Centauro – My Little Champion

Centauro dos Sonhos, showing at WEC - our second show. Photo by Susan J Stickle

The powerful Lusitano! We are celebrating them as our February Breed of the Month on #YourDressage!

Dressage riders who choose Lusitanos as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as the US Lusitano Association Inc and the International Andalusian & Lusitano Horse Association are both participating organizations.

Here, a Region 3 rider in her 70s shares about how she’d given up on her riding dreams after two hip replacements, but found her perfect partner in a 15 hand Lusitano, and how together, they’ve become champions!       

By Deborah Tarantino

As a kid, I rode a grade horse in a halter all along South Florida canals and in a little town called Davie (bareback, as I had no bridle or saddle). In those days, my dream horse was the Arabian. The dream came true when I met my husband. He had Arabians, and this was my real start in horses. We successfully bred top horses and also showed. It was during this time in my early 30s I first saw a dressage horse doing shoulder-in, and I was captivated. It was the most beautiful thing.  Having spent my early life in Classical Ballet, the powerful, graceful, and fluid way of riding appealed to me.  At that time, I started learning and riding dressage with Arabians.  I loved the intelligence and people-loving attitude of the breed and showed them for the next several years.  But the lure of the warmbloods won me over. I eventually purchased my first warmblood and had many others over the years, competing at every level, until finally earning my USDF Gold Medal in 2005.  But I missed the sensitivity and relationship I had with the Arabians.

One day after an unplanned dismount from a warmblood, resulting in a fractured pelvis, my friend and trainer, Petra Wilder, who, after a lifetime of riding warmbloods, had just started importing Iberian horses. She offered me a ride on her beautiful Lusitano stallion, Tishiu das Videiras, of the Babel and Novilheiro lines.  He was magnificent and a big, 17 hand fellow.  I explained to Petra, “I can’t ride, I can only sit there. I cannot use my pelvis.”  She said I wouldn’t have to. I didn’t believe it for a second. I thought, “Oh, well, I can just sit there and walk around.”  Then she said try the trot.  I was absolutely sure I could not do it but I tried, tentatively, and was surprised at how comfortable Tishiu’s trot was. I really could sit there and let him do the work! I didn’t have to push.  Then she told me to do a shoulder-in by just thinking about it.  Then it hit me. Wow! This horse can read my mind like the Arabians but without the hyper, high-energy that comes with the Arabians. I could feel all the power, but it was so easily contained I felt secure. I even cantered a little, mostly with my mind, barely using any aids. This was my first experience with Spanish horses, and I was sure that one day I would have one.  It was such an incredible experience. A new love was born.

Sadly my life changed drastically.  I lost my husband, which was devastating.  I stopped riding.  I pushed myself to get back to my early roots of Classical Ballet taking the most advanced class I could find at a local college at the age of 60!  Was I insane? These were 18 year olds and I could be their grandmother!   Although I was rewarded by actually achieving my goal to get back to ballet, the demand I put on my body cost me two hip replacements with one being not so successful. I ended up with permanent nerve and muscle damage and spent 5 months in a wheelchair with a fractured femur at the end of the implant. 

After my rehab, my only goal was to get back on a horse again, after being away from them for 5 years. Even if I could only sit and walk. I had no thought I could do anything else as my body was now compromised. Nothing worked the same way. I had to learn how to deal with a very different twisted leg and hip, especially on the right side (the disastrous implant situation). I needed a softer, safe ride like I remembered from riding Tishiu.

I began my search. After looking for a long time at different horses, I got frustrated and ended up buying a wonderful Friesian gelding.  He was very special and I learned to ride him, but I still had that inner desire for a Spanish horse.

One of the biggest challenges was because of my uneven, twisted body. Not all horses could understand my strange aids. All those years of lessons and learning the aids that now did not work.  A lot of horses were ruled out because they couldn’t “hear” my aids. I was lucky my Friesian did hear me, and I had to believe there was an Iberian horse out there that could hear me, too.

I again visited Petra, and she told me something that I always have remembered (by this time, she’d been importing, training, and showing both Andalusians and Lusitanos for over 10 years). She said the Andalusians are typically beautiful, comfortable, and brave. They can handle parades and all kinds of things that usually set off warmbloods and Thoroughbreds.  But the Lusitanos, while similar in traits, are quicker off the leg (after all, they are the original bullfighting horse), and their attitude is more “where do you want to go, how far, how fast, how long?” She also found that the Lusitano really wants to bond with its person and become very attached.  That quality, much like the Arabian, was something I had been missing.

Photo by Sunsoar Photography

My good friend, Dr. Candy Platz of Wellington, found a horse she said I should try.  I went to Blueberry Farm and there, tied to the wall, was this stunning, intelligent-looking bay Lusitano who looked directly at me. He wasn’t just a horse, he was a PRESENCE!  Despite his diminutive size (just 15 hands), his personality was big, and he was curiously interested in me, a stranger, and I had no choice but to go say hello. I watched a very talented Portuguese trainer present him. This horse could do it all.  Now came the inevitable, “can-he-hear-my aids” test.  Incredibly, this mighty little horse heard my strange aids, and we could do most of the Grand Prix. I had finally found my Spanish partner, Centauro Dos Sonhos.  Over the next year, I just enjoyed riding and training with Centauro, loving his outgoing personality and forging a special bond with him.  I was so happy and having so much fun with my Spanish horse and training with Brian MacMahon.

I moved to Ocala after I sold my business and boarded and trained with Tyra Vernon of BREC Dressage. It was here that Tyra encouraged me to show again. It had been 14 years since my last show. I had never ever considered showing to be in my future. I had given away my last shadbelly, never thinking I would use it again.  She convinced me to try.

My first show was at the magnificent, huge World Equestrian Center in Ocala. The show was outside.  There was a CDI going on as well as a hunter/jumper show so there were many more vendors with brightly colored flags, awnings, and tents on display. There was a constant flow of golf carts, people, and dogs everywhere!  It was an electric atmosphere for sure. Centauro had shown in Working Equitation in Brazil before he was imported, so he handled the excitement well as we headed to warm-up.  What wasn’t immediately evident to me is he thought it was a WORKING EQUITATION show. He turned into this souped-up, overactive Ferrari that was explosive on every movement. But even when he was in high octane mode and literally flying around the ring, I never once felt unsafe.  Just a little fast and definitely with no transitions.  My trainer was about to jump the fence and go catch us when watching the last extended (read: runaway) canter. Fortunately, Centauro slowed down enough to make the turn up centerline and hit X in a crisp halt. We didn’t score well, but I was just happy to be there even though I had a whole lot more horse.  He put a big smile on my face, and I was truly happy we got through it.

Our next show was much better, and I managed to earn my qualifying scores for Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 3 Championships.

Next on my show calendar was the first Region 3 Adult Amateur Championships at the Alachua County Agricultural and Equestrian Center in Newberry, Florida.  When I went to the show office to pick up my number, I saw the huge championship ribbons hanging and said to myself, “Don’t bother looking, none of those are for you.” I had no expectations except to ride a nice test.  After all, this was my third show in 14 years, right? I was just happy to be there.  Regular show on Saturday and the championship ride on Sunday.

Photo by Sunsoar Photography

Centauro was calmer and right with me on the first ride.  I knew our test was clean, and we avoided any  mistakes. We were in a class with some lovely warmbloods with fancy gaits, and I had no illusions of beating anyone, let alone being in the ribbons.  To my complete surprise, we won the Prix St. George class with a score of 69.26%. I was on Cloud 9!  In a daze, I thought this must be a fluke.  The championship ride will be much tougher and who knows how much lower I might score. In the 50s? It wasn’t unheard of at championships. I felt humbled and decided “WHATEVER”. I am just happy to be here and hope he does the same thing on Sunday.

Photo by Susan J Stickle

Sunday, championship day, arrived and Centauro felt good again. Back in we went and again I had a fluid, clean ride.  I wouldn’t watch any other rides as I saw some of those riders on their big impressive warmbloods with their big gaits. I think we were the smallest horse in the show. I was just proud of my little fellow, that we did a decent ride and didn’t make any mistakes. He was right with me the whole time and that was enough.

After the class, my trainer came to me and said I might be in the ribbons. While that was an exciting thought, I had no expectations.  The joy came from just being there – showing and dancing with my horse and being so together is really what it’s all about!  Hopefully that bond showed through.

At the end of the day, I was told I needed to go to the show office. I walked in and the show manager said, “You WON!”  WHAT? She repeated it and held out my test to me.  I must have looked stunned. With an open mouth and dropped jaw, all I could do was nod my head! How is this possible? Here I am on a 15 hand horse at age 70, just here to enjoy the weekend. We won the Region 3 Adult Amateur PSG Championship with a 67%.  I was told to come back for the awards ceremony to get my ribbon and lots of booty.  I had never won a championship during all those years in Arabians and warmbloods.  This was a highlight of my life and something I will never forget! I was so proud of my horse, and he seemed proud of himself as well.

Well now the show bug had taken hold of me, and I started planning on our next show.  We worked at moving up the levels and I was planning on entering our first Intermediate 2 class.  My goal is to finally get back to showing Grand Prix, even if only once! 

I guess God had other plans.  Before the show, Centauro came up lame with a final diagnosis of a deep flexor tendon tear.  We are now doing rehab with dreams of one day coming back to the show ring once again with my little “Champion,” his new nickname ever since.

I have since purchased a half Lusitano and know I will get another. I love this breed with the big heart, the sound mind, the beautiful neck, their powerful athleticism, and their big desire to please you. Such a special, intelligent breed.

 Centauro has become my heart horse!

Forever my champion!

Leave a Reply