2017-04-08 / Columnists


Horses in the Middle of the Atlantic

There are wonderful and varied horses in the Azores. The Azores are an archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They are some 2,000 miles east of Boston, Massachusetts, and approximately 900 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal. In some ways, the groupings are like that of the Hawaiian Islands. Each of them is different, and in the case of the Azores, none are very close together. Horses here came primarily from Portugal as early as the 16th century, when the islands were discovered and the fertile soil was ideal for establishing vineyards and orange groves. In the late 1700s to early 1800s, most of the oranges that the British consumed came from “St. Michael’s,” the largest island, named São Miguel. Later, when the Portuguese established large dairy herds, horses were used to carry and cart the milk.

In developing, as well as establishing, living communities in the Azores, the Portuguese also brought with them the fine horses from the homeland Iberian Peninsula. If you go back in time, it’s easy to see that these horses are descendants from the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Greek equines of yore. But it is the horses of Portugal, not the Andalusians of Spain, that excel in both boldness and agility, especially when it comes to the art of bull fighting, as well as dressage. These purebred horses are often referred to as Lusitanos, and crossed with local heavier stock, they are known as Crusado (Cruzado) or “crossbred.”

Lusitano and Crusado horses in São Miguel, Azores, Portugal. Lusitano and Crusado horses in São Miguel, Azores, Portugal. The average height for Lusitanos and Crusados ranges from 14.3 to 15.3 hands, but examples can be found on either side of the marker. They come in a variety of colors from grey, black, bays, sorrels, and dun. Their action is quick, much like that of a quarter horse. But often their front hooves will rotate in a swinging action, making their movement appear as if they were paddling. They are brave animals, sensitive to their rider, and striking by their well-developed necks and low, thick tails and manes.

At right: Mahrino, an Azorean gelding. At right: Mahrino, an Azorean gelding. Earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to experience riding several of them on a ride that was based on the Island of Sao Miguel. I traveled with my daughter to a 17th-century manor house and farm known as the Quinta da Terca. São Miguel is the largest and most populated of islands in the archipelago, however, as the locals will tell you, “The cows still outnumber the people.” And they do.

Quinta da Terca is owned and operated by Christina and Claude de Laval, who emigrated from Sweden some years ago. They fell in love with the charm of the Island, and it was Christina (who had ridden professionally in Sweden) who had a strong desire to develop the somewhat decaying quinta into a riding center and inn. Claude also was in agreement, and he serves as both a gracious host and head treat feeder to their herd. Currently, there are more than 35 horses here. Some have been rescues, and some have been imported from Portugal. The quinta has a marvelous indoor arena built in the true Portuguese style with viewing boxes, fireplace, and deep sand footing. Prior to our riding for daily trail excursions, my daughter, Claire, and I both rode in their indoor arena. Roberto, who hails from northern Portugal, is the main instructor, but also works as a guide. We had an assessment of skills, as well as a mini dressage lesson, in which Claire rode a lovely Lusitano gelding, and I, an equally fine Crusado.

The next day we met Laura, from Germany, who was working as an assistant on her gap year from university. The rest was riding history, on horses that were surefooted, well trained, kind, and enjoyable. We covered all kinds of terrain the days that we were there, as well as many miles, with Laura and Roberto. Sao Miguel is incredible, as it is home to several microclimates. The flora is outstanding. The weather ranged from the crisp blue and highcloud skies like Mackinac Island in late April, to the torrential downpour of rain and dense fog. The day we were to ride to Sete Cidades (often considered the high point of any visit to Sao Miguel), we were drenched from constant showers and thick fog. Think of trying to see the view from Fort Holmes on a socked-in “Mackinac kind of day.” We also, in the rain, followed about 25 cows for several miles through streams and mudbanks. Herd dogs were yapping, and a dairy couple in a tractor muddled along in front until they finally reached the field they intended.

The island temperature, though, was never too harsh, as even on the rainiest day it was never below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the sun came out, it was back to a pleasant high in the 60s, perfect weather for horses and riders. The summer months can be hot, but the island - actually all of them - seem to fill with blue hydrangeas and wild ginger, the latter of which has become invasive. For our visit, the calla lilies were in profusion as well as the camellias. The island is full of very high stone walls built from the volcanic rock. These were constructed for the orange groves and still are a part of the land. Riding horseback is the best way to see how the country functions. Farmers, for the most part, know to use tractors now instead of horses to haul the fresh milk from portable milking stations in the mountain fields. From there it is processed and taken to the main port and capital city of Ponta Delgada, where it is sent back to Portugal. The Azores supplies the mother country with most of its dairy and delicious cheeses.

The first horse I rode, Mahrino, had spent part of his life as a dairy horse. Riding him, you would never have guessed. He was fast, surefooted, and seemed to be totally committed to his rider. He was a very sweet horse. The paces were, when the situation warranted, very fast. It was another trek not for the fainthearted, and actually a lot of fun. We were joined later in the week by a group of riders from the Netherlands and Sweden, some who wanted to move even faster. The farm also has a lesson program from beginner to advanced, and annually is part of the island’s celebration with a culture and horse show exhibition of riding.

Claire and I each rode different horses, which was good, as Quinta da Terca is careful not to use the same horse the next day if they can help it, especially if the animal has done a lot of climbing or many miles the day before. The farm also has a weight limit for the rider. (This seemed incongruous because of the excellent, abundant, and fresh food they served.) One of my other favorite horses was Capetao, who was a small, sturdy bay. He had excelled in dressage, but he could move like a thoroughbred if need be. The quinta has a large book in the sitting room, which holds the photographs and biographies of almost every horse that they have had. On nights after riding, it was most enjoyable to sit and look at it.

Those of us who love and live on Mackinac have somewhat of an understanding of what other island cultures must be like. I think one of the most unique things about that island is that there have been horses here for centuries, and they have continued to endure. Certainly there are negatives in some of their treatment, and as with all animals, some cases of abuse. But, on the plus side, there are many people who care about them, enjoy them, and have made them part of their lives. Hence, São Miguel and Quinta da Terca are back on my list for a return visit.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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