The Lusitano horse is for many a symbol of Portugal. Strong and noble-looking, they can be of any solid colour, from palomino to black, but most are gray, bay or chestnut. Cave paintings dating as far back as 20,000 BC show horses were a part of life on the Iberian Peninsula, known to the Romans as Lusitania. DNA studies suggest that indigenous wild horses and Arabian horses brought over by Muslims were ancestors of the modern Lusitano, said to be the oldest saddle horse in the world.
Admired by the Romans for their speed, they are also known for their muscularity, agility, calm temperament and strong bond with humans. They are not afraid to go towards danger – which made them ideal cavalry horses to take into battle and for bullfighting. They are still used for bullfighting today, in a form where the bull is not killed and riders are disgraced if the horse is injured. To get a sense of the Lusitano’s significance to the sport, pay a visit to Taberna do Quinzena restaurant in Santarém, where the walls are lined with dynamic vintage posters celebrating the breed’s majesty and role in the bull-ring.
In fact, the city of Santarém and surrounding Ribatejo are great places for horse lovers to get to know these beautiful creatures. The region is an agricultural heartland throbbing with country life and pursuits like agricultural markets and food festivals. Some claim that the nearby annual national horse fair in Golegã is one of the longest-running horse fairs in the world.
Back in the early 18th century, the fair was promoted as a way of showing off regional produce. The number of Lusitano ranches nearby meant the event quickly became a showcase for the breed, something encouraged by the Prime Minister of Portugal. Still taking place each year over 10 days in November, the fair turns the town of Golegã into a buzzing equestrian capital, filled with riders in traditional costumes of wide-brimmed hats, short jackets, and spurred boots and ladies in culottes. Double bridles are common and the traditional Portuguese saddle involves long stirrup leathers and an upright position.
Another way to meet Lusitano horses is a stay in an equestrian quinta. I was lucky enough to visit one during my recent trip – QR Agroturismo (QR stands for Quinta Rolas, or Dove Farm, a name inspired by the numbers of doves attracted by the horses). Family-run, the quinta is the brain child of local horse trainer and breeder, António Ferreira.
The stables, pastures and arena (and even tennis court) are all conveneniently situated righ on-site, next-door to six brightly-coloured and inviting self-catering cottages. The family’s pride in the enterprise and love of horses runs through every detail. There’s even a cottage named for their beloved chamption, Zarpa.
While there’s a central shared pool, each cottage has its own outside space for privacy. Guests benefit from comfortable, modern furnishings and artisanal and homely touches. Breakfast hampers are delivered to guests at the cottage, and other local restaurants and caterers can also be ordered in, if you don’t feel like using your kitchen.
The quinta’s facilities aim to be organic and sustainable, and are fully accessible. Whether or not you are staying at the farm, you can book to visit, stable your horses, and take part in riding and dressage lessons, carriage-rides and other farm activities.