|THE LUSITANO HORSE
Horse of the Wind and Pride of Portugal
of the Lusitano Horse
by Juan Valera-Lema, Ph.D.
|Republished with the permission
of Conquistador Magazine
Archaeological evidence in the Iberian Peninsula, modern day Spain and Portugal, indicates that the origins of the Lusitano horse date back to at least 25,000 B.C. in the form of its primitive ancestor, the Sorraia breed. Cave paintings in the Iberian Peninsula dated from around 20,000 B.C. depict portraits of horses and activities related to a horse culture. Furthermore, there have been findings of small tools made of bone which were used to make rope from the hair of horses. The Sorraia is believed to have developed from crosses between native Iberian Proto Draft Horses (Equus Caballus Caballus of Western Europe) and ancient strains of Oriental/North African horses.
Looking further back into the evolution of the horse, we find that the most ancient ancestor of the horse was a small, herbivorous mammal of the genus Eohippus from the Eocene Epoch, having four-toed front feet and three-toed hind feet, which existed fifty million years ago in an area that is now the western United States. Eohippus eventually became modified into what we know as the horse. These horses then migrated from America through the land bridge connecting Alaska and Siberia and entered Asia where they established themselves and from where they disseminated to Europe and Africa. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World however, the horse had been extinct in the American continent for about 8000 years.
The Early Ancestors
The Sorraia remained isolated for several millennia in the southern part of Iberia, the Alentejo and Andalusian regions of modern Portugal and Spain. Noted Portuguese historian Mr. Ruy d'Andrade suggested that by the Neolithic period (4000 B.C.) the native tribes of the area may have used horses in war. Around 3000 B.C., Iberian tribes from North Africa invaded the peninsula, which would be later named after them.
They were soon to be followed by the Phoenicians and Celts, who were largely responsible for a two way exchange of horses which brought an influx of oriental breeds from Libya, Egypt and Syria to the Iberian peninsula. By the time of the first expeditions of the Greeks, in 800 B.C., the Celts and Iberians had formed an alliance known as the Celtiberians. According to Lady Sylvia Loch, "It was the horses of the Celtiberian that were to become famous throughout the civilized world.
From this period onward, we find many references to the Iberian or Celtiberian horses and riders of the peninsula by Greek and Roman chroniclers. Homer refers to them in the Iliad around 1,100 B.C. and the celebrated Greek cavalry officer Xenophon had nothing but praise for the gifted Iberian horses and horsemen". Xenophon, in one of his books written about 370 B.C., admiringly describes the equestrian war techniques of Iberian mercenaries who were influential in the victory of Sparta against Athens in the Peloponnesian wars. This type of warfare consisted of individual horse charges with fast starts, stops and pirouettes followed by retreats and renewed attacks. A form of riding that was made possible by the use of incredibly agile horses, curb bits and stirrups.
Further invasions by the Carthaginians and Romans recognized the superiority of the Iberian horses and horsemanship to the point that the Romans adopted the Iberian equestrian style of warfare. They set up stud farms for their cavalry in the conquered Iberian territories to accomplish the expansion of the Roman Empire. In his book, Cavalo Lusitano o filho do vento, Mr. Arsénio Raposo Cordeiro writes that, "The perfect bond between Iberian man and horse may have provided the original inspiration behind the legend of the Centaurs, a hybrid manhorse creature deemed the spring from the valleys of the Tagus River. At the time it was also believed that the mares of this region were sired by the wind, which accounted for the amazing speed with which they endowed their progeny."
The Berber Influence
In 711 A.D. the Muslims initiated the invasion of the Iberian peninsula, at the time being ruled by the Visigoths, and in varied degrees they occupied the peninsula until the end of the fifteenth century.
A lot has been written about the influence of the Arabian horse on the Iberian stock during the years of occupation. The fact is that although politically this was an Arabian invasion, ethnically the invaders were Moors. The leader of this initial invasion was a Moslem Berber named Tariq ibn Ziyad who led 12,000 Saracens (largely Berbers from Algeria and Morocco) across the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain. These people brought some of their native Berber horses with them on the expedition. Although it is not exactly clear how many of the invaders had brought horses with them, one can speculate that because of the difficulties in transportation the number of horses was limited and that most of the Cavalry men obtained their horses from the outstanding Iberian stock existing in the south of the Iberian peninsula. Lady Sylvia Loch states "It is now almost conclusively established that the Barb (or Berber) horse also developed as a breed from primitive Sorraia stock which gradually migrated from Spain and Portugal into North Africa in prehistoric times. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, the Iberian horse was the likely forefather to the Barb and not vice versaÉ It would be more accurate to say that at the time of the Moorish conquest, Barb blood was reintroduced to the Iberian Peninsula."
Regardless of the exact influence of one breed over another, it is evident that the exchange of blood was mutually beneficial and that it produced many similarities between the two breeds, to the point that the modern Barb resembles Iberian stock as well as the criollo horses of South America. In the almost eight hundred years during which Spain and Portugal were in constant war with the Moors, horse and horsemanship had become finely attuned to the war exercises.
This superb war horse was the one that the Conquistadors introduced and dispersed throughout the Americas, together with the a la gineta style of riding, which influenced the horse cultures of the Gauchos, Charros and Llaneros. By the XVII century the Iberian ward horse, or Jennet as it was beginning to be called, had become important not only in the battlefield but also in the great riding academies founded in France, Germany, Italy and Austria. In Portugal, almost 100 years before the famous Italian author Francesco Grisone, the King Dom Duarte I wrote his classic book, Livro da Ensynanca de Bem Cavalgar toda a Sela in 1435. The Portuguese traditional interest in horsemanship seems to have always preceded their neighbors in its progressive sophistication, creating an equestrian tradition that has lasted intact to this day. When not at war, bullfighting on horseback and High School public displays were the main entertainment for the dedicated Portuguese land gentry.
The Lusitano - Classical Iberian War Horse
Today, the annual Fair of Golegã still combines, in the most spectacular way, the aspects of traditional gineta riding, classical European High School and breeding of the most exemplary Baroque horse, the Lusitano.
In modern Portugal, the performance of the horse in the bullring is perhaps one of the most important factor in the breeding and selection process of the Lusitano horse. This factor has sustained the preservation of the characteristics of the classical Iberian war horse, so esteemed in the world across the ages. In a description by Sylvia Loch, she states: "To look at, they are noble rather than pretty with aristocracy written all over their fine, slightly hawked long faces. They develop a powerful neck and shoulder which makes them look extremely majestic in front. The quarters are not large, but the loins are wide and strong and the hocks long and wiry, giving them the power to bounce forcefully forwards with masterful impulsion. Deep flexion is obtained from the developed second thigh and the longer than usual cannons and pasterns.
The same characteristics that are essential for the bullfights, also make the Lusitano extremely efficient for other sport activities, or as a working and pleasure riding horse."
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"Lusitano Horse - Son of the Wind"
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