The Lusitano is an Iberian horse breed that originates from Portugal. These horses are closely related to Spanish PREs, with both breeds sharing the same studbook until the two countries established separate registries in the 1960s.

The Lusitano name comes from the ancient Roman name of the region where these horses originated, Lusitania. The Iberian ancestors of Lusitanos rose to fame as war horses, but today most Lusitanos are recreational sport horses.

Known for its exceptional qualities as a riding horse, the Lusitano’s history is as captivating as its graceful movements in the dressage arena. The breed’s intelligence, versatility, and natural ability to collect contribute to their enduring popularity.

This breed profile will discuss the history, conformation, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Lusitano horse. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for the Lusitano breed.

Lusitano Horse History

Iberian horse breeds have a rich history spanning millennia. The ancestors of Lusitano horses helped shape the development of several modern breeds, but many traits that make the breed popular today have ancient origins.

Origin

The story of the Lusitano breed begins in the ancient lands of the Iberian Peninsula, present-day Portugal and Spain

Fossil records indicate horses and their early ancestors inhabited the Iberian Peninsula since the Pleistocene period, which lasted until about 11,700 years ago. Paleolithic cave art in Portugal includes depictions of horses, revealing an ancient history of human-horse interactions. [1]

Genetic studies comparing the DNA of ancient Iberian horse remains with modern breeds found lineages tracing back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age. This research supports the ancient origins of Iberian breeds and the early domestication of horses in the region. [2] But not all Iberian lineages contributed to the genetic makeup of domestic horses. [3]

The Lusitano’s development was significantly shaped by various outside cultures, including the Romans and Moors. Research shows strong links between native Southern Iberian breeds and North African Barb horses.

While the Moors introduced Barb horses to the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages, it’s unclear whether the flow of genes primarily went from Iberia to North Africa or vice versa. [4] Human migrations could have facilitated the exchange of genetic material between African and Iberian horses well before the Moorish invasions of the 700s. [4]

Historic Use

The origins of domesticated horses are a matter of ongoing research. While researchers believe that horses were independently domesticated in the Iberian Peninsula, the prevailing view is that domesticated horses were introduced to this region by humans migrating from other areas where domestication had already occurred. [3] [3]

By the Iron Age (1200 – 550 BC), many civilizations relied on horses for war. Horses bred by Iberians during this era were renowned cavalry mounts. Homer refers to these horses in the Iliad, and Xenophon describes his admiration of the Iberian horsemen in his writings from 370 BC. [5]

Barb bloodlines introduced to the breed in the Middle Ages further improved the Iberian horse’s capabilities as a war horse. Some of these horses accompanied Spanish conquistadors across the Atlantic, where their descendants helped found New World breeds. [1]

Military riding schools train Iberian horses in the high school dressage movements once used in battle. In Portugal, some Lusitano horses still carry on Portuguese bullfighting traditions on horseback.

In the 20th century, breeding directions diverged between Spain and Portugal, and the Lusitano became a distinct breed. Until then, many referred to all Iberian horses as Spanish or Andalusian, regardless of their birthplace.

Now, the Luisitano has its own breed registry that is separate from the Spanish Pura Raza Española (PRE), also known as the Purebred Spanish Horse.

Breed Registry

Portuguese breeders began keeping pedigree books for Luisitano horses in 1824. In 1967, Portugal established the Portuguese Associated of Selected Horse Breeds, allowing breeders to register horses as a Lusitano if they met selection criteria.

The Portuguese breeders focused on preserving the traditional characteristics of their native horses, leading to the Lusitano we know today.

In 1989, the Portuguese Association of Pure Blood Lusitano Horse Breeders was formed and closed the studbook for the breed. The United States Lusitano Association is the official North American breed organization.

Modern Lusitanos descend from six foundation sires recognized as heads of lineage:

  • Agareno
  • Primorosa
  • Destinado
  • Marialva
  • Regedor
  • Hucharia

These stallions are from four leading Lusitano stud farms in Portugal:

  • Andrade
  • Veiga
  • Alter Real
  • Coudelaria Nacional
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Breed Characteristics

The different bloodlines and sub-types of Lusitanos have slightly different characteristics. But all horses meet the Lusitano breed standard, which resembles the original Iberian type more closely than the modern PRE.

Conformation

Lusitano horses have an average height of 15.1 to 15.3 hands. They have uphill builds, rounded outlines, and square conformations. Their movement is agile, forward, and elevated but feels smooth to ride.

The ideal Lusitano has a medium-length, narrow head with a slightly sub-convex profile, expressive eyes, and refined ears. Their necks are arched and medium in length with a deep base. Withers should transition smoothly into well-defined backs with deep rib cages.

These horses have muscular, short loins that connect to strong, sloped croups. Legs are straight and muscular, with somewhat long cannons and pasterns. Tails are slightly low set with long and silky hair.

Colours

Lusitanos can have any solid coat colour, but grey and bay are the most common.

Temperament

Most Lusitanos have generous temperaments. They are intelligent animals with a noble charisma and friendly disposition. These horses also have an excellent work ethic and consistently maintain focus in training.

Disciplines

Dressage is the most popular equestrian discipline for Lusitanos. While initially used for classical dressage, Lusitanos often compete on Portuguese and Spanish teams at the Olympics, European Championships, and World Equestrian Games.

Several studies evaluating the selection for functional traits in Lusitano horses report breeding trends associated with improved performance in dressage, working equitation, and carriage driving disciplines. [6]

Some Lusitanos are still bred and trained for mounted bullfighting in Portugal. However, this sport is banned in many countries due to safety and animal welfare concerns.

Health Profile

Lusitano horses are susceptible to many of the same health problems as their Spanish relatives. However, the Lusitano breed has higher rates of inbreeding due to their small founder population, which can increase the risk of genetic disorders.

Genetic Diseases

The modern studbook began with 267 founding stallions, but one genetic study revealed only nine distinct sire lineages in the breed. This reduced genetic variability may result from breeding decisions favouring a small number of stallion families. [7]

Limited genetic diversity raise concerns for the future health of the breed. However, breeding strategies that minimize inbreeding could help maintain genetic variability and reduce the risk of congenital disorders. [7]

One study identified equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy (EDM) in a group of related Lusitano horses. EDM is a neurodegenerative disease associated with vitamin E deficiency, but research suggests the condition also has a genetic component. [8]

Health Problems

Like all breeds, Lusitanos are susceptible to certain health issues depending on their lifestyle, environment, management and feeding program.

Young Lusitano horses can develop osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), a developmental orthopedic disease characterized by bone and joint lesions. [10]

One study identified OCD lesions in 53.3% of examined Lusitanos. However, researchers classified most cases as mild or moderate. While the overall prevalence of OCD is similar between Lusitanos and PREs, Lusitanos have a lower percentage of severe fragmentation. [10]

Another radiographic study found Lusitano horses also had a low prevalence of severe osteoarthritis. Of the surveyed Lusitanos, 82.86% had minimal to no abnormal findings. [11]

Some researchers hypothesize the lower incidence of severe joint disease in Lusitanos arises from Portuguese management systems that raise horses on extensive grazing. Lusitanos raised on pasture may have slower growth rates than other sport horse breeds fed large amounts of grain. [12]

Lusitano horses are also susceptible to gastrointestinal disorders, including colic, gastric ulcers, and hindgut dysfunction.

A study comparing the fecal microbiome of six sport horse breeds found Lusitano horses had the lowest bacterial diversity. A less diverse gut microbiome may be less resilient against pathogenic bacteria, leading to impaired immune function, poor nutrient absorption and an increased risk of gut dysbiosis and laminitis. [9]

Care and Management

All Lusitanos need quality basic horse care to live long, productive lives. Your horse’s managements should cater to both their physical and behavioral needs, ensuring a balanced diet, adequate exercise, social companionship, and mental stimulation.

Work with your veterinarian to implement a preventative wellness program that includes routine vaccines, deworming, and dental exams. Regular farrier care from a qualified professional is also key to keeping Lusitano horses sound in their work.

Lusitanos, particularly those with long, grey coats, often need more extensive grooming to keep their coat clean and hair tangle-free. These friendly horses also enjoy bonding time with their owners during grooming sessions.

Outdoor housing that mimics the grazing systems used in their native Portugal is ideal to support the natural behaviors and health of Lusitanos. This environment encourages free movement, essential for maintaining strong bones, healthy joints, and overall well-being, while also providing enrichment and social interaction with other horses.

If your Lusitano lives inside, ensure they get daily turnout so they can exercise freely, graze, and express natural equine behaviors. It’s also important to maintain good air quality in the stable to prevent respiratory issues.

Lusitanos are an athletic breed that thrive with regular exercise. While too much high-intensity training can cause stress, one study found that consistent dressage training increased fitness and reduced the stress response in Lusitanos. [13]

Nutrition Program

A well-designed nutrition program is vital for the health and performance of Lusitano horses. These animals require a balanced diet that caters to their specific activity level, body condition and health status.

The best diet for your Lusitano horse is one that replicate the natural grazing habits of Iberian horses in their native Portugal.

Weight Maintenance

Lusitano horses have adapted over centuries to the sparse Mediterranean grasslands of the Iberian Peninsula. This environment shaped these horses into easy keepers, which means they are efficient at extracting nutrients from limited forage and are prone to weight gain if their diet is not carefully managed.

Research indicates that Iberian horses often exhibit lower insulin sensitivity compared to other breeds. As a result, obese Lusitanos are at risk of having equine metabolic syndrome. [14]

Lusitanos also have a high incidence of a physical trait known as a cresty neck, which is a clinical sign of EMS. One study suggested, cresty necks are not clearly associated with insulin resistance in Iberian breeds. [15] However, that study included a large number of stallions which are rarely insulin resistant unless they have developed PPID. Therefore, cresty neck is likely still a clinical sign of EMS in non-stallion Lusitanos.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 500 kg (1100 lb) Lusitano horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 105%
Protein (% of Req) 127%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.7%

 

Lusitano horses thrive on a forage-based diet and can typically meet their energy and protein needs by grazing pasture. When pasture grass is scarce, hay is an effective substitute.

Despite the benefits of a forage-based diet, both pasture and hay can fall short in providing all the essential nutrients required in the equine diet. Incorporating a vitamin and mineral supplement can fill these gaps and ensure your horse’s diet is balanced. [16]

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement that supports hoof health, metabolic function, the immune system and more. Omneity is expertly formulated to enrich forage-based diets, providing essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, yeast and digestive enzymes.

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Forage

Providing free-choice access to forage is beneficial for Lusitanos, supporting both their digestive health and natural foraging behaviors.

Lusitanos in maintenance or light work typically consume 2% of their body weight in forage dry matter per day. A 500 kg (1,100 lb) Lusitano is expected to eat approximately 10 kg (22 lb) of hay dry matter daily.

Providing average-quality hay ensures your horse gets enough roughage in their diet without oversupplying calories. Select a mid-maturity grass hay with low starch and sugar content. This will help supply a diet with low levels of hydrolyzable carbohydrate (HC) to support metabolic health. HC is the portion of non-soluble carbohydrates (NSC), namely ESC + starch, which is digestible in the small intestine and contributes to the insulin response.

Although grazing systems are popular for Lusitanos, pasture is not always appropriate. Unrestricted access to high-sugar grasses can lead to pasture-associated laminitis in Lusitanos with metabolic syndrome.

For Lusitanos that are insulin resistant or have a history of laminitis, it’s advisable to restrict or completely eliminate pasture access. Consider using a grazing muzzle or turning your horse out on a dry lot to limit grass intake.

Overweight Lusitanos may need their hay restricted to 1.5% of their body weight to support controlled weight loss. Slow feeders can be used to prolong access to rationed hay and reduce the amount of time spent with an empty stomach.

Feeding Recommendations

Foals and yearlings need a balanced diet to support healthy growth and skeletal development. [17] While Lusitanos have a low incidence of severe orthopedic diseases, dietary imbalanced and nutrient deficiencies can still contribute to bone and joint issues.

To support musculoskeletal health, ensure your growing horse gets adequate vitamins and minerals and avoid diets that are associated with rapid growth. Energy-dense commercial concentrates are not necessary and can contribute to orthopedic disease in growing horses.

High-starch, grain-based diets are also not recommended for mature Lusitanos. Diets that contain excess grains can disrupt gut health and metabolic function . Consider swapping grains for forage pellets or beet pulp if you need a supplement career. [18]

Lusitanos engaged in moderate or heavy work may require more energy than what forage alone can provide. In these instances, incorporating highly digestible fiber sources such as beet pulp or soy hulls can fulfill their increased calorie needs. Fat supplements are another calorie-dense option for exercising horses. [18]

All Lusitanos need free access to clean, fresh water to avoid dehydration. Salt should also be provided to meet sodium requirements and encourage hydration. We recommend feeding 1 – 2 ounces of loose salt per day and providing free-choice access to plain loose salt.

Exercising horses, especially those in hot climates, benefit from electrolyte supplementation to replenish the electrolyte minerals lost in sweat. Electrolytes should be provided in addition to a horse’s daily salt ration.

Nutritional Supplements

When developing a feeding program for your Lusitano, the first priority is to provide a balanced, forage-based diet. Once the diet is balanced, you can then consider incorporating additional supplements to meet your horse’s specific needs and performance goals.

  • W-3 Oil is an essential fatty acid and energy supplement that supports immune function, coat condition, and cardiovascular health. It contains high levels of natural vitamin E as well as DHA, an important omega-3 fatty acid.
  • Visceral+ is a comprehensive gut supplement that supports stomach and hindgut health, as well as the immune system. Exercising Lusitanos benefit from gut support to keep them comfortable and competition-ready.
  • Vitamin E is a natural antioxidant that is required in higher amounts by heavily exercising horses. Vitamin E is also essential for muscle function and neurological health, especially in foals predisposed to EDM.

Not sure what to feed your Lusitano horse? Submit their information online for a free diet evaluation, and get help from our expert equine nutritionists to formulate a balanced diet.

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References

  1. Luis, C. et al. Iberian Origins of New World Horse Breeds. J Heredity. 2006. View Summary
  2. Lira, J. et al. Ancient DNA reveals traces of Iberian Neolithic and Bronze Age lineages in modern Iberian horses. Mol Ecol. 2009. View Summary
  3. Klecel, W. et al. From the Eurasian Steppes to the Roman Circuses: A Review of Early Development of Horse Breeding and Management. Animals. 2021.
  4. Royo, L. et al. The Origins of Iberian Horses Assessed via Mitochondrial DNA. J Heredity. 2005. View Summary
  5. Boot, M. et al. The X files: Xenophon re-examined through the lens of equitation science. J Vet Behav. 2013.
  6. Vicente, A. et al. Selection for morphology, gaits and functional traits in Lusitano horses: II. Fixed effects, genetic trends and selection in retrospect. Livest Sci. 2014.
  7. Vicente, A. et al. Genetic diversity in the Lusitano horse breed assessed by pedigree analysis. Livest Sci. 2012.
  8. Finno, C. et al. Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy in Lusitano Horses. J Vet Intern Med. 2011. View Summary
  9. Massacci, F. R. et al. Inter-breed diversity and temporal dynamics of the faecal microbiota in healthy horses. J Anim Breed Genet. 2019.View Summary
  10. Ramos, S. et al. Osteochondrosis (Osteochondritis Dissecans) in Lusitano Horses: Prevalence and Characteristics. J Equine Vet Sci. 2022. View Summary
  11. Ramos, S. et al. Prevalence of Radiographic Signs of Osteoarthritis in Lusitano Purebred Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2020. View Summary
  12. Fradinho, M. et al. Growth and development of the Lusitano horse managed on grazing systems. Livest Sci. 2016.
  13. Coehlo, C. et al. Training Effects on the Stress Predictors for Young Lusitano Horses Used in Dressage. Animals. 2022. View Summary
  14. Morgan, R. et al. Equine metabolic syndrome. Vet Rec. 2015. View Summary
  15. Gimenez, M. et al. Basal Insulin and Insulin Dysregulation in Obese and Non-Obese Andalusian Horses with and Without Cresty Neck. Equine Vet J. 2015.
  16. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.
  17. Fradinho, M. et al. The influence of mineral supplementation on skeleton formation and growth in Lusitano foals. Livest Sci. 2006.
  18. Zeyner, A. et al. Effect of feeding exercised horses on high-starch or high-fat diets for 390 days. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary