, tea and coffee. We three each took our individual selections from the buffet, brought them back to our table and ate with minimal conversation at first, which became more forthcoming after the second cup of coffee. When we were through, we headed off once again in the direction of the Vale de Zebro!

Is she spirit or flesh?
A shy Sorraia mare, partially obscured by dried foliage, pauses to look at the woman with the camera.

The particular sector of land that Hardy's Sorraia horses inhabit is in a very remote area, which is part of an agricultural region comprised of large tracts of lands fenced on their outer parameters, containing Cork Oak, Stone Pine, Eucalyptus and Olive trees interspersed with grasslands where cattle graze.

With the exception of those times when the trees are being harvested, or the cattle moved from range to range, I think it must be incredibly peaceful for the horses with little adulteration of the natural world by the man-made smells and noises that other Portuguese horses are exposed to living in and around the various villages and cities.

A well traveled path made by the Sorraia horses living in the Vale de Zebro preserve

To me, following along the various paths the horses have made and looking for signs of their recent presence on this preserve in "the middle of nowhere" feels very, very much like home--how often I do this very same thing at Ravenseyrie with just the sound of the birds and the wind in the grass enveloping me!! Hiking here in the Vale de Zebro eases my homesickness and feeling of cultural displacement, something I attribute to the magic of the elements and the marvelous presence of primitive Iberian horses.

Much like yesterday, we came upon the horses after just a brief bit of searching. This day, though it is just two of the family groups, the third one we did not see nearby and again, we did not meet up with the two bachelor colts. I especially was hoping to see these colts in case one of them may be selected as a candidate for export to Austria to serve as the herd sire for a new Sorraia / Sorraia Mustang preserve that is just now getting organized by a talented, intelligent woman named Claudia Radbauer. (Claudia has purchased from Ravenseyrie the 2010 fillies, Tocara and Levada, who will travel to her converted ranch just outside of Vienna in the spring of 2012.)

One of the beautiful mares of the Vale de Zebro

The smallest group (formed with two mares and one foal, which the one young stallion had managed to put together since Hardy and Rose's spring visit to the Vale de Zebro) was keeping to the shade, up a bit of a rise a little distance from where the main family unit was determining whether to run away from us human intruders or keep on with picking at the dried grasses.

Despite the severity of the drought in the Vale de Zebro, these intrepid Bolete mushrooms apparently found conditions just right to fruit! Though the temperature that day was in the mid 30 degrees centigrade, these mushrooms (which were in full sun!) were cool and moist to the touch.

Hardy and Rose walked off on a slightly different trajectory than I did, and when it appeared that this family band was comfortable enough with our presence on their parameter, I decided to do what I always do at home--just sit down and observe with no expectations and an inner spirit of respect and love for horses. To my great surprise, this group of wild Sorraia horses responded exactly as the Ravenseyrie horses do, by coming nearer to where I had settled into repose!

Sorraia horses in the Vale de Zebro mingle under a Cork Oak while Lynne Gerard sits nearby, observing, admiring and taking photos.
(photo: H. Oelke)

But before I could congratulate myself on my magnetic presence, I realized that it wasn't me the horses were coming closer to see, rather they stopped about fifteen or twenty meters from me and began nuzzling the ground underneath a Cork Oak tree.

Soon I heard crunching sounds and realized these Sorraias were eating the fallen acorns! I know I have read that acorns are toxic to horses and other types of grazing animals, but later on this trip I saw other horses, cows, sheep and goats travel from cork tree to cork tree in search of the dropped acorns. Perhaps the Portuguese grazers have developed a tolerance for the bitter tannins that are said to be poisonous? Or maybe the tannins in the Cork Oak are not as toxic as other members of the Quercus family? It is my understanding that the special Iberian black pigs are fattened up on these acorns, imparting an enhanced quality to their meat. At any rate, during my time in Portugal, it appeared grazers relished their acorns and suffered no ill effects. I found it very pleasurable to watch these horses forage for acorns and listen to the sound of the outer shells cracking.

Sorraia horses foraging on Cork Oak acorns in the Vale de Zebro

After some time had passed and this herd was beginning to move again, Hardy motioned for me to come over to where he and Rose had been observing things and from there we moved off hiking over varied terrain to see if we could find the other horses. After several hours with no luck, we decided to quit the preserve and take a drive to Alpiarça to check out the Reserva Natural do Cavalo do Sorraia.

This Sorraia reserve is not so natural or remote as the Vale de Zebro, but rather is more like a tourist attraction (complete with a charming restaurant and exhibition picadero) that has several pastures where one can view Sorraias grazing as well as a shed row of stables wherein several Sorraia horses stood facing the back of their prison cells reluctant to interact with us humans peering into the shadowed space to see and photograph them. We had come during the off-season and during a time of day where there was scant activity, so we went about looking at the horses un-escorted.

The stables at the Sorraia Horse Nature Reserve in Alpiarça

Though I have seen photos of the Sorraias at Alpiarça posted on the web a few years back, the horses I was seeing on this day appeared small, underweight and not of ideal Sorraia conformation or colour. My disappointment in their lack of quality, and the reluctance of the stabled horses to kibbutz with us kept me from taking any photos. (Readers can follow THIS link to view a slide show of photos on the web which show the Sorraias of Alpiarça a bit better with only one photo displaying the off-type Sorraias.)

There was a red-tinged very light grulla mare and foal out in one of the pastures, which I did photograph and later I saw the off-type stallion who was turned out with them, but I refrained from photographing him because he seemed so much more like a red/light bay dun pony than a relic of the Form III ancestral horse from prehistoric times. I also took a photo from a distance of a filly kept in a separate pasture by herself (recently weaned, perhaps?), who at least had much more the look of the typical Sorraia. I should have ventured closer and taken more photos of her.

As I understand it, the horses at this reserve in Alpiarça are managed in collaboration with the Associação Internacional de Criadores do Cavalo Ibérico de Tipo Primitivo, the organization which has the mandate of documenting and preserving the integrity of this race of primitive equines that are suffering from a genetic bottleneck. They face a difficult task--on the one hand attempting to create breeding pairs with as great a distance genetically as possible and yet maintain the continuity of the original morphology of these horses (which is, in essence, an Iberian variant of the European Tarpan) as so carefully described by their saviour, Dr. Ruy d'Andrade. I am definitely illiterate as far as genetics go, but from what I could see on display the day I visited the Sorraias at Alpiarça, whatever gains that have been made on the genetic level are at the expense of overall Sorraia characteristics and it gives viewers the wrong impression of what typical Sorraias look like. --I should note, however, that it is perhaps inappropriate for me to form any fixed opinion based on just one brief viewing of this assortment of Sorraias, especially without having spoken with those who made these particular breeding choices...I am merely relaying my impressions.

Close up detail of the Municipal Market building in Santarém, Portugal

Hardy, Rose and I left the Reserva Natural do Cavalo do Sorraia and drove to the city of Santarém where a magnificent farmers' market building is decorated with hand-painted tiles detailing historic scenes from the region, many of which one can still see playing out in modern times.

Unfortunately, we must have come after the morning market had ended as the entrances were gated shut and we could see that the interior of the building was being hosed down and cleaned up.

Given that my very own Kevin is part of our much smaller Gore Bay Farmers' Market on Manitoulin Island (Ontario, Canada) I tried to get a few photos that would show him how much the city of Santarém values their public market place by providing such a spectacular permanent structure for farmers to sell their produce within.

Below are closer views of just a few of the scenes depicted in these marvelous tiled artworks:

These hand-painted tiles are called "azulejos" and are an art medium stretching back centuries. For a wonderful online overview of the art of azulejos, follow THIS link.

Hardy and Rose Oelke lead the way to the stables of the Agricultural School in Santarém

We then traveled to the stables of the Escola Superior Agrária de Santarém to see the Sorraia horses that are kept there. These horses were much more in keeping with the morphology and colour I have been familiar with, and looked to be in much more robust condition. Again, there was no one on hand to personally show us the horses so we viewed them as best we could on our own. Unfortunately, once inside, I did not have my camera configured on the appropriate settings and the majority of the interior shots I took were blurred.

This agricultural school at Santarém has a special riding curriculum which often showcases the Sorraia horses as well as providing courses on breeding and maintenance in collaboration with the Coudelaria Nacional (National Stud). HERE is a link to a video that is highlighting the Sorraias at the ESAS. While I find it difficult to see this primitive subspecies of horses objectified as children's mounts and my heart is more aligned with the efforts of those who aim to preserve the Sorraia horses in a true natural habitat, it is nonetheless gratifying to know that even more formalized, modern breeding establishments like the ESAS are assisting in the propagation of this nearly extinct race of horses and providing venues for public awareness. We all need to support these horses each in our own way, but I do feel it would be better for preservation efforts overall if more people engage in incorporating Sorraia horses into "rewilding" and "grassland management" schemes where they are allowed to live and breed naturally.

We walked through the riding picadero to see one of the stallions that was enjoying a bit of turnout time.

He was a nice looking stallion and walked up to receive some praise from the gal from Canada

In a section on the other side of the building there were two mares turned out with two foals, all looking like nice Sorraia types.

A mare and foal at the Escola Superior Agrária de Santarém, reminding me very much of Bella and Altavida here at Ravenseyrie.

Our next stop was a pretty significant landmark--well not so much a landmark as a living, flowing entity (albeit now manipulated by man) which bears the name "Sorraia", after which the indigenous striped wild equine of southwestern Iberian was named. O Rio Sorraia, one of the tributaries that flows into the Tagus (Tejo) river, had in times gone by served as an important waterway for the transport of agricultural and forest products. Now, however, this river is controlled by dams and used for irrigating valleys increasing the capacity for greater agricultural production.

I don't know the name of this particular type of giant grass, similar to Pampas grass, but it grows along the Rio Sorraia and almost anywhere in Portugal where there is sufficient moisture.

While the land surrounding the Rio Sorraia no longer is the habitat for wild equids, we did see a good offering of Cattle Egrets and Great Blue Herons along its banks--an indication that a healthy population of fish, frogs and other aquatic beings were supported by this now rather shallow tributary.

Rose Oelke of Halver, Germany strolls the Rio Sorraia while taking photos of the Great Blue Herons and Cattle Egrets

As early evening approached, we next sped off to meet up with Eduardo Oliveira e Sousa at the Herdade da Agolada de Baixo. On this estate exists also the Coudelaria de Maria d'Andrade de Oliveira e Sousa, the stud farm inherited by the granddaughter of Dr. Ruy d'Andrade (and Eduardo's wife.) It was Ruy d'Andrade who had discovered the remaining "zebros" (Sorraias) in the Coruche region while on a hunting excursion and later gave specimens of these horses refuge at Agolada, saving them from certain extinction.

During recent years of my researching all things related to the "zebro", I have had the pleasure of corresponding with Constança Oliveira e Sousa (Eduardo and Maria's daughter and great-granddaughter of our hero, Ruy d'Andrade) and I was very hopeful to get to see the historic estate where the remnant survivors of the striped wild horses of Iberia had been preserved. Hardy has visited Agolada de Baixo on many occasions to look at their Sorraia horses and though it was a very busy time for the good people of Agolada, between the petitioning of both Hardy and Constança (who is presently living and working in Georgia, USA), Eduardo generously offered a bit of his time to a Sorraia devotee from Canada.

We pulled into the drive just as Eduardo was arriving home after a long day of business in one of the larger cities. The farm itself was active with combines harvesting rice and trucks moving the captured grains to other locations. I should have taken photos of the unique harvest equipment which ran on tracks instead of wheels. (There are many missed photos from this trip to Portugal, I'm afraid!)

After greetings were exchanged, Eduardo led out two Sorraia stallions for us to see. Both were handsome stallions of good type and it was such a pleasure to get to stroke their noble heads and relay my admiration first hand.

This stallion is Oceano. Hardy suggested I step in closer and he took some photos for me on my camera:

A happy Sorraia devotee from Canada posing with two handsome Portuguese males
(photo: H. Oelke)

This next stallion is Ratão, and he, too is a very nice looking Sorraia--either one of these boys would have been my choice to run with the mares in Alpiarça rather than the straight-faced reddish dun pony type that I had seen earlier in the day.

Ratão hasn't yet sired any foals, but prompted by Hardy's suggestion, Eduardo is contemplating turning him out to live part of the year with mares which may stimulate a higher viability of this highly valuable stallion's sperm.

Some of the difficulties from the genetic bottleneck in the Sorraia horses are: sterility in the stallions, lack of conception in the mares and when mares do conceive, some are not carrying to term. This makes for some troubling setbacks in the preservation efforts and may mean that a decision will need to be made in the future to inject some appropriately selected outside blood (of which it could be said Ravenseyrie would be one proven source to select from.) Other options might be certain lines of Lusitano that repeatedly have offspring that are of Sorraia type as well as finding an appropriate outcross among South American Criollo horses that have retained their Zebro heritage. And let's not discount some of the Sorraia type mustangs!, which may actually be one of the best choices, with less domestic influence than the highly pedigreed Lusitanos and Criollos.

Lynne Gerard enjoys exchanging pleasantries with the rugged Sorraia stallion, Ratão
(Photo: H. Oelke)

My photos do not do Ratão justice as he was in rough condition on the day I visited him, but I remember an excellent photo Hardy had sent me of him when he had visited Agolada some time earlier, and with his permission, I'm including that photo here as well:

Sorraia stallion, Ratão at Herdade da Agolada de Baixo
(Photo: H. Oelke)

After visiting with the stallions we folded our bodies up into Eduardo's smart looking all-wheel-drive sedan and rocketed off to search for the Sorraia mare who was out on a range along with two Haflinger and several Lusitano mares. If my mind had become scrambled when Hardy exhibited the typical speeding of a German driver on the highways between Lisboa and Almeirim, my entire body was jumbled at the cellular level feeling itself rapidly whoosing over the rugged farm roads of Agolada with Sr. Oliveira e Sousa at the wheel! I tentatively felt for the security of my seatbelt, then just let my worries go and tried to enjoy the ride as if it were some amusement park thrill as we dodged wash-out sections and rode out dips and tight curves at high speed. Who needs a Land Rover when an all wheel sedan handles these rough farm roads so keenly? Yeee-haaah! Eduardo told me this was one of the key reasons he bought this vehicle, for its brilliant versatility.

I confess, so much had been thus far packed into this second day of my holiday in Portugal that I am finding it difficult to remember certain events. For example, I know we stopped somewhere for lunch but I cannot recall where or even what I ordered to eat. And while at Agolada, with the daylight fading, we went into to different sectors of the estate, first looking for mares and second looking for colts. I sort of remember there were two Sorraia mares, but I only have photos of one Sorraia mare...the one whose foal had unfortunately died just a week ago. (**Hardy corrects me here to say that there was only one mare and that we had also gone off to look at a filly, not for how off I was here!)

This lovely dun mare , though turned out with the Haflinger and Lusitano mares was keeping to herself and seemed to me to definitely be feeling depressed.

I kept to myself my own sense of loss that welled up inside upon seeing this mare, for she SO much reminds me of our recently deceased Kiger Mustang mare of Sorraia type, Ciente.

Ciente, one of the foundation mares at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve with her 2009 colt, Silvestre

Though Ciente was a grulla and the Agolada mare is a dun, they have the same sensitive faces and lean, less-rounded muscling over distinct long frames in the way their limbs and necks are attach to their torsos.

Ciente, in foal a few seasons ago...
Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve

This beautiful mare at Agolada also reminds me of one of Sheri Olson's Sorraia Mustang mares. With Sheri's permission I am including a photo of "Kiger Sarah" so readers can see how some of the Kiger Mustang horses have retained many of their Iberian Tarpan ancestral genes that one can appreciate why horses like Sarah and Ciente have been chosen to assist in the consolidation of the Sorraia type that persists in many North American Mustang horses.

Sarah, a Kiger Mustang mare captured from the wild off Riddle Mountain in Oregon, USA
Kiger Sarah is part of the Soul of Sorraia ranch

This photo of the Agolada mare is blurred, but I include it to compare to the photo below of Ciente. I hope that this mare will conceive again and bring a healthy Sorraia foal to the world in the coming years.

Ciente, the deceased Kiger Mustang mare of good Sorraia type and one of the foundation mares from the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada

We did not find the other horses among which (if I am remembering correctly) there was a Sorraia colt we were hoping to see. We might have looked a bit longer, but the evening was upon us and the light too dusky for sighting horses out on the range.

Eduardo looked quite tired and I imagined he was anxious to return to the house for his evening meal, so though I was reluctant our time at Agolada was over, I was very happy to have been able to experience just a bit of this historic place in Coruche with such significant meaning for the Sorraia horses. Imagine!, the preservation effort to save the Sorraias started right here! I should also note before fully leaving off my experience at Agolada, it was here that the dam of our own Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, was born. Pompeia was born in 1996 and later exported to Germany. I wish I had thought to inquire if Eduardo had any photos of her...perhaps another opportunity for that will arise in the future.

After this incredibly full and exciting day, Hardy, Rose and I returned to Almeirim and had a much appreciated meal at the bustling O Forno restaurant before retiring to our rooms to sleep away our weariness and be ready for the next day's adventures.