In Albufeira, the Mascarenhas Cardoso stud farm breeds and trains Lusitano horses to become dressage champions
Powerful, intelligent and of a willing nature, the Lusitanos are an iconic Portuguese breed. Initially bred for war, bullfighting and dressage, today these magnificent horses are still used for the latter two, with stallions such as Rubi AR – “the best Lustiano for dressage in the world”, who rose to fame at the 2012 London Olympics – unequivocally proving that these gentle giants are designed for such masterful arts.
In Albufeira, with incredible views of the sea and the mountains, the Coudelaria Mascarenhas Cardoso has been breeding and training Lusitanos for competitions for over 40 years. Set on a vast 50ha property bought by the Mascarenhas Cardoso family in 1905, this traditional stud farm is now in the hands of the family’s fourth generation.
Passionate about breeding these beautiful creatures, José Mascarenhas Cardoso explains how his family started breeding horses in Portalegre, in the Alto Alentejo, where his grandfather bought land in the ‘60s. “He had cattle and cultivated crops and started by breeding horses for pleasure; at one point, he had 60 mares.” This is where José and his father were born and grew up until their return south in 1998 to focus on the farm’s carob and fig production and to raise cattle.
“At that time, the calves were still bred in the Alentejo and were brought down from Portalegre by train to be fattened up and sold at local markets”, in the Algarve, José recalls.
The cattle production ended in the ‘80s and was eventually replaced with horses. Ten years ago, the young breeder brought five horses down from Portalegre, built a paddock and remodelled the stables to create a profitable stud farm where he could breed quality foals and hire qualified riders to train them.
Considering that most horses that compete at an Olympic or World Championship level are around 12 to 14 years old and probably started being ridden at about three, this means it takes roughly 10 years to school a dressage horse to the top levels.
To train his horses, José hired a young dressage prodigy, João Pinto. Aged just 22, the young professional from a family of Olympic riders is trained in working equitation and dressage. At the Coudelaria, he is training four horses, including his own – Honório, a beautiful white Lusitano he has been training for two years – and teaches dressage. Whilst he also focuses on his career, competing in championships, he is eager to attract new clients and teach them the incredible art of dressage.
The stud farm “focuses on quality, not quantity, producing three or four foals per year for the sport”. To continually elevate the quality of the horses, José started testing mares two years ago “to see which would give the best product”. This is a time-consuming process, he admits. “Only after four years can we see the result. The horse might look beautiful but might not be good when ridden, or vice-versa.”
Although he was born in the milieu, he does not enjoy competing. What he loves is “breeding horses, choosing the stallion and the mares and talking with the riders”. José explains that he relies on their feedback: “I can appreciate the horse’s outer beauty, but the riders are like rally drivers, who can tell the mechanic what to change. It’s the same here. The rider has to say if these foals lack strength, for example. So that I know that with those mares, I need to have a stallion that transmits strength to the foal to correct that.”
But in truth, “mothers are to blame for everything”, he says jokingly, “They transmit 65% of the horse’s genetic code. You can have the best stallion in the world, but if the mare isn’t good, the foal won’t be much good.”
To guarantee quality foals, he buys the semen of top stallions and does artificial inseminations “because, at a certain level, the stallions’ owners will not allow natural covering; it involves too many risks. There can be infections, and the mares sometimes will not accept the stallion and can kick them, even breaking a leg. And these horses are usually worth a lot of money”, José explains.
Pointing to the grey João is riding in the large arena, he says, “a horse like that is worth around €80,000”. Training and caring for such a horse represents a considerable investment for him. “The horses are seen by the vet every two to three months, they are shod every month, vaccinated, take supplements. Plus, the cost of entering competitions and more.”
The dressage school is a bonus for the stud’s main activity and clients, who can comfortably keep their horses here. It features large stables in a converted cow shed, an indoor arena, a large outdoor arena with a fabulous view of the mountains and a circular ring to exercise horses. On top of these, José plans to create another covered arena to host competitions.
Open to the public, this Federated Equestrian Centre offers dressage lessons and is starting to look into other modalities, such as hippotherapy, a therapy that uses a horse’s natural gait and movement to provide motor and sensory input. “Every Monday, therapists from a clinic in Albufeira come with children with learning difficulties, such as attention deficit, to have riding lessons.” And, although it is ideal for hacks, only horse owners or qualified riders are allowed to roam the property. “We are focusing on riders who come to work and train their horses,” says José, who will soon offer riders the opportunity to stay at the farm as he creates conditions to offer riding packages, including accommodation and lessons.
By Alexandra Stilwell