Murgese horses

Today the Murgese horse is rare outside of its native Italy; this is changing as international riders discover the unique cultural heritage and classical dressage abilities of the descendants of the second Roman emperor's mighty destriers.

Puglia, located deep in the south of Italy has copped a bad reputation in recent years. Rife with unemployment and poverty; it is easy to forget this area was once the preferred haven of Frederick II of Swabia.

Frederick loved beauty. He created what is now known as the southern renaissance, and his kingdom flourished under fair laws and cultural harmony that was virtually unheard of in medieval times. He founded one of the earliest universities in Naples and built many beautiful castles throughout the countryside including the UNESCO site Castel Del Monte. He was also a lover of fine horses.

It was in the limestone slopes of the Murge that he bred his famous war horses. The descendants of these mighty destriers are still raised in these arid and rocky hills.

The Emperor chose Puglia because of its hard and rocky landscape. As the old saying goes "no foot, no horse".

Horses were bred with hooves strong enough to carry an armoured knight long distances (the kingdom stretched from Sicily to Jerusalem), and they needed to be sensible yet capable of manoeuvring quickly once amidst the conflict. The first horses were bred to local stock originally raised by the ancient inhabitants 'the Apulian's' and were crossed with Arabian, Iberian and Berber stallions.

These horses were in high demand by knights. The hardy destrier of the Murge was renown throughout the kingdom and often caught the eye of crusaders on their way to Jerusalem, It is recorded in old texts that the Emperor forbade his southern Italian subjects from “selling war horses to crusaders who were eager to buy them; but other animals were allowed to be sold”.

The Emporer died with his warhorse.

"At a moment when the bridge was crowded with troops, Frederick rode up rapidly. He was impatient to join his son, who was leading the advance guard; and when he found that he could not cross immediately by the bridge, he plunged into the river to swim his horse across. Both horse and rider were swept away by the current. Barbarossa's heavy armor made him helpless and he was drowned."

After the emperor's death in 1250, the horses were used by the famous Ghibelline soldiers that fought for the Emperor against the Guelph's. They were used as cavalry mounts throughout the 1400’s by the Venetian republic, and during the 1600’s the Court of Madrid purchased a Murgese stallion for his breeding program in Spain.

Two Stallions that made up the 6 founding lines of the Lipizzaner (Conversano and Napolitano) were bred on the Murge plateau. The breeding stations of the Murge were part of the empire of Naples. The Napolitano horses were made up of not only horses from Naples but also Salerno, Calabria and Puglia and are renown as the classical school horses of Grisone and Pignatelli. Napolitano stallions were infused into many of the most famous breeding programs of Europe, especially during the renaissance era and included the Hanoverian, Lipizzaner and the Kladruby.
The horses of the Murge and the Napolitano horses were considered some of the best horses in Europe - then suddenly in the 1800s, inexplicably; the horses of the Murge along with many other Italian breeds fell into decline. The beautiful baroque horse of the south, once the proud destrier of the emperor's knights in armour; and noble families throughout the kingdom was declassified as an agricultural horse and then during the breeds darkest moment - a horse suitable only for the slaughter.

Luckily the breed was saved from extinction, and in recent years has gained popularity as a dressage and working equitation mount.
They are horses raised amongst cattle in Puglia, so cow sense is bred into them. The quick agile movements that were once important on the battlefield, and the dependable personality, make the breed suitable for each of the four working equitation phases.

Today the breed association is reinventing this former warhorse into something marketable for the 21st century. The popularity of Working Equitation internationally has promoted the Lusitano horse immensely, and the same may occur with the Murgese.
The Murgese is ideal for various equestrian pursuits – be it trekking in the mountains, classical or traditional dressage, or working equitation. The beautiful black horses with their powerful structure and strong hooves are making a comeback!