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  • Writer's pictureColton Woods

Ahhhh Riding Grand Prix in Portugal

I have thought quite a bit on how to start this blog post after such an incredible trip and personal dive into whole new realm of horsemanship and culture. The fact of the matter is, one can share their insight via words but to really grasp the depth of such an experience, one must experience it for themselves. I'll do my best though and we hope you enjoy the photos from this amazing experience as well!

My wife, Maredith, and I ventured to Lisbon, Portugal for a 10 day experience where we would have the opportunity to ride true Grand Prix schoolmasters under the instruction of world class professionals at Mestre Luis Valenca's school and facility, Valenca Classical Riding Academy. During our time there we each rode different horses that suited not only our strengths but also horses that would expose our weaknesses and provide us with the opportunity to improve upon them. All these horses were Luistano stallions. That is right, a farm full of stallions, and let me tell you; it was one of the most tranquil, peaceful equestrian facilities I've been blessed to spend time at.

Each day we had 2-3 lessons that last about an hour each. Each lesson was very focused, detail oriented and most definitely challenging. Over the course of our trip we worked on maneuvers such as shoulder-in, leg yield, travers, half pass, tempi changes, Spanish walk, piaffe, passage, extended trot, working equitation, canter pirouettes and more! At the forefront of all of this was our equitation. Why? Well my friend Patrick King said it very well during an evening chat, "Equitation isn't just about looking pretty or just another class at a horse show... True classical equitation is about how we enable or disable our horses through the alignment of our bodies."

To feel and experience these movements with such amazing quality and true self carriage was priceless. To be able to ride a horse that was a true schoolmaster and would honestly respond to you as a rider and let you know when you were right or wrong was priceless.

One of the greatest investments we can make in our lives and in our horses, is an investment in ourselves. With the hustle and bustle of everyday life that cliche principle can get swept to the side, but sometimes we just have to make the decision to do it and commit to it. This trip was a commitment to ourselves to be the best we can be for us, our horses and our students today and in the years to come.

At my clinics and lessons I share with each of our students, "Folks, I am giving you the very best I know right now. If you ask me the same question, tomorrow, next week, in six months or in a year I may have a difference answer because I know better. When you know better, you do better. I'm constantly pursuing my craft of horsemanship and coaching so you can bet when we ride together again, I'll be further along in my journey and be able to help you better along yours."

Many of the subtle moments and lessons learned during this trip will be in reflection for a long time, but I went ahead and picked the Top 10 Takeaways I experienced during this trip to also share with you.

I also should mention we did other things besides ride! My wife was pretty excited about the wine, cheese and castles as we embarked on this journey and we definitely got to enjoy all of those! Our riding days were split with two days in between where we got to see some incredible sights (which you'll see in the photos), we ate incredible food that was so fresh and healthy, drank great wine and plenty of it, made incredible memories with new and old friends and experienced an amazing culture and way of life that brings kindness, presence, gratitude and true priorities to the forefront.

Each year my friend Patrick King exclusively offers the opportunity for equestrians of all levels to embark on this incredible trip through an application process. It is an all inclusive trip (besides airfare) that will not only revolutionize your horsemanship but also introduce you to an incredible country, culture and people. Maredith and I will definitely be venturing back at some point in the future, but for now we have lots to work on with our horses and within ourselves!

Top 10 Takeaways from Valenca Classical Riding in Portugal

1- Do Less

Just when you think you're nearly doing nothing, do less. In fact, do nothing at all and just think about it. Yep- I heard those words on repeat all week.

We know horse's can feel the landing of a fly on them, we understand that they are super sensitive by nature. Many of us are on a quest to communicate better with our horses, but it's remarkably incredible how much less we can do and also how much more aware we can be of what we are doing at all times with our own body and mind.

2-Self Carriage

This was a remarkable experience that changed my perspective on self carriage. We want the horse to be responsible for themselves while still remaining tentative and patiently awaiting the rider's next request. That means, 'Do what I ask you to do until I ask you to do something different'. There is a lot to that. But perhaps the most eye opening thing I found is that does not mean the horse must do this on their own. Self carriage is something we do together with our horses. We must be there to guide them every step and maintain our selves in the process. Self carriage is not something we tell a horse to do and then we just get to do whatever on their back and expect them to do their job. It is a dance, a partnership. We must lead the dance for if we don't- well, it is simple, our equitation either enables or disables them. It is something we do together.

3-Tension in Our Bodies

Oh boy... Well needless to say I have a lot to work on here and I know I am not alone! But in the quest of being the best we can be for our horses so they can truly do what we may ask of them, we must address the body tension. This is yet another branch of enabling or disabling our horses. Tension in our bodies will disable our horse's ability to move in certain ways. Stretching, yoga, more stretching. It is a process, but a fundamental piece we must be honest about and address openly.

4- Schoolmasters

To be a horseman, one must welcome the quest to improve themselves so they can better fit the horses they have the opportunity to work with. To horseback ride, you just need a horse that will ignore the human's ignorance and lack of desire to get better so they can go for a ride and not die.

These horse's at the Valenca's were true schoolmasters. They know the maneuvers extremely well and are extremely patient horses. The breeding certainly says a lot about them. They were not horses that would just do a maneuver regardless if the human got the cue right or not. One must learn how to ask a horse and how to maintain a specific request through equitation. The instructors were tremendous at helping the students fill the gaps of misunderstanding and lack of knowledge between the human and horse. These horses would truly teach you how to request properly and how to ride in a classical manner that met the needs of the horse mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

A schoolmaster provides the human with the opportunity to rise to a higher level of understanding and ability by responding to where and how the human is currently communicating with the horse. A school master does not do the work for the human in spite of a human's inability.

5- Equitation & Biomechanics

As you can already tell- these two elements were huge pieces of this trip for both the horse and human. Perhaps said best by Mark Russell, "The horse is not meant to fit dressage, dressage is meant to fit the horse."

I'm personally on a journey to find what works best for our horses. We must respect how they are naturally and develop a path that works with those natural tendencies to progress them in a manner and towards a goal that sets them up for success.

6- Leg Aids (Tac, Tac)

Oftentimes (and yes I've been one to say this countless times) we talk about 'pushing' our horse around. Not in a bullying kind of way by any means but as a way to express us asking them to yield. Most commonly it is used in the context of a horse yielding to our leg, however, it could also be a yield while doing ground work, liberty work, or even to the bridle.

While in Portugal we were prefaced and then experienced the instruction of "Tac Tac". This was their request of the leg and even whip regardless of maneuver. The words by nature say a lot about how we would incorporate that into our riding. It was not a push of the leg, it was more of a light flutter or perhaps tap of the calf or whip. 'Tac Tac' has promptness and lightness to it. It is utilized as a true aid as a 'Hey, get it together you are: late, behind, or let's go' kind of context to it. It further fed the concept of self carriage making the horse's responsible for themselves in the process.

Horse's cannot lean into a tap or 'Tac' but they can lean into a push. Furthermore mentally, it is an explanation of 'Hey I am not going to beg you to do your job. This what I am showing you is your responsibility' so then the horses become more in tune with the rider's communication while more confident in what they are suppose to do without using the rider as a crutch to mentally or physically lean on.

7- Give Me a Job! (Working Equitation Experience)

All but one of our rides were on the flat, or in other words, just working on the maneuvers previously mentioned in an empty arena. As I mentioned this was a challenging experience of working on one's self- perhaps the frustration lies between gaining the self awareness of one's short comings and then struggling to overcome them in the process. But I didn't embark on this trip for an easy experience, I came to get better.

So when did I have best ride of the trip? When they finally gave me a job to do. I, just like our horses, like to see the purpose behind the vision for what we are working on and to have more real world context behind where and when we would use these skills. Having a job to do also changes our focus when we ride, and for me, got me to stop doing so much and to just ride with more intention and probably clarity as well. I got to ride Anju a 14 year old ex bull fighting horse who I had grown fond of and learned a lot from during our lessons together. We put to work our dressage maneuvers as we navigated a working equitation course with well timed tempi changes through a series of poles, reining back through an 'L' pattern, working a rope gate and several other pieces to the course. Needless to say, I could definitely enjoy pursuing working equitation competitions.

8- Enjoy the Struggle

I am a huge advocate for the principle, "Get comfortable being uncomfortable." Why? Well because... Life. It gets uncomfortable at times, guaranteed, and if we want any chance to make it to the other side of those less than ideal times better than we were when they started then we need to be able to get our bearing in those uncomfortable times so we can respond in a calculated manner and not resort to an emotional response. With our horses, many of us have them because we enjoy them as animals and want to be able to have fun doing something we enjoy. In turn many of us have goals we'd like to accomplish with our horses whether that is to participate in a certain community event like a trail ride or parade, pursue showing at a certain level/discipline, and for a few, make a career of working with and training horses.

In any of those quests, there will be trying times and we need to remember our 'Why'. We need to expand our depth of our own self awareness, embrace the elements in which we struggle, have a vision for where we are headed, create a plan from where we are to where we would like to be, surround ourselves with those we admire because they continue to succeed at levels we would like to and along the journey we need to embrace the struggle as the journey towards growth, opportunity, purpose and a chance to make a lasting impact on all of those, human and horses, which we connect with on our journey.

9- Work Hard, Have Fun, Be Humble & Kind

The atmosphere at Valenca Classical Riding was world-class. Every single person from Mestre Luis to all of the instructors and everyone a part of the Valenca team were impeccable. Everyone was there to help and support you however they could. Day after day they worked so hard to meet the needs of each rider, they had fun (and in turn we had fun), they had a great sense of humor and were extremely respectful of each participant as they made changes within their own journeys, and if at any time one had questions, concerns or requests, they always did their best to answer, explain and make adjustments to fit the requests. It was a remarkable environment that sets the stages for the incredible level of peace that flows through their facility, their horses and themselves.

10- Ahhhh

Words mean a lot. They often are the verbal representation of where our mind is at. And perhaps as I write this, I realize that our words are even a representation of where our soul is at.

Since coming back to our facility in Kentucky, I've embraced the 'Ahhh'. The 'Ahhh', as I understand it in this moment in my own journey, is the peaceful energy that meets tension, confusion, and anything where emotions run high and the next thing that needs to happen is for everything to relax. It encapsulates the approach of not making a big deal out of something you'd rather not see happen and rather invest the energy in helping one make a change towards what you'd rather see.

In moments it is a training approach but all the time, it is a way to live life.

Huge, huge thank you to Ariat of Lexington, KY for helping me get squared away with my breeches, half chaps and boots before this awesome trip! Thank you to Hannah for looking after and keeping our horses going during our time away as well as to everyone else who helped make this trip possible.



Colton, this was an awesome read! You definitely captured the experience through your words. The list of 10 takeaways resonated so much with me. I loved your explanation of the Schoolmaster horse. They do not perform in spite of the rider (this I know!), rather they help the rider find the proper aids and balance. I look forward to more insight from CWH!

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