Horse aficionados world-wide see the Lusitano as the quintessential riding horse, the other half of the mythical Centaur, part man and part horse, that all riders aspire to become. The Lusitano and its rider truly do seem to become one.

History of the Lusitano

Horses have played a major role in the history of humanity, and few animals — if any — have been as highly praised through the passage of time. In some eras, owning a horse not only raised the social standing of its rider but also often helped to make him a legend, remembered in tandem with his mount. For more than 5,000 years that horse has usually been a Lusitano, the first known to carry a rider that long ago.

Their history goes back even further. Although recognized as a distinct and separate breed only in recent years, Lusitano horses have appeared in cave paintings and frescoes dating to 20,000 BC. They are believed to have evolved 5,000 years before that from their earliest known predecessor, the Sorraia, another Portugese horse that also remains today.

The name Lusitano was derived from Lusitania, the primitive name of the Portuguese territory when it was under Roman subjugation. Lusitania in its turn came from Luso, son of the Roman god of wine and merriment.

The Lusitano holds today the same admiration it knew in the age of ancient Greece and Rome when it was considered one of the best saddle horses in the world. Until the end of the 18th century, in fact, kings, dukes and marquis refused to be painted on anything but an Iberian, one of the breeds native to the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal’s pride, the Lusitano. The mountainous terrain shaped it into an agile horse, able to leap and keep its footing like a mountain goat. Modern-day Lusitanos remain notoriously cautious of where they place their feet, just one of the desirable traits that set them apart.

Thousands of years ago, men noticed these characteristics and began to prize the Lusitano as a warhorse, able to outmaneuver the enemy and keep a level head during do-or-die times. Those traits were inborn, much like the ability to anticipate a rider’s wishes and elude danger. Lusitanos have been known as a supreme horse since the Middle Ages and were used by Portugal in its quest for independence from then-Moorish Spain.

From the same origin as the Spanish horse — the Andalusian — the Lusitano transmitted confidence to its rider in battle and in the bullring, a more artistic form of war that requires the same characteristics of bravery, intelligence and agility from the horse. It can swerve instantly as the bull charges, displaying equal measures of bravura, athleticism and obedience.

Done properly, Portuguese bullfighting is not so different from American rodeo. When the battle is over, the bull leaves the arena, escorted by tame steers. He is not the star of the show but merely a plaything for horse and rider, who, as one, concentrate on agility, horsemanship and a kind of dangerous playfulness, not unlike the battles mounted cavalry engaged in.

The Lusitano was the ideal warhorse of the Romans. There was no European king or general who did not ride one in battle. It was the equine “posterboy” of the Baroque age and the status symbol of monarchy. The Lusitano helped the Spartans defeat the Athenians and Hannibal defeat the Romans. When the Romans eventually conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they were so taken with the native horses that they established stud farms of their own in the region to provide mounts for their military campaigns. Their fastest bloodstock thrilled spectators with their racing speed at the Circus Maximus. According to legend, Lusitanos were the sons of Zephyr, the Greek god of the west wind.

The superiority of Iberian horsemanship and horses was celebrated in sculptures, paintings and literature from Homer’s Iliad in the 8th century BC though the 18th century. While Lusitanos never disappeared from public esteem, their popularity enjoyed a resurgence through books by Nuno Oliveira, books, from the creation of Spanish and Portuguese Schools of Equestrian Art, from the immense success of the World Equestrian Games in Jerez/Spain 2002, and from the Dressage Bronze Medal won by the Spanish Team.

Today the Lusitano is valued as a mount for classical dressage and is a talented jumper, a responsive driving horse, a lively bullfighter and a versatile cattle horse. It is the horse of choice for circuses and movies, partly because it innately responds to intricate training and partly because of its versatility. A Lusitano can move with the passionate precision of a flamenco dresser and yet produce the most cadenced movements in the dressage arena.