By Anna Morton
Imagine a setting where there are more horses than cars, more stables than garages, and each restaurant prioritizes tables that land at horse-height so you never have to dismount. This past June of 2021, I had the opportunity to visit Doñana Dressage in El Rocio, Spain and was astonished by the rare and fascinating area, home-like comfort, and exclusive dressage lessons.
I found myself at Doñana Dressage after a very long COVID-19 year of no traveling. With the opportunity to travel to Spain, paired with being on a sabbatical from my job, I was happy for a refreshing and interesting experience with horses. I have enjoyed experiencing the world through riding and taking dressage lessons from different trainers in a variety of countries. Spain was a new venture to experience and I have always wanted to further document quality dressage lessons around the world. So, here I am letting you in on this secret of a special town and riding.
Doñana Dressage Equestrian Club
Doñana Dressage is nestled in its own ecosystem of horses, geese, peacocks, chickens, puppies, and family. Upon entering the gates, you are greeted by a line of well-cared for horses, until you meet the house. The house is a Spanish style hacienda with an impressive, although inviting, presence, curtained by pink flowers. My husband joined me on this trip and we stayed in one of the four guest rooms that occupy the upper corners of the house. The whole facility is centered around horses – the house has equestrian elements at every chance, the barn is an open concept built for the Spanish heat, and each horse carries a kind eye. Not that my home is similar to this area, but I felt at home right away with the surroundings and the horses.
The day I arrived I was given a lesson by José Manuel, the owner and trainer. I rode a younger Lusitano-cross gelding and my riding was appropriately assessed to make plans for the week ahead. There are 27 well-trained Spanish horses (PRE (Pura raza Espanola), Lusitanos, and PRE and Lusitano crosses), for all levels, beginner to advanced. Half of the horses are for dressage and the other half are for trail riding.
I wondered how much value I could gain in one week of lessons. As an eager learner and capable rider, I always hope to capitalize as much knowledge from my lessons as possible. Having two lessons is quite intensive for me, and I wanted to capture as much value from them as I could. I used my Horsewrite journal to aid in documenting the week.
For my first two-a-day lesson, I rode a gorgeous bay PRE gelding named Jeco. Jeco was a gentleman and rode with power and a lightness you can really appreciate, I felt he was well trained and able to teach me. We worked on basics – shoulder in, extensions – and put focus on my own body and communication. For the afternoon lesson, we picked up where the morning left off. This was the beginning of our weekly routine and lessons, mixed with exploring the magnificent area. In between lessons, I was able to go to the beach, nap, or hang around the hacienda.
Together, José Manuel and I determined my goals for the week: improve body position, refine communication of aids, and strengthen my confidence in the saddle. I appreciate instructors who can analyze and plan with me. José Manuel has years of training experience and was able to analyze my riding and implement practices to make improvements from the first lesson. I felt encouraged that the week of riding lessons would provide significant value.
The next day, I rode José’s Lusitano mare, Illucia. I would continue to ride her throughout the week and train more advanced movements. She served as a proper schoolmaster. The highlight was being able to practice pirouettes, narrowing down all three of the week’s goals in one movement. Through fine tuning the half-pass, working on transitions, and correcting my posture, things started to come together in a relatively small amount of time. I was able to recognize an ability in myself to make progress, it was a great feeling!
As the week advanced, each day built upon the last. I felt physically and mentally challenged in a good way. It’s hard to summarize each lesson, so here are a few notes I took from our lessons:
“Relax your mind, be more committed to do what you want.”
“Think ‘easy’, and put your shoulders where your horses shoulders are in the half pass”
“Feel and dance; don’t think too much!”
I tend to overthink and complicate things, and not thinking sometimes helps. I bet you agree.
To close out our evening lessons, I would cool off and ride outside the arena, into the sand roads leading to the town. As you ride, you are greeted by other riders carrying out their normal day-to-day activities. Everyone here has something to do with horses. It felt as if I stepped back in time.
The town of El Rocio
Riding into the town is a curious feeling. The streets are all sand, the same kind you would find at the beach, so it does not get overwhelmingly dusty and is perfect for horseback. As you ride through the town, you pass other riders and greet them with a head nod, respectively, and it transports you to a world from the past. Each house, restaurant, and shop has hitching posts and high tables at horse height, instilling normalcy to a life lived only on horseback.
Upon entering the town, a dramatic highlight is the church of El Rocio, a large 20th century hermitage overlooking a wide clearing that easily becomes an arena for many riders. The perimeter of the clearing is filled with small shops and restaurants, and taking one look further, you see a wetland which holds wild horses, flamingos, and storks. Here begins the Doñana National Park, which on its own is a truly unique environment with four ecosystems (forests, beach, marshes, and dunes). If you wish to explore the park, you can elect to take trail rides instead of dressage, or have a mix. The contrast of the sand and wetlands is otherworldly. Wild horses of the Marismeña breed roam in the park. The breed, I learned, is the ancestor of the horses taken to the new world by Spanish conquistadors, as well as being one of the founding breeds of the modern Andalusian horse. It’s a paradise!
In the evening, I was often given a new horse to ride and explore the town with. The horses were extremely well behaved and the town was spectacular to explore on horseback. Stopping for a bocadillo and fries, a drink, and making conversation while never leaving the saddle is a priceless experience, it’s a feeling like no other to enjoy such an environment on horseback.
I wish that words and pictures could further transport you to this unique place, best is that you feel it for yourself and come. I would be very happy to accompany you on your visit so please just let me know and I will be there, I will look for any reason to go back with more riders! It was a great experience that left me stronger and even happier with my riding, I can’t wait to visit again.
About the author:
Anna Morton is the creator of Horsewrite which is a journal for riding lessons, and fosters a community for riders to gain confidence and see progress in their riding. She loves traveling and learning from expert trainers around the world. You can connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on social media @horsewrite