One of Cuba’s most luxurious exports: Elite Dutch horses

Yasiel González warms up Foganda over ground poles at the National Equestrian Club of Havana. Photo by Ysabelle Kempe

Story by Ysabelle Kempe ·

HAVANA, Cuba — Fogonda was born in the overcast rural fields of Holland. She moved to Cuba at a very young age, leaving everything she had known behind. Today, as the early morning mist fades into unforgiving sun beating down over Lenin Park, Foganda, age 8, is legal property of the Cuban government.

She moves confidently; it is in her lineage to be skilled at her job. Her thin legs hover for a moment at the zenith of each stride, and she breathes delicately out through her nostrils as she lands. If her performance is not satisfactory the first time, her trainers yell in terse Spanish to do it again. And again. And again.

Foaming white sweat covers Foganda’s neck and back, but she must be flawless when the buyers arrive. Fogonda is an athlete, but also one of Cuba’s most elite exports – showjumping horses imported from Holland and trained in the capital city of this small Caribbean island.

In 2010, the state-run National Equestrian Club, which lies 14 miles outside Old Havana, began hosting an annual horse auction that attracts buyers from across Latin America, Canada and Europe, most of whom are wealthy Mexicans. Cuba’s luxury equine industry is steadily developing, contrasting starkly with the poverty-stricken families crowded into crumbling buildings all around Havana.

“From here, horses domesticated and trained in Cuba have ended up as champions in Mexico,” says Barboro Hernandez, the main trainer at the National Equestrian Club in Cuba. “From Mexico, the horses can go all the way to the United States or Europe winning competitions.”

Barboro Hernandez has been training at the National Equestrian Club in Havana for 11 years. Photo by Ysabelle Kempe

The horses are never sold directly from Cuba to American buyers due to a U.S.-imposed embargo, which bans any form of trade between the two nations. However, many of the horses pass hands from their initial owners to American buyers after achieving champion status abroad.

The complex equine network includes breeding and genetic centers, 40 of which are scattered across the country. The most lucrative aspect of the equine program, however, takes place at the National Equestrian Club, where showjumping horses are trained and sold.

There were 53 Dutch Warmbloods there in May, but the stables have a capacity of 160 horses. The money raked in from the auction is funneled back into the Cuban National Equine Genetic Program and the National Company for the Protection of Flora and Fauna.

The National Company of Flora and Fauna is owned by the Ministry of Agriculture, a government-run agency. It focuses on the development of rural land, manages the natural resources on the island and runs a genetic program with centers across the country where researchers learn how to inseminate horses.

“We get good horses from Holland and import them. That’s what we call the ‘gross product.’ Then we raise and train them here,” says Hernandez, age 52, as he leans in the doorway of a stable. His face is flushed red and his eyes are lined from squinting in the sun. Although he has spent all morning cleaning mud off horses, his light-yellow polo is oddly spotless. “If the horses don’t show promise, we keep using them for reproduction.”

The bidding this upcoming year will start at 9,000 euros, or nearly $10,000. This is higher than beginning bids at previous auctions in Havana, which were closer to 7,000 euros. In past years, highly prized horses have fetched up to 48,000 euros, or close to $57,000.

These numbers are typical for young Dutch Warmbloods. A horse that is fully trained, but still needs more experience, is expected to sell for around $50,000.

Multiply these prices by 30, which is around the number of horses sold each year, and the Cuban government makes hundreds of thousands of dollars at one auction. To Cubans, this sum of money is almost incomprehensible. A local makes around $30 a month on average. Even just buying a $2 package of peanuts at the store would be a luxury.

The key to Cuba’s growth in the international horse trade is a combination of the inherent value of the Dutch Warmblood breed, the geographical location of Cuba and the intense training program.

Horses are a necessity to life on the island. Thin, bedraggled carriage horses stand sleepily under trees in Old Havana, their drivers pacing back and forth impatiently as they wait for tourists to show any sign of interest. In the massive rural landscape surrounding Havana, horses are more common than the cars Cuba is so famous for, carrying farmers around cobbled or dusty streets.

Fogonda and the others sold at the auction are much different. The Dutch Warmblood breed is one of the best for high-level showjumping. Competition horses are often judged based on their temperament, athleticism and physical attractiveness, three qualities the Dutch Warmblood excels at.

The club is run by the state-managed National Company for the Protection of Flora and Fauna. Photo by Ysabelle Kempe

Warmbloods are the ideal combination of hot-blooded horses, who have beautiful features and quick tempers, and breeds on the other end of the spectrum, who are known for their muscly athleticism and passive temperament.

The Dutch Warmblood is an athletic horse characterized by sloping shoulders, a muscular arched neck and powerful hindquarters. They are a sound investment for a horse collector who wants an animal that rarely goes lame and has the stamina for jumping.

The choice to sell Dutch Warmbloods specifically is rooted in necessity. Cuba only has consistent trade relations with a small number of countries, due to the foreign embargo. American trade restrictions do not just inhibit Cuban access to American products, but also bleed heavily onto Cuba’s relations with other countries.

If a ship docks in Cuban waters, for example, it must pay a penalty of waiting six months to dock in American territory. But since Holland is one of Cuba’s strongest trade partners and Dutch Warmbloods are a high-class showing breed abundant in that country, Cuba can access these horses freely.

For Latin American buyers, Cuban horses represent the perfect purchasing opportunity. They can get well-trained European horses that are geographically accessible. The animals are already accustomed to the sweltering tropical weather and transportation from Cuba is much shorter and cheaper than from Europe.

Once the horses are sold, the National Equestrian Center passes the responsibility of transportation to a company called Alcona. The horses, who have already traveled more than most Cubans will in their lifetime, are now dispersed all over the Western world.

“There was a convention with Dutch breeders and Cuban breeders that involved the president of the National Company of Flora and Fauna at the time,” says Anabel Rodriguez, the veterinarian for the facility, on how the auction began in 2010.

A slight woman with sharp, dark eyes and outfitted with well-worn riding boots, Rodriguez is in charge of providing medical care for the 104 horses that currently reside at the National Equestrian Club.

The club’s stalls are spacious and the grounds are well maintained. A John Deere tractor is parked next to six stables. The club is bookended by a large field that shivers in the breeze and a dormant ferris wheel, both a far cry from the clamoring alleys of Central Havana.

Yasiel González, a 21-year-old rider for the National Equestrian Team, is at the club every day except Sunday. He has been riding there for 13 years and plays an integral role in the preparation of the Dutch Warmbloods for sale. The young riders on the National Team are given the responsibility of training the horses daily.

Yasiel Headshot
Yasiel González has been riding horses at the club for 13 years. Photo by Ysabelle Kempe

Around 7 in the morning, as brightly uniformed schoolchildren gather on street corners and activity has just begun miles away in Central Havana, González is already warming up his first horse of the day.

“I have six horses assigned to me,” says González. The other riders have a similar number to train. “I will usually ride five in the morning and then save one for the afternoon.”

According to Hernandez, the training methods he uses are different depending on the age and ability of the horse.

“Some come and are ready to ride. Others are used for reproduction and then trained and sold,” says Hernandez, who has been at the facility for 11 years. He is currently exercising a large white stallion used for breeding, who lets out a few electric bucks as he gallops in circles. The horses used for breeding are usually between 3 and 7 years old. “A 4-year-old horse jumps about 3-and-a-half feet,” he says. “A 5-year-old horse jumps about 5 feet.”

Trainers like Hernandez are all older men, weathered by the sun and efficient with their actions. Don’t expect long answers because they have a barn full of horses to attend. They do not flinch at kicking or misbehaving animals. They’ve seen it all.

The riders are all young, most between 20 and 30 years old. They do not wear helmets. Sitting on a galloping horse is as natural as walking. In their free time, they ride to a bar nearby and tie their horses outside while they saunter inside for a drink.

On the first day of the auction, the club changes. Horses are not worked to a frothy sweat, they are prepared and groomed in the cool barns. It is a fancy event, says Hernandez, nodding his head knowingly.

González, on a horse named International, stops to chat with two other riders on the National Team. Photo by Ysabelle Kempe

“The auction is a lot more complicated. The foreign riders come and we ride with them. There are two days of exhibition, where we ride the horses, and then the bidding happens,” says González, sitting regally atop a circling Foganda.

Foganda is an exception among the other horses put up for sale. Most are bought when they are between 1 and 3 years old and sold around 4, which is young for a horse that lives up to 30 years. Foganda is at a ripe age of 8. She was originally used for reproduction purposes and is now finally being integrated into the training process.

As González finishes his training session, he moves his hands ever so slightly and Foganda releases into a walk. He reaches down and pats her, a signal of approval and camaraderie. The sounds of hooves pounding against fine dirt combined with the rhythmic panting of the horses creates a sort of tribal drumbeat enveloping the pair.

González does not smile too often, but he looks at Foganda tenderly. Although his job is only to exercise these magnificent animals to trade away, he cannot help but form deep bonds in the year he has with them. They are a team, both athletes performing at an extraordinarily high level.

When the horses are sold at the beginning of each year, González is sad, he says, very sad. He shakes his head and lets out a short melancholy laugh. But the cycle will begin again, as is the nature of this budding Cuban export industry. Breed, train, sell. Breed, train, sell.

As González puts his last horse of the morning in her stall, he says that he dreams of traveling to Holland, the country where the horses he spends his days training are born. He looks up at the dark grey clouds gathering above as he walks parallel to a pasture.

“Holland has good horses and trainers,” he says. “It is where I can become an even better rider.”

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