The Pura Raza Española is a very special horse. Originating from the Andalusians that were appreciated by the Ancient Romans, it became famous world-wide from the 16th century, a living expression of Spain’s Golden Age.
No ordinary horse. The Pura Raza Española (PRE), also known as the Andalusian, is a remarkable breed, for centuries considered as the finest warhorse but also the epitome of equine elegance. Their speed and manoeuvrability is accompanied by an exceptional temperament, calm and apparently oblivious to any sense of danger. Their regal, high-stepping carriage made it a favourite amongst Europe’s royalty and aristocracy, as can be seen from innumerable portraits in which the noble personage is mounted on a Pura Raza Española. They have been portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci, Velasquez, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Rubens.
The Pura Raza Española’s athletic ability is astounding. Still today they are used as bullfighting horses. But they also excel in dressage, jumping, driving and as working ranch horses. They enchant horse lovers with their looks, a beautifully-proportioned head on a powerful, elegantly arched neck, with a generous crest, and long, sometimes wavy mane and tail. Usually grey, other accepted colours are bay, black, chestnut and the lighter hues. Not surprisingly, they have progressed from the battlefields of centuries past to contemporary stardom at the cinema, ridden by Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Mel Gibson in Braveheart. They also appeared in Interview with the Vampire, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. A Pura Raza Española horse also features in the largest equestrian statue in the world, at El Paso airport in Texas, depicting Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate y Salazar. The rearing stallion is an incredible 11 metres high.
The breed has reached the annals of sporting success. At the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, the Spanish dressage team reached the finals for the first time, and it took part with three Pura Raza Española horses. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, they finished 7th, and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the team won the bronze medal. One of the horses, Invasor, took part in all these editions. The breed excels in the Spanish Doma Vaquera, a sort of dressage inspired by the work of vaqueros who work with herds of cattle in Spain and Portugal. Iberian cattle can be unpredictable and even savage, and a horse that can instantly perform a side-pass, or hit a gallop, or stop and swerve instantly, can save the vaquero’s life. In Doma Vaquera competition, horses and riders perform the movements without cattle, evoking the unexpected situations that can occur on the ranch, requiring exceptional balance, obedience and agility from the horse.
A long pureblood history
Man’s aesthetic appreciation of horses has ancient roots, going back to the Ancient Greeks. Though originating from horses present in Andalusia since time immemorial, the Pura Raza Española was the result of a breeding programme conducted in order to create a new breed with certain well-defined traits of appearance and character. On 28 November 1567, King Felipe II ordered the Royal Horse Master in Córdoba, Diego Lopez de Haro, to buy 1,200 of the finest mares and stallions from the provinces bordering the Guadalquiver, in order to obtain a horse corresponding to what was considered as equine perfection. For over 30 years, the breed was developed in this city, originally intended for exclusive use by the Royal House, and soon becoming an emblem of the Spanish Empire. The project was a good expression of the Renaissance, a period in which horses and riding became aristocratic pursuits, no longer linked exclusively to military considerations. The horse became an object of beauty. But this new artistic sensitivity amongst the nobility was usually not matched by their riding skills, and the docile temperament of the new breed was particularly useful. In 1600, French riding master Salomon de la Broue wrote, “In a comparison of the finest horses, I would place the Spanish horse in first position, considering it the most beautiful, the most noble, the worthiest of being ridden by a king.”
Prestigious supporters for the breed
It was only natural that the Spanish royal family should give specimens of the Pura Raza Española as gifts to other European courts. As a result, it was crossed, and its genes contributed to the origin of other breeds such as the Lippizaner, Lusitano, Paso Fino, Neapolitan, and some of the German warmbloods such as Hanoverians, Oldenburgers and Holsteiners. Today, there are about 180,000 Pura Raza Española horses world-wide, and the breed is represented by the Asociación Nacional de Criadores de Caballos de Pura Raza Española, ANCCE (National Association of Purebred Spanish Horse Breeders), which holds the stud book, “Registro Matricula de Caballos y Yeguas de Pura Raza Española,” instituted in 1912 and marking the origin of the horse’s name, which was chosen to reflect the wave of national pride or “Regeneracionismo” that followed the disastrous Spanish-American war of 1898. From then on, the breed’s prestigious reputation has been carefully protected by Spanish institutions. King Felipe VI of Spain is honorary president of the board of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation in Jerez, an institution dedicated to the protection of the Pura Raza Española since 1973. The role had previously been held by King Juan Carlos for almost 30 years.
Stars of a dedicated trade fair
Over the course of 500 years, the Pura Raza Española has undergone moments of crisis as well as fortune. Over the centuries, many of the bloodlines were diluted by crossbreeding, and in the 19th century, many horses were stolen during periods of war in the Iberian peninsula. The survival of the breed is in great part due to the Carthusian monks who bred them from the late Middle Ages on, and who succeeded in hiding small herds that could then be used to renew the breed. In 1832, an epidemic had a disastrous effect on Spain’s horses, and once again, only a small herd of Andalusians survived, at the Monastery of Cartuja. After the selection of the new name Pura Raza Española, exports of these horses was restricted until 1962. Today, it is a firm favourite amongst horse lovers, adored for its noble, docile temperament, willing to please, exceptionally intelligent, capable of forming powerful bonds with their owners. They love attention and they love showing off. Every year, they are celebrated at SICAB, an international trade fair held in Seville, dedicated entirely to the Pura Raza Española, with over 240,000 visitors. The thousand horses present also enjoy it: after such a long history, they take stardom in their stride.
Article published in Le Grand Mag, 2019