The horses are sometimes difficult to see in the Refuge, as there are plenty of opportunities for them to hide



By Martin Haller

It may strike us a bit odd that two German horse experts contributed decisively to the awareness and preservation of the Sorraia horse. Michael Schaefer directed scientific interest to these hors-es and bred them for three decades on his farm near Munich, however without having any in-fluence on their preservation in Portugal, the country of their origin. There, the government and private breeders more or less neglected this genetic treasure, which due to inbreeding and lack of interest was threatened to become extinct. Not until the mid-1990s was there a man whose interest in the Sorraias and whose engagement were to lead to a positive turn for them. The re-nowned western horse expert and author of specialized books Hardy Oelke, who has always been interested in primitive horses, found on a trip into American mustang country some mustangs that he thought resembled the Sorraia to an uncanny degree. He decided to travel to Portugal to see first-hand if that impression was correct. Because of the phenotypical similarities he sub-sequently initiated a mtDNA research which yielded significant results in various aspects.

The refuge offers plenty of open land, where the most lush grass is growing, but the horses preferred the shelter of the trees and bushes

His first visit to Portugal made him already concerned about the Sorraias' situation in their home-land, an impression that got stronger with every visit. He decided to try and help these horses and in 1997 imported some to Germany, with more following later.

"Nowhere were the Sorraias treated as what Ruy d'Andrade believed them to be and why he tried to preserve them", explained Oelke. "And hardly anywhere were they kept under according con-ditions. Until 1998, there was a small group allowed to live under practically wild conditions, but they, too, have since come under a certain domesticating influence. Everywhere else they are treated increasingly like a domestic breed. I realized that only a reservation would enable at least some of these horses to retain their primitiveness. That had also basically been Ruy d'Andrade's intentions, only that his descendants didn't keep that up."

According to Oelke, Sorraias still show a wild behavior which other horses under similar condi-tions lack, i.e. Koniks or mustangs. This wild behavior is in the process of getting lost. Therefore he began looking in Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands for a possibility to establish a pre-serve, or refuge, where Sorraias could live wild again. Through the help of a Portuguese friend, and after some disappointments, he came in contact with a Portuguese landowner family in-volved in organic farming and forestry in Portugal. They have an interest in these horses and agreed to make available sufficient land for such a refuge, gladly making this valuable contribu-tion in the Portuguese public’s interest and in the interest of the entire horse world.

"It's the icing on the cake that the refuge lies in what is known as ,Vale de Zebro‘, i.e. a original habitat of these ancient Portuguese wild horses", Oelke says, "as 'zebro', for all we know, meant 'wild horse' in medieval times."

March 13, 2004 became a historical date for the Sorraias, as that's when Oelke's Sorraia mares arrived back in their home country and were released in the Refuge as the nucleus of a new, wild herd. Their shipment there was made possible by the Germany-based Wiechers international transport service. They all arrived in good shape and immediately took possession of their new range. For more than a day they disappeared and were only viewed by Oelke due to sheer luck the following evening. When the mares spotted the intruder, they took to their heels in the blink of an eye.

"They showed that they haven't yet quite lost their instincts", said Oelke. "Here they can live as free and wild as is possible in today's Europe, and have a chance to retain their primitive charac-ter."

As his own stallion was already too tame, and also the sire of one of the mares, he approached a grandson of Ruy d’Andrade, Fernando d'Andrade, for a stallion, who graciously agreed to support the project by lending a proven herd sire. Fernando d'Andrade's Sorraia herd is the most natural-ly kept, other than the Vale de Zebro herd, and is also genetically as distant from the mares as is possible in Portugal.

"The project should be put on as wide a genetic base as is possible under the circumstances", Oelke explained. "The mares stem from two different herds, and the stallion is now from yet an-other herd."

The stallion had had hardly any contact with humans and for the transport had to be driven on the truck by way of a chute. After having jumped off the truck in the Refuge, he directly took to the woods – probably he had smelled the mares. He will hopefully sire some offspring within the next couple of years.

The Refuge, which is not too far from the town of Coruche, is about five square kilometers in size. Climate, vegetation, and topography are similar to what the Sorraias were used to for mil-lenniums, when they roamed the range as "zebros". Human intervention is going to be kept at an absolute minimum. The area is patrolled by armed forest rangers, but no one is going near the horses. Management is restricted to taking out excess horses. In keeping with the law of Nature, the weakest ones will be taken out whenever the herd will get to be too large.


In the Vale de Zebro Sorraia Horse Refuge, the horses took to the forest directly and stayed in it

Trapaça, the oldest mare in the Refuge, had several sons in Germany, two of which went to the USA. She appears to be most happy to be allowed to roam free


By Hardy Oelke

Yesterday, the mares had arrived and had been unloaded in the Refuge. After two days on the road, they had seemed overjoyed by being released in such an ideal environment. My feelings were mixed – I had taken care of them for years in Germany, and they had grown on me. But I could not help but notice how they lost more and more of the wild behavior they had once pos-sessed, and seeing what is being done with the Sorraias everywhere, how they are increasingly treated like a domestic breed, I am glad that this refuge could be established, where they will lead as wild and natural a life as is possible in our modern times.

All morning we had been wandering over the Refuge, seeing horse tracks here and there, but not a single horse. After lunch, I went back in alone, determined to search for them until I found them, or until it would get dark on me. Now the sun is already pretty low and I decide to head back toward the gate. My legs and feet hurt. I've done more walking today than I normally do in months…

One significant observation this project has already yielded is: Horses are generally viewed as steppe animals, as creatures of the open plains. Well, the Sorraia Refuge has several fairly flat and open valleys. The cows can be seen mostly in these bottom areas, feeding on the lush grass there. And I had certainly expected the horses to prefer these flat bottoms as their "living quar-ters". Quite to the contrary! They have taken to the forest almost immediately, and have never come out of it since! Unless they did so at night.

The forest here – mostly cork oak and pines, heather and bushes – is not dense, letting plenty of light in and offering good grazing. The horses seem to like it. Even if they should later – after having become more familiar with the surroundings and feeling more secure – go more often to the open valley bottoms, in other words, if their object of taking to the bush is to hide, it is still significant that they automatically seek security in the forest. If the theory were valid that the horse is strictly an animal of the open grassland, where it can see danger from afar and take to its heels, then why do these reintroduced Sorraias retreat to the forest for security?

This morning we had been making too much noise, I'm sure. Even if everyone is cautious, a group of four men is bound to make some noise, and the horses could have avoided us easily. Going alone, I've tried to be really quite… I can't deny that I'm a bit disappointed not to have found them. I had been hoping to get a few photographs of them in their new habitat. On the other hand, I'm telling myself, "This is great!" It is exactly why this area was chosen, because it is so large and diversified, with hills, forest, bushes, etc., all of which makes it hard to see the horses, but constitute a wonderful environment for them. I'm reminding myself that this is exactly what I've hoped for all these years, and that it doesn't matter if I get a glimpse of them today or not. What matters is that I've done for them the best I could, enabled to do so by the generous consent of my friend Alfredo.

And all of a sudden I see a horse's tail moving between some pine trees! Well, I've found them after all! I slowly step a little bit closer, as noiselessly as I can. I get my camera ready, zoom in on them, and start shooting. At least I'll have some shots to show off! Then one of them notices me and in the blink of an eye they are all gone, like so many deer…

How wonderful! They have not yet lost their wild instincts completely! I well remember how they reacted even in the comparatively small and completely open pasture I kept them in at home, how in the beginning they had run away whenever one showed up. But over the years, the dis-tance of tolerance had continuously decreased. Hopefully, not being exposed to humans routinely in the future – not being interfered with at all – will result in a revitalization of their wild behav-ior. Maybe in a year's time one won't even be able to do what I just did – or at least not without a lot more cunning.

A few days later, a Sorraia stallion is hauled to the Sorraia Refuge and released there. He is from Fernando d'Andrade, whose Sorraias, especially the stallions, are still pretty wild and not being handled at all. Fernando d'Andrade, a grandson of the great Dr. Ruy d'Andrade, is thus support-ing the project, because he also sees the merit of it in helping the Sorraia horse.

The stallion jumps off the truck, puts a little distance between himself and the people and starts sniffing the ground. Then he takes off rather dedicedly in one direction. Has he already smelled the mares?

By the way, although he was unloaded at the edge of the forest, the open meadow was still visib-le from that point, and he could have run to it had that been his desire. However, he, too, disap-peared into the woods. Of course his main reason for that could have been that he smelled the mares and was heading toward them, but the fact remains that none of the horses gave the im-pression that they longed for the open country – they seem perfectly happy in the forest. Which reminds me of an experience with mustangs in a remote area of the American west. The horses, which were very shy, had been grazing in a wide, open meadow on a mountain side. I had been able to sneek up on them, using some interspersed fallen trees and bushes as cover. When they finally spotted me they wheeled around and made for the nearby forest – explosively is the term that comes to mind –, and had disappeared there within seconds. Those wild horses too had not tried to distance themselves from perceived danger in the open, but rather headed for the cover of the trees…

After the truck and everybody else has left, I try to follow the stallion. Perhaps I have a chance to see him making contact with the mares… Every so often I stop and just listen, expecting to hear the typical screaming and squealing horses make when introducing themselves – but there is nothing to hear except the wind in the trees, and sometimes the faraway clinking of the cows' bells. When the sun starts to set I leave, again a little disappointed, but with a more deeply felt satisfaction for the size of the Refuge and what it has to offer. The stallion and the mares are bound to meet soon, if they have not already done so. For them to be able to roam like their an-cestors did is the main issue of this project, for them to hone their survival instincts, to be able to complete their diet with all sorts of plants besides grass, to stay surefooted, to get tough in regard to the elements…

All this land is, by the way, not artificially fertilized, and no chemicals are used for whatever rea-son, allowing a natural balance of plants to grow. For all these reasons, the area is ideal. After all, to the best of our knowledge it is a land where wild horses used to roam in the past, because "Vale de Zebro", the name this area is known by, can be translated as "valley of wild horses".

A glimpse of a free-roaming Sorraia – surely old Ruy d’Andrade would appreciate this if he were still alive!


The short-term, medium-term, and final plan is to leave the horses to themselves and interfere with them as little as possible. The leased stallion was taken out after two years; two young stal-lions that were born in the first year (sired by a different horse), took since over. Additional stallions will have to be removed when they come of age. As there are mares in the Refuge from two different Sorraia herds, and the introduced stallion was from yet another herd, the horses represent most of what can be found in today's Sorraias as far as genetic diversity is concerned.

Any excess horses that need to be removed will always be the weaker ones, which Mother Nature eventually would have culled anyway. Mares not able to foal without help will die and thus dis-continue such inheritance, as has already been the case once. Infertile stallions obviously won‘t be able to reproduce.

The eventual size of the population in the Refuge is of course limited. The numbers must stay low enough so that the Refuge can sustain the horses year-round without the need to supplement them.

This is the only herd now that is allowed to live wild, without human interference, or at least with the least possible interference – in this day and age, everything has to be managed to a certain degree. The fact that the area is fenced in is, for instance, an interference; however, it stands to reason that the horses can't be allowed to go just anywhere, because then they would get lost. Even the mustangs in America, whose stomping grounds may sometimes be the size of half of Portugal, need to be managed, in order to keep numbers in check and allow other wildlife to prosper. What will be different in the Vale de Zebro Refuge compared to some other places where Sorraias are kept under fairly natural conditions is:

- In the Refuge the stallions are not going to be separated from the mares, but stay with them all year round, and the young stock is not separated either, allowing for a natural interaction and social structure.

- Young horses will grow up under natural conditions, and not together with domestic horses (Lu-sitanos), as is the case with several Sorraia breeders in Portugal nowadays, including the Nation-al Stud (Coudelaria Nacional). Being raised with Lusitanos, they adapt the Lusitanos' tame be-havior.

- Mares and foals will not get their manes and tails roached, as is customary with most breeders in Portugal, which not only looks awful, but robs the horses of natural protection, and the process is bound to desensitize them. And it is of course completely unnatural, anyway.

- The horses born in the Refuge are not going to be branded, or handled in any way.


Everything in the Refuge has been going fine. If one could ask the horses, they would most likely say: "More than just fine. This is GREAT!"

The horses had to survive several severe draughts in recent years, but because of the size of the area, and the diverse vegetation, they hardly had to suffer. Some got really skinny at times, but none died for lack of feed, and fortunately, the area was spared by the wildfires that many parts of Portugal have to fight every summer. Rough roads have been cleared as firebreakers, and also to give access to the firefighters in case of an outbreak. And all relevant people are well instructed as to what to do in case of an emergency. Those are good things to know...

Interesting ethological observations were made. The old leased stallion had driven away all stud colts when they were about one year old. They then hid in the woods and underbrush, and they did not form a bachelor band.

The two young stallions that took over the mares after the removal of the old one are much more tolerant of the male foals. One allowed a young stallion to stay in his band until he was three years old. The two harem sires get along very well, communicate, and respect each other‘s rights. At times the two bands graze or rest close together, at other times they are far apart. During a drought, when feed was sparse, the bands foraged independently. During the mating season, as soon as there is a mare in heat, the two bands keep their distance.

These two stallions were born in the Refuge, but their dams were introduced there in foal by an-other stallion; they had conceived in Germany before they made the trip back to Portugal.

Although only one of the young stallions claimed the mares in the beginning, and did fight off the other one, the later separation into two harems didn't take place in a dramatic way, with bitter fights by the stallions, but happened more like a gentleman's agreement. The mares seemed to have been the ones that decided which stallion to be with. Interesting about how the mares split up between the two stallions was also that it was in such a way that incest was avoided.

The formation of two separate bands took place in as natural a way as possible. It was an abso-lute highlight in the short history of the Refuge, and a wonderful example of social interactions of wild horses. Breeders of Sorraia horses had declared it to be impossible to have more than one stallion with mares. There were reports of how bitterly Sorraia stallions had fought, so that they had to be separated for fear they would fatally injure one another. Evidently, the absolute natural conditions the animals live under in Vale de Zebro, and the size of the area, has allowed for this natural development to take place. Here it was proven not only that Sorraia harems sires can get along perfectly well, but also that they can be friendly and tolerant toward male foals.

The old stallion seemed to just hang around at the edge of the harem, not playing any role other than that of a sire, but when he was removed after two years, the routine of the herd changed – so he must have had more of a say in what was done when and where than what had been obvious. The horses could not be found where one usually had been able to find them. A resting place under a big pine tree that the band had frequented so much that the ground was strewn with manure had been abandoned and was practically bare of any horse signs.

In Germany, no Sorraia stallion had sired a foal before he was at least four years of age. So it was to be expected that no babies would be born in the Refuge in 2008. However, the first one of the young stallions born in the Refuge that obtained mares did sire at the age of three.

Another interesting observation was made: On the outskirts of the second band hovered a young stallion, a three-year-old. He looked like he was making use of some cows as kind of a barrier. He was observed to more or less sneak into the band, greeting the harem sire, then running off with him and having a bit of a mock fight away from the mares and their colts. It was all in good spirit and there was no hostility between the two. The harem stud occasionally even allowed the lesser one to chase him. After they had had their workout, they remained standing there close together for a while, resting. This behavior only took place when no mares were in heat.

At any rate, things are developing great in the Vale de Zebro Refuge.

2011 update:

Three young stallions had formed a bachelor band in 2011, a 4-year-old and two 2-year-olds. The older one had been tolerated with harem #2 until he was three years of age, maybe because his dam was the lead mare. However, during an attempt to round up the horses that year in order to remove some to keep numbers in check, he may have acted up—at any rate, after the gather (which was unsuccessful, by the way), he had been expelled. In the spring of 2011, the by then 4-year-old and the two younger ones were observed running together, but he sometimes deserted the two 2-year-olds and started to pester the harems. An interesting behavior was observed: The two harems often stayed close together, and harem stallion #1 went off to fight away the young rival, while harem stallion #2 stayed with the mares, holding watch over them.

In the fall of 2011, however, the 4-year old managed to steal two mares, one of them with a colt at her side, thus forming harem #3.  Again, this took place with a bit of screaming and running, rearing and occasional biting, but no life-threatening fights.

Another attempt to gather the horses in the spring of 2012 was partially successful, and four horses were removed, one mare and three stallions—the mare went to Maria d‘Andrade Oliveira e Sousa and was picked up by her husband Eduardo, to help continue their Sorraia program. A young stallion went to northeastern Portugal to see how a Sorraia will survive there, as a first step toward another Refuge up there. Another young stallion is earmarked to go to Spain, and the third stallion is former harem stallion #1. He will probably stay on the Cunhals‘ Freixo de Meio farm near Montemor-o-Novo to be exhibited there for visitors an example of the subspecies.

After the roundup, a young mare had added herself to what used to be harem #3, and is now in fact harem #2.

By fall 2012, what used to be harems #1 and #2 were still in tact, minus the one filly, and collectively are now harem #1. What used to be harem sire #2 was presiding over all the mares. The two bachelors were still together, and none of them made any attempts to steal mares or challenge one of the two harem stallions. Another roundup was staged, but was unsuccessful. With four mature stallions and several colts, it would be desirable to remove some males, thus reducing numbers and leave more forage to the females.

By fall of 2012 the land was very dry again, and although there was no crop of acorns this time to help the horses‘ diet, they still looked good. None of the various water sources were dry.

Only two foals were born in 2012, a colt and a filly. Why so few foals were born when there are so many mares remains unclear. There are several possible reasons: reduced fertility due to the inbreeding, herd dynamics (bossy mares interferring when other mares are about to be bred), abortions because of droughts, etc.

The introduction of „new blood“ appears to be desirable at this point, when the former harem sires have mature or nearly mature daugthers. Negotiations have been started with the Fundação Alter Real, the former Portuguese National Stud, because their Sorraias are the most distantly related to the ones in the Refuge.