Horses have inhabited the Iberian Peninsula for around 25 000 years. This is evident from the neolithic cave paintings found in the area. Amongst these must have been the ancestor of the Lusitano, although this ancestor is yet to be identified. In the 1940’s, the famed Portuguese historian, and breed enthusiast, Dr. Ruy d’ Andrade hypothsized that the Sorraia breed was the ancestor of the Lusitano, and this was accepted until the mid 2000s when mitochondrial DNA studies showed that the Lusitano and Sorraia were of the same ancestor of Southern Iberian horses. Studies of the Sorraia maternal lineage, however, has shown that its influence in Iberian breeds dates to the Middle Ages, and thus unlikely to have much of an influence on the Lusitano which dates back to at least 800BC.
In 800BC, the Celts formed an alliance with Iberian horsemen. These were the famed horsemen with amazing horses. Legend held that the mares of the area were sired by the wind and thus handed over their swiftness and agility to their foals – and so their youbg colts became known as the Sons of the Wind. Xenophon, writing at around 370BC, was a great admirer of the advanced horsemanship and riding techniques that were employed by the Lusitanians. Later, the Romans invaded what today is Portugal and set up stud farms. Despite their best efforts, the Romans were never able to conquer the Lusitanians this ideal was abandoned for a more political solution. Lusitania and Rome instead signed a treaty which allowed the Lusitanians to be held as Romans, provided their cavalry fought for Rome.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, horses moved continually between Spain and Portugal, and horses from the studs of Andalusia were used to improve the Portuguese cavalry. Portugal’s successful Restoration War against Spain (1640-1668) was in part based on mounted troops riding war horses of Spanish blood. During the reign of Philip III of Portugal (also Philip IV of Spain), Portuguese horse breeding reached its lowest point. The Spanish passed laws to halt the country’s production of cavalry horses, and what stud farms did exist were thereafter run in secrecy with horses smuggled or stolen from Spain. These secret farms, however, provided the base for the modern Lusitano. In 1662, when Charles the II of England married Catharine of Braganza of Portugal, the royal dowry included Portugal’s Tangier and Bombay garrisons. These garrisons included large groups of Portuguese cavalry, mounted on Iberian horses.
The numbers of the Lusitano, especially of the Alter Real strain, continued to remain low. The Alter Real is a strain of the Lusitano which is bred only at the Alter Real State Stud in Portugal. The stud was founded in 1748 by the Portuguese Royal Family to provide horses for the national riding academy and royal use. The Portuguese School of Equestrian Art (Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre) uses these horses exclusively in their performances. The strain was developed from 300 Iberian mares imported from Spain in 1747. When Napoleon invaded Spain in the early 19th century, the Alter Real strain deteriorated due to the introduction of Arabian, Thoroughbred, Spanish-Norman and Hanoverian blood. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries the strain was re-established with the further introduction of Spanish blood. In the early 20th century, as Portugal renounced its monarchy, the Alter Real strain faced extinction, as records were burned, stallions were gelded and the stud discontinued. The last remianing stud, the Alter Real, was run by the Portuguese army. They auctioned their last 2 stallions in the 1920’s. Fortunately, Dr. Ruy d’ Andrade saved the breed by buying the 2 stallions and several mares. He started to collect the remaining breeding stock of the Alter Real from farmers as well as a stock of horses that were in a protected monastary in the Jerez region of Spain. He manged, through a high degree of linebreeding, to restore the population of the Alter Real population. Once he was able to re-establish the strain, he turned his herd over to the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture in 1942, at which time the stud was reopened. The Portuguese state has maintained ownership of the stud, and continues to produce horses for use in high school dressage.
After studying the lineage of the Lusitano horse, Ruy d’ Andrade later aquired the stallion Principe VIII from Don Francisco Chica who was a well-known breeder in Spain. Principe VIII was brought back to Portugal and became the foundation sire of the Andrade line. Today, he appears in the pedigree of every Andrade horse. The Andrade stud has also used Veiga horses in their breeding programs, most notably the stallion Tovador.
The Veiga line is much older than the Andrade line. In the Portuguese studbook, the stallion Agareno is the foundation stallion of the Veiga line, although it seems that many farmers that bred hosrses of the Veiga line also used Alter Real stallions prior to this stallion. It also appears as if the Arabian stallion, Fehran, also played a role in the development of the Veiga line. The Veiga line was based on line breeding almost until its detriment. Then, the use of the great Andrade stallion, Firme (a son of Principe III), brought new blood into the line and an inprovement of the Lusitano horse in general. This was a brilliant move and now famous Veiga horses from that injection of clean blood include the great stallions, Nilo, Novilheiro and Opus 72 – all sons of Firme. Bullfighting has maintained the quality and agility of the Veiga line in particular.
Prior to the 1960s, the Iberian-type horse was called the Andalusian in both Portugal and Spain. In 1966, the Lusitano name was adopted by Portugal after the establishment of their own studbook (the APSL)and a separation from the Spanish, which maintained their new studbook under the PRE. The revolutions of Portugal’s African colonies resulted in the near economic collapse of Portugal. The landed class attracted political agitators, estates were vacated, and stud farms were broken up and many horses were sold to Spain. During the civil war, many horses (especially from the Alter Real and Coudelaria Nationale) were moved with the Royal family to Brazil. These horses are still bred in large numbers and very good quality in Brazil. Fortunately, the best lines were also saved through the efforts of Portugese breeders in Portugal, and breeding soon increased. The breed has been revitalised with great effort and is once again becoming recognised as it once was – as one of the great athletic and sport horse of the equine world. Novilheiro, the great show jumping legend of John Whittacker, has never been overtaken in winnings by any other showjumper to date.
The Portuguese stud book recognizes six horses (five stallions and one mare) that are called the “heads of lineage”. These six horses are the foundation horses of the three main breed lineages: Andrade, Veiga and Coudelaria Nacional (Portuguese State Stud). Although each line meets breed standards, they differ from each other in individual characteristics. The six foundation horses are:
Agareno, a 1931 Veiga stallion, out of Bagocha, by Lidador
Primorosa, a 1927 Dominquez Hermanos stallion, out of Primorosa II, by Presumido
Destinado, a 1930 Dominquez Hermanos stallion, out of Destinada, by Alegre II
Marialva II, a 1930 Antonio Fontes Pereira de Melo stallion, out of Campina, by Marialva
Regedor, a 1923 Alter Real stallion, out of Gavina, by Gavioto
Hucharia, a 1943 Coulderaria Nacional mare, out of Viscaina, by Cartujano
The Lusitano has continued to improve from its near-extinction and today rates as one of the great sporting horse breeds. In 1995, Felix Brasseur drove a Lusitano four-in-hand team in his FEI World Driving Cup and the 1996 World Championships. in 2002, the World Equestrian Games bronze team – who went on to win silver at 2004 Olympic Games – included a Lusitano. The 2006 Portuguese Olympic dressage team all rode Lusitanos.