When travelling through Brazil, you see horses everywhere. According to the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute’s 2007 data, there are nearly 6 million horses in the country, which means Brazil has the fourth largest herd in the world.
Many of these horses are of mixed origin and often used in cattle-ranching. But Brazilians also breed and enjoy riding quality horses in disciplines that range from classical dressage to horseback archery. Apart from popular imported breeds such as Quarterhorses and Arabs, Brazil also values its national breeds: the Mangalarga Marchador, the Mangalarga Paulista, the Campolino, the Crioulo and the Brazilian Sports Horse.
The Mangalarga Marchador (MM) is seen as Brazil’s national horse: more than 350.000 have been registered. The MM’s descend from Iberian horses and have been bred since the early 19th century. They are known for their versatility, friendly temperament and hardiness. As gaited horses they give you a very smooth ride and they are of course ideal for trail riding and cattle drives. But they can also be easily trained for dressage, showjumping and other disciplines.
The Crioulo or Criollo of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay is the horse of the “gauchos” and famed for its stamina and hardiness. Crioulos are small, squarely built and agile horses with good acceleration, which is why they are used for polo (today often cross-bred with thoroughbreds for even greater speeds). Two Argentinian Criollo horses, Mancha e Gato, became world famous, when they rode with Swiss adventurer Aimé Tschiffely from Buenos Aires to Washington.
This epic trip of more than 20,000 km took them over the Andes, through rainforests and deserts, just living off the land. When they left in 1925, Tschiffely was ridiculed for starting out on an impossible adventure on two small and middle-aged horses, but when they arrived in 1928 in the US, they were honoured for an incredible feat with a parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue and a reception at the White House by Calvin Coolidge. Mancha and Gato were in great condition when they finished the trip and both lived to a ripe old age.
And then there are the wild naturalized breeds. These are the descendants of Iberian horses, who escaped in colonial times and adapted to life in remote regions. The “pantaneiro” horse can be found on the floodplains of the Pantanal. In the savannas between the Amazon Delta and the Tepuis, in the state of Roraima, the “lavradeiro” horse roams. On the Ilha de Marajó island (an island the size size of Switzerland) in the mouth of the Amazon, there are two small breeds – the “marajoara” and the “puruca” (which is of part Shetland parentage).
In a land full of horses, you should be able to do great rides, don’t you think? For those who love trail riding, there are certainly lots of options all over Brazil. You can get close to the Pantanal wildlife on horseback, ride on the beach, go dude ranching, follow the centuries old Estrada Real between colonial gems Paraty, Ouro Preto and Diamantina, venture into the semi-arid interior of Brazil’s northeast, or explore the canyons and highlands or do the Missions Trail in southern Brazil.
You can even ride in the Amazon rainforest. Cavalgadas Brasil, a specialized operator, has personally inspected and selected Brazil’s best rides.
But of course there is more to do on horseback than just riding on trails. There are several excellent stud farms and schools for clinics in dressage and showjumping, you can take polo lessons, find out about working equitation or even learn horseback archery, a skill that goes back to the original centaurs of the Asian steppes. One place that joins many of these options is one and a half hour from Rio de Janeiro in the rainforested foothills of the Serra do Mar: the Desempenho Equestrian Center in Cachoeiras de Macacu.
Desempenho has been breeding Mangalarga Marchador horses since 1983 and combines this with a riding school and, an institute for equestrian and environmental studies. The owners of Desempenho, Bjarke and Mara Rink are totally dedicated to equitation and the study of horses and nature. Their herd of more than 60 horses roams in their large property, which combines lowland pasture with secondary Atlantic Rainforest, which they are restoring.
Bjarke is a friend of the Long Riders Guild, the world’s first international association of equestrian explorers, founded in 1994. He is also a writer who explores how the symbiotic relationship of man and horse, the centaur, changed the course of history.
Apart from lessons in horsemanship, jumping, dressage and cross, Desempenho also offers horseback archery and has developed a marvelous seven days trail ride, called Darwin’s trail, which will take you through the Atlantic Rainforest and mountains and includes stopovers at charming pousadas and REGUA (Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu), a private nature reserve with a lodge and scientific centre.