Murgese Horses in Liguria

Roberta and Michelangelo are passionate about their Murgese horses. They buy their youngstock from Puglia at 30 months of age. Undomesticated and semi-feral, they travel 12 hours from the southern ‘boot’ of Italy, up to the mountains of Liguria to be gentled and educated under saddle.
Whilst Michelangelo tends to keep behind the scenes, Roberta is quick to tell me “He is the one who chooses the horses - he has an incredible eye for confirmation!”

Roberta is the front(wo)man of the team, and her equestrian curriculum is impressive. Starting out as a western rider, with successes in team penning and barrel racing she later discovered dressage, and soon after Western Equitation.

She successfully campaigned the Murgese mare Macina in Working Equitation; winning the prestigious European Bentaiga Cup in Germany, as well as national and international medals in Italian and Portuguese competitions. Currently, she competes with the gelding Troiano in national level dressage, and trains riders in classical and working equitation. She is also a FISE judge for the latter.

Working Equitation is an ideal discipline to showcase the Murgese's versatility and aptitude for dressage. The sport has gained considerable momentum in Italy since it was established in 1996.
Murgese foals are raised amongst cattle in a semi-wild state much like Tuscany's Maremmano horse. The ability to work a cow along with obedience, agility and speed are the main requirements of a good working equitation mount - the Murgese, like all baroque breeds is ideal.

Roberta brings out Rinaldi, a young stallion to show me the ideal working equitation type. Rinaldi’s compact conformation is very similar to the Napolitano horse of old. His stature and movement are exemplary of the type of horse required to swap between working cattle to classical dressage. He is quick and agile on his feet, yet level-headed. The majority of horses competing internationally in working equitation are classical working horses, predominately the Lusitano, PRE, and Lipizzaner. "Precision and speed are important, but if you don't have a horse that's sensible in the head, then it’s all over. This is what lets down many riders. The riding is good, but the horses can’t always be counted on". Michelangelo explains.

The Murgese breed is not as homogenized as the Lusitano. Roberta and Michelangelo are quick to point out that they consider this an attribute of the breed rather than a defect. The horses of the Murge have been bred since medieval times in three distinct types - the destrier or war horse, which today excels as a working equitation horse, the palfrey or general riding horse which has bigger paces and makes a good dressage horse, and the agricultural/heavy horse; ideal as a trekking or driving horse.

Michelangelo brings out examples to demonstrate the different types of horse.
Adone is first up. He is the destrier type; an elegant stallion exuding an almost regal presence. He is unmistakably baroque showing the Spanish influence on the breed when he moves. Aurora is a 17hh dressage mare of the Palfrey type. She competes with a 14-year-old rider and recently won the silver medal at the regional championships. She resembles a German warmblood, with big extravagant movement. 

Aristotle stands at around 15hh, owned by a 70-year-old woman learning to ride, he is described by Roberta as the ultimate beginner's horse.

Violante enters the arena with head held high and nostrils flared. She is a statuesque mare with a fiery personality, not at all for the faint-hearted. Roberta had hoped she would be suitable for Working Equitation but is now swaying her training towards straight dressage, as she is too highly strung for the latter.

Macina, Roberta’s star mare and winner of the Betaiga trophy in 2009 is the destrier type. It is a real privilege for me to watch this partnership together, which is well known amongst Working Equitation and Murgese enthusiasts.

It is apparent with all the horses here, that the temperament is generically kind- even the excitable Violante comes up to me twice in the arena. These are horses that seek human contact, a testament to their trainers since the horses arrive semi-wild and terrified of humans.

"They arrive virtually unhandled. The mares don't get touched at all” Roberta tells me. “Its survival of the fittest down there. The stallions get it worse. Castration is nonexistent. As soon as they start causing trouble in the herd, they are closed up in a box. Equestrian culture isn't really established, and horses are treated like cattle.”

Aristotle leans out of his box for some attention. "He was one of the worst when he arrived", Roberta tells me. “They can tell the difference though. Like an abandoned dog that has been kicked around all its life, they can draw a distinction between a kind hand and a violent one”.
The rain by this stage is falling hard, so we decide to put the horses away and retire to the farmhouse, where over a plate of pasta, we enter into an interesting discussion on the Murgese horse's future.
The breed was formally recognized in 1926, and three stallions were the basis of the modern breed. These stallions were Granduca, Nerone, and Araldo delle Murge.

Some fans of the breed claim that the Murgese is the only Italian breed that is pure, and seek to have it recognized as Italy's national horse.
This is a difficult statement to prove, as it was, of course, established initially with Berber and Iberian blood. In the modernization of the breed, some thoroughbred was infused into the different breeding lines.

In Italy, unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to this breed. This is due to a disastrous venture in the fifties when the horse was bred almost exclusively for human consumption. This created a heavier, coarser type of Murgese that lacked the refinement required for dressage. Pugliese people themselves are Italy’s biggest horsemeat consumers, a statistic that didn't exactly help their local breeds survival and the classical Murgese was at one stage in risk of extinction.
Luckily a group of breeders that understood the cultural value of this ancient horse returned the Murgese to the classical ideals. The breed now more than ever, is most similar to the original Napolitano horse used by Grisone in his Alta Scuola Academy.

Due to breeds aptitude for classical riding, the Murgese is now gaining popularity nationally and internationally especially amongst fans of the baroque/renaissance style horse. 

The International School of Equestrian Art in Dortmund, Germany of Marius Schneider recently purchased a rare blue roan example of the breed to train classically.
Over the border in Slovenia; trainers like Jani Krmac from Ljubljana choose to import Murgese horses because they find them easier to work with than the closely related Lipizzaner (national horse of his homeland).
"I couldn't be happier with the Murgese", Jani tells me in Italian. "They are quick to learn the more complex movements, and calm under pressure, but they are very similar to the Lipizzaner in quality and ability".

The Murgese horse has experienced illustrious glory followed by darkest obscurity.

Thankfully today due to people like Roberta and Michelangelo this sensational horse is experiencing an equine renaissance of its own.