The Lusitano is an ancient breed of horse native to Portugal that is filled with tradition. It has historical links to the military, to bullfighting and to the classical training methods of the “Haute École”. It is known by many names such as Lusitanian, Betico-lusitano, National Horse, Peninsular Horse, Pura Raza Española (PRE) and Portuguese Horse and has inspired powerful descriptions such as "a horse for a King in days of victory", but the official Lusitano breed name comes from the word Lusitania, which was name that the ancient Romans gave to the western part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Lusitano has a natural ability for concentration and learning quickly, with a great disposition for High School work. It is courageous and enthusiastic for what are known as the gineta exercises, which include combat, hunting, bullfighting, and working with cattle.
The Lusitano is very similar in conformation to the Andalusian horses of Spain and the two breeds are thought to have originated from a common source, the rare and nearly extinct Sorraia, which is a smaller horse that is characterized by a dun colored coat with primitive markings. In fact, until 1960, Lusitanos and Andalusians were registered together in the Spanish Stud Book of the Associação Portuguesa de Criadores do Cavalo Puro Sangue Lusitano (APSL), also known as the Portuguese Lusitano Breeders Association. However, selective breeding in the Lusitano resulted in a more convex profile reminiscent of the older Andalusian or Iberian horse whereas the Andalusian has developed a more Oriental head shape. The modern Lusitano is on average a cleaner-moving, braver, and tougher-built horse than the average modern Andalusian. They are now considered to be separate breeds and in the United States they are represented by the International Andalusian & Lusitano Horse Association (IALHA).
Additionally, the Lusitano's history is identical to that of the Spanish or Iberian horse. For most of their common history, Portuguese and Spanish horses were bred as if they were one breed. The Iberian horse was called Andalusian, Estremenjo, or Castillian, depending on the region it was bred in, and it was called Lusitanian in Portugal. Today, the breed is known as Lusitano or "Puro Sangue Lusitano" (PSL), meaning pure-blooded Lusitano.
The ancestors of the modern Lusitano were incredible horses. When the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthagians landed on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, which is now Portugal, they came across riders whose horses were of superior speed and whose fighting ability from horseback was incredible. This perfect union, the connection of horse and rider as one entity, led to the myth of the Centaur, and it was thought that this half-human/half-horse creature, stemmed from the delta of the river Tejo. The tale told to explain the fantastic speed of these horses was that "they conceived their foals by the wind."
In Portugal, the horses were sought after over the centuries as a war horse and were bred in a continuous effort to produce the best war horse or bullfighting horse. When the Iberian horse was no longer needed as a war mount, mounted bullfighting became the horse's main use. But when mounted bullfighting was prohibited in Spain by a royal decree for several centuries, the sport lived on in Portugal without interruption. The Lusitano continued to be bred for its bullfighting agility, which happens to be identical to their ability and agility for high school dressage.
The Lusitano has all the courage of the Spanish Horse coupled with remarkable agility, quickness and balance, which makes the Lusitano the perfect horse for mounted bullfighting in Portugal. These bullfighting horses are highly trained to swerve instantly, yet still remain calm when a charging bull approaches, and they also need to possess an extreme dose of "bravura", agility, and obedience. In Portugal, the bull is not killed in the bullring, but calmly exits the arena after the fight escorted by tame steers, so the horse must obediently remain still. However, these days, the Lusitano has become so expensive that many bull fighters cannot afford a pure Lusitano, and if they can, they will not risk injuring their horse while fighting the bull. This means that cruzados, or mongrels, are being ridden in the bullrings instead, but they are often able to excel nearly as well. A cruzado may be a crossbreed, but it could also be a true Lusitano whose pedigree is incomplete or unregistered.
Today, the Lusitano horse is recognized for its ability to perform well in a plethora of equestrian disciplines. In the attempt to become more competitive with the world-wide sport horses, the European Warmbloods, and targeting events like show jumping and modern dressage in which the warmblood excels, the Lusitano is starting to lose its Iberian type.
Traditionally, the Lusitano is a horse of medium size. At the age of six years, the average height is 15.1 hands for mares and 15.3 hands for stallions, although they may be found over 16.0 hands high now, while also looking more like Northern European warmbloods. They weigh approximately 1100 pounds.
There is no discrimination against any solid color. Originally, the Lusitano was grulla or dun, but buckskins, palominos, cremellos, and perlinos can also be found. However, the gray gene has taken over the breed, and most Lusitano horses are various shades of gray, depending on their age. It has become the most appreciated and esteemed color of the breed. Their overall body profile is described in the official breed standard as "sub-convex (with rounded outlines); a silhouette that can be fitted into a square."
The Lusitano has a well-proportioned noble head of medium length that is narrow and dry, with the cheek inclined to be long. It has a slightly sub-convex profile with a slightly curved forehead narrowing to a finely curved nose. The eyes are elliptical or almond-shaped and are large, alive, expressive and confident. The medium-length ears are fine, narrow and expressive. The neck is of medium length and arched, ending at a narrow junction with the head. The body is short-coupled with powerful shoulders, a deep rib cage and broad powerful loins. The mane and tail are abundant and silky with the tail set rather low on an unobtrusive hip. Even when excited, the tail is not carried very high.
The Lusitano has a trait that is often associated with Iberian horses. It is called "campaneo" in Spain, and it is the action of the front leg that does not show a straight forward movement, but rather swings out laterally to a degree. It appears to be an inherent trait of the Iberian horse. Just as in the Andalusian breed, some Lusitano horses can be found that do a lateral gait.
While the Lusitano was not bred for its gait, but for its agility in the bullring, there are still some individuals that have retained the gait and the action of these Lusitano horses is showy. The cannon bones are comparatively long and lend to the knee action and proud, elevated movements. The hind leg is positioned well underneath the body axis, producing the hock action so suited to collection and impulsion. The movements are agile, sure-footed, elevated forward and uphill, and carry the rider in comfort. It is a gait that there is no clear written description of, and one that must be seen or ridden to be fully appreciated.