A Royal Pedigree

How the Andalusian—the Spanish horse of kings—found a new home in California’s cultural landscape

Thoughts of Spain often conjure up romantic notions of passionate flamenco dancers, musicians and matadors, Moorish and Baroque-style architectural wonders, tapas, sherry and more. But the majestic horses that hail from the country’s southern region of Andalusia are likely the most universally admired icons of that corner of the world. Andalusian horses are regal Spanish ambassadors that have captivated admirers for centuries … and more recently, passionate equestrians here in California.

Though their ancestors inhabited Spain’s Iberian peninsula approximately 3,000 years ago, the origin of the pure Andalusian breed (also known as PRE or Pura Raza Espanola horses) began in 1567 under the reign of King Philip II. It was the king’s personal quest to create the perfect Spanish horse in the image of those idolized in mythology, folklore and art. He enlisted a royal horse master to acquire fine Spanish mares and stallions throughout the region of Andalusia for selective breeding, which produced exquisite horses that were the most coveted by European royals, aristocrats and cavalries for many generations.

Today these fine equines are highly revered globally, as Spanish royalty keeps watch over their legacy. King Felipe VI of Spain is the honorary president of the governing board of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation in the city of Jerez, which has been dedicated to the preservation and promotion of purebred Spanish horses since 1973. (The King’s father, King Juan Carlos, held the position for nearly three decades before him.)

Dressage Olympic medalist and head of training at the school, Rafael Soto beams with pride when he speaks of their beloved horses. “In addition to their beautiful conformation and exceptional natural action, our noble Spanish horses have big hearts and great character,” he says.

Miles away from their native land, an estimated 10,000 Andalusian horses currently live in the U.S. Though their ancestors arrived in the “New World” in the late 1400s with Spanish conquistadors, it was not until the 1960s that people began importing them to America.

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In response to their growing numbers over the years and out of appreciation for the horses’ fine heritage, The Foundation for the Pure Spanish Horse was created. Chaired by founding member and Southern California breeder Barbara Currie, the organization is comprised of PRE horse owners and boasts 500 members.

“The foundation was formed in 1998 to preserve, promote and protect the breed. We educate people about the breed and help people who have Spanish horses learn more about them,” says Barbara.

It is no wonder that these remarkable, spirited horses have found their way from historical battlefields and European kings into the hearts of audiences worldwide as glorious mounts for some of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities, including Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Mel Gibson in Braveheart and Colin Farrell in Winter’s Tale, and as stunning co-stars in other box office hits such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia.

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According to veteran equestrian stuntman, trick rider and horse trainer Tad Griffith (Hidalgo, Seabiscuit and The Mask of Zorro, among his many credits), the love for Andalusians in the film industry remains strong. “With them you don’t need 100 horses to tell a story,” he shares. “You just need one as your lead horse. Whether cast with the hero or the villain, their beauty and spirit separate them from every other horse in the film. Onscreen they can capture and enrich an entire scene.”

Often referred to as “mobile thrones” because they have transported royalty under saddle and pulled carriages throughout history, Andalusian horses depict ideal mystical creatures, war horses and equine stars in movies because of their striking high head carriage, crested necks, powerful physiques and elegant, lofty, natural movement. But it is not just their show stopping appearance that sets them apart in the movie-making industry. Their overall disposition and intelligence are equally as desirable.

“They are easy to train and have the mental capacity to watch and learn. They are also courageous with a strong sense of self-preservation, which is great for film,” says Tad. “As a battle scene rages and bombs are going off, everyone on set knows we are making a movie except the horses. Andalusians are very adaptable and brave. This is probably why they were the preferred battle horse long ago.”

Though gasps are often heard in theatres when a horse falls or is “killed” in battle on the big screen, animal safety is paramount in production and American Humane Society guidelines are taken very seriously in Hollywood (so much so that films made abroad with horses in peril cannot be shown in the U.S.) On location, horses are shown the sets, cameras and crew to acclimate them to their environment. People are also on set who are responsible for keeping them safe and there is an off-camera refuge spot for each horse during filming. The horses are also trained to accept and work with the mechanical horses that are thrown in the air, crash into the ground and take high-impact action.

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“We create scenarios that look intense and terrifying but in real life are not. For example, horses coming into explosions are choreographed so they do not run into each other, the crew or the equipment and they are made aware of safety exits. Horse falls are often performed in sequence into carefully padded and camouflaged environments. And we never allow their head to hit the ground but rather train them to take the fall hip to shoulder. I actually spend at least two years training a good falling horse, and I only continue their education if they display the mental and physical characteristics required to stay safe.”

“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk. He trots the air, the earth sings when he touches it.”

As for the joy of working with and riding Andalusians, they are very energetic yet have a docile temperament, are good listeners, very willing to work and eager to please. Tad also emphasizes the importance of seeing things from a horse’s point of view.

“When filming, I am riding horses that are doing the job they were trained for, and they have to do their part. I won’t perform on horses that don’t want to be there. But when we are on set, we go the extra mile to make sure they are comfortable and do want to be there. Some horses truly love to perform!”

Whether performing for a Hollywood movie, dancing for international audiences at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, competing for gold medals, trotting in holiday parades or simply being riding companions for adoring equestrians, Andalusian horses forever etch images of their breathtaking power and grace in the minds of all who admire them. Shakespearean prose best captures the splendor, elegance and nobility that is the pure Spanish horse.

“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk. He trots the air, the earth sings when he touches it.”

Written by Diane E. Barber  |  Photos courtesy of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art and Epona Equestrian Center (Spain)

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