You may not be aware of the fact, but the Iberian Peninsula is home to one of the finest horse breeds and equestrian traditions in the world, and the Spanish version of it belongs to Andalucía.

Words: Michel Cruz

You may not be aware of the fact, but the Iberian Peninsula is home to one of the finest horse breeds and equestrian traditions in the world, and the Spanish version of it belongs to Andalucía.

Words: Michel Cruz

Ancestors of what has become the modern Iberian horse are known to have been present on the peninsula for over 20,000 years, roaming its plains before helping mankind conquer nature in these parts and farm the land. The development of settlements, towns and indeed civilisations is intricately related to the horse, which plays a prominent role in humankind’s evolution. Without horse power, much of it would have slowed down considerably, so we have a lot to thank our equine friends for, and among those that have served us so well there are few breeds as noble as that indigenous to this peninsula.

Famous already in Phoenician and Roman times, the Iberian horse was renowned for its speed, strength and grace, features that made it an empire builder here and abroad. Foreign powers took the breed back with them, and the invading Muslims added the bloodline of their own beautiful Arabian horses to it, creating a distinctive type that has been recognised as a breed in its own right since the 15th century. Not much later the Spanish conquistadores took this walking war machine, which gave them such an advantage in battle, to the far reaches of their emerging empire, and so began the long process by which the Iberian horse has spread across the world.

But make no mistake, for the Iberian horse, now known as the Pura Raza Española (the Pure Spanish Horse), is of this peninsula and remains connected to its land. The conformation characteristics established centuries ago, such as powerful neck and hindquarters, a thick mane and tail, and an elegant gait, remain the reference points when judging the purity and quality of today’s Iberians, whose close, almost identical, relative is the Lusitano from Portugal. Together, they helped in the creation of empires, but were also used to draw carriages, herd cattle, in bullfighting, dressage and of course war, where they gave their rider an edge.

Where the Puro Sangue Lusitano (Pure Blood Lusitano) is mostly grey or chestnut-coloured, the Spanish version tends more generally towards solid grey coats, but these prized animals which once formed the bartering tool of kings and emperors are otherwise almost identical and the pride of their respective countries. By the beginning of the 20th century, centuries of warfare and exportation, not to mention uncontrolled cross-breeding, had caused the noble bloodline to become diffused, and so a more stringent level of control was imposed through the establishment of the Spanish and Portuguese stud books.

The Pride of Andalucía

If the Pure Spanish Horse is the pride of Spain, it is certainly the pride of Andalucía, for so close is the linkage to this part of the country that it is also known as the Andalusian Horse, and yes, as the birthplace of bullfighting and many of Spain’s country traditions, this is the region whose equestrian heritage defines that of the country as a whole. Not surprisingly, many of the finest Spanish purebloods can be found on the grand estates of Andalucía, where much of the breeding of the stock takes place in what the locals call a yagüe, or stud farm. While these can be found across the length and breadth of the region, the area between Seville and Jerez de la Frontera is the epicentre.

Jerez, in particular, is the equestrian heart of Andalucía, a region where the traditions of wine, horses and carriage driving come together within the romantic setting of wine estates. There is even a museum in Jerez dedicated to two of its most beloved icons: sherry and the Andalusian horse, which also forms the focal point of the Feria del Caballo, one of the annual high points on the social calendar in the city and its surroundings. Jerez has dedicated its feria to the noble creature that has meant so much in its history, and it is an affair to behold.

Held in the first half of May, the feria is one of the most iconic annual events in the country for its cultural and folkloric importance, and features beautifully groomed horses pulling elegant coaches carrying men and women dressed in traditional Spanish equestrian outfits. They recall the pilgrims of the Rocío, who every June make their way through pine groves to the shrine in the village of Almonte, on the edge of the Doñana nature reserve. Their processions and campfires evoke visions of the old Andalucía, in an era where the horse was as important to Bandolero bandits as it was to the Guardia Civíl created to catch them.

From Almonte to the spectacles of the Feria de Jerez, dressage and driving competitions along with horseback promenading revive the halcyon days of the Andalusian horse, when it was regarded as one of the finest creatures that walk this earth and forms the basis for the Lipizzaner show horses of the Spanish Riding School. It is a measure of the importance of Spain, and Andalucía, in the equestrian world, that even today the graceful performances enacted by white and grey Andalusian horses at the Hofburg in Vienna fall under the auspices of the Spanish Riding School – a homage to the greatness of the noble Iberian horse breed and the role it has played in global history.