The Campinos of Portugal

Upon deciding to write about the Campinos I searched the internet search and was stunned to find there appeared to be virtually nothing recorded regarding the Campinos. All that I discovered was one old black and white video and some images.

The Campinos are Portugal’s cowboys. To this day, they work the cattle on the backs of Lusitanos, using the traditional methods and skills passed down from their fathers and grandfathers. Their work remains valuable to many large cattle farms in Portugal—especially in the Ribatejo and Alentejo regions.

The large estates consider them more useful and more capable than modern machinery.

We had very little idea what to expect when we approached the farm entrance early in the morning to accompany them for their day’s work. The farm I choose was Companhia das Lezirias, which is located about 30 minutes from Lisbon. The close proximity to Portugal’s capital was hard to imagine as we drove down a dusty dirt track between wide expanses of flat pale yellow dusty land, outlined by rustic fences and containing little sign of life apart from the array of birds dancing in the soft breeze. I felt as though we were in a Western movie, and at any minute would happen upon a wagon trail. Eventually, more signs of life came into view—a smaller fenced area, a couple of long sheds, and some outdoor hay feeders. White Lusitanos stared at us from the paddocks. A bull’s skull swung on the gatepost, and a few old dogs lying around merely raised an eye in response to our appearance.

Here, we meet our Campino team for the day: Fernando, the boss, well over 60 years old but fighting fit, plus 4 others all dressed in shirts, traditional trousers, braces, and brown leather boots. They were busily preparing their Lusitanos in a long, dark shed adorned with bridles, saddles, skins hanging from wooden beams, and various bottles, boxes, hay feeders, and other paraphernalia. Bright sunlight streamed through a small window, giving the place a mystical atmosphere, watching I felt we could have been in any era.  One of the Campinos, while swigging from a bottle of chocolate milk, talked with us about their work and how he learned from his father. They were all trained by their fathers. Fernando had been working on the same farm for 35 years; his energy and the healthy twinkle in his eyes suggested a good life.

Campinos Companhia das Lezirias

The Lusitano Mares Ready for Work

They were polite, gentle-mannered men with wide smiles. I sensed there was great camaraderie between them. To be honest, they were hardly bothered that we were there or that they would be featured in a magazine article—it would make no difference in their lives. They put on no special show for us, and I found it refreshing.

Their tack is traditional. The military-style saddles were quite basic, lighter in weight than typical Portuguese traditional saddles, the top covered with sheepskin. A large, simple, brown woolen saddlecloth (for festas, they often used more brightly coloured wool cloths) underneath. The stirrups are of the box style; some have their brand engraved onto them. The bridle is a simple brown leather model with plain square silver buckles and a Pelham bit. The Lusitanos are mares (spare for an occasional gelding), all bred on the farm.

The horses are started for this work at 4 years old; it takes 12-18 months for them to be suitably trained for their position in the working team. Every Lusitano appeared extremely confident and laid back—they were clearly happy with their lives. Later, we were able to see just how much they enjoy working with the cattle.

Once prepared, the horses were led onto a large green metal trailer, which would take them out to the fields. Each man had a long pole, called the vara (Garrocha), used for working the cattle and when bringing down a bull. We follow the trailer in Fernando’s pickup.

Campinos Companhia das Lezirias

Fernando ready to load his horse

The dusty track took us by several huge fields where large herds of cattle were grazing. Rodrigo Pereira, The farm Director who joined us en route explained that the breeding cows were only Portuguese breeds: the Mertolenga and the Preta. On this particular farm, there are 2500 cattle—but they also have other farms. Breeding is carried out for meat, so the Portuguese cows are crossed with French Charolais and Limousine bulls. The plan for this day was to separate the cows with six-month-old calves from the others in a herd of 250.

We pulled through the gate of a large pasture and they unloaded the horses. We watched as they mounted their horses using a traditional technique: the horse would lower itself by stretching her front legs forward. Once on, they head off towards the herd they intend to drive to Campinos Companhia das Leziriasanother field.

We parked by the adjoining gates and watched the cattle amble by. The Campinos worked silently, apart from special noises used to urge the cattle forward or head them off. The herd was sent to the corner of the field; here, they took up their positions for separating the cattle. Everything was done extremely calmly. The cows seemed unworried and the riders simply remained in their positions and waited silently until Fernando rode into the herd to the first mother and calf pair, which he eased out. They trotted away across the field, followed by two more, and so it went on.

Not once did the team shout—they just knew exactly what to do and when. Some cattle attempted to join the other group, and instantly the horses were in action, galloping in a wide circle around them to head them off, leaping over the grass tuffs. Still, there was no shouting. The whole herd separation took about 1.5 hours, and then the team drove the selected cows and calves back into the corrals. I hopped into the driver’s seat of Fernando’s truck with Lena, Doris, and Macy in the open back. We wanted to be back before them so that we could catch some photos of the Campinos coming in.

Back at the ranch, we waited in the stillness and silence of what was now a very hot day. From up in the cloudless, sky the sun burned onto the dry dusty land. Lena positioned herself on a wall close to the corral entrance. Rodrigo, the farm director who had joined us earlier, climbed up the tower ladder to try and spot them. I was reminded once again of a Wild West movie scene. There we quietly waited, until at last a dust cloud rose in the distance and we knew that they were near.

The cloud rolled towards us. With the rumbling sound of pounding hooves on the dry ground, they carried the dust onward, hiding in its dense billows. Then, like magic, the front riders appeared, bursting through, followed closely by the cows as they trotted into the corral. The rest of the Campino team brought up the rear.

In no time at all, the cows and calves were in a small pen, and they quickly separated the cows into the paddock and had the calves checked and marked, ready to go to a field on another farm. This was the sad part of the day, hearing the cows calling to their babies and trying to get back to them. Rodrigo told me this calling goes on for about a day and a half to two days, and then they are relaxed again. He admitted that he found this bit hard to watch, as well.

The superb skills of the Campinos are not found in books or taught in any courses. No DVD or YouTube videos exist that show how it is done. The skills are passed down from father to son, or form uncle to nephew. Currently, about 25 farms still employ Campinos—mostly in the Ribatejo region, and a few in the Alentejo. There is a lot to be admired about the lifestyle and work done by these often-overlooked men. They are excellent horsemen and have wonderful relationships with their horses. The horses are not kept in the luxurious conditions that many of our horses enjoy today, but I would say that they are happy and content with their lives. Clearly, they could almost work with the cattle by themselves; they are so in tune with the task and eager to do it.

The Art of the Campino is passed down through generations of families

Campinos Companhia das Lezirias

The Roots of Working Equitation

The now international sport of ‘Working Equitation’—founded in Italy, Portugal, Spain & France—was developed with the idea of preserving traditional country riding, farm work, cultural traditions, and costumes and tack from each country. This sport is exciting to watch; the idea is to demonstrate the collaboration & trust between horse and rider. It´s a combination of flatwork (dressage) and ‘natural’ obstacles that reflect country riding activities, in addition to the use of garrocha (vava) to working with cattle. Working Equitation promotes good horsemanship and has been described as “functional dressage”, as the aim is to have a functional horse-rider relationship. It is a sport rapidly gaining popularity worldwide.

Read more about Working Equitation (WE)

Also read about Working Equitation – An Olympic Sport?

There are fairs and shows in the Ribatejo region where one can observe the Campinos demonstrating their skills. There are two in particular worth visiting: The Santarem Fair and the Campino Fair in Salvaterra. Both fairs will be announced on the LHF website with dates and details nearer to fair time. They are also seen at the International Lusitano Festival in Cascais, doing small displays and presenting horses during the Breeder presentations.

At all these fairs, they wear the traditional costumes—white shirt, green and red hat, red waistcoat, dark blue trousers, and white socks. The buttons down the sides of their trousers and on the waist coats are gold and shiny.

Sabine Marciniak  is a painter in Portugal producing fabulous painting and ceramics of the Campinos, bulls and other traditions in Portugal check out her work on her facebook page

Lena Saugen and I would like to say a big thank you to Companhia das Lezírias; Rodrigo Pereira, Farm Director; Fernando, Campino/Farm Manager; and the whole Campino team for such an excellent day.

Editorial text – Teresa Burton  Photography – Lena Saugen