Portugal, August 2011 - Experiences of a Novice
by Arrow Equestrian student, Sarah Craig

When I first heard of the trip to Portugal for four days to have lessons with Filipe Valenca I thought this would be a really good opportunity. A really good opportunity, that is, for someone else. Someone far more experienced (and brave) than I and certainly, someone who rode more often than once a week. I laughed away the encouragement of my friend to 'give it a try' and only succumbed after assurances from Sue and Joy that it would be fine; beginners could go; the horses would be just like Icaro; and we would probably stay in walk and trot. In blissful ignorance, I booked.

At my next lesson at Arrow, Sue airily got out the Pelham and spurs much to the consternation of both Icaro and myself. My familiarization training began. Holding four reins I could just about manage but trying to change the whip over left me feeling like Erik's 'one-armed paper hanger'. Sue attached a second rein to Blackberry and I got in some practice on him although not without attracting some sidelong glances from those who thought that using a whip with Bb was a little unusual. Bb also came into his own as Sue used him to teach me the rudiments of half pass and flying change. It was then down to the long suffering Icaro to take things a step further but I was absolutely cook-a-hoop when he did some flying changes for me.

We arrived in Portugal in the early afternoon and after a quick stop at our hotel to change we went to the equestrian centre. There were five of us, including Joy. I was given a lovely grey called Jaguar and within ten minutes we were into shoulder-in and half pass. Jaguar was very well behaved and although the lesson was challenging with the majority of the hour and a quarter spent in sitting trot and canter, I finished tired but reasonably confident. We then had the first of our theory lecture/demonstrations from Luis which was extremely interesting but more of which later. By this time I had definite ideas about a shower and supper and was somewhat taken aback to find we were to have another ridden lesson. "It's only seven o'clock" said Joy. My next ride was on the wonderful Umilde and we started counter canter in preparation for the flying changes which came the next morning.

This first day felt longer than the remaining three but the format was the same - two ridden lessons and one theory/demo. The lessons were mainly in sitting trot and canter and the training techniques used on the horses - repetition and positive reinforcement - were also used on us. We learned very quickly that a "just one more time" from Filipe probably meant just another six times, or it certainly did in my case. At the end of each lesson we got a special treat in the way of Spanish walk, piaffe or passage. As the horses knew that this meant the end of the lesson they were only too willing to oblige. It was a fantastic experience. I had one other change of horse, another lovely grey named Ladina who was one of Pat's (Sue's Mum) favourites when she went there. All of my horses were very well trained and well behaved. It was a privilege to be able to ride them and I am sure that the others in the group felt the same.

The lecture/ demos from Luis were very good. He is obviously very experienced; passionate about his horses; and a great character. He started with the background of the Iberian horses. He explained their relationship with the wild bulls of the area and of how their co-existence had resulted in the particular characteristics of the horses - fast, flexible and with a heightened perception of danger. Man then built on this natural selection process by using the bulls to help train the horses for war. From this, bullfighting began and the special characteristics of the horses became even more important. Because they are fine and flexible but lack the strong musculature of, for example, the Hanoverian horses Luis concentrates on putting them in the correct position before starting a movement but emphasizes that this must be done with lightness and not with force. Hence his mantra of "position, lightness and impulsion".

He further explained his philosophy whilst working a young horse on the lunge. He uses his voice giving not words but the soothing 'aahh' for praise and 'hep' for rebuke. This is used throughout their training and it was noticeable that all the horses we saw knew his voice. It is used to particularly good effect when the horse is introduced to ridden aids and the rider gives a very light aid while he uses his voice. They do use spurs from the very beginning because he considers it to be more beneficial to use a light touch with the spur rather than a heavier leg aid which can cause the horse to contract the muscles rather than move readily forward. When introducing the whip he uses it to ask the horse to halt as well as to advance and accustoms them to being touched with it all over their body to help them lose any fear of it.

The next day he demonstrated in-hand work on the same horse that he had lunged the previous day. He explained that, in Portugal, the horses are brought into work at about three years old and whilst they have good elasticity in stretching forwards they are limited in their lateral movement and in-hand work is especially useful. He first worked the haunches, then the shoulders and then both together. We all had the opportunity to try both in hand work and long reining on the final day and it became apparent that things which look easy in the hands of experts are often very difficult!

Luis demonstrated piaffe training on three different horses and in this work, repetition and positive reinforcement were used. The horses were tapped on the hind legs and were praised when they lifted the leg rather than kicking backwards. Later, the whip was used gently on the rump to encourage a soft springy movement and on the neck to improve the expression in the shoulders. Both Felipe and Luis worked together for much of this training. The last horse was worked between the pillars and was obviously fairly new to this experience. Luis started by asking the horse to move from side to side to help to relax his back and then continued with the same training that we had seen previously. He explained to us that the pillars are very good for exercising the back of a horse and told us that he had once had a horse who moved like a rabbit when in canter and he had improved the movement considerably by exercising him between the pillars. One of many good stories Luis told us.

Portugal was an experience not to be missed. The weather was hot but both of the schools were cool: the facility was beautiful with flowering shrubs and bougainvillea clambering over the stable roof : the horses were fantastic and all of the people friendly and very helpful. Joy organized everything brilliantly and also took videos of some of our lessons and took masses of photographs - some of which I prefer to forget! If you get the opportunity to go it is well worth it however experienced (or inexperienced) you may be.

Classical Dressage Courses with Filipa Valenca at the Centro Equestre Grande, Portugal, (www.celg.pt) can be arranged through Arrow Equestrian. Filipa also gives clinics at Arrow Equestrian, Herefordshire and at Waterstock, Oxfordshire (see Diary Dates for details).