A great cavalry soldier needed a great noble steed and El Cid’s warhorse was a white stallion called Babieca who was his faithful companion throughout his many campaigns, battles and military victories.
When the young Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar came of age, his godfather, a Carthusian monk called Pedro El Grande, granted him as a gift the pick of a herd of stately Andalusian horses. Rodrigo entered the corral and on impulse choose a white foal that immediately caught his eye. But the horse was by no means the best in the herd and the horse expert was disappointed by the poor choice and chastised the boy for choosing such a frail and poorly formed specimen. Ever determined, Rodrigo defended his choice and named him Babieca, which means my stupid one, the name that he himself had been called for being, in the eyes of his godfather, such a poor judge of horses.
The Andalusian horse originates from the rugged hilly areas of the Iberian Peninsula and is one of the most ancient horse breeds. Spanish horses were famous for their use as cavalry mounts by the Ancient Greeks and the Romans and from ancient times onward there are many references to the Iberian or Celtiberian horses and riders of the peninsula by Greek and Roman chroniclers. Homer referred to them in the Iliad and the celebrated Greek cavalry officer Xenophon was full of praise for the gifted Spanish horses and horsemen and greatly admired the equestrian war techniques of Iberian mercenaries who were influential in the victory of Sparta against Athens in the Peloponnesian wars. The Andalusian became the standard by which all warhorses were measured and were prized for their agility, temperament, endurance and strength of character.
They continued to be highly regarded as a cavalry horse due to their agility and courage but they became less favoured as a warhorse when knights later became more heavily armoured and required heavier horses to carry them. Amongst cavalries they regained their popularity again with the introduction of firearms when a fast, agile horse was needed again.
The development of the Andalusian breed owed a great deal to the Carthusian monks who began breeding them in the late middle Ages. The monks were superb horse breeders and trainers and through careful selective breeding kept the blood of their horses exceptionally pure.
It turned out that El Cid was not such a poor judge of horses after all and from a not too promising start Babieca grew into an imposing and exceptional example of the Andalusian breed, obedient and nimble, noble and with great personal courage. He was an outstanding example of a pure bred that has great stamina coupled with its stance, power and the rhythm and grace of its movements. The horse was the perfect companion for El Cid. He soon grew into a formidable charger and a frightening machine of war. He carried his master courageously into all of his battles for thirty years, each time towards victory. His name was legendary as his masters and he was spoken of with awe, reverence and great respect.
The Andalusian has a reputation for a proud but cooperative temperament, sensitive and intelligent, able to learn quickly and easily when treated with respect and care. They are strongly-built, compact horses, generally standing 15.2-16.2 hands high and usually white or light grey in colour. They have a lean, medium-length head with a convex profile and large eyes, a long but broad and powerful neck, a long, sloping shoulder, clean legs with good bone, short, strong cannons, and a thick, long, flowing mane and tail and they move with a lofty, elegant action which carries the rider high in the saddle.
During the Renaissance grand riding academies were formed across Europe where dressage and high school riding evolved and Andalusian horses were popular due to their agility, impulsion and natural balance. In Spain, these horses were also the mounts of bullfighters
Sadly, the purity of the breed was compromised during the War of Spanish Independence when the French invaders stole the stocks and cross-bred them with other breeds but they survived and stocks of the breed, which are known as the Pure Spanish Horse or PRE (Pura Raza Española) are once again highly valued and are now once more in good supply.
After the death of El Cid, Babieca was never mounted again and died two years later at the incredible age of forty. El Cid gave instructions that the steed should be buried alongside him and his wife Ximena at the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. The request was initially complied with but later their remains were removed after the War of Independence and taken to the Cathedral in Burgos where they were finally interred and where they currently rest today.
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