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The Murgese, also called the Murgesi, or Murge Horse, is from the dry limestone hills of the Murge district of southeastern Italy. In the 15th and and 16th centuries, the horses bred there were in great demand as cavalry remounts.
The history of the breed traces to the Spanish rule in Italy; it is shrouded in mystery, but still cannot deny its Spanish influence. It is the one Italian breed that still comes close to the famous Napolitano horse, the result of Spanish and Italian blood, with possible oriental influences, that went to medieval riding schools of all European Royalty, if they weren’t acquiring horses directly in Iberia. The Murgese horse may, in fact, resemble the Napolitano horse completely for all we know today.
While the Napolitano horse had the reputation of sometimes being of difficult character, the Murgesi’s disposition is reported to be good-natured and cooperative. The breed was started in the 13th century, then fell into decline about two centuries ago and came close to extinction. It had climbed to the top of its fame when the renowned sire Conversano had established himself as a dominant factor, which was also a foundation sire of the Lipizzan breed. He came from the stud farm of the Earl Acquaviva D’Aragona.
The Murgese horse was re-established as a breed during the 1920s. With the help of the Association of Horse Breeders in Martina Franca, definite progress was made from the mid-1940s onward.
The conformation type used to vary considerably, with some horses showing more draft characteristics and others leaning towards a refined riding type, but modern breeding efforts have resulted in a more uniform type that can be classified as a riding horse of substance and smooth features, with Iberian characteristics. It may have evolved more refined than the original Murgesi, or Napolitano, but who can say so for sure?
The aptitude of the Murgese horse for classical dressage, its proud carriage, is in the best tradition of the Napolitano horse of old. The three foundation sires that were used in re-establishing the breed were Nerone, Granduca, and Araldo delle Murge, whose lines still dominate the breed.
Many Murgese are raised in a semi wild state, living year round in the forests of Murge, foraging for themselves. This has made them extremely enduring, hardy, healthy and sound.
They become more and more popular as riding horses, and due to their calm and forgiving nature they are suitable even for leisure-time riders and beginners. Crosses Thoroughbred x Murgese horse are getting increasingly popular as sport horses.
The statement that the Murgese is the only true Italian breed and free of outside blood is of course an untenable claim. The breed was founded with Spanish and oriental blood to begin with, and since its reconstruction in the first half of the 20th century has seen some Thoroughbred influence as well. However, that did not leave a significant mark, other than maybe lending a somewhat smoother conformation to the breed, a smoothness that may have been present in the old days of the Napolitano, too, for all we know.
Conformationwise, the Murgese horse gives a first impression of a sturdy Iberian horse, and a somewhat convex profile is still widely found. Ears are fairly small, the neck is arched and muscular, with a full mane.
The chest is broad and deep, the shoulder has a good slope to it. The back is short, giving the animal a square frame. The hind quarters are sloping nicely, but sometimes lack muscling. The legs are strong, with good feet.
Black is the prevailing color of the Murgesi, without white markings. The breed stands between 15 and 16+ hh at the withers.
To get acquainted with the Murgese horse breed, a visit to the annual horse markets and shows in December at Martina Franca is a great way to do it. It was here where in 1948, the main idea was conceived for the preservation of the Murgesi through careful selection, preservation of surviving bloodlines, and promotional efforts. A group of 22 breeders, among them most notably Alberico Motolese and Alfonso Basile, founded an organization that gave the decisive impulse for the reconstruction of the breed, which was also the first of this kind in the state of Italy. The organization was called the Association of Breeders of the Murgese horse and the Donkey of Martina Franca.