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A MAGICAL APRIL
Breakfast of coffee, croissants and the signature Portuguese custard tart with delicious flaky pastry at 7.00am on Tuesday 4th April in the arrivals hall of Lisbon’s International Airport was the start of our “magical month”. Well, ten days really. We were on our way to the School of Equitation at Alcainca in the small village of Alcainca 25km northwest of Lisbon, Portugal.
We were a group of six dedicated dressage riders/trainers and we had come to immerse ourselves in the finer points of training and riding dressage on pure bred, highly trained Lusitano horses under the tutelage of the chief instructor, Georges Malleroni. Georges is a Frenchman who has lived in Portugal many years and as a young man was a student and protege of Mestre Nuno Oliveira. He has spent his life developing his skills in the breeding and training of Portuguese (Lusitano) horses in the art of dressage and particularly in the “High School”. Georges does travel to the United States to teach clinics but the great advantage of going to his school in Portugal is to take instruction on his trained horses. We were able to practice such moves as piaffe, passage, Spanish Walk, and flying changes for much longer periods than would be possible on most horses simply because the school horses are not only trained but very fit and strong and capable of sustaining such movements so that the riders have a chance to really “feel” the necessary balance, collection and refinement of the aids required.
Everything at Alcainca is on the spot. Our attractive, twin bedded rooms, with en-suite bathrooms were a very short walk from the stables, the dining room, the indoor and outdoor arenas, the swimming pool and the recreation room. The new dining room is upstairs and overlooks the indoor arena so that we could eat breakfast and watch our instructors below working their horses in training before teaching our classes. The food was wonderful and typical of the region with lots of fresh sea food and Lena, the cook, was very attentive to the dietary needs of each guest providing special dishes for the vegetarians and even gluten free bread for one of our group.
Each day we rode in two one and a half hour lessons in two groups of three. We had decided to take one morning off and attend a training session at the Royal Portuguese School of Equestrian Art which, although normally stabled in the ancient palace at Queluz south of Lisbon, was currently in residence at the beautiful new arena built as their winter quarters near the Tower of Belem (from which location Vasco da Gama set out on his explorations of the world). What strikes you as you watch the training sessions is the calm, quiet concentration of the riders and the calmness combined with tremendous energy and animation of the horses. We watched as one horse was being worked towards obtaining a capriole. He knew what his rider wanted but was having difficulty putting it all together. At first he got the leap up and then up and forward but didn’t add the backward kick with both hind legs until he landed all four feet on the ground. His rider quietly persevered, changing the timing of the aids fractionally until, after several tries, the horse got it and performed a beautiful capriole. His rider instantly rewarded him and dismounted and we could not restrain our applause even though it was not a performance but a training session.
For our own lessons at the riding school we were divided into two groups of three, one group with Georges each lesson and the other with Paulo Tita, the other main instructor, who, like Georges, has many years experience instructing at Alcainca. Renato Souza, a young instructor, was not teaching our group but was most interesting to watch as he assisted Georges in the very early training of a young horse and also taught some junior riders in the afternoons. The riding gave us ample opportunity and encouragement to perfect our positions and to refine our application of the aids. To search constantly for the elusive perfect balance and lightness so that our horses responded to the smallest aid.
All horses have some evasions or crookedness and we learned to feel them and correct them so that we became one with our horses. Practicing passage Georges encouraged us to remember that this was the pace for the “victor”. We had just won the battle and were proudly parading in front of our vanquished rival! This can certainly help one to sit tall and straight in the saddle.
Late in our stay we took one afternoon off from riding and Enrique (our driver) took us to Malveira, the local town, to the tack shop where the owner Miguel welcomed us as we spent hours buying up Portuguese bridles and lunge lines and boots and brushes. Then we drove on to the beach resort town of Ericera where we enjoyed being tourists and shopping for local cork and lace and tiles and leather work not to mention shoes and clothes and surf boards (which we didn’t buy) and ended up at a wonderful restaurant built out over the rocks overlooking the ocean. Here we enjoyed a memorable meal of fresh fish, cooked to our order, and Vino Verde as we watched the dramatic sunset over the ocean through the huge picture windows.
Magical is no exaggeration of our days spent at Alcainca and it was with regret and many promises to return soon that we returned to the airport on Friday morning to journey back to reality. Hopefully our horses are all benefiting from the lessons we learned and the improvements we made to our riding and to our vision of what is possible and what we can enjoy together.
Mary Rose, 30th April, 2017