Since Roman times, horses have been bred in the southern part of Spain for battle and entertainment. More than 2,000 years later, descendants of those same horses continue to serve, but with new purpose, both as athletes and as symbols of a national identity as Purebred Spanish Horses.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the breed known to most of the world as the Andalusian experienced a renaissance of sorts. The name “Andalusian” is actually a misnomer for the breed as a whole, since it refers only to the region of southern Spain where the breed originated (and is still bred in the greatest numbers). In fact, Purebred Spanish Horses (Pura Raza Espa?ol or PRE) are bred in Spain’s 52 provinces and are all recognized by the studbook as the same breed.
The National Purebred Spanish Horse Breeders’ Association of Spain (ANCCE) was founded in 1972, giving Spanish breeding a formal organization to manage the interests of its members. In 1973, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art (Real Escuela) came into being, thus preserving the traditional training methods of Spanish horses. In the 1990s, Spain fielded its first international dressage team, bringing the Spanish breed to the world stage for the first time as a sporting horse.
By 2002, when the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera hosted the World Equestrian Games (WEG), the PRE had already gained considerable renown as a desirable sport horse breed. ANCCE and breeders in Spain capitalized on the tremendous influx of people to Spain for WEG to promote their breed to the world with demonstrations, trade fair booths and, the best promotion of all, a team silver medal at WEG. This was followed by another team silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Two of the four horses on the team were purebred Spanish stallions.
Without a doubt, the Spanish horse’s physical and mental characteristics predispose it to dressage more than to any other sport discipline. The breed is arguably the best in the world at the collected gaits, particularly the passage and piaffe.
Spanish breeders may be selecting their breeding stock to increase the size of the horses and to improve the ability for the extended gaits, but there is still strict adherence to preserving the purity of the breed and its typical traits. Of these, temperament is surely one of the best. As Francisco Javier Garcia Romero, director of the Real Escuela, points out, “At the school, there are over 100 stallions living and working together in close proximity–and these are stallions that do live-cover breeding.”
Manuel Gonzalez Lopez, ANCCE’s international relations officer, says that ANCCE’s members breed only within the Spanish bloodlines.
“We realize that this does limit the rate and range of improving the breed, but the mandate of ANCCE is to preserve a pure breed.” Even so, he says PRE breeders are working to breed horses that also excel in driving and show jumping. To encourage breeders to increase the versatility of the breed, ANCCE offers annual national championships for FEI (F?d?ration Equestre Internationale) dressage, high school or haute ?cole, country dressage or doma vaquera (a show ring version of farm work with reining and dressage elements), show jumping and driving.
Keeping the Breed Pure
In order for a horse to be registered with the Spanish studbook, both the sire and dam must be in the studbook. Young horses are blood tested for identification purposes, and simple blood typing is in the process of being replaced by more reliable DNA testing. Horses are also identified uniquely by microchips implanted in the neck. ANCCE is working on developing a formal licensing and approval system based on physical attributes and aptitudes for various disciplines. The Ministry of Agriculture has already approved the selection scheme. Recently, artificial insemination (AI) has been approved for young, recommended stallions coming from the selection scheme.
Currently, there is a compulsory review for all potential breeding stock. The examination panel includes an executive member of the cavalry, a Ministry of Agriculture veterinarian and a breeder. Potential breeding horses are examined as 3-year-olds. A 100-point evaluation index is used with eight different conformation criteria and assessment of the walk and trot. In order to be approved for breeding, a horse must obtain a score of at least 70 points.
Adolfo S?nchez de Movell?n Ruiz, in his second, four-year term as president of ANCCE, has had horses all his life and, since 1989, has been actively breeding Spanish horses. He describes some of the areas of conformation that are assessed.
The shape of the horse’s head, for example, is quite important. “We want to see a profile that is at least straight or tending towards the convex,” he says. The shape and weight of the neck (a too-heavy neck is not desirable), shape of the back and barrel and natural carriage are all assessed. Both naturally elevated movement and a capacity for collection are desirable attributes.
Size is also a factor, adds S?nchez de Movell?n. “Mares should be at least [15 hands] and stallions [15.2 hands]. Demand now is for larger horses. We never want to lose the physical characteristics of these horses, but if we are to pursue the athletic aspect of breeding, we need to breed larger horses.”
About 8,000 purebred foals are born every year in Spain. Mares and young stock normally live on ranches in the country with plenty of freedom to run. Approved mares may start breeding at 3 or 4 years of age. The average retirement age for a broodmare is 20. Traditionally, mares are not trained for work as stallions are. However, S?nchez de Movell?n says, “My philosophy is that the mares shouldn’t simply be in the country and used for breeding. They should be trained, perhaps not to a high degree like the stallions, but trained just the same. I particularly like to teach the mares to drive.”
One historic use of mares on the farm is on the grain-threshing floor. The traditional “cobra”, in which up to 10 mares are collared together side by side, is still practiced on many farms as a demonstration of temperament. A handler, either on the ground or mounted (on a stallion, no less), works the mares in circles with a remarkable display of accuracy and obedience.
A Military Heritage
The ANCCE’s mandate is to preserve and promote the breed at all levels but not to be involved directly in sales of horses. In an effort to buy and sell PRE horses worldwide, ANCCE faces special challenges that are a legacy of the Spanish horse’s past as an instrument of war. The military has controlled the breeding and registration practices which remain in the hands of the Spanish Ministry of Defense, so breeders in Spain are frustrated by a lack of autonomy.
Manuel Gonzalez Lopez explains the problem: “The military manages the studbook in Spain. With cows, goats, sheep and pigs, the breeders manage their own programs and regulations. They tell the Ministry [of Agriculture] to make changes but not the horse breeders.”
The military is responsible for processing the blood tests that are necessary for studbook registration of all Spanish horses. “It can take up to three years to get the certificate of origin from the military, and during this time you cannot sell the foal because you don’t have the papers.” There are about 70,000 registered PRE horses in 54 countries, though about 85 percent of these are in Spain.
Despite these difficulties, the popularity of the PRE is spreading throughout the world. Real Escuela director Romero knows why. “The breed is suitable both for children and adults,” he says. “It is a horse that offers all of himself; he will never refuse the rider.”
Dressage Today thanks Didi Arias and the ANCCE’s Manuel Gonzalez Lopez for their help with the text and photograph for this article.