Thursday, April 24, 2008

Portugal Horse Tour

Monday April 21 2008

Portugal may have a total of only 50-60 endurance riders in the entire country, with only 6-7 consistently competing at the top level. Like anywhere, most people have other jobs, and the endurance riding is an extra that must be supported, by money and time. One endurance horse takes enough time on its own, and if you are hooked enough to have one endurance horse you probably have at least one more, and if you have more than one, well, try keeping them all in condition. Most of Portugal's endurance riders, and Arabian breeders, are concentrated in the Alentejo Province surrounding Lisbon - kind of like the Auburn, California area of the US.

Two sacred subjects that consistently come up in conversations around the world, when people hear I am from the US are, "I want to ride the Tevis Cup," and "Becky Hart and Rio." Vasco mentioned both of these. He'd like to ride the Tevis; and once he rode alongside Becky briefly in one of the World Championships and wanted to ask her for her autograph. Becky, you and Rio are still revered everywhere I go! : )

Vasco took more time away from his work and family to show me around the area, to visit some stunning horses and a long-time Arabian breeder.

First we went to see his anglo-Arab, Dancer - a distant (half) cousin to my Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, Stormy - getting a nice rest in some thick purple-flowered pastures just outside of Evora. Just 8 years old, Dancer is the apple of Vasco's equine eye, (one of them, anyway - I think really they all are), and he just completed a 120-km ride last month, after throwing first one front shoe, then another. They'd been in 9th place until the shoe turmoil. Vasco's eyes light up when he talks about Dancer's big effortless canter. His sire is Danddy - who we'd see next - the sire of a number of foals out of Vasco's special mares, and the sire of Sultana, the mare who just won the Catalon Championships in Cron, Spain, a month ago.

Just like you'd label many young girls 'horse-crazy,' I think you could slip Vasco (and his brother Eduardo) into this same category. Vasco first learned to ride some of the working horses on his grandfather's farm; his grandfather bought Vasco and Eduardo their own horses from a local fair when Vasco was about 7. He also took lessons, and his first competitions were in show jumping and dressage; and then he got into the smaller endurance rides. He remembers well his first 160 km ride in 1992, which took him 18 hours to complete. They pass a little more quickly now.

The next place we stopped was Olivierinha Farm (where we dropped off Trovador yesterday), the farm of Antonio's father, Joao Saldanha - one of Portugal's early pure Arabian breeders for at least 30 years. In one of the pastures is the 24-year-old Danddy, by Jaxar out of Urzela. Owned and competed by Antonio's brother, Danddy was one of the best endurance horses to come out of Portugal. He completed "7 or 8 160-km rides, several 2-day 200-km rides, and won the Eldric trophy," Vasco ticked off his accomplishments. Antonio's brother doesn't ride endurance so much anymore - he's living in Lisbon and has family commitments, and besides, what do you do after you've had a horse like that? Other than breed him and keep the line going. Danddy still looks fit and healthy, no sway in his back, still moves with a lightness and grace; he has a pasture of Vasco's mares to keep him occupied.

With a horse like Danddy, Vasco knew what he wanted to do: get some of the old foundation mare bloodlines and cross them with Danddy. Several years ago, he did just that: he selectively searched all over Portugal and Spain, and bought up some of the old mares, 24 years and up, taking some of the old Crabbet lines from the Portuguese National Stud, and Crabbet lines from the Duke of Veragua's Veragua Stud in Spain. And indeed, Vasco's mares and their foals are a sight; most of these are some of the get of these best-line mares and crossed with Danddy. Excellent balance and size and conformation - just made me want to get on them and ride off onto the trails right there. Sultana is a result of this cross, and Vasco has several siblings to her.

This is a great area to raise the horses - the rich Mediterranean climate and land produces the azinheira oaks (the Portuguese name for the tree that gives the acorns for the Iberian pig), olive trees, cork trees, grapes. The grass is thick and nutritious and natural - doesn't need planting - good for horses, and cattle and sheep alike. It's so green now, though I was warned that in summer, everything would be brown, no matter how much rain they were getting now. There are trails of old rail lines, the rails having been removed, that now provide excellent training trails.

From there we moved on to the farm of Caetano Oliveira Soares - "a cattle farm to pay for the horses," said Caetano. He's got 1000 head of cattle on 900 hectares (2200 acres), beautiful rich fields of purple flowers, thick grasses, cattle - and some stunning purebred Arabian horses. He bought some of the good mares from Vasco a while back (Vasco likes to sell to friends near by so he can come and see how his horses are doing, see that they are well taken care of - "but you can't keep them all"), and Caetano bred the three Crabbet stallions he took out of their stalls for me to see in the indoor arena. All of them, 7-year-old Uva ("Grape"), 7-year-old Ultra (his half brother) and 11-year-old Que Bom ("So Good") made me weak in the knees, especially when he showed all of them on the ground doing the piaffe and passage moves... and the stallions knew they were showing off. Caetano rides, but doesn't do endurance: "I am too old, I let my daughter ride." However he does ride, and trains all his horses to learn these moves: "I think it is important for them when they go 160 kilometers, to be able to round up and collect themselves, to be balanced." Caetano's daughter Margarida Soares rode Uva to a 24th place finish in the 160-km French Championships in St Galmier last year.

"I've only been in the endurance about 2 years now," said Caetano, "but I think there are many things that make a good horse, not just one thing. You have to train good, you have to have luck, you have to have the good care. Some people say it is most important that you take your time with the horses, but I think the most important thing is to ENJOY what you are doing. ENJOY riding. ENJOY training. Because if you enjoy it, you take better care of your horses." All his horses, and Vasco's, were kind, people horses - were curious and liked to visit with us, liked the hands-on attention.

After this we climbed in Caetano's pickup and drove around his fields, and stopped to look at a herd of more stunning horses, many of them by Danddy. I thought I might try fitting the gorgeous 3-year-old black-gray stud colt into my huge suitcase... All of these horses looked very strong and stout, I think it will be impossible for them to not make an impact on the endurance trail over the next few years.

Caetano took us to lunch in the village, which was, once again, a huuuuuge meal; I ate and ate and ate and the dish never got any smaller. I couldn't eat anymore, but of course did not complain when cafe mousse was forced upon me for dessert. Followed of course by the strong short black coffee to prevent the food coma from taking over.

We were joined at lunch by Pedro the vet, and once again, the three men all chattered fervently about horses! Pedro said to Vasco, "You must say it in English!" which made Vasco pause to take a breath, and shake his head to re-think his speech, and Caetano laughed. "I think these two only talk horses" - trying to blame the equine fervor on the younger guys. I said "Yea, I think you do too!" seeing as Pedro and Vasco could sometimes not get in a word sideways to Caetano's stories. Pedro was just as ardent - he talked of putting on a clinic for endurance riders: "I think it is important that they learn things. I am a veterinarian, I try to help teach what I can." We talked about some of the Natural Horsemanship training methods and 'showmen,' and some of the good points of each.

By then it was already afternoon, and Vasco had other commitments. I was leaving in the morning, so my only choice was to return to Portugal soon and see some more of the wonderful hidden equine treasures Portugal is producing. Portugal may be small in endurance, but they make an impact, and I think that will only grow over time, if the horses I've seen are any indication.

A great thank to Vasco and his family, Antonio Saldanha, and Luis Almadas, for making my stay in Portugal so comfortable and enjoyable and horsey : )

See more of the horses at Portugal Horse Tour.

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