|The Portuguese Experience - from Warmbloods to Lusitanos|
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In the beginning...
"There is nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse". With regard to British dressage, that should read: "There is nothing so destructive to the outside of a horse as the inside of a judges car".
When was the last time you went to a dressage competition and saw people having fun with their horses? Oh the names are having a wonderful time. You get the feeling that they could ride Muffin the Mule and come away with the long dangley rosettes and an article in Dressage magazine telling us where weíre going wrong. My wife Eleanor and I had had enough. Eleanor sold her advanced horse Sebastian, we put our riding centre on the market and disappeared over the horizon on holiday to reassess our future.
Have you ever had that thought go through your head "yea gods, I wished I hadn't have said that". It was just an idle remark. All I said was, wouldn't it be great if we could still ride dressage and completely forget competition, you know, go more into high school, do more demonstrations, put a couple of barberís poles in the middle of our indoor school and stick a couple of chandeliers up into the ceiling. The Spanish Riding School seem to do all right. That was it, Eleanor was up and running.
The first job was to find out what the state of play was in this country with regards to classical dressage as opposed to competition dressage. The logical first step therefore was to telephone Sylvia Loch. If you could parcel up enthusiasm and sell it on the open market, our Sylvia undoubtedly would have cornered the market and would be sailing round the Med on an extremely large and expensive yacht. One telephone call and she got me up and running.
After an extremely boozy dinner at the local pub near Sylvia's home, it was decided that the first step was to get a proper tool for the job and there were none better than a Lusitano. So within the month Eleanor and I were winging our way from sunny Aberdeen to the even sunnier climes of Portugal in search of the perfect classical dressage horse. You will note dear reader that at this stage I refer to the "dressage horse" in the singular.
First taste of Portugal
Sylvia had very kindly recommended us to her very good friend Manuel Sabino Duarte who was to meet us outside our hotel in Santarem, about fifty miles north of Lisbon. Easier said than done. We duly picked up our car in Lisbon and then proceeded to drive to Santarem via Paris, Rome and the outskirts of Berlin. Why is it that the extremely intelligent and attractive woman you married suddenly turns into Satan with an IQ of a gooseberry as soon as she gets a road map in her hands. One of life's mysteries I suppose.
At long last we arrived at our hotel and there patiently waiting for us was the rather dapper, sun burned individual who appeared to know the entire population of Santarem, Sylvia's friend Manuel and in perfect Portuguese welcomed us to Portugal, and enquired after the health of my motherís second cousin, I think. Manuel could not speak a work of English.
After dumping our bags at the hotel, we were off. The first port of call being a livery yard where Manuel kept a couple of horses. One of the horses in the yard was for sale. Luckily by this time we had met up with a buddy of Manuel's, Christiano who could speak a little English. We arrived at the yard and followed Manuel into the dark interior of the stables where he proudly showed us his horses.
We meet our first Lusitano
In the end box was a beautiful little stallion, a crossbred Lusitano Arab. Manuel softly put his hand on the horses nose, picked up a blade of straw, yes a blade of straw, gently tapped the horse on the back and to my complete disbelief, the horse produced the most magnificent piaffe. I couldn't wait to have a go. Manuel handed me the blade of straw as though this was the only piece of straw that would work out of the entire straw harvest of 1995 and stood back, I put my hand on the horses nose, tapped the horse on the back with the straw and once again the horse produced wonderful piaffe. All I felt in my hand was a gentle push. As soon as I took my hand away, the horse stopped. This was impressive stuff and we hadn't even taken a horse out of its stable yet.
In the end stall stood the horse that we had come to see. Herculano, a six-year-old purebred Lusitano. He was beautiful. He was run out for us, Eleanor rode him and apart from the canter being a bit green and forward going we were definitely interested. The first prospect for our hit list.
From there we were taken by Manuel to a yard owned by Manuel Jorge Oliveria. Mr Oliveria is a bullfighter but deals and sells horses as part of his business. He also breeds and sells bulls. On arrival we were shunted into the small indoor school and watched young horses at work. The thing that strikes the onlooker almost immediately is that even when young, these horses are performing most of the advanced movements that one would see in the grand prix dressage arena and the horses are happy and in perfect balance, but the reins are in a loop. The horses are completely in self-carriage.
One or two of our so-called top trainers should go and watch. It would make a complete nonsense of, and I quote, "hold him together in the piaffe, he needs your support through the rein". How many times have we heard that bellowed in the arena while the expert is beating the hell out of the poor horses back legs with a lunge whip?
There were many fine horses to choose from at this yard but because it was getting so late, we made tentative arrangements to return later in the week. From here we were driven back to Santarem, via a wine cellar were the most delicious wine was poured from plastic canisters, and told to get changed quickly because we were going out for dinner.
The events of the evening and the ensuing dinner party could be the subject of another article. This was an unusual evenings entertainment. But suffice it to say that the night was still going strong at two o'clock in the morning with Eleanor being measured for a hand made Portuguese bullfighting saddle and me arguing in semaphore, that all wine should come in plastic canisters and bottles were redundant.
Day two, and more Lusitanos
The next morning was engaged on changing hotels. I felt it fairly important that all the livestock I wanted to see while in Portugal should be in a stable, not in our bedroom. I even had an argument in the bath with Rambo the cockroach about which one of us was going to get the end with the taps, Rambo won.
In the afternoon Eleanor and I and our trusty road map made our way to Teresa Schonborn's yard in Muge. Unfortunately Mrs Schonborn was away but we met the most charming lady who transpired to be Teresa's mother, Contessa Schonborn.
Eleanor was handed over to the groom to be shown horses and I was ushered into the gallery of the indoor school to watch Eleanor ride. Here the Contessa and I proceeded to get fallover drunk on champagne and spent most of the time giggling and generally having a good time. At one stage, the Contessa made me telephone her daughter in Lisbon to tell her that we had arrived. I'm sure Teresa must have thought I was a raving lunatic because I couldn't get a coherent sentence out of her mother face to face. God knows what it sounded like over a telephone. I really don't remember too much about the horses but Eleanor was most impressed and put another couple of pure Lusitano stallions on our hit list. This list was getting out of hand and this was only the second day.
Day 3 - the hit list gets longer - Eleanor meets Herodes
The following morning Wednesday, Manuel picked us up at our new hotel and we drove to Tomar. Acacio Oliveira lives just out of town and he is a breeder/dealer. We had a wonderful couple of hours being shown Mr Oliveira's mares and foals at foot out in the fields. He must have had over twenty in one field and it was a beautiful sight to see these lovely creatures roaming free with the foals playing round their motherís feet. From the fields we were taken to the yard to see what horses were for sale.
We were shown ten horses but a little stallion of the Vega line caught Eleanor's eye and she asked to see him ridden. This little horse was six years old and in the stable looked very ordinary but as soon as a rider got on him, he seemed to grow another couple of hands and moved and worked beautifully. He had piaffe, passage, Spanish walk and could go sideways like a dream. The canter wasn't too hot but you canít have everything, can you. This little horse was definitely one for the hit list and we made arrangements to return the following day for Eleanor to ride him. The rest of the day was spent with Manual taking us round various yards to look at horses and generally get "our eye in".
Day 4 - Herodes, and classical dressage in the bull ring
Thursday morning found us at Mr Oliveira's yard at Muge and Herodes, the little Vega stallion was tacked up and ready to go. Although the horse was very tense, the session went well and I could see from Eleanor's face that she was hooked. The negotiations took place over lunch and we left Mr Oliveira after a couple of hours with much hand shaking, back slapping and the statutory breathing of wine fumes over each other declaring that we would be friends for ever.
The next port of call was Mr Rui Salvador bull fighting yard. Rui Salvador by profession is an architect but fights bulls in his spear time. To be perfectly frank however, I got the impression that it was the other way round but I suppose he knows his own business best.
The whole yard was in a frantic mood. Rui Salvador was fighting the next evening and the decision was still to be made as to what horses were going to appear. Although it must have been extremely inconvenient for us to be there at that time, we were made most welcome and we were invited to watch Rui Salvador work his horses from the indoor school gallery.
After about half and hour or so, Rui Salvador rode his horse over to the school boards and with a piece of string pulled open a door. Into the school meandered the biggest bull you have every seen with horns like handlebars. The bull very casually wandered into the middle of the school and faced the horse and rider, Rui Salvador proceeded to practice passes with the bull, who pivoted round a front leg so as to be always facing the horse.
I'm sure the Portuguese must think the British all have a facial deformity. Eleanor and I seemed to spend most of our time with our mouths open. When Rui Salvador was finished he opened the door in the boards, shouted something in Portuguese and the bull quite calmly left the arena.
Over the next five or ten minutes I noticed that the gallery was filling up. Friends, relatives, grooms, it was getting quite crowded up there. I suppose when the gallery had reached the optimum number, it was time for Rui Salvador to pop the question. "Come Roger, ride one of my bullfighters". To be perfectly honest I felt like shouting "not on your nelly mate" and making a hasty retreat, but for the good old British habit of not wanting to offend, even though there was a very good chance of making a complete twit of oneself, I gratefully accepted. I must admit the experience was truly amazing. I have never felt a horse so off the leg. Compared to my warmbloods at home this horse was completely push button. Piaffe, passage, half pass, walk and canter pirouettes, changes. I asked and this horse obeyed.
There was a murmur coming from the crowd in the gallery, I suspect started by Manuel. "Levade, levade, levade". I've never ridden a levade in my life, what were the aids. I started to wish I had taken up hang gliding. Not to worry I thought. What ís a levade if it ís not a controlled rear. I've done a few uncontrolled rears in my time; this was going to be novel. I cantered and started to gather the horse together. Progressive half halts, one after another until the horse was sitting right back on its haunches and virtually cantering on the spot. Then I just closed my fingers on the reins, pushed a little more with the leg, and leaned back in the saddle.
Would you believe it; Eleanor had the camera and she missed it. The sensation was that because the horse sat so far down on his haunches, you got lower to the ground rather than higher. And the feeling of control was truly mind blowing. "Ole" shouted the crowd in the gallery, "now its Eleanor's turn". Itís amazing how the English language comes naturally to people when they are in the act of dropping you in it.
Eleanor climbed on and rode the horse for about half an hour with me hanging over the gallery urging her to "try this, isn't it amazing", "try that, don't that just feel great". Obviously Rui Salvador was impressed with Eleanor's riding, "Eleanor", he said, "would you like the bull". And to my complete disbelief, she said "yes please".
Call me selfish if you like. When your nearest and dearest is on a strange horse, in a strange land and a strange mega ton bull is approaching her with a structure on its head the size of the Forth Rail Bridge, the first thought that went through my mind was "who can I get to take the children's lessons at the weekend".
Rui Salvador had called the bull from its pen behind the boards and it was ambling towards the middle of the school. Did my lovely wife panic? No; I was doing all the panicking for her. From here on in I witnessed the most interesting dressage lesson I have ever seen. Even the complete teaching staff of the Spanish School would have had their work cut out to make a lesson so unique.
Have you ever seen one tempi changes from tera-tera (a canter on the spot)? No, nor had I. Have you ever seen counter changes of hand done at lightning speed in front of a bull? No nor had I. But these movements were being taught, and I could see that Eleanor was loving every minute. Classical dressage in its highest form and for a practical purpose.
Riding down the centre line toward a steering wheel with a face behind it ñ we're talking serious anticlimax here. We have the photographs of this lesson and when I catch Eleanor periodically taking them out and looking at them, you would think it was a picture of Mel Gibson with no clothes on. She comes all over glassy eyed and dribbles a lot. I know this must be one of the high lights of her horsy career.
Unfortunately we had to take our leave of Rui Salvador and he presented us with posters, the promise of future meetings celebrated with wine out of plastic containers and an invitation to the bull fight the next evening. He insisted that we watch him in action. I was quite pleased the bullfight was for the next day. I had had all the action I could use for one day.
Day 5 - back to try Herodes again
We had decided that today, Friday, Eleanor would ride Herodes again and finally declare one way or another if we would buy the horse. I made up my mind up during the drive into Tomar that if we were going to buy this horse I was going to change its name. Herodes was the Portuguese name for Herod. If I remember my bible correctly, and the last time I had any contact with a bible was with my left hand on it swearing that I would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, this was not a nice person. You might as well have called him Death or Ingrowing Toenail. The name was totally inappropriate.
Once again the horse was already tacked up and ready to go when we arrived at the yard. Eleanor popped onto his back and rode into the school. This was obviously not a good day for Herodes. Perhaps somebody had told him he might be going to Scotland. He was very tense and every time Eleanor put her leg on him he went right though his repertoire of movements. Piaffe, passage, Spanish walk, the lot. This was not a happy horse.
Not to worry. Now was the ideal opportunity to find out what the problems were and whether Eleanor could sort it out.
Now I'm sure the challenge was mind boggling for Eleanor, but it was exceedingly boring for those in the school to watch. After about 45 minutes of watching Eleanor walking Herodes, Mr. Oliveira, Manuel and I toddled off to the gallery so at least we could sit down in comfort and left one of Mr. Oliveira's lads in the school with Eleanor. The lad propped himself up against a pile of equipment in the corner of the school, which included a saddle on a free standing rack, a bull fighting machine made up of horns mounted on a cycle frame and wheel and other various bits and pieces that one would expect to find in a Portuguese indoor school.
Now, there is one thing that I have managed to teach Eleanor over the years and that is patience. She needs it by the bucket full just to survive living with me and she was still at the walk after an hour. Unfortunately it was a hot day, it was very quiet, the air was very still and the lad in the school fell asleep. He also fell against the pile of equipment in the corner of the school. All you could see was a little pair of legs waving in the air amongst all the debris.
With all this racket in the school, it must have woken Mr. Oliveira and Manuel who were snoozing in their chairs. They both leapt out of their seats, leaned over the gallery and started to bellow at the poor little lad who was still trying to disengage himself from the wreckage. I think they were both kindly but forcefully informing the lad, at about two thousand decibels, that what a silly chap he was for falling over and making such a lot of noise and if they could get their hands on him at the precise moment, any future marriage prospects and the ability to father children would be extremely doubtful.
The only living being in the school at that moment without eyes like chapel hat pegs and absolutely motionless with anticipation was Herodes. Eleanor had done such a good job in calming him down that the horse just couldn't care less and just kept on walking. Eleanor was now totally hooked, she got off Herodes back, sent body language signals up into the gallery that said gimme, gimme, gimme and we were suddenly the owners of a Lusitano stallion.
The bullfight that evening was another unforgettable and vivid experience that Portugal was getting into the habit of throwing at us. I could write for hours with regard to the spectacle, the pageantry and wonderful horsemanship. I could also discuss at some length the pros and cons as to whether it is ethically and morally right to watch a living animal being displayed and put under considerable pressure for the sole purpose of entertaining the public. The lasting impression was however, that the crowd, unlike the Spanish, were only interested in the skill of the horse and rider, not in the ultimate death of the bull.
The bull is not killed in Portuguese bull fighting, and I have seen more dangerous situations presented to a horse at your average one or three day events in the UK than I saw in that bull ring. And to be perfectly frank, I would far rather watch a bull with a fighting chance in Portugal than be forced to watch a lorry load of cattle being transported to an abattoir or calves to box crates on the continent that one sees every day on the roads of Britain. A moral dilemma that Eleanor and I are still struggling with.
A lesson in a cornfield, and a visit to the tailor
The following day, Saturday, Manuel wanted to ride his own horses so Eleanor and I picked him up from his apartment in Santarem and drove to the yard. We watched him work his little Arab stallion in the schooling area, a patch of hard ground on the middle of a cornfield, and could only marvel at the skill of this 70-year-old man. And I can only repeat, all the grand prix movements including piaffe and passage, collection and the extended paces were all ridden with a loop in the reins. All the control coming from the seat and legs. We were watching a master at work.
About half way through the session, Manuel started waving his arms about, we interpreted this to mean get off your fat bottoms, tack -up Herculano and get into the arena for a lesson. OK, we could take the hint and Eleanor was off in a cloud of dust toward the stables. God only knows if the horse had its own tack on but Eleanor appeared after about half an hour red in face but fleet of foot ready for her lesson.
Now dear reader, imagine the scene. A circular patch of hard ground surrounded by a cornfield, a Portuguese man with no English riding an Arab stallion, teaching a girl from the Highlands of Scotland with no Portuguese riding a Lusitano stallion. This is not an ideal set-up for a full and meaning exchange of information. They managed fine, with a combination of hand signals and Manuel coming up beside Eleanor and bellowing Portuguese into her ear from about two inches distance.
Understanding dawned and the horse started to really perform. The only problem was that I was getting body language again. Gimme gimme gimme, I want I want I want. Words like, "he would be big enough for you to ride wouldnít he sugar plum?" and "while we're transporting one all that way why not two darling?". I was desperately trying to remember what kind of whisky the bank manager liked and what degree of grovelling worked last time I needed an overdraft. This was getting dangerous. I needed a win on the lottery and an interpreter now!
The lesson went well and in good old Portuguese fashion the horses were taken back to the yard, the saddles taken off, reins thrown over the tap and the high pressure hose turned on. If I did that to any of my horses at home they would go ballistic. The Luso's just stood there and allowed themselves to be hosed down without a shuffle. Amazing.
I vaguely remember mentioning to Manuel at the beginning of the trip that Eleanor and I occasionally did demo's for various organizations and wouldn't it be nice that if we bought a Lusitano it might be appropriate to dress in the Portuguese riding outfit. Next port of call, the tailors. Will I ever learn to keep my mouth shut?
I had being doing most of the driving up to now and I had noticed that Manuel kept crossing himself. Now this is a little disconcerting to say the least. I know I occasionally drifted over to the wrong side of the road and once missed a nun pushing a pram by a hair's breadth, but when your sitting next to somebody who keeps crossing himself, that is worse, believe me, than your passenger's foot going up and down like a novice learning rising trot on the imaginary foot brake. Now this doesn't instill confidence.
I was just about at the end of my tether, stop the car, and ask Manuel in my best Portuguese hand signals whether he would like to see my license or would he prefer to drive, or even walk, when Eleanor mentioned, just in passing, that wasn't it a quaint custom that Manuel acknowledged passing a church on the roadside by crossing himself and wondered if all Portuguese people did it.
We arrived at Muge and eventually found a parking place, in the middle of the pavement but with one front wheel on the road. That was OK gestured Manual, cops cant touch you if you have one wheel on the road. Of course, silly of me; why didn't I think of that, and we went into the Dickensian tailors shop. HoHum, nobody in the shop could speak English. We were getting used to this scenario. Manuel was getting used to the situation as well. Off he went out into the street waved his arms in the air and shouted orders to the general public. It always seemed to work. Into the tailors shop strode this little woman with four children in tow.
Now Manuel did not know this woman from Adam (or Eve). It must be the Portuguese people need to help those in trouble or just find out what the hell is happening. Anyway, the woman introduced herself as Mrs. Olivera (everybody is called Olivera, how anybody finds a telephone number in this country beats the hell out of me) and she taught English at the local school and would we mind if her children watched the proceedings. How could we refuse? The tailor wasnít too happy. All four kids had ice-lollies and they were being waved in the general direction of some very fancy threads.
Out came the tape measure. Suits, waist coats, skirts and jackets were thrust into our hands and Mrs. Olivera told us that the tailor wanted to see how these bits and pieces looked on our unsuspecting bodies before we got down to the real business. It would have been nice to have a changing room. The adults were polite and averted their eyes and talked amongst themselves but the four kids were fascinated. Not only had they met an alien from Mars but he we going to take his trousers off as well. Too good to be true. Mouths open, eight eyes that could handle windscreen wipers and four forgotten ice-lollies at the rest dripping on the floor.
This was taking centre of attention too far. And when one of the little cherubs turned to his mother and pointed his ice-lolly in the general direction of my midriff and said what I can only imagine was "what's that Mum?", did I start to get a little agitated? We at last got round the problem by Eleanor holding up a jacket for me, and in turn I held up a skirt for her. Knowing smiles from the grown-ups as the little lad got a resounding cuff round the back of the head.
All business complete, measured, bodies analyzed, colors discussed, linings fondled, buttons cooed over and deposit paid. We shook hands with the tailor, his wife, his cutter, his machinist and second cousin, kissed Mrs. Olivera on both cheeks, paid a fond but sticky farewell to the four children and swore we would all be friends for ever and next time we met we would celebrate with the drinking of much red wine from plastic containers.
That night Eleanor and I were the guest of Honor at Manuel's cousin's fiftieth birthday party in Pombalino. The reason we were invited was that these people are extremely generous and would walk over broken glass to make us feel welcome and comfortable. The other minor reason was that Manuel, Eleanor and I had to discuss the payment for the horses and arrange vetting and transportation. Manuel's cousin spoke very good English.
The party was great with much imbibing of red wine from plastic containers and as far as I know, the meeting and business arrangements also went well. I know I came away from the party feeling extremely flushed in the face and very light in the bank balance. We had just bought two horses. We had only come over to Portugal for a look and if all went well, to buy one horse. Oh well you might as well transport two if your transporting one. I still fail to see the logic of that argument, but if Eleanor is convinced, who am I to question?
Might as well make it 3 Luso's
The next day was to be our last. We were to fly out in the afternoon. But first we had to have a meeting with Manuel's boss to try and convince him that Manuel should be allowed to travel to the UK to take up some teaching commitments. Apparently Manuel worked for the government, in their equivalent of the Forestry Commission and he needed permission from his superiors to travel and work abroad. Don't ask me why but we were only too pleased to keep the appointment. To have Manuel in this country and to be teaching would be wonderful. I had the feeling after the meeting that the proceedings were for formality only and the boss only wanted to see what we looked like and practice his English in front of his staff.
From the office we again went over to the stable yard. Manuel had something to show us. He was excited and he wouldn't take no for an answer even if I had been struck with good sense and said no.
No sooner had I stopped the car, than Manuel was out of the passenger door and disappeared into the dark interior of the stables. Not five minutes later he appeared on a pure white horse. No saddle, no bridle just a head collar with a bit of rope tied to the side rings. We were then given a display of collection, walk trot and canter, piaffe, passage half pass rein back, the lot. Oh well, let the jaw drop again. I'm sure my mouth is a little bigger after the trip. I spent such a long time with it wide open. To finish the display, Manuel slid back onto the horse's quarters and dismounted from the back and lent on horse's croup, put one hand up and sang Da Daaaaa. This guy might be seventy years old and a great horseman but he was also a showman.
The horse was a Lusitano stallion with a little Arab blood. He was 14 years old, an ex-bullfighter. He was called Sultan. He was beautiful and he was for sale at a very good price. The perfect schoolmaster. Oh no not again, I was getting the gimme gimme gimme body language again from she who must be obeyed.
We had half an hour before we had to drive to the airport. We had no chance of riding the horse even if it had a saddle and bridle and we had already overspent our budget by mega bucks. What would you do in this situation? Yes so did I. I said, why not. While your transporting two, why not three. (Eleanor logic was catching). OK Manuel or OK type hand gestures, we'll take him. Thank you very much, got any more? I'm really looking forward to bankruptcy.
We drove Manuel back to Santarem and when we parted and declared that we would be friends for ever and the next time we met would be celebrated by much drinking of red wine in plastic containers. All three of us really meant it. Over the course of the week Eleanor and I had not learned one word of Portuguese, we didn't have time, and Manuel had not learned one word of English except Kangaroo but that's another story. We had the mutual language of horses and that was sufficient for us. This man, the Portuguese people and the Lusitano had changed the course of our lives and although my bank balance has been somewhat depleted, both Eleanor and I are the richer for knowing Sabino Manuel Duarte of Santarem.
The horses Herculano, Vivaldi (we did change the name from Herodes) and Sultan came to Scotland. Want to know how we got on? Watch this space.
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