Medieval Times horses get their start at North Texas ranch

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by By JOANNA CATTANACH / The Dallas Morning News jcattanach@dallasnews.com

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 2:56 PM

SANGER - The discreet markings at the entrance of Medieval Times Chapel Creek Ranch barely raise suspicion in these parts, where the sight of a few grazing mares and foals isn't exactly an oddity.

Photos by JIM MAHONEY/DMN
Herd keeper Victor de Lara takes Gallardo, a retired Andalusian stallion nicknamed 'Godzilla,' for a workout at Medieval Times Chapel Creek Ranch. The Andalusians - some valued at $100,000 - star in shows at castles in the U.S. and Canada.

But the horse value in the pastures, barns and training pen is a secret the entertainment company likes to keep tucked away behind the limestone turrets, past the wrought-iron gate bearing a knight's insignia.

Since 1991, the 241-acre Denton County spread has served as the primary breeding, training and retirement facility for Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament's most valued commodity - its majestic Andalusian horses. The horses - some valued at $100,000 - are the lifeblood of the medieval kingdom.

Late spring and early summer is breeding and birthing season at the ranch. The handful of staff who look after the 215 or so horses - mostly Andalusians - remain on constant watch for downed mares ready to give birth.

This year, they welcomed 20 newborns.

"We are one of the biggest if not the biggest breeder" of Andalusians in the Americas, said Perico Montaner, vice president of entertainment for Medieval Times, an 11th-century-inspired dinner and show featuring competing knights and horses.

And keeper of the noble herd is Victor de Lara. Born in Andalusia, Spain, Mr. de Lara, 50, has worked at the company for more than 30 years. He began working as a knight in the late 1970s before he moved overseas to train other knights and horses.

Mounted atop his black and white Andalusian stallion, nicknamed "Godzilla," Mr. de Lara laughs at the thought of someone trying to enter his domain.

He is handy with a horse whip. And he's not afraid to use it - especially this time of year.

"When the babies are born, we usually try to keep it quiet out here," said Kendale Ward, marketing and sales manager for the Dallas Medieval Times castle.

On a steamy summer day, a few fillies - mere days old - still suckled their mothers. Others napped in the tall grass as young colts with short, spiked manes romped about on knobby knees.

A handful of retired horses stood in pens, munching on hay. One recuperated from injury.

In the back barn, eager stallions rousted about in stalls kept far away from young breeding mares, which are artificially inseminated. Each pairing is carefully monitored to breed for height, weight and thickness of neck.

"We want a show horse," Mr. de Lara said. Not too big or too small.

Typically, Andalusian stallions in the show will average 16 hands - the hand-width measurement from the floor to a horse's withers, or nape of the neck. They weigh 1,500 to 1,600 pounds.

The newborn stallions will be weaned by year's end and given to baby-sitting mares - horses that aren't breeding anymore but have a calm, motherly demeanor. The yearlings will be halter broke, and by age 2 they'll be saddle broke and then lunge lined - a process that includes running a horse on a long line to familiarize it with commands.

At the ranch, they'll learn to charge, rise up on hindquarters and reverse on command. They will also be trained in dressage riding - or synchronized riding - and the Spanish walk, a synchronized horse step.

By age 3, they'll be sent to one of Medieval Times' nine castles in the U.S. and Canada, where they'll continue training.

Show horses perform until age 16 or 17 and then retire at the ranch. Some Andalusians are given to private owners.

Each castle has a herd of 22 to 25 horses including Friesians, Menorcans and quarter horses. But the stars of the show are always the Andalusians, used in the joust and dressage segments by the knights.

"It's like a Cadillac - they're very comfortable to ride and respond well," said Mr. Montaner of Majorca, Spain, where the first Medieval Times opened on his family's property in 1973. "Other horses are like a muscle car and just want to go."

Ninety percent of the horses in Medieval Times' shows spend time training at Chapel Creek.

Some horses take to the training quickly; others take longer. It all depends on the animal, said Mr. de Lara, who speaks to his beloved Andalusians in Spanish. Staff members joke that it's the real reason they respond so well.

He says the real drive in training and in the show comes from the horses.

"Some horses, they love to learn it," he said of the maneuvers they master. "These animals are born to work."

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