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The art of horsemanship

Riding the classical way in Portugal

23 May 2007

6:17 PM

23 May 2007

6:17 PM

On weekends my husband and I haul our legs from under our desks and spend a few hours on horseback in the country. It’s a lot more fun than exercising at the gym, and riding through the countryside is blissful. We’ve become fascinated by classical riding — similar to dressage which evolved from it, but less about competing. It’s like a philosophy, which aims to enable the horse to move with the same ease carrying a rider as at liberty.

The earliest extant work on the subject is Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship of 360 bc, where he praised the gifted Iberian horsemen for their role in the Spartans’ defeat of Athens. It evolved in the Iberian peninsula from the need for precision and manoeuvrability in battle, and the tradition continues with the Portuguese bloodless bullfighters on horseback.

Without a teacher to help us we were making slow progress and I’d become too nervous to ride out of the sand school into the country. You can’t avoid roads with thundering trucks any more and as far as I’m concerned that’s as dangerous as a cavalry charge and too reckless to undertake if your family depends on you. Even away from roads, a lot of people die in riding accidents. I want to be able to ride safely as well as beautifully, anytime and anywhere. So I called the equestrian travel specialists at In the Saddle and booked classical riding classes with master Antonio Calhamar in Golegã, Portugal.

Golegã is the breeding centre for Lusitano horses and kids there are raised on horseback. It’s a whitewashed village an hour and a half’s drive north-east of Lisbon, not far from the castle of the Knights Templar at Tomar. Behind every gate there are stables and the main square is a vast sand school with goals for horse-ball at either end. In November the national horse fair fills the streets with colour, but normally traffic consists of a few elderly farmers on bicycles (three speeds: slow, slower and stop) and the occasional 4×4.

As we drove up to the gates of the Lusitanus private breeders’ club, where we were to stay, my husband reminded me that I resent being taught anything and cautioned me not to lose my temper. Personally, I was more worried about something else. In England we ride geldings and mares. Here we’d be riding stallions.

The first morning Antonio introduced us to our horses. ‘This is Hugo, he is always available.’ I couldn’t help noticing that Hugo had cojones the size of dinner plates. Antonio grinned and added, ‘I’m just going to remind him who’s boss.’ He slid his hands between Hugo’s back legs and gave the dinner plates five or six hearty taps.

And then we entered the riding school and Antonio warmed up the horses. That was when he became a demigod in my eyes. Our jaws dropped as he flew through half-pass, passage, piaf and pirouettes in canter, much of it one-handed in bullfighting style. It was a display busting with life, wit and beauty ending with a circus bow on one knee from the horse. And this was from a man who had broken his back in a car accident and had to learn to walk again.

The club was simple but elegant and we were looked after by a nice housekeeper called Bina. It’s a professional working yard, not always used for teaching, and all day long other trainers like Francisco lunged or exercised magnificent Lusitanos. In the village we found a 16th-century church with azulejos, and the Lusitano Hotel and Spa (with WiFi) where designer Teresa Matos has blended contemporary pieces by Fontana Arte and Foscarini with the traditional architecture. There was also a photographic studio built in 1872 by Carlos Relvas — esteemed member of the French Photographic Society, philan-thropist and horseman.

It turned out that we knew little about riding when we arrived, which is probably why I’d become so nervous. Ignorance and fear usually do go hand in hand. For a week we had two daily lessons, including a trail ride, and Antonio explained everything with erudite historical references, vivid comic demonstrations, passion and sensitivity.

Our riding improved enormously and we became aware of new possibilities and doors to new worlds opening. My husband is going to learn tai chi to improve his balance, and he also learned that I never lose my temper with a great teacher. After the first day I didn’t even notice Hugo’s eye-catching tackle.

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