Travel Articles

Spain- Dressage Vacation

As I watched Napoleon, a beautiful white Andalusian, neighing and pawing the ground and prancing around, agitated at having to stand for a minute, I felt sure that this was not the horse that I would be riding for my dressage lesson at Epona, a riding center outside of Seville that specializes in dressage training. With my hunter jumper training, I have learned a little about dressage, but nothing that would prepare me to ride a highly trained, highly sensitive horse and actually cue him to do something.

Vivi, the daughter of Fernando and Jane, who own Epona, was riding Napoleon, practicing the Spanish walk, piaffe and passage and looking fantastic. Vivi has been studying dressage her entire life, including four years at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, studying under Olympic medalist Rafael Soto. She’s what I would call a near expert in dressage. I say “near” because with dressage, as with other types of riding, there is always something to learn. One can study dressage for a lifetime. Also, you may be riding or training different horses, which takes years as well.

Vivi rode over to me on Napoleon and asked if I wanted to try the piaffe and passage, two upper-level dressage movements. I kind of didn’t, as I wasn’t sure that I could handle Napoleon. He is quite a horse with a lot of energy and strength, but when else would I have the chance to ride a horse like Napoleon, who is so well trained, under the guidance of his trainer? After expressing my concerns to Vivi, I decided to give it a try.

Napoleon was just as I thought he would be, very responsive. I felt the energy right as I got on and took a few deep breaths to loosen up. Vivi led me over to a guardrail to make the session a bit safer and worked with me so that I was giving Napoleon the right cues. It’s definitely a balance to get it right. You want to give just enough leg pressure and just enough contact with the reins, so that the horse knows what you want him to do.

It took me a few minutes, before I was able to communicate correctly with Napoleon with Vivi’s help and guidance. When Vivi is on the ground, Napoleon is used to practicing the levade, a collected movement during which the horse raises its front legs into the air at a 30 to 35 degree angle to the ground and holds this position. Because of the angle, this is very difficult for the horse.

When I first got on, Napoleon raised his front legs up several times in an attempt to do the levade. This was a little disconcerting, but I didn’t actually feel unsafe. Once Napoleon knew that we were breaking up his routine, he responded very well. With Vivi’s help, I was able to get Napoloen to do the piaffe, a collected movement when the horse trots in place. I felt his extreme power under me as we bounced up and down, and I amazingly was able to keep my bum in the saddle. I smiled inside at having accomplished this, so was eager to try something else.

Vivi let me feel the passage next. The passage is a movement during which the horse performs an exaggerated trot, which feels almost like trotting in slow motion. Napoleon moved his legs high into the air and seemed very proud to be moving in this way. All of these movements require that the horse be extremely fit and have built up the proper muscles to be able to move this way. Trying to do these things for the first time let me experience part of the feeling of accomplishment that dressage riders must feel when they are dancing with their horses.

After dressage, Fernando and I rode through the olive fields and to an old abandoned hacienda. I was on Handsome, a beautiful, bay Andalusian. At the over 100-year-old hacienda, we got off of our horses and walked through the inside to see the giant clay pots used to store the olives and the various rooms where the olive oil was processed. Just another day on horseback in Andalucia!

Learn more about dressage vacations in Spain.

Darley Newman is the host of the Public Television series Equitrekking®, which takes viewers on horseback riding vacations around the world. Visit equitrekking.com and purchase Equitrekking DVDs, the Equitrekking Travel Adventures on Horseback book and more at ShopDarley.com.