It was with overwhelming anticipation that we waited in the airport in Lisbon, Portugal for our driver, Diogo, to pick us all up and take us to our destination, "Escola de Equitacao de Alcainca", a Classical Dressage Riding School.
He soon arrived and we took off and headed for the beautiful deep green hills, dotted with red-tile roofed houses and vineyards. We felt transported to an ancient world as we soon came to Alcainca, a small village outside of Lisbon, we heard the church bells greeting us which became a daily part of our experience. We could hardly wait to see the "lesson" horses, as they were all very beautiful Lusitano stallions.
Our instructor in the United States, Mary Rose, FBHS, arranged this wonderful experience for all of us. Mary had ridden with Master Nuno Oliveira, who lived right around the corner from the school. Georges Malleroni, the school's director for 20 years, studied with Oliveira for the last 10 years of the Master's life. Malleroni was interested in how Nuno combined the dressage tradition, influenced bullfighting, with a more methodical way of working with horses. The Portuguese have always preferred an expressive way of riding and Malleroni believed Oliveira was a good example.
After a week of watching his horses move, we agreed that the Portuguese way is indeed a different style of dressage. This was a different way of riding for a number of us. I, for one, have gaited horses (Peruvian Pasos), so this style of dressage was very intriguing to me.
Other members of our diverse group of riders included: from the San Antonio/Hill Country: Pam Gouger, Warmblood owner; Jackie Kelly, Lusitano owner; Karen Kott, Quarter Horse owner; and myself, Cyndi Funk, Peruvian Paso and Arabian owner. From the Austin area we had Kathy Schubin, Friesian and Quarter Horse owner; Britta Bafort de Wheeler, Belgian Haflinger owner; and Margaret Draeger, Quarter Horse owner. From Atlanta, Georgia, Jo Leinbach, Warmblood owner joined our group. And Mary Rose, Instructor currently residing in Dripping Springs, Lusitano owner and organizer of the trip, and also joining us, to our great relief was Paula Cable, a Masseuse from the Austin area. Also joining our group for a short time, was Fran MacEachren from Pennsylvania.
The 20 school horses were well trained and could do "Shoulder In", "Half Pass", "Flying Changes", "Piaffe", and the "Passage". We divided into groups to accommodate as much individual attention as possible and were each assigned a horse for our morning/afternoon lessons. Sometimes we would change our mounts, and some preferred to keep the same horse for all lessons.
The lessons were quite demanding, and our three in instructors were constantly reassuring us that we would learn things, "feel" the moves, and put what we learned and felt together with what we knew and go home and work on everything we had learned.
We quickly realized that the Portuguese lateral work is the most important part of dressage training. Through lateral work and deep bends they demand straightness and engagement of the horse for balance. Many riders spent much of their lessons learning to push through a horse's resistance to get a proper movement with a straight spine. We learned that not riding deep enough bends; many riders never have the proper feel of straightness. The amount Malleroni wanted us to drive our horse's inside hips under on turns and during lateral movements seemed like too much to ask. And we did meet resistance. But if we remained focused on the engagement and changed our muscle memories of the horse traveling with weight over the outside shoulder, we got somewhere. It may take strong leg aids, but the result is getting past stiffness and arriving at lightness.
After our first lesson our stomachs were growling as lunchtime arrived and we were greeted by a large table full of baskets of fresh baked bread, salad, and a hearty meat and rice dish (other times fresh local seafood) and for dessert, a large bowl of fruit. We all needed freshly ground cafe latte or expresso to get us going for the afternoon lesson.
We had some time in between the morning and afternoon lessons to relax or watch the instructors training young horses. But all too soon, we were tacking up for our afternoon lesson, which ended around 6 pm, after which we cooled down our horses and cleaned our saddles. We headed for the dining room for dinner; local red and white (vinho verde) wines went down easily with our fresh bread, delicious homemade soup (a daily experience) fish, potatoes with vegetables and dessert.
We staying up late very evening to watch videos of our lessons and critiquing and laughing at a lot of amusing anecdotes, some riders fall out of formation and head in the opposite direction. Jackie Kelly of Boerne, Texas rode Spanish Walk for the first time on DaKa, one of the most famous stallions at the school, she laughed when telling us about Georges having her horse bow at the end of her last lesson unexpectedly, and what a thrill that was. The evenings ended with some ladies taking advantage of Paula's massage skills.
We did have a day to tour, which we took full advantage of, and went to Lisbon to the Portuguese Riding School at the Palace, and saw their beautiful "Alter Real" dark bay Lusitano stallions. We went inside the stables and saw the ancient way they stall and feed the horses to this day. Afterwards, we headed up to Sintra and ate lunch in a beautiful castle, did some souvenir shopping of ceramics and embroidered linen, and then ended our tour going to Mafra and seeing the ocean under the setting sun.
The week went by so quickly, we have already planned our return trip for 2003. Portugal is truly one of the most beautiful and gracious countries in the world.
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