The noblest riding school in Europe is not to be found in Vienna or Spain. It is the Portuguese Riding School, and the role of the horse in Portuguese culture and lore predates Portugal as a nation. Today, the horse of the Alter and Lusitano breed are prized as national treasures. In the interior Lisbon and Alentejo regions (the lands above and below the Tejo, or Tajus river) are rich with towns where riding a horse is a lifestyle choice. From the great bullring of Santarém, to the famed horse fair of Golegã, to the hard flat plains along the Tejo, this is the land of the horse. The annual Horse Fair at Golegã still combines, in the most brilliant way, traditional riding, classical European High School and breeding of the Lusitano and the Alter. Vast horse farms are carved out of its hilly landscape. Seeing men in gray vests and rounded hats riding to town remains common site.
To the south of the Tejo, the vast Alentejo is known for its rich wines, endless plains, and cork forests. The Alentejo is home to two Portuguese breeds of horse. One, the Alter, a dark brown horse bred only at the Royal Stables at Alter do Chão. The other is the noble Lusitano, the gray horse with lucid eyes. You see them everywhere, on ancient family farms, riding or rural roads, tied up at market. They are as much part of the landscape as is marble or cork, and their souls are as rich as the fields of the river Tejo.
Pre-historic remains in this part Portugal date the roots of the Lusitano to around 25,000 BC in the form of its ancient ancestor, the Sorraia. Prehistoric cave paintings in places like Santiago de Escoural show the importance of the horse is southern Portugal.
Portuguese historian Rui de Andrade believed that by the by the Neolithic period (4,000 BC) the tribes in of southern Portugal used horses in war. Invaders such as the Iberian tribes from North Africa, Phoenicians and Celts, brought all types of horses to the Iberian Peninsula. The first Lusitano may have emerged from the crossbreeding that resulted. In their wars with the Carthaginians in the second century BC, the Romans came to what is today Portugal. The Romans quickly recognized the value of the local horses and horsemanship of the people they called Lusitanians, and adopted their equestrian style of warfare.
The Romans set up breeding estates in Portugal for their cavalry. In “The Lusitanian Horse: Son of the Wind,” Arsénio Raposo Cordeiro proclaimed that, "the perfect bond between Iberian man and horse might have provided the original inspiration behind the legend of the Centaurs, a hybrid man/horse creature deemed the spring from the valleys of the Tejo 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 which they endowed their progeny."
Centuries after the collapse of Roman rule in the 4th century AD, Muslim Tribes from North Africa overran Portugal in 711AD. This began four centuries of wart between Christian and Moors, and in 1139 AD, the founding of the modern nation of Portugal. The Portuguese, outnumbered on the battlefield, turned to the Lusitano for an advantage. Thus, Portuguese horsemanship had become refined to the point that the Moors were expelled from Portugal in 1249 AD, two centuries before neighboring Spain would do the same.
In the 15th century, the Portuguese king Dom Duarte I authored one of the earliest texts on horsemanship, “Livro da Ensynanca de Bem Cavalgar toda a Sela.” Riding and the Lusitano has become a part of the culture. The Lusitano would accompany Portuguese sips on voyage of discovery, and in Europe, soon become celebrated in the great riding academies of Austria, France, Germany, and Italy.
The Portuguese devotion to riding set the standard for Europe in sophistication, building an equestrian tradition that is alive and well day. When not off fighting on distant soils, the Portuguese nobleman was home bullfighting on horseback. High School public displays were the main recreation for Portuguese nobility.
The art of horse riding is an integral part of Portuguese culture today. With the oldest riding school, in Europe, and the riding tradition that pre-dates the Roman Empire, Portugal’s art, poetry and life is often intermingled with the horse.
As then poet Félix Bermudes put it a century ago:
The lads today
Return to the boot and the spur.
With pride and spirit
They leave behind modern things
To find strength in their legs
For riding – that is Portuguese!