Lusitano Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Lusitano horse, sometimes referred to as the Puro Sangue Lusitano, or PSE, comes from Portugal, but is closely related to the Andalusian horses of Spain. Sometimes both breeds are combined into a singular breed that is referred to as an Iberian. Until the 1960s, they were officially classified as such. Today, however, both are considered to be independent from each other.

Before the 1960s, the Lusitano Horse was officially part of the Andalusian breed. As the colonies of Portugal all sought independence, the nation found itself in a state of political and socioeconomic turmoil. Many of the stud farms were sold or broken up, with the horses often going to Spain. This put the breed at risk, especially since half-blood Lusitanos are quite popular.

A few lines were saved by local breeders and together they worked to preserve the breed. Today, most Lusitanos are found in Portugal or Brazil, but the breed has a grown presence globally. Official programs have begun in the United States, the UK, South Africa, and in several other European countries. 

The History of the Lusitano Horse

Horses have been present on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe for as long as humans have been documenting their civilizations. There is evidence to suggest that horses even predate human settlements in the region. Their history may date as far back as the 200th century BC.

Humans and horses along the Iberian Peninsula have always worked together. In the 9th century BC, the Celts and Iberians worked together to breed war horses for each other, helping to create a calm, hardy horse that would pass down its temperament traits to future generations. When the Romans came to the area around the 4th century BC, the first thing they noticed was the elegance of the Iberian cavalry thanks to the agility of their horses.

The bonds that were created over these early centuries between the Iberians and their horses is even believed to be one of the inspirations for the creation of the mythical centaur, part man and part horse.

As the Romans settled in the region, they began to establish stud farms that would breed horses from Iberian stock to become their own war horses.

This is where the story of the Lusitano horse begins. With the invasion of the Umayyad Muslims during the early 8th century, the fall of the Roman Empire left government gaps that led to conquest. During each effort to expand territory, the Umayyad brought with them Barb horses. The Barbs were then crossbred with the local horses, producing a breed that was useful for the war, for local bull fighting traditions, and even for dressage.

It was a practice that would continue up until the 16th century. At that point, horses were moving between Portugal and Spain at a rapid pace. The Iberian horse, the predecessor of the Andalusian, were used to improve the cavalry forces of the Portuguese. It would be the foundation of the victory that Portugal would eventually achieve during the Restoration War of the 17th century. 

As an outcome of the war, Spain passed laws to stop the movement of horses across the border, but these didn’t stop Black Market entrepreneurs. Secret stud farms were established to continue the practice and it is from these farms where the Lusitano Horse was established.

In 1966, the Iberian horse was split between Portuguese and Spanish stud books. The new Portuguese lines were named after the Roman name for Portugal, while the Spanish horses remained Andalusians. 

Characteristics of the Lusitano Horse

There are three main breed lineages that can be found with the Lusitano. The characteristics of each lineage vary slightly, but are still considered a breed standard. A fourth, but unofficial, lineage is in place with horses that are only bred at the Alter Real State Stud. In total, the Portuguese recognize six horses that are referred to as a “Head of Lineage.” 

These horses, which serve as foundation horses for the Lusitano only, were all foaled in the 20th century. There are 5 stallions and a single mare, with the oldest being Regedor, foaled in 1923 at Alter Real.

Alter Real is included as its own lineage because of its extensive history with this breed of horse. The stud was initially formed by the royal family in Portugal to provide horses for their riding academy and other royal purposes. It was started with 300 mares that were imported from Spain and then re-established in the 19th century to recover the breed from the fallout of the Napoleonic wars. 

Most Lusitano horses will either be chestnut, bay, or gray, but they can be of any solid color. For those bred at Alter Real, the coat color is always bay. They stand at an average of 15.3 hands high, but some individuals can be above 16 hands high.

The horses have a Baroque appearance to them due to their Barb ancestry. There should be heavy muscling throughout the horse, a convex facial profile, and agile movements with an emphasis on elevation. They are horses that are highly intelligent, but with a nature that is very willing. 

They should have a neck that is arched and quite thick, which leads to powerful shoulders and a chest that is broad and deep. It has a croup that is more sloped than its Andalusian counterparts, a tail that is set lower, and a head profile that is more convex.

Issues with Maintaining the Lusitano Horse as a Breed

Outside of Spain and Portugal, the showing, breeding, and registration of Lusitano horses is still closely linked with the Andalusian. This is despite several decades of the two breeds being separated. Although many associations maintain two stud books, one for each breed, the rules are often lax about the breeding process. Some associations even maintain a crossbred registry.

The Portuguese breed association does require any affiliate organizations to follow their rules or regulations, but local associations are not required to become affiliates. Non-official associations may not have their members bring horses to official shows or events, but that does not stop local shows or events from being held.

This process has created some confusion within the breed as to who bears responsibility for the continued global development of the Lusitano. For that reason, unless the lineage of the horse can be proven, it may be excluded from the official stud book that is maintained by the Portuguese association.

With change comes complication and the Lusitano Horse has certainly experienced its fair share. As time moves on and rules, processes, and standards are continually reinforced, this breed should experience future success in recreational, sporting, and working environments.