Country # 21 – Spain: The Land of Dancing Horses or Unusual Birthday Present

The trip to Spain and lessons in Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre were presents for my birthday. I know it’s the complete opposite to how a normal birthday girl will treat herself: I’ve chosen bruises and sore muscles over a spa and a relaxing massage; blisters from the reins over a manicure; and 3 hours daily of riding under the hot sun of Jerez de la Frontera over relaxing on a beach with something refreshing in my hand. But isn’t that what every horsewoman would chose?

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According to Wikipedia The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art (in Spanish, Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre) is an institution in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, devoted to conserving the ancestral abilities of the Andalusian horse, maintaining the classical traditions of Spanish baroque horsemanship, preparing horses and riders for international dressage competitions, and providing education in all aspects of horsemanship, coachdriving, blacksmithing, the care and breeding of horses, saddlery, and the manufacture and care of horse harness.

Needless to say the night before the first lesson I could barely sleep, feeling like… well, like an amateur street fighter dying to learn the art of fighting would feel when he is about to knock at the door of a Shaolin monastery.

What if these international level riders tell me I’m hopeless, that I cannot even do the basics properly? What if their horses are trained in a way that if you don’t give perfectly timed commands they will not do anything? And I went on and on feeling more and more butterflies in my stomach every second. Luckily, I suddenly remembered a phrase my trainer once told me: “Butterflies are good, as long as you make them fly in formation.”

I fall asleep with this thought and woke up with it.

When I arrived at the school early in the morning of the next day, we, another student from Mexico (Carlos) and myself, were introduced to our instructors and received printed programs of the training week, booklets with the school information and bright red polo-shirts with the school’s logo. Everybody in the school wears shirts of the same design, but in different colors. Qualified trainers wear dark-blue ones, apprentices: dark green, and us (visiting students): red – most likely because red is the color of danger. You know, like in traffic rules :-)

I glanced at the course program and found out that my first trainer would be Joaquín Vázquez (as I learned later, Joaquín came to the school 31 year ago, first as an apprentice and 4 years later, after completing  his education, he stayed as an instructor) and my first horse – a lovely 18-year-old grey stallion, Tematico.

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By the way, all the horses in the stables are stallions. The vast majority of them are P.R.E. (Pura Raza Española), pure bred Spanish horses, although they came from different breeders. Tematico, for example, was born at Yeguada Militara – the farm belonging to the Spanish military forces, which we visited a few days later.

But back to my first lesson. This day will stay in my memory as the day I did tons of things for the first time in my life.

Surprisingly, Joaquín didn’t ask me about my riding experience or what I wanted to learn. He just helped me to mount Tematico, demonstrated how to hold double reins (I’d never ridden with double reins before), told me to lengthen my stirrups to the degree that I could barely touch them, and after just 5 minutes of limbering-up walk in a breathtakingly beautiful outside arena, I was told to do a half-pass. Although I wasn’t sure if I gave him the right signals – Tematico did it just fine.

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Then Joaquín told me to do the flying changes in serpentine. “Hmm,” I thought. Back in Bahrain I’ve tried to teach my own horse to do flying changes before, but my success rate was about 2 arguably decent changes out of out of 5 attempts :-). But I thought that I’d better try first and then confess that I didn’t actually know how to do it, rather than admit it beforehand. To my surprise Tematico made all 3 changes perfectly. Inspired by success we made 4 loops serpentine and my seasoned school-master did everything perfectly again. Is he a mind-reader?

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“Super,“ said Joaquín. “In a week’s time you will do tempi changes.” (Skipping forward, I did oneseys on the same day riding another horse, but in a way that I could not be proud of :-( )

Flying changes were followed by Spanish walk and more half-passes in all gaits. “Not bad for the first 30 minutes in a school,” I thought.

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But that wasn’t it. I was asked to piaffe. To be honest I had a very vague idea on how to ride piaffe. Well, I knew the signals, as we are trying to teach one of our horses to do it, but he has never actually done more than 2-3 steps, so I wasn’t sure if I was doing it correctly. But, as with the flying changes, Tematico read my thoughts. Suddenly, all the theoretical knowledge came together like a jigsaw puzzle: my hands, legs, sit, voice and the subtle moves of a long schooling whip converged into the rhythm of Tematico’s dance.

I was already on the cloud nine, when the trainer told me to do passage (another thing I hadn’t done before, and another thing I was either too shy or too stubborn to confess) so I gave Tematico a bit longer rein and he floated forward.

When, at the end of the lesson, I asked Joaquín how they teach horses to do it, the answer was short but exhaustive: “It’s just like a computer: press F5 and then F9, at least it works with Tematico every time.” :-)

I dismounted and led Tematico to the shower then rushed back to the inside arena to meet my second trainer, José María Sánchez, and ride the second horse – a 13-year-old bay, Ricado, who looked like a bodybuilder of the equine world.

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Real Esquela is one of the famous Jerez de la Frontera touristic attractions along with numerous bodegas (vineries) and flamenco shows. So the inside arena (the same arena where they perform their famous show ‘Como bailan los caballos Andaluces’ (or ‘How the Andalusian Horses Dance’) is always full of visitors. Riding there among trainers and apprentices, practicing dizzyingly complex moves to music and being watched by dozens of strangers amplifies your emotions – you feel a bit prouder when you do something correctly and a bit more ashamed when it doesn’t go according to plan :-)

Ricado made amazing flying changes in the middle of a figure-of-8, but when asked to do a single change on the diagonal, he was somehow misreading my signals and starting a one-time tempis. Every. Single. Time. I’m sure it looked absolutely stunning from outside, but the fact that it was what Ricado wanted, not what I wanted, really upset José María :-) “No, no!” he shouted from another side of the arena . “One, Uno, One change only!” And I started all over again on another diagonal, just to do it all wrong again.

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The biggest problem with miracles is that you get used to them. Sometimes too quickly… Less than 2 hours ago, I first rode with double reins, first did piaffe, passage and flying changes on serpentine, and now I’m upset with the horse doing tempi changes (would you believe!!!) instead of one simple change. If Ricado could talk, he surely would have said that we humans are never satisfied.

But I had the third horse waiting for me – another gorgeous grey stallion Quebracho – and another challenge. This time Joaquín decided that I had to try some doma Vaquera (the rather cowboy style of riding used by bull fighters) as if riding the 3rd horse wasn’t already challenge enough.

I have to admit that although it’s not simple, it’s not impossible either. You can do pretty much everything reining with your left hand only. We did a half-pass in walk, trot and canter, a few flying changes and piaffe.

Of course later I understood that an introduction to doma Vaquera was a sneaky way to teach me to use my legs much more and my hands much less. :-)

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When initial awkwardness had gone and I managed to calmly canter Quebracho on the circle, I got that amazing feeling of belonging. To this place. To the calm surrounding music. To these fairy-tale-like horses. I was no longer a stranger. I was here to learn as much as I could and to erase my riding related insecurities.

Ever thought how sometimes we think that we are not good enough, not capable enough, not learning fast enough? And how some people help us to feel this way? :-) But when you are surrounded by great riders and equally great horses, who literally give you wings; when you get out of your comfort zone and face your fears and uncertainties; when you understand or say a few words in a yet unknown language for the first time, or do something you perceived impossible just a minute ago; this overwhelming feeling of “I can” changes you and makes you stronger. Until the time you get back into “not-good-enough” mode again. :-)

And you know what? I suddenly realized that my butterflies were flying in formation :-)

P.S. Want to learn more about the history of Real Escuela and their ‘How the Andalusian Horses Dance’ show? Don’t miss next post.

6 thoughts on “Country # 21 – Spain: The Land of Dancing Horses or Unusual Birthday Present

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, what a wonderful experience. I was in Jerez a few years ago and went to a show at the Real Esquela, but I didn’t realize you could ride there! I did end up riding at a stable in Santa Maria called the Equestrian Centre Las Marias. It was lovely, but nothing like your experience. I guess another trip is in order!

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