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Golegã - Magic And Madness!

Feira Nacional Do Cavalo – Golegã 2016

The thick layers of smoke is covering the small town which for the next ten days have been transformed into one of Portugals most important horse fairs. They call Golegã The Capital Of The Horse. The smell of roasted chestnuts lead you towards the arena where more than a hundred horses have gathered. You have arrived at perhaps one of the worlds most unique horse fairs! The fair, which has been held since the middle of the 18th century, is filled with shows, competitions and selections of mares and stallions. The town has built heaps of boxes that are empty 355 days a year, and anyone who wants can rent a spot for their horse and join the fun.

My very first visit to the FNC is finally here and I have butterflies in my stomach! I've heard so much about this fair – both good and bad. On my way from the car to what is going to be my new home for the next days it's pretty quiet.. I get passed by a few horses. I can hear the buzzing noise from the arena and I quickly understand that there is more to come. Safely installed in my room and with my camera in my hands I begin walking towards the arena. In the surrounding streets you'll find tack shops, fastfood, tiny shops selling Portuguese specialities and pastries, and ofcourse a significant number of bars selling beer, sangria and the traditional sweet cherry liquor – Ginja. What gives the town a very special feel during this event are the roasted chestnuts. They smell sweet, a little like licourice and it's amazing! Also, they create a heavy smoke all over the area, creating a mysterious and magical atmosphere.

As I'm closing in towards the arena the crowd thickens and I suddenly have to watch out for horses emerging through the crowd. Alongway the streets leading up the the arena you can see large, beautiful wooden stalls displaying horses either for sale or to represent the breeder. The stalls have kind of a western look and are built from massive, dark brown wood. The horses standing there are calm and curious. Most of them have some hay to enjoy while watching the madness around them. Right ahead of me I can see horses moving rapidly. Horses doing half pass, tempi changes, piaffe and passage. I've arrived at the Manga.

The Manga is a bit like a race track going around the arena in the middle. You always ride opposite clockwise to avoid crashing into eachother. It's the perfect opportunity to show off what you can do while the audience is packed around you watching. The level of riding is very varied. All the way from Grand Prix to children racing around on their ponies, which some have already set their winter coat and are now both curly and sweaty. The impressions are about to overwhelm me. This is the moment I've both been excited and anxious about. At the moment it's all one big smile! I'm truly impressed by the horses cantering around calmly in such a well mannered way. The riders are mostly gentle and good riders even though you cannot avoid seeing the occasional bully that you just have to shake your head at. There are suprisingly many young riders here, accompanied by their parents or riding all alone on purebred Lusitano stallions!

On every longer and shorter side of the Manga it's possible to cross and enter the Largo Arneiro (arena) . Here there are noe room for hesitation! People gather on each side waiting for an opening where they can cross without being run down by the horses, carriages and racing ponies. The majority of the riders are like in the rest of Portugal – men. And I also have to add that a lot of them are quite handsome :)

One would have thought this was a fair with only Lusitano horses but this is definitely a “multi cultural” horse event. You can spot Friesians, Norwegian Fjord Horses, Appaloosas, Miniature Horses and even Donkeys. As the sundown comes to an end and the darkness falls the Manga is becoming more crowded. Everything is still under control and I feel it's time to exit to the other parts of the fair and find something to eat. I buy a small paper bag of roasted chestnuts and a plastic cup of Mosctel – a sweet Portuguese white wine. The chestnuts are warm, a bit salty and reminds me of a sweet, white potato.

It's late evening and time for tonights show by Euro Equus. I have ensured a spot inside the arena where I get to photograph the show togheter with 3 other photographers. On the other side of the fence the audience is packed, standing like fish in a barrel, excited and impatient. The show starts with two of Portugals most famous Working Equitation riders, Pedro Neves og Gilberto Silva. They demonstrate both dressage and bullfighting for us. They have swapped out the real bull with a plastic figure which are pushed around by a Matador. Thank goodness for that.

As the show continues we get to see the highest level of dressage, quadrille, riding with fire and last but not least riding to Fado music – one of Portugals signature genres. We get to se Vasco Miro Godinha and his wife Carlota ride side by side to beautiful tunes from a live Fado singer standing inside the arena. The big highlight of the show is when 16 horses togheter do the “carousel”. In perfect harmony alongside eachother they all gather towards the middle and the lights go out.. The audience starts mumbeling and the buzzing sound spreads all over. No one really know what's going on. After a few moments a beautiful, blue shining light flows over the gathered horses and out emerges the famous rider Manuel Borba Veiga. He has removed the bridle from his horse and is riding in just a thin neckrope. Together with his Lusitano Varão da Brõa he performs pirouettes, piaffe, passage and tempi changes while the audience are holding their breath, watching with admiration. I too held my breath for a few seconds – what a show!

When tonights performances are over it's clearly time to party! And it is no time to tuck your horse in for the night. They ride directly to the closest bar, two, three, four, five riders togheter! Most of the horses are very calm and goes straight into relax mode as soon as they are in front of the bar. A few others need a little more persuasion and skip around for a bit before settling. You really need to watch out in streets so you don't get stomped on.

Time to put down the camera and have some fun! Walking around the streets it's common to see girls sitting on the back of the horses, behind the guys. It's tradition to invite the girls for a short ride through the streets of Golegã. On many of the Portuguese saddles you'll see a “Xariel”, a fur that the girls can sit on. It doesn't take long before I myself get invited up on one of the horses. I had said to myself that I was going to enjoy the fair like a Portuguese and do all the traditional things, but I politely declined as the horse looked somewhat tired (and oh, the boy riding also might have had one drink too much).

A lot of feelings emerge during FNC. In Norway we are used to handling our horses somewhat differently and I guess we are more sensitive than others. We tend to believe that our horses have the ability to have a lot more opinions than they really have (from a factual point of view), but at the same time animal wellfare is very important to us. In other words there are a lot of impressions to digest after a long night watching people mixing horses and alcohol. But all in all, most of the time everything works out smoothly, peacefully and without much fuzz. It's fascinating to see all these horses, mares and stallions, getting along quietly and with the utmost respect for eachother.

At the break of dawn the competitions begin. In Working Equitation you have three rounds being held over three days. Dressage, Obstacles and Speed Test. The last one is definitely the most fun to watch. The riders manouver their horses with one hand only, between barrels, sideways over poles and through gates. The Manga has also woken to life after a few hours of peace and quiet. The riders are back, showing off their tricks. Some of the horses you saw yesterday and a lot of them are new - one more beautiful than the other. Life is smiling at you while you're standing in the sun enjoying rythmic piaffe, perfectly round pirouettes and dancing passage. It's been a fantastic stay here in Golegã and I cannot wait until next year! This fair is absolutely unique and something every horse crazed person should experience. Yes, I wrote crazed, cause you have to be a little crazy for this :)

Photo Feature:

I really hope you enjoyed the article! And please share it if you do :)

My very best regards, Anette Augestad.


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