Pat and Sue in Portugal - May 2010

Joy had given Pat (mum) for her 80th birthday, a plane fare to Portugal so she could ride with Filipa. Fortunately she needed a chaperone so I went too and booked lessons with Filipa and Francisco Bessa de Carvalho who is also in the Lisbon area. We had learnt from previous visits not to drive anywhere near Lisbon so we stayed in Villa Franca where the Valenca's have their yard. I have ridden at both yards before but it is always exciting to ride different horses. Pat was given a lovely horse called "Ladina" which she absolutely adored. She had an amazing few rides focussing mainly on lateral work, especially half pass which she and AJ have been struggling to master. Ladina was only too willing to help and Pat's lateral work improved enormously. She also rode flying changes and seemed to be a complete natural at passage. Even Luis, Filipa's father, came and complemented her on her seat and Ladina just went better and better as Pat's grin got wider and wider. I was given several horses all of whom taught me a lot. My flying changes and canter pirouettes started to feel easier and I was able to put several movements together without losing the plot. Francisco, has a very different style of teaching. He is very exacting and somehow, without him actually saying anything, I got the impression that he didn't ask twice, or at least he would soon lose interest if I wasn't paying attention to details. For example, circles are round, corners are square and straight lines are straight. A change of rein across the diagonal has a corner, a straight line, then turn onto the diagonal, straight, then change the bend, then turn onto the track, then straight, then corner. "Be exigent"! I love this word as it implies accuracy, exactitude and urgency all together. We are not very "exigent" in the UK but I am trying to change that.

I had the privilege of riding his lovely old horse Ibis who is an absolute joy to ride. I felt I didn't do him justice but it was wonderful to sit on such a wonderfully balanced and supple horse. Even at 21 years old he still has glorious paces with a lovely cadence. I was also honoured to ride Francisco's young horse Zig Zag. My second ride was 100% better than my first ride and this horse taught me a lot, especially about riding left flexion while going straight.

Francisco is particularly good at reminding you about the "basic fault" when things go wrong. He will unpick a movement or exercise so that you can correct things at a basic level rather than carry on struggling, trying to make things work. He would frequently bring me back to simple work which had to be exact before trying the more difficult work again. And it worked!

We made sure we booked tickets for a performance of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art at the palace of Queluz and were not disappointed. Yet again I was reminded that head up and a correctly aligned spine is not just an Alexander fad - it is essential.

Here are some of Franciscos interesting exercises:

  • Canter with true flexion and counter flexion keeping the body absolutely straight and aligned, even when changing the flexion and without changing the canter lead.
  • Canter (right) with counter flexion (left), leg yield to the centre line (from your left leg) then straight on the centre line keeping the canter lead and the counter flexion. Then, and only if completely balanced and straight, (bearing in mind that his school is about half the size of my school), flying change on the centre line.

And some useful reminders from both Francisco and Filipa:

  • "Everything in riding is preparation"
  • "Head up, shoulders back"
  • "Use your shoulders for the half halt, not the hand"

This last comment and only works if your shoulders are well anchored in your seat and back with a correctly aligned spine. Thank god for Alexander Technique as it could easily be interpreted as "lean" the shoulders back behind the vertical. Neither Filipa or any of the Portuguese riders at the school "lean" back but they are well and truly on their seats and in their backs with a well stretched front line. Of course, the other side of this coin is that the horse needs to be energised and carrying so that you can really sit - which comes first? The chicken or the egg?