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The Horses and Ponies of Portugal

The oldest reference to the horse in Portugal is its portrayal in the cave paintings and engravings of Escorial, 17,000 13,000 BC, in the Alentejo. These show the convex head and arched neck of the true Iberian horse rather than the pony-like sketches of the Lascaux paintings.
The horses of Portugal are known as "The Sons of the Wind". Legend says that the mares of the Cynetes tribe were grazed on the coast of the River Oceanus, and gave birth to foals that were fleet of foot, and must have been sired by the West wind, Zephyr. Even Homer states that Achilles' best horses were from the River Oceanus.
When the Romans arrived they found that the Lusitanians were well versed in the art of riding into battle, whereas most of their own horses used in war, were for war chariots or for transport.
Large farms were established in the Alentejo for their breeding. There is a Roman Villa at Torre de Palma which has a mosaic of four stallions. One of these stallions carries the brand of the palm tree, and another, that of three pigs. A neighbouring modern day farm is still known as 'Tres Porcos' !
Horses were exported to Rome for chariot racing. The Greens, in particular; liked to drive Lusitanian horses.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, these horses were bred for the nobility and were much appreciated for their strength, acceleration, maneuverability and above all for their courage.
King Duarte I received much written advice from his brother Dom Pedro, on the subject of improving the Portuguese horse. Owners of good stallions, usually knights, were granted privileges and came under a scheme to regularize breeding in an effort to improve the stock and produce animals that were more suitable for carrying the knights themselves into battle.
The Lusitano today is well known as a dressage and high school horse, especially as the 17th century Duke of Bragança started the first Riding Academy in Europe. It also features prominently in the Portuguese art of bull-fighting, where its agility and courage show to great advantage. Other of these horses have been known to excel when driven, or when show jumping. The most famous of the latter was Novilheiro, who, after an illustrious career with John Whitaker, was retired to stud back in Portugal.
Standing between 1.50 to 1.60m at the shoulder the characteristics of the breed are its concave head, arched neck and rounded shape. Most of them are grey, but all solid colours are found, even a delicate cream dun, or cremola, which is known as an Isabela, as this was the favourite of the Queen, Saint Isabel. Nearly all the warm-blooded horses of Europe and America, such as the Andalucian, the Lipizzaner, the English thoroughbred, the Quarter horse and the Creole have Lusitanian ancestors.
There are two national studs for the breeding of Lusitanos. One is the national stud at Fonte Boa, near Santarem and the other is still known as the royal stud at Alter de Chão. The horses from Alter Real, originally bred for the Royal family of Portugal, are now considered as almost a separate breed, where bay is the only colour allowed. Many people consider that the Lusitano is the only breed of horse in Portugal, yet there is another, which although now few in number, was probably the foundation stock. This is the Sorraia.
Again with a convex profile it was referred to as the wild horse of Portugal back in 1179 AD, when it was called the zebro. In colour it is predominantly grey or dun, that is a yellow or mouse colour coat, with a black mane and tail, sometimes marked with dark stripes on the legs and down the back, so called "zebra markings". (As to the coincidence of the names 'zebro' and 'zebra', who was it who first saw the wild horses of Africa ?). This probable ancestor of the Lusitano is a hardy creature, used to sub-desert conditions, and although only on average 1.43m at the withers, is a true horse. It was, and still is, used for herding the wild bulls and other cattle, as well as fulfilling all the menial tasks carried out by the donkey further south, such as threshing, ploughing and pack-carrying. They can exist in the poorest of conditions, grazing on what the cattle leave.
Columbus planned on taking Andalucian horses of high quality and breeding with him on his voyage, but to his anger found that someone had substituted smaller native horses, of the Sorraia type. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for these rugged animals surely withstood the rigours of the journey, and the poor conditions better.
The Sorraia are far different from the Garrano. These bay (brown with a black mane and tail) ponies stand 1.30 at the shoulder. This is the native pony of Iberia, whose name could come from the Gaelic, as the 'Garron of Scotland'. They have developed in the mountains of the whole of the north, from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the Pyrenees, where there is greater rainfall and there are no donkeys, becoming a breed type by the Paleolithic period. In Spain it is referred to as the Asturiana or the Navarra.
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The Lusitano Stallion, Dakar.

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A Sorreia stallion.


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Sorreias being driven Four-in-hand.


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The Garrano mare, Scrumpy.

Article by kind permission of the author. Photographs from Tiffany's Riding Centre
First published in Insight, December 1998, Volume 1, Issue 2 - the quarterly magazine of A.F.P.O.P. the Association of the Foreign Property Owners of Portugal.

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Last modified: June 04, 2007