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April 24, 2018

Horse-lover’s haven: Riding high with the dashing gauchos of Golega in Portugal at their annual 10-day equine festival

  • The equine town of Golega boasts of being the horse capital of Portugal
  • Every November, there is a 10-day festival in honour of the Lusitano horse
  • For the rest of the year, their presence is felt with wrought-iron statues

Sending a horse-lover like me to Golega is the equivalent of sending a chocoholic to a chocolate factory.

The town boasts of being the horse capital of Portugal, and for ten days every November it holds a festival dedicated to the worship of the Lusitano horse.

There are horses everywhere: parading round the central square; trotting up and down the streets until five in the morning when the manure-cleaners move in; lined up outside makeshift bars; even going into discotheques in the small hours of the morning, seemingly unphased by the strobe lights.

For the rest of the year, Golega is a sleepy place, although its love affair with the horse is always evident.

As you enter the town, the main roundabout is decorated with the brands of local studs, and there are wrought-iron statues of horses and riders everywhere.

The main square, which is about the size of a cricket pitch, is laid out with a sand area in the middle to practise dressage, and a track round the outside where riders and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles can exercise their horses.

But it is in the week of the horse fair that the town bursts into life. Hundreds of horses, some from as far away as England, are brought here to be shown off.

They are crammed into temporary stables erected in back yards.


Other spaces are taken over by discotheques and pop-up bars.

All round the square, stallions are tethered and studs entertain potential clients.

The lanes off the square are full of stalls selling every conceivable kind of horse accessory, as well as cafes offering barbecued meats and delicious Portuguese cakes.

Lusitano horses are about the size of a police horse, but they are much more elegant and athletic. They have arched necks, powerful muscles and a naturally high gait.

Like their Andalusian cousins, they are descendants of the horses brought over when the Iberian Peninsula was occupied by the Arabs. And they still look like warhorses.

They are hot-blooded, always seeming as if they are about to explode into action, but remarkably calm in some ways.


Nearly all the horses brought to the fair are stallions yet they never seem to fight.

It is not as colourful as some of the Spanish horse events, where women wear flamenco dresses and sit decorously in carriages or perch, side-saddle, behind horse riders.

In Portugal, men and women ride astride – the women in elegant divided skirts, and the men in bum freezer jackets and tight trousers.

Most of them wear the traditional wide black and grey hats of the gaucho, though some dress down in flat caps and jeans.

The art is to look as nonchalant as possible, even when making your horse trot up and down on the spot, pirouette in impossibly tight turns or even rear.


Traditionally, the locals tend to ride with one hand, leaving the other free to carry a pole to prod cattle. But these days the spare hands tend to be used for sending text messages or chatting on the phone.

Among the riders weave traps drawn by even more powerful horses, or sometimes small ponies, though Portuguese children seem to graduate to riding full-size stallions at the age of about eight.

There are formal competitions and displays in the main arena.

But the real entertainment comes from watching the riders strut their stuff outside the ring, the young men – and sometimes not-so-young men – occasionally sweeping a young woman off her feet and on to the back of a horse.

They go on riding late into the night, the steam from the horses mingling with the smoke from the roast-chestnut sellers

As they trotted along the street outside my bedroom until the small hours, their hooves sounded like the frantic rattling of coconut shells.

In the background was the steady beat of the discotheque opposite, interspersed with the occasional jangle of bells on a horse’s harness. You don’t go to the festival to sleep.

Historically, the centrepiece of the fair is the procession to the church of St Martin for a blessing.

I joined the pilgrims and was lucky enough to be offered a ride in one of the traps.

As we rode through the streets, everyone clapped and I felt immensely proud.

Tempted though I was, I didn’t actually buy a horse at the fair – Lusitanos are too like a coiled spring for me to want to ride one.

But as a spectator sport for horse-lovers, the festival can’t be bettered.