Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Enrique de Benito of BRH Stud, who has been in the business of breeding PRE horses in his native country of Spain since 1987. Enrique was in the U.S. attending USPRE Week in Wellington, and then made the trek to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit his former horses living with their new owners in California. On this particular day he was observing Ebano, an eight-year-old PRE stallion who had been purchased just year prior by dressage trainer Carolyn Adams and relocated to Adams' and her husband's facility, Yarra Yarra Ranch, in Pleasanton.
When I arrived, I was certainly expecting to see a beautiful horse, but was not anticipating the stallion's jaw dropping presence. Enrique explained Ebano's head-turning conformation and sporty build was the resulting blend of Spain's best PRE bloodlines. According to Enrique, all PREs have evolved from two main lines in Spain split by functionality - the Bocado line and the military line. The traditional Bocado line that many people are familiar with was comprised of "beautiful horses which were mainly used at fairs and festivals, carriage driving and showing". Often gray in color, these horses featured "elevation in the front legs, big beautiful curved necks, lots of silky mane and tail, but weak backs and loins, and flat or round croups." On the other hand, the Spanish military sought out sportier horses, breeding for utility. However, when the military's demand became too high for their own production they solicited the help of private breeders, requesting overall stronger horses with "excellent backs and shoulders". This eventually propelled the military to become the biggest client of equine breeders in the country, dictating the direction of the PRE breed.
The horses produced for the military became known for the their more fluid gaits, thanks to a more open shoulder angle and shorter, solid cannon bone. In addition, they were quicker and more responsive than the traditional horses of the Bocado line, and those who used horses in Spain for work took notice. Many PRE breeders also bred bulls for bullfighting and infused their herds with "military stud stallions to improve functionality." These horses benefited from increased speed and strength, as they would often be ridden around the farm's bulls and rely on agility to stay beyond reach of dangerous horns.
(Enrique de Bentio at home at BRH Stud)
Today, the presence of military blood can still be seen in the Olympic dressage court. Enrique explains," The most important stallions from the Military Stud back in 1950s to 1970s used by private breeders were Maluso and his son Agente. These stallions and their descendants are present in the best dressage PRE horses that have represented the Spanish Olympic team since the 1990s until today: Evento (Military Stud horse), Invasor, Oleaje (Military stud), Distinguido X, Fuego, Norte and Grandioso (retired after the Olympic games of Brazil)."
The PRE breed undoubtedly has a rich heritage that has served it well over many years. However, a pivotal group of PRE breeders, including Enrique, have picked up where the military left off, continuing to revolutionize the breed to produce a sportier, more athletic version of Spain's most historic horse. As evidenced by just a brief moment watching Ebano move, these horses were born for dressage. As Ebano trotted around the arena Enrique pointed out the way modern PREs should demonstrate snappy hocks that match the action of flashy movements in front, and a sloped hindquarter that comes under and thrusts the horse forward into light, floaty gaits.
Just as careful thought was given to improving the physicality of PREs, horses were also handpicked for their sound minds. Ebano's owner and others close to the horse commented on the stallion's dynamic energy level that could be amped up or brought back down depending on the intensity of the rider. Enrique explained that in his experience PREs possessed perhaps the most important quality of all - rideability. Like chameleons of the horse world, the PRE's versatile rideablilty allows them to be a great amateur horse one day, and a competitive professional's ride the next. Enrique credited backing and training breeding mares, as well as stallions, with allowing him to select horses with the best mental characteristics.
Upon examination, the evolution of Spain's most notable equine has resulted in a horse practically designed for dressage. But if there's one quality that does nothing for the horse's movement or rideablity and everything for aesthetics, it's the PRE's beauty. Enrique insisted, "The PRE must be beautiful." As we stood there watching it was clear that Ebano was no exception. With an endless black coat, elegant head, and perfectly sculpted body Ebano was an equine model in the presence of mortals. As I stared at the stallion, I imagined horses just like him dotting the rolling hills of the Spanish countryside, their refined heads buried in lush grass as they graze unaware that others like myself are gazing in awe.
It was at this moment I realized a trip to Spain was in order.