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The magic of the National Horse Fair in Golegã

If a bell chimes behind you in Golegã during the ten days dedicated to the National Horse Fair, it means you have a few seconds to move out of the way of a horse-drawn carriage.

Streets full of people dressed anywhere from casual jeans to outfits crafted with care for the occasion. Giant barbecues full of meat and potatoes intermingling to form a siren song of an invitation to sit down and feast. Tables piled high with felt hats and wool caps. Temporary shops offering all kinds of horse riding equipment and leather goods. Horse-drawn carriages and horses steered by riders of all ages and levels. 

Anywhere else, such a mix of people, wares, and horses would spell disaster – or at least lead to a few accidents. 

In Golegã, it’s part of the magic. 

What you’ll find in Golegã

Lusitanos, a Portuguese breed and the main type of horse partaking in the events, is unique in its combination of even-tempered horses with a powerful yet elegant build, and more than just a reputation for being fearless, trusting, and well-behaved. 

They are the real stars of the show. 

It’s my third year going to Golegã, and this time the weather was glorious – not a rain cloud in sight. The days flew by as we walked around, people and horse watching.

The first year, I went with a friend and stayed in a hostel (you can read more about my first impressions here). Then, we went as a bigger group, and stayed at the campsite, most of us sleeping in our cars. This year, with nine month old Little A in tow, we stayed at a beautiful farmstay (albeit more enjoyable in the warmer months, as so many Portuguese houses and rentals*) 20min away

At the fair, we were constantly on the move, and caught pieces of dressage events, attelage competitions, and my favorite: working equitation. 

Working Equitation: What to expect

Throughout the various competition events, riders are decked out in traditional clothes – think flat, wide-brimmed hats, high waist pants cut to flow like a skirt for women, and square shouldered short jackets for the men. They are the most gorgeous costumes I have ever seen for riders.

When it comes to working equitation in particular, it entails the rider and horse performing a series of high precision challenges inspired by what cattle rearing binomes needed to do back in the day:

  • Tight figure eights at a canter
  • Grabbing a metal spear from a barrel, jumping over hay bales with it in hand, spearing a ring placed on the back of a metal bull
  • Going over a bridge
  • Opening a gate, going through it, and closing it again
  • Doing a serpentine with lead changes
  • Picking up a jug from a bench and holding it up to cheers (wine not included)
  • Cantering through a narrow, curved “hallway” of gates
  • Side-stepping in an L shape over two perpendicular bars, without touching them

Every rider is timed, and judges walk around the course taking notes and giving grades.

The goal, as with many equestrian events, is to make it all look as easy as possible. To me, it is all inspiring and a reminder of how much I love being in the saddle. 

Who should go & some tips

As a bonus, Golegã is a fun event even if you’re not into horses. My husband is proof of that: he was up for attending again this year, and as we embarked on the drive home, unprompted, he said “I feel like we arrived five minutes ago, it just flew by! I had a great time.”

Even if the National Horse Fair didn’t fall right around my birthday, I’d go every year. The fact that it does means I declared it a new tradition from the get go. So far, so good.

A few tips if you’re thinking of going in 2022: 

  • Book early, as accommodation goes fast (but the camping seems like a decent backup plan if you’re OK sleeping in a tent or your car)
  • Pack layers, as the weather is unpredictable and fast to change at this time of the year
  • Opt for sturdy and comfortable shoes – you’ll be on your feet a lot, and walking on streets, gravel, sand, and likely through puddles and in horse poop
  • Once there, opt for early lunch and early dinner. It might feel odd, but not having to stand in line for ages is well worth it. 
  • One of my favorite spots is Taberna Rentini, in the middle of one side of the main square, up a few flights and with a gorgeous terrace.

As for next year? I’m already looking forward to it. 

Have you been to the National Horse Fair in Golegã? What did you think? Any tips or recommendations to add to the above?

*An explanation: Quinta do Pinhal is a gorgeous working farm with a few rentals that each have bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The swimming pool is an invitation to swim and lounge about, weather allowing. The pigs out back are fun to watch, as are the bunnies in the small aviary. Unfortunately, the space we were in was quite cold, even with the electric heaters provided. The water also smelled a bit, perhaps because we were there in the low season? Not sure. In other words, we likely wouldn’t go back, but if someone needs a place to stay in the area over the summer, I would recommend checking it out.

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