By Hannah Rickles
This article was an honorable mention in the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award in first person experience for GMOs with 500 or more members. It first appeared in Collected Remarks, Georgia Dressage & Combined Training Association, March 2020.
New horses, new friends, new languages, new wine! As an equestrian what more could you want? Riding at Centro Equestre Leziria Grande in Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal was an experience I won’t soon forget. I was privileged to be included in the professional group with the majority in different niches at home. Included in this group was two dressage trainers, two dressage riders, two eventers, a colt starter, and a bridle horse rider. Each person had their own weaknesses, but overall this was one of the best groups in which I was able to learn.
The first few days were an introduction to their beliefs and the Valernca Method. This method helps the horse have a high understanding of our aids and why we use them from the start. Before starting any of their horses under saddle they start them in-hand to allow a clear knowledge of what we are asking without the added stresses of the rider. Once the movements are performed under saddle, the horses know what is expected and has a baseline of muscle needed to support the rider and confidently execute the new movements. On the very first day we were shown airs above ground such as levade, corbette, and capriole. In the eyes of the Haute Ecole, grand prix is just the beginning of their training. Everything horses learn in the grand prix are strengthening exercises to allow the horse to proceed to the airs above ground.
When we began riding all the lessons started out the same. All horses are kept in their ‘boxes’ or stalls be cause they have no turnout space available to t hem. The first ten minutes are spent walking on a loose rein allowing the horse movement, from there we would proceed to the collected walk starting with leg yields then proceeding to shoulder-in, half pass, travers and turn on the haunches. After this was executed, we would proceed to the same exercises in the trot and before moving into the canter they would have us work piaffe to allow the horse to sit and engage more into the canter work. Riding school masters allowed all of us to focus on our positions while being told to sit deep, keep shoulders back, don’t hollow your back, keep hands up or down where needed. By the end of the trip every one of us had tremendous progress in the effectiveness of our seat and aids because we were able to focus on us more than our horses.
The language barrier was a hurdle to get over because where we would create short cuts in our wording, they didn’t know them and would sometimes choose better English words to get their point across. A common one was “go large” meaning to follow the rail, and “profit from the corner”. This was probably my favorite phrase since it allowed many interpretations. If you profit, you go deeper into the corner, add more steps, add more time to prepare, add a longer amount of time to set up for your next movement.
While I was there, we all ended up with our favorite horses, I even ended up with two. My first was Audaz, who I was on daily and by the end of the week we worked amazingly well together. My next was Trovador, who I was on for my more advanced lessons. While in the more advanced lessons I worked of piaffe-passage transitions and canter pirouettes. I learned to stop thinking about getting the horse into the pirouette, instead ride each stride in the pirouette as a new canter stride allowing the horse to sit and come through to the hand. In the piaffe-passage, my most difficult transitions were working on the timing of leg aids to go from the piaffe, asking with both legs simultaneously to allow lift on the spot, to the leg aids of the passage, alternating leg aids to ask for lift and forward movement. Once my body caught up with my head it was no problem, getting there was the tricky part!
Overall, Portugal was an experience I will never forget and one that I would love to participate in again. If you think, “Wow, I wish I could afford something like that” you can! I didn’t think I would be able to make it work. Christmas presents, birthday presents, $15 per day for a year, anything and everything I could think of to make it happen, I did. This is something you need to make happen if possible! It isn’t often that you can ride highly trained horses and really only think about you and as you settle into a better position, your horse picks up on your cues to make everything you thought was difficult starting out seem like a walk in the park. This is especially true after three lessons a day, seven days in a row!