Discovering the National Horse Fair in Golega

Every year around this time, the National Horse Fair of Portugal takes place in a small town called Golegã – pronounced “Golga”. On the “Portuguese Caminho” from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela, Golegã’s claim to fame is this National Horse Fair. It is centered around the Portuguese breed of horses, the Lusitano.

Last year, we wanted to go with friends but left the planning too late so everything was overpriced. Lesson learned!

This year, my friend Jacky and I decided to go make it a girls’ adventure, leaving husbands behind and staying in a hostel in Golegã itself. We found a cute little place – Albergue das Ademas – where each bed was 25 euros in a 6-bed shared dorm.

Booking.com suggested nearby places too, but we figured we wouldn’t want to drive anywhere after a day and night out on the town (ha!). We were right (double ha!).

 

First impressions

Within a few minutes of walking out of our hostel, we were in the thick of it. There were street stalls and shops selling everything from gorgeous leather goods – boots, bags, belts, jackets – to felt hats, horse gear of course, and random items such as blankets, carpets, stone sculptures, and more.

The air was full of food smells, from both the outside grills of restaurants and food stands offering meat, meat, and more meat. I did spot a couple of fartura (the Portuguese version of churros?) stands, and there were quite a few ginja (cherry liqueur, best had out of a chocolate cup) sellers too.

The people were for the most part very stylish, often wearing different colored felt hats against the occasional rain, felt capes with thick fur collars against the cold (it wasn’t cold, so they clearly doubled as a fashion statement), and a lot of vests, always so popular in the horse world.

I felt right at home (it helped that I was wearing a vest), and loved that there were multiple generations doing everything from riding to walking around in their special Golegã National Horse Fair outfits.

The setup

On the outside of the main ring sit the casetas that are private lodges of sorts for each of the old Portuguese horse families. Each had a slightly different setup, but they were all gorgeous and made of wood, usually with at least a few stalls attached where prize horses could be shown off.

One corner caseta stable was setup for 10 horses, and belonged to a family known for their black stallions (because that’s a thing). When they were brought out… Swoon. They were stunning!

The main ring is a huge rectangle surrounded by two actual rings – one of cobblestone, where people could sit or stand to watch the official program, and another one of sandy loam, where anyone could ride their horse or ride around in their horse-drawn carriage. That was the unofficial program.

There was also an indoor ring, used only in case of inclement weather.

The program

Every day offered a different program. We were there Thursday and Friday, so we saw four- and five-year-old horses presented under the saddle. It was a bit like a dressage competition, except totally free-style! Most riders were in traditional wear, some of the most beautiful traditional riding clothes I have ever seen.

The men wore short jackets with sharp shoulders that emphasized their broad backs and (mostly) narrow waists. The riding pants were fitted but not as tight as usual, and they were shorter, showing off the leather boots from mid-calf. Hats were like very short top-hats with a wide brim.

Women had similar jackets but with softer lines, and they wore a lose riding skirt over their riding pants, adding an even greater impression of flow and movement to their riding.

We also saw a parade, aka pretty chaos, and a demonstration by the Portuguese Riding School. It reminded me of what I had seen the Lipizzaner horses from Vienna do, except with all bay horses.

On Friday, we watched the dressage segment of the working equitation championships, and took a quick peek at the driving competition before heading home.

Other days offered horse-jumping, horse-ball, more dressage, and horse-driving events.

The Lusitano Horse

The Lusitano, a portuguese breed, is an incredible horse. Until Golegã, I thought they were merely of stronger build than other horses. I had yet to understand just how different their personalities were.

In our 24+ hours in Golegã, we saw spirited, energetic, powerful horses being ridden around. We saw horses in boxes, and many in narrow stalls. There were always horses weaving in and out of the crowd on the streets, too.

I only saw one horse try to kick another horse. Other than that, every horse was incredibly well-behaved. I have never seen that on such a scale.

They weren’t afraid of their handlers, either. It wasn’t a rule of fear. They were just… tame. Spirited, beautiful, but very tame. I came away with a huge amount of respect for Lusitanos.

A new tradition

The bottom line is that I plan to make this National Horse Fair in Golegã an annual tradition. Hopefully with my husband and friends, but even without, it’s too great an event for anyone who loves horses to miss.

As a bonus, this year I bought myself a black felt hat – so now I can go out in the rain and look stylish doing it.