To really get to know the Spanish island of Minorca, be prepared to sit atop a saddle. The island has a love affair with a breed of horse: the graceful, strong, coal-black Minorcan. While donkeys traditionally worked the fields, the Minorcan was mostly reserved for use by cavalry. Still revered by locals for their beauty and agility, the horses are the stars of island festivals and races.
During the island’s San Juan festival, held each year on June 23 and 24, Minorcan horses prance on their hind legs through the streets of Ciutadella in honor of the city’s patron saint. In a ritual that started in the 14th century, elected caixers (horse riders) represent different sections of Minorcan society: clergymen, nobility, artisans, and farmers. As the caixers ride together in a parade, spectators—some emboldened by pomada, a gin-and-lemonade drink that’s popular during the fiesta—attempt to pat the horses’ chests, an act that is said to bring good luck.
To see the horses outside of the festival, head to Ciutadella’s Torre de Ram racetrack or the municipal track in the city of Mahón. The Menorca a Cavall stables, near the town of Ferreries, offer horseback rides along the island’s northern shore, where wild lavender, rosemary bushes, and fig trees frame glimpses of the Mediterranean. For a longer excursion, spend the day on the Camí de Cavalls, a trail circling Minorca that was used in medieval times by guards on horseback patrolling the coastline.
A pure-bred Minorcan horse named Ola roams the estate of Hotel Sant Joan de Binissaida, near Mahón. You can stay the night in one of its renovated rooms inside an 18th-century manor house. Ola sleeps outside.
By Regina Winkle Bryan. This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.