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  • Writer's pictureRosalea Ryan

Working equitation thriving in countries of origin

Working equitation is rapidly gaining in popularity in Australia but has its roots in south-west Europe. Australian journalist ROSALEA RYAN found herself in Portugal when Covid hit in 2020 and remains there today ensconced in the world of Lusitanos and bullfighting. She she shares the delight of seeing two world champions of working equitation on show.
ABOVE: Gilberto Filipe shows off Lusitano stallion Zinque das Lezírias to the public during the opening ceremony of a bullfight in Caldas da Rainha just a week after the pair had been crowned both individual and team world champions in working equitation for a history-making second successive time. Picture: ROSALEA RYAN

SPECTATORS have had a surprise treat at a bullfight in Caldas da Rainha, central Portugal: the sight of two two-time dual working equitation world champions in the arena together. Yes, that’s correct: two titles each on two separate occasions for both rider and horse.

Gilberto Filipe entered the ring on Zinque das Lezírias, the Lusitano stallion he had ridden the previous week to receive a pair of gold medals in the working equitation world championship in France.

Over the four days from July 20–23, Gilberto and Zinque defended their 2018 individual title and were also part of the Portuguese quartet that won the team event again.

In fact, Portugal’s national team has never been defeated in working equitation (equitação de trabalho in Portuguese), having won every one of the six world championships held so far, starting with the first in Beja (southern Portugal) in 2002 and including Lisbon in 2006, Lyon (France) in 2011, Ebreichsdorf (Austria) in 2014, Munich (Germany) in 2018 and Les Herbiers (France) last month.

This year’s field was the biggest ever, with 18 countries involved, the majority European (Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Denmark) or American (Colombia, the US and Mexico), plus Great Britain.

Gilberto’s teammate, Mafalda Galiza Mendes, was the silver medallist in the individual event, and together with Luís Brito Paes (on a Lusitano stallion from his family’s stud) and Tiago Alves they earned the team gold medal.

The remaining team positions were filled by Spain (silver), France (bronze), Germany, Colombia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Great Britain and the Czech Republic.

Like Gilberto, Luís Brito Paes is a bullfighter by profession. However, despite being part of a dynasty of cavaleiros (mounted bullfighters) and Lusitano breeders, he chooses to work on foot as a bandarilheiro, using a cape to test and position the bull for the rider and to protect the forcados (bullcatchers) who subdue the bull in the second act of the fight so that it can be led quietly out of the arena in the Portuguese tradition. His commitment to the world championship meant he had to miss his youngest brother Joaquim’s debut as a fully recognised senior cavaleiro in Lisbon on July 21.

Working equitation tests speed, agility, temperament and training through a combination of dressage, sprint, ease-of-handling (also known as maneability) and cattle-working challenges and requires a harmonious and deeply trusting horse-rider relationship.

Of the 49 horses competing, 27 were Lusitanos, and in the end Lusitanos filled the top seven individual places.

Although the 2022 world championship was officially Zinque’s last-ever international competition, he hasn’t retired just yet.

He’s not a bullfighting horse in the sense of going head to head with a bull in combat but that doesn’t stop him being right at home in a bullring – he is a purebred Lusitano, after all, and the Lusitano has for centuries been the bullfighting horse of Portugal. In Caldas da Rainha he was saddled up and draped in sumptuous embroidered-and-fringed ruby-red satin for the opening parade that kicked off the fight, complete with the customary white-plumed head-dress and his mane in ribbons.

ABOVE: At the completion of the opening parade, as a sign of respect to the event president/director and any other dignitaries who are present, bullfighting horses reverse out of the arena. Picture: ROSALEA RYAN

“For me the Lusitano horse is everything,” Gilberto says. “It’s a versatile horse, a horse with lot of character, a horse with great quality, and beautiful. All my life I’ve ridden Lusitano horses. I’ve ridden Lusitanos in different disciplines: in bullfighting where the Lusitano is king, in working equitation where it continues to be king and in dressage where it is also already marking its position. I don’t see myself riding another horse.”

It was a big weekend of bullfights for Gilberto, who had watched from the sidelines in Montijo near Lisbon on the Friday night and who competed again in neighbouring Lavre on the Sunday evening. He’s been a professional cavaleiro since 2004 and also runs a riding school.

The outstanding results in France were not given nearly as much mainstream coverage in Portugal as they might have received, prompting the country’s top-ranked matador, João Silva ‘Juanito’, to make an unequivocal statement: “It’s sad and shameful that the generalist media of Portugal don’t echo the full and sold-out bullrings over just four days in Portugal, as well as the great triumphs of our mates. Saddest yet that the achievements in other categories of sport and culture are forgotten: that a man is the two-time champion of the world in Portuguese equitation – a source of pride for all. Congratulations, Gilberto!”

Working equitation originated in southern Europe, where it was pioneered in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy. Its first international competition was held in 1996 and in 2004 the World Association for Working Equitation was formed.

In Australia the sport is administered by Australian National Working Equitation Ltd.

ABOVE: Horses ridden for the ceremonial parade that opens a Portuguese bullfight are generally not used in combat, allowing Zinque das Lezírias to be introduced to the crowd despite not being a specialist bullfighter. Picture: ROSALEA RYAN

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