The Iberian peninsula, a well traveled crossroad that’s been a stage of human cultural theatre for a thousand centuries. The actors have been many, when the Neanderthals arrived in 70,000 BC for example, they were far from being the first to call this place home; more would follow. Ancient Greek geographers named this place Iberia in 500 BC and the name stuck. Since then, nearly every culture in the region has left their mark: the Roman Iberians, Germanic Iberians, Islamic Iberians, followed by the reconquest and finally the post-reconquest. That still to this day, this fist shaped land maintains an image as a somewhat mysterious frontier is a testament to both it’s exotic character and great importance.
These days, five different flags fly over modern Iberia: Spain, Portugal, France, Andorra and Gibraltar have all staked a claim here. My flight is touching down in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. But it’s not the city itself that I came to see; I came for the horses. The cowboy traditions of the Americas, both north and south, have their roots here on the Iberian peninsula. Much of what we know as modern horsemanship, the entire concept of classical dressage in fact, originated here, beginning with legions of Roman calvary who preferred the Iberian horse above all others.
Countless generations of horseman from both the European continent and North Africa refined the breeding of their prized Iberian horses to the point where, what exists today, truly is a horse like no other. It’s here in Portugal, a country where the old, the ancient and a few modern touches are mixed together to form an experience that is completely unique yet strangely familiar. It’s here that I’m seeking an up-close encounter with a national treasure; Portugal’s Lusitano.
There are in fact, several different breeds of horses known to have originated on the Iberian peninsula. The most familiar are the Andalusian of Spain and the Lusitano of Portugal. These two breeds posses unique genetic markers not found in other modern horses but are found, in fact, embedded in the genomes of the oldest horse breeds on the planet. Archeological evidence of equine habitation dates back 800,000 years here. There is some question amongst academics in fact, as to where the horse was first domesticated; on the Eurasian Steps or the Iberian Peninsula?
Nicole Giger, my friend and guide, is a Swiss national who first arrived in Portugal 28 years ago. She fell in love with the land, the culture, the horses and she never looked back. A classically trained professional rider, the Lusitano horse has become her life’s passion. She picks me up at my hotel at sunrise and we drive out into the Portuguese countryside. For the first two days of my stay, we’ll be attending the 3rd International Dressage Conference hosted by by the Daniel Pinto Academie De Dressage Portugal.
The theme for this year’s conference is horses show exactly the way they are ridden. Top breeders, trainers and riders from across Portugal have descended on the Academie De Dressage, bringing with them examples of the finest horses the Lusitano breed has to offer. While everyone else is congregating in the main entrance hall of the academe, I head for the barns. It’s my first look at these fabled creatures and I’m eager to get acquainted.
The Lusitano is known for its beauty, intelligence, endurance and character. Ingredients that come together masterfully when these horses are ridden in the Portuguese tradition and few things say “Portugal” more than the horseback bullfight. Unlike the Spanish Matador, who performs on foot, the Portuguese bull fighter, known as the Cavalerio faces down his challenger on horseback. For those who may be a bit squeamish- relax, the bull is not killed during the fight in Portugal.
The Lusitano has a well earned reputation for remarkable agility and fearlessness in the bull ring. In fact, it’s these fighting bred horses that are the bare-knuckled ancestors to the modern day cutting horse. Unlike a typical domestic cow being cut from it’s herd however, the wild Portuguese bull is fully grown, aggressive and out for blood. This reputation for toughness leads some to the false conclusion that the Lusitano is, well, tough and therefore difficult to manage but nothing could be further from the truth.
The facilities at the Academie De Dressage are immaculate, as are the horses. This group represents the creme de la creme, the aristocrats of the Lusitano breed. Rows of bright, modern stalls house perfectly groomed Lusitano horses of every color. I walk up to a big black and gently run my hand down his muscular neck. I feel his warm breath on my arm as he inquisitively turns his head to smell me.The horse has the characteristic convex curved face, bold eye and satin finish coat of the Lusitano. He nickers softly when I stop petting him so I begin a friendly scratching of his lower jaw- he responds by closing his eyes and wrinkling his nose in pleasure.
Making my way through the barn, I try to take in what is truly an impressive display of exquisite horses. It seems there’s hardly a color that does not occur in this breed; Palomino, Buckskin, every variety of Bay, Chestnut, coal black, pure white and the full spectrum of grey are represented. All of these horses are calm and none act aggressively as I approach. Some have already had their mane’s neatly braided in preparation for the day’s demonstrations but most fascinating of all is that fact that nearly every horse present is a stallion.
The weekend was filled with lectures and ridden demonstrations by breeders, academics, trainers and riders from across Europe and from as far away as Australia and Brazil. This south American country has risen in recent years to become a strong hold of the Lusitano breed. Fine quality breeding stock were exported to Brazil up until the Portuguese revolution in 1974. Some of the more rare bloodlines subsequently died out in Portugal, so what we see now are horses bred in Brazil, being exported back to their ancestral land. Despite these successes, the Lusitano remains one of the world’s rare horse breeds, numbering less than ten thousand globally.
In the elite world of international grand prix level dressage, the Lusitano is rapidly being recognized as the Rolls Royce ride of professional competitors. Quite simply, they have it all- including a great walk, which was a common complaint of the past that today’s breeders say they’ve overcome. The modern Lusitano is bigger, bolder and ready for the world stage wherever that may be. At the 2008 Olympics in China, eight of the horses that competed in the dressage events were Lusitanos and for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, six Lusitano horses competed; an extraordinary accomplishment considering how small the total population is.
Magic in motion, like a childhood fantasy that is suddenly alive and breathing and right in front of you. Seeing these horses in action with some of the world’s best in the saddle quickened the pulse and sent the heart raising. With each new horse and rider team that entered the arena at the Academie De Dressage, spectators were treated to the broad spectrum of body type, style and personality the Lusitano has to offer; from the traditional Baroque, all the way to the most modern grand prix level competitors.
As enjoyable as the dressage conference was, there was much more to come. Once again my guide, Nicole Giger, collected me at first light and once again we drove out across the Portuguese landscape where medieval era windmills, reminiscent of Don Quixote, mix with space-aged, power-generating designs dotting the mountain tops. The countryside reminded me of northern California, with dramatic coastlines and hillsides covered in vineyards; in this case producing exceptional Portuguese wines.
Our destination is a very special place; Casa Cadaval, one of the largest and oldest estancias in Portugal. It’s still managed today by the same family who built it in the year 1648. The current owner is the Countess Teresa Alveres Pereira de Schonborn- Wiesentheid. For the sake of brevity, we will refer to this fascinating and modern lady simply as “Teresa”. Upon first meeting, there’s a crucial decision to be made; what language shall we speak today? Teresa speaks several languages fluently, she enjoys French but for my sake, we go with English. It’s times like these that the disadvantages that come with being from a mono-linguistic country stand out.
There is a sense of permanence here, where everything it seems, is viewed in it’s historic context. Governments have come and gone, cultures overlap, languages change but the land and the people are here to stay. Teresa herself is a perfect example, strong and independent, she knows where she came from and where she wants to go. Under her stewardship, Casa Cadaval has expanded from a self sustaining family estate, into a multinational agribusiness. She raises cattle, grows rice and corn, produces olive oil and award winning wines but her true passion are her Lusitano horses. The bay color is her favorite, many of the major breeders in Portugal choose a color, a preferred bloodline and specialize.
In the tradition of Portuguese hospitality, We’ve been invited to tour the ranch and see the horses but first we share a meal. Lunch is simple yet elegant; stewed beef and vegetables Portuguese style, served with bread, olive oil and wine- all of it produced here on Casa Cadaval. Afterwards we head outside to see the horses. Teresa would fit in perfectly on any ranch in the US, she’s dressed in jeans, work boots and trailed constantly by a pack of Rhodesian Ridgback dogs and strays she’s taken in. She climbs behind the wheel of her pickup truck and with the dog pack running along side; we head out.
An accomplished four-in-hand driver, Teresa has driven in numerous events with teams of bay Lusitano horses she bred herself. After a tour of the impressive stud barn and the weanling corral, we take a drive out to the brood mare band. We find the mares enjoying the peace and quiet the fall season brings. They’re grazing in a large pasture shaded with huge cork trees. Teresa approaches the fence and whistles to her girls who all come over to greet her. She knows every horse and sees every detail. Later we drive over to another pasture, this one containing yearling and two-year old stud colts. “Would you like to see them up close?” Teresa asks, “Then we walk out to them.”
The Lusitano is a highly “people oriented” horse, as soon as the colts saw us coming they came trotting over, surrounded us and began to sniff and investigate. They love attention; even these untrained youngsters were gentle and easy to be around. Nicole Giger got in on the action, picking out a new friend she began to play. Then the horses got excited and off they went like a flock of birds. They flew out across the pasture bathed in golden sunset and streaked in the long shadows of centuries-old cork trees. Our day at Casa Cadaval may have been drawing to a close but my Lusitano experience was far from over.
Golegã, the “horse capital of Portugal” and home to the Feira Nacional do Cavalo or National Horse Fair, is a legendary event and a must see for horse enthusiasts. Each fall this sleepy little town is transformed into an amusement park for horses where almost anything goes and often does. Golegã’s county fair midway- meets- rodeo- meets- high class horse show atmosphere, has to be seen to be believed. There are traditional horses, world class dressage horses, carriage horses and pretty much everything else you probably could not imagine, all mixed together and sharing the same narrow fifteenth century streets.
Like the town itself, the fair is ancient- horse markets have existed here in Golegã for more than five hundred years. During the week-long festival, the central plaza is covered over in dirt and transformed into a huge arena surrounded by a promenade for a never-ending Concours d’Elegance. This is the place to see and be seen- everyone with a horse is out in their finest and on parade. Local breeders build private temporary stables complete with “hospitality center” called; Casetas. These can be found all around the outside of the promenade; on display are their best stallions and horses for sale. It’s hard to say just how many horses change hands during the fair but this place is famous for horse trading- it’s difficult to resist getting in on the action.
You won’t find any safety placards, traffic cops or caution tape at Golegã, there is a refreshing freedom here; people are expected to watch out for themselves so always look both ways before you cross anything on foot. There’s shopping galore at all the tack and clothing stalls that line the streets. Food vendors too are plentiful, the aroma of fresh meats sizzling over wood coals fills the air. One particularly welcome modern touch are the decent public restrooms in multiple locations. When we first arrived, I thought it odd how tall the outdoor bars lining the streets were, until I realized they were designed so a person on horseback could easily ride up and order a beer!
There are in fact, two very different experiences to be had at Golegã. There is Golegã at night and Golegã during the day. One afternoon in particular for us was unforgettable. Through Nicole’s connections, we received an invitation for lunch at a private house on a quiet backstreet of Golegã. The main room of the house opened on one side to a courtyard and horse stable. The luncheon tables were decorated and a large crowd of guests were already waiting when we arrived. A lavash buffet of traditional Portuguese favorites had been prepared, but much more was in store for us.
Before lunch, there was a horse show of course and this being Golegã, this presentation was not like anything I had ever experienced. The event was in honor of Dr. Felipe Figueriredo. The director of The Escola Portuguesa d Arte Equestre, Dr. Figueriredo is himself a national treasure. Highly respected in the world of classical dressage; Dr. Figueriredo, his wife and two daughters put on an exciting private exhibition for the gathering with their Lusitano stallions. The exhibition started in the courtyard but it wasn’t long before the horses were being ridden right into the house itself- performing Piaffe amongst the guests and tables. The ladies rode sidesaddle in elegant traditional costumes; demonstrating high school maneuvers with seemingly effortless style and grace.
Once the sun goes down, Golegã really gets rolling and it can seem a little crazy to a first timer. Everything gets thrown together here, nobody thinks twice about four-in-hand drivers mixing it up with the saddle horses. The horse traffic on the promenade can run pretty fast and gets rather hectic. The scurry drivers are especially quick, with their tiny pony carts going flat out; zigging and zagging! This is typical for Golegã, people and horses fill the streets and it’s a real party atmosphere. The outdoor bars are filled and so are the casetas you never know who you’ll bump into. I was visiting with the Countess Theresa when she pointed out that, sitting right next to me, was English coachman and competitive driver George Bowman. He’s a big fan of the Lusitano and drove them as four-in-hand teams himself for a number of years.
One of George Bowman’s Lusitano horses became particularly famous for his appearance in two popular movies. He was the beautiful spirited mount Angelina Jolie rode side-saddle in Lora Croft Tomb Raider . The same Lusitano can be seen ridden by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. This eye-popping steed really commanded the screen. He was the ideal choice to safely carry multi-million dollar movie stars. Although the big guy appears on screen as a hot handful; moving with lots of action- in reality he’s actually gentle as a puppy. This example pretty much sums up the Lusitano as a breed- bold and flashy on the outside but calm and collected on the inside.
So you must be asking by this point, “what is the downside?” Well their really isn’t one but there are limitations. For people who want to import the Lusitano, or Andalusian for that matter, into the US, Canada or Australia, there is the issue of piroplasmosis. This tick-born parasitic illness is common throughout the Iberian Peninsula and infected horses are banned from importation. Horses that test positive, however, can compete in international events and often do- they’re typically stabled separately during their stay in the host country. There seems to be a natural resistance to the effects of the illness amongst the Iberian breeds- infected horses often show no symptoms. Piroplasmosis is nothing new and it does occur in the US; currently 12 states have reported outbreaks in 2009 and 2010. The bottom line on the situation is that US, Canadian and Australian breeders who wish to import the Lusitano will find a more limited number of horses to choose from.
Sitting in the Lisbon airport having some tea, I’m waiting for my flight and day-dreaming about these remarkable horses; their fascinating history and noble character. The Portuguese people have a rare collective passion for horsemanship and especially for their Lusitano. That this small country has had such a major influence on world heritage says a lot about the depth of this passion. Their horses are diplomats in their own right, “come to Portugal,” they say, “come ride with us”. It’s an invitation that’s hard to resist; I’m glad I took them up on it.
Comments for In The Land of the Lusitano
- Miss Denise on January 08, 2011 Oh my kingdom for this dream horse. Thanks for letting me live my fantasy in your article.