Riding dressage horses in Portugal was something I always wanted to do and it happily lived up to my expectations on a recent trip there. Flying to Lisbon I visited two ranches – the first the beautiful estate and winery of Quinta du Rol about an hour and a half from Lisbon.
I moved into my gorgeous house renovated from the estates traditional farm buildings which also housed two Finnish riders and a Canadian couple. It is a beautiful estate, with an indoor swimming pool, yoga, lovely food and incredible equestrian facilities – an indoor, a huge outdoor and every thing is immaculate, including the horses.
They gleam with condition, their bright eyes peeking through the traditional Lusitano long mane and convex face. In the late 1960s the Iberian horse split into two studbooks; the Spanish Andalusian and the Portugese Lusitano. The Spanish have gone since towards a more Arab lighter type – particularly evident in the head but the Lusitanos remain a short backed, compact animal with that gorgeous unusual convex face.
Classical dressage really has its home in Portugal, if you discount its early origins in Asia, as a craft for teaching cavalry horses to dodge lances and generally respond quickly and laterally to the rider. It’s had many iterations and add ons, but essentially the Classical tradition of lightness and elevation is still the core of dressage riding in Portugal.
In Quinta du Rol, I learned to not ride so much, and to be finer about my aids. There are more buttons on these horses and you need to think more and be less sloppy as a rider. I did some piaffe and passage (the horse did it) and had some roadblocks with the less difficult movements that I really had to polish up my riding on to get around.
For the second ranch I visited; Escola de Equitation in Alcainca, my husband and daughters aged ten and eight had joined me in Portugal. At least the pool would occupy them I thought, but it transpired that in late October the weather was a little too chilly to swim so all three ended up riding dressage horses instead!
My husband Philip who grew up on a thoroughbred stud, is pretty disinterested in flatwork. But he hunts and as someone inclined towards horsemanship in general, was willing and enthusiastic about a lesson with Renato on one of the Luisitano geldings. It was a fun session with great tuition in all paces towards collection. By the end of the lesson which finished with some piaffe and passage Philp was converted, noting how in Portugal dressage is very much a masculine sport (not that he is going to start lateral work with his hunter any time soon).
My daughters both had a lunge lesson and later my ten year old – Anna had a lesson off the lunge doing some shoulder in and lateral work. She competes in BD novice tests so is at a good stage to learn the some of the higher movements and get a proper feel of that bigger medium step. She also really enjoyed senior instructor Paulo, and while the teaching in Portugal can sometimes feel like a barrage – “soften left rein, open right hand, right leg back, MORE RIGHT LEG!!!” – she appreciated the amount of progress you make as a student there, not just on specific movements but in your general riding.
Paulo also loved her and marvelled at how anyone can get a pony to do a good dressage test. “Here we do not have ponies, the children learn to ride the Lusitano horse, even the little babies!”
Lusitano horses do indeed seem to have an extraordinary relaxed and willing attitude. We think our Irish Draughts and Connemaras have similar qualities but really these horses are special. Very able to do the advanced level of work but extraordinarily willing and patient, and it goes without saying, completely bombproof.
At the annual Lusitano horse festival in Golega we saw horses lined up outside bars, piaffing down the street, competing in serious dressage and showjumping competitions and my friend there sent me a clip of some riders in a nightclub in the later hours on Lusitano horses. All practically dozing in a line as the riders chatted and drank beers. I would certainly recommend a visit and plan to go back to Golega, which takes place twice a year – in early November and again in Springtime when there is a smaller fair. Golega is about an hour from Quinta du Rol in a car and an hour and a half drive from Alcainca. Its best to go as a day trip as accommodation there is booked out year on year.
When I returned from riding in Portugal, even though it was a short trip of five days, I felt I came home a better rider. I learned to sit more quietly, do less and use my seat more effectively. As a BHS qualified instructor myself, I also felt that the basics of teaching were effectively delivered here no matter what the discipline. If a movement is not done properly you do it again. And if the horse is being evasive you have to deal with that as well. They are not all point and shoot, and if you don’t ask properly, a movement won’t happen.
So the teaching in both ranches was great on this – pulling you up on bad habits while also giving you the opportunity to ride haut ecole movements which is a rare enough thing in any environment.
We also had a lot of what we Irish call craic – a really important aspect of any riding holiday. It was certainly boot camp on the horse but afterwards both ranches were really relaxing with good food, wine and conversations with both the clients and instructors.
I learned about the Iclandic toltpace from some Norweigan clients at dinner, talked about the ex racehorse rehoming with a lovely Aussie couple at Quinta do Rol and about animal welfare extremists from a great pair of Dutch girls at Alcainca who were repeat visitors, and great fun. The instructors also shared meals with us at Alcainca and it was a privilege to talk with George who had trained with Nuno Olivera (who had been based in the next village for a long time).
From both of these riding centres the famous Portugese Atlantic coast is a short drive away with the gorgeous beach of Praia da Areia Branca close to Quinta du Rol, and from Alcainca, Ericiera is nearby – a beautiful village for days at the beach, fishing or eating in its lovely seafood restaurants.
I’ll definitely be returning to ride in both these places. The funny thing was it was in general a fantastic holiday – not just the riding but the interactions we had with everyone there and most surprisingly of all, my husband loved it.
Zara, Jill & Laura would like to thank Suzanne & her family for test riding these wonderful new additions to our collection which we are thrilled to be able to share and organise trips to in 2020. For more information on these trips please contact us or have a look on our website:
Quinto Del Rol: FAMILY ESTATE CLASSICAL DRESSAGE
Alcainca: ALCAINCA DRESSAGE