(© Kip Mistral. First published in the Spring 2004 issue of Horse of Kings magazine, and in May 2008 in the Equine Journal. Photograph of Sylvia and her beloved Lusitano stallion Prazer, courtesy of Sylvia Loch.)
“The Lusitanos have taught me everything,” exclaims Sylvia Loch warmly, when asked what she has to say about the Iberian horse. Being an internationally-recognized classical rider, trainer, and judge and internationally published author of numerous books and videos on classical riding, she is considered an authority in matters of the Iberian horse and particularly of the Lusitano from Portugal. And the glow in her voice emanates not just from her knowledge but from the depth of her love for these fine horses that she just cannot live without…
“Being with these horses feeds my spiritual side. From the time I first went to Portugal in 1969 and started working with Lusitanos,” she continues, “I have rarely had less than four of them in my stable at any time. When my late husband and I brought the first contingent back to the UK, there were 22! We just had to share them with our fellow Brits, many of whom had never heard of Lusitanos. Whether for high school level training or taking care of even the novice rider in the manege, the horses of the Iberian Penninsula always give their best and their best is beyond comparison.”
Sylvia’s book, The Royal Horse of Europe: The Story of the Andalusian and Lusitano, first published in 1986 and in 2002 republished by J. A. Allen & Co Ltd, testifies passionately to the value of a horse that has a lineage of not decades or centuries but thousands of years of careful breeding. Four to five thousand years of fine-tuning a horse for use in exploration and war has created the Andalusian and Lusitano horse we know today.
From two thousand years before Christ, when Iberian tribes from North Africa invaded what is now known as the Iberian Penninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) and were followed by the Phoenicians and Celts, among them they were responsible for importing and trading horses from Mauretania, Libya, Egypt and Syria. Truthfully, it was all about war—war for thousands of years. Who had the best war horse won the wars. By the time of the first expeditions of the Greeks to this area, around 800 BC, the Celts and Iberians had allied, and continued to breed on the Penninsula the horse that continued to be recognized as the most brave and trustworthy war horse throughout the millennia—what historians calls the CeltIberian—the finest horse in the world.
Sylvia explains how the Iberian came by their famed qualities. “These horses were bred for centuries to be used in hand-to-hand combat, with their riders using cutlasses, spears, swords and later, pistols. They were bred for total reliability and taking care of their rider. From Iberian cave paintings that date from several thousand years BC where the prehistoric people depict themselves fighting with horses, to the Romans, through the medieval period, these horses were bred consistently to get you into battle and get you out of battle.”
“If you’re fighting hand-to-hand, you can’t even think about reins, your horse has to feel your seat and legs and weight. Your horse has to be amenable to training and sensitive to his rider’s wishes at that moment in time. The horse will feel if you’re wounded and losing strength and will get you out of trouble! And these same genetics bred into the Iberian war horses have been reinforced in more recent centuries by the demands of bullfighting on horseback. Here the horse has to exercise the same natural movements–that by now are encoded into their genetics–to carry the rider to and around and away from the bull as necessary.”
“So this courageous horse is continually bred for these characteristics—to still take care of his rider—when other breeds of horses are no longer sensitized in this way. For instance, with the introduction in Europe of heavier artillery, the horses became heavier too. Light cavalry where riders fought in hand-to-hand skirmish with sword and pistol was less useful. Now the breeding influence was for charging horses—big, powerful horses that covered the ground. These horses weren’t trained for subtle exercises or airs above the ground in close-coupled combat. Neither were they to think or ask questions of the rider -“what movement would you like now?” Instead, they were to push on unquestioningly across the field of battle, even if tragically they were then mown down by batteries of artillery as they tried to thrust their way through.”
Today we no longer need horses for military, agriculture or transportation uses. Strangely, though, the qualities of a war horse are those that we value most in our performance and pleasure horses even now. Intelligence, devotion, sensitivity, generosity…why are these still so important to us in what has become essentially a companion animal?
“Well,” Sylvia comments, “No king or battle leader would dream of riding on anything other than an Iberian charger in the l6th or l7th Centuries. Fighting was still mainly hand-to-hand at that time and the more malleable and flexible the horse, the safer the rider. It is those same characteristics that appeal to today’s classical dressage rider. A horse that is flexible, gymnastic and is always listening for his rider’s next request is a joy to ride. So the Iberian horse has in no sense lost its value from antiquity to today. If you examine the painting of Charles I and the photograph of me on our horses, the horses are practically indistinguishable, speaking volumes for the close attention paid to breeding them through the centuries.”
Most importantly for this discussion, how do we learn to appreciate this incredible ability to bond with a human—particularly with a human special to them—that the Iberian horse is bred to bring to the horse/human connection?
“They are such feeling beings! They are capable of the most passionate emotional displays imaginable when they are handled by a sensitive rider. I have seen an Andalusian or Lusitano—particularly the Lusitano as I find this breed the more emotionally responsive of the two—in the show ring absolutely elevate him or herself up into a physical magnitude that is quite indescribable. He blends with the rider and their spirits blend as well—he seems huge because he’s so full of pride and passion—he snorts and prances in the joy of being at one with this special person who is his partner.”
“And I rarely see this demonstration of horse/human community in competition. I see horses snorting out of nervousness, not out of joy. I was once told ‘The only way I can get my horse to do a piaffe is to beat him up before a performance, to make him so angry with me that I can get the adrenalin going.’ Of course this is a travesty, but it happens more often than most people admit. The classical way of course is to get the adrenalin going without fear, because we have helped our horse to be proud and happy, to perform out of sheer joy. It’s similar to when we are having fun dancing and we are charged that good kind of adrenalin—synonymous with having a great time. In these moments we feel our face light up and our eyes are sparkling! How glorious it is in that moment!”
But there is a serious side to handling these sensitive horses that are bred to bond with their humans and serve them at all costs…
“Most Iberian horses would like to be owned by one person. If you can handle that, if any one wants a one-to-one relationship with their horse, this is the horse. Lusitanos particularly become very passionate about their owners. They want to feel your attention; they’re very sensitive to your moods. They are willing to make an incredible intensity of eye contact, and they like it. They in fact insist upon it. Because of this I can tell by my horses’ eyes if they are happy or not at a glance.
“If the sensitivity and devotion of these horses is not understood and not taken into serious account, disaster can follow. If you have a horse like this, always trying to please, bred to trust and protect his human, and he is misunderstood or abused, he can become very disappointed and upset. When the horse is confused he will offer everything he knows how to do and if the rider/handler doesn’t know how to communicate, apply the correct aids or body language or ‘receive’ the horse’s efforts, he will get very frustrated. An Iberian horse is unlikely to turn nasty, but he may withdraw emotionally, which is very bad for these horses that are so emotionally expressive.”
The potential of a deeply loving lifetime partnership between horse and human is exemplified by the legendary 11th century Spanish professional soldier El Cid (born Rodrigo Diaz), whose right-hand man in 30 years of exploits was his white Andalusian war horse, Babieca. El Cid was leader of the Reconquista, the movement that ended the 700 year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors. So great was the stallion Babieca in the battlefield that when El Cid offered his beloved horse as a gift to the King of Spain, the King declined because he would not part them.
The story goes that El Cid was mortally wounded at the siege of Valencia in 1099. Knowing that the news of his death would devastate his soldiers’ morale and give his enemy hope, his last order was after his death to have his fully-armored body secured to Babieca’s saddle, sword fixed upright in his hand. At midnight precisely Babieca led the silent knights, dressed in white and carrying white banners, toward the Moor encampment. At the sight of the white horse carrying his master in front of the silent ranks, the Moors turned and fled, thinking El Cid had risen from the dead. The Spanish pursued and routed the Moors, and the rest as they say is history.
One can only imagine what Babieca was experiencing, as in a sense even in death he and his master were not parted. Of course the drama of the medieval battlefield seems far away to most of us. Today, when does the Iberian horse get a chance to express these characteristics of devotion and love for which they have been bred for so long?
“I believe he gets fulfillment from the challenge of working with his rider and pushing the boundaries of new experiences. Remember these were the horses of the explorers, the conquistadors, and they love to go out into the town or countryside, be shown to the public and admired. Learning together is a great way forward too: new ways of doing things, new movements, new sights and sounds.”
“Iberian horses are not always famed for their jumping ability, but actually they are brilliant show jumpers and when well-ridden can turn on a dime. They are also wonderful hacking horses, and as for hunting—they adore it! However, don’t expect them to stay out as long as a hunter-jumper. They put so much energy into their cross-country, it is better to withdraw when you feel them tire. They cope well over difficult terrain, but not long distance ridden at speed.”
“Striving for excellence in dressage also motivates them, but try not to be too repetitive. Make things fun, praise often. Round and round the arena in the same rhythm is for warmbloods, not for these horses. Instead try lots of different maneuvers, especially in walk. Introduce collection, make constant changes of the rein and choose a small arena–like the bullring. These horses are supple so allow them to make intricate patterns, don’t charge around like the heavy cavalry. They are ballet dancers…let them be themselves.”
“For fit and normal people, Iberian horses may expect a certain level of engagement and performance on the part of the rider. The aids must be subtle, the seat deep but light. I know a couple of riders who have physical inabilities so that they are not very strong, yet with them the horses become even more malleable and obedient, and simply bloom with pride. They have a strong sense of justice, so they will enjoy helping a weaker rider. I have seen many times in my school when the horse will step aside to “pick up” an unbalanced rider where many other horses would take it as an excuse to act up. In fact, I can truthfully say that I have never known an Iberian horse to throw someone on purpose.”
“Ultimately, we can’t just think we can ride these horses because we’ve ridden other horses for many years. Often we have to start again from scratch. Perhaps that is why they don’t suit every rider. Ego has to be thrown away and we must embrace humility. I wrote Classical Rider: Being at One with Your Horse (Trafalgar Square, 1997) with this philosophy of riding in mind. It can take a lifetime to work with and learn from the Iberian, but once we understand him, we will understand all horses,” Sylvia concludes.
How can this be so?!
“Because the Iberian horse shows us how all horses like to be ridden. He is generous beyond belief.”