Are the Morgado Lusitano stallions marionettes?

Photos: Afonso Bordallo Rodrigues; Stallion: Quefito

I gather an over-whelming amount of learnings every time I visit Morgado Lusitano. The way I am, I go home, and I just have to share what I’ve experienced, so whether my horsey friends want it or not, they get to listen to my account on my visit. When I rage about my learnings, I often get a sceptic reaction: “Those horses are trained marionettes that just go through the motions triggered by signals from the trainers. You could just as well ride a carousel horse”.

Well … the way I see this … speaking purely from my own experience …

The first time I visited I naturally understood that I wasn’t the one who made the passage, piaffe and Spanish walk happen, it was the trainer who walked next to me and helped with a whip. I also noticed that the stallion did a flying change on the diagonal when the trainer clapped his hands.

Getting a taste of strawberry jam

Kyra Kyrklund has said something along the lines, that the challenge in teaching dressage movements to a rider for the first time is like trying to describe what strawberry jam tastes like to someone who has never eaten a strawberry. Riding requires so many aspects of the athletes body to work in a right way, in sync and right-timed that it is great to be able to only focus on how e.g. passage feels without having to think simultaneously about how you use your seat, thighs, legs, heels, stomach muscles, hands, elbows, shoulders, gaze, …

In the first phase these “marionettes” offer you the opportunity to feel what you’re aiming for. As you progress on the lessons you get these huge feelings of achievement when you get your horse to do passage without the aid of the trainer. You go through the phases of “was it you or was it me who made this happen?” to seeing your trainer too far away to be able to influence the stallion and you get this “yesh, yesh, yesh, it’s me, I did it”!

You watch pictures and videos of yourself riding better than you’ve ever done before and see fellow visitors ride the stallions beautifully and then you see Morgado Lusitano or the trainers post pictures of the trainers ride the same stallions in shows, and you’re humbled by the understanding that there is so much more power and movement in those stallions that we visitors don’t have the skill to get out of them.

The visits to Morgado Lusitano have been an interesting study into what riding really is about. It’s true that Morgado Lusitano stallions are in a strict program. A strict program makes the horses’ life easier – they don’t need to guess; they know what’s expected of them and what happens next. It is also a safety question and makes it possible for us total amateurs to come and enjoy these amazing feelings. The contrast to the stable life in our hobby stables at home is something to think about.

Some of the take-aways I’ve come home with are focus, preparation and flow.

We only ride our horses about an hour per day. If we sleep eight hours, we are awake 16 hours. Out of those 16 hours we’re just one hour on horseback. We owe it to our horse to be totally with it for that one hour in the day and not for example sit in the saddle and be engaged in social media. The horse does not lose focus. The horse reads us non-stop. It’s for us to keep the dialogue alive throughout the working session.

How many times have you heard your trainer say, “prepare a transition to canter”? I actually asked a riding school teacher years ago what she means by that. What does she want me to do? I didn’t get an answer. I was on a lesson at Morgado and the trainer had me work the horse in gait on a circle, getting the horse to step the inside hind leg under. Then he said, “prepare to ask for canter”. And what did I do? I adjusted my seat, I adjusted by reins, I adjusted my feet in the stirrups,  I don’t know what else I thought I was adjusting, when I heard the trainer say in exasperation “You ruined it, you destroyed everything I helped you build”. I finally understood what preparation is all about. Preparation requires an understanding of the horse’s biomechanics and how a horse produces the movement we ask. It’s made a world of difference in riding my own horse, Quintana, at home.

The trainer had me do an exercise where I rode shoulder-in up the long side of the arena, at the center of the short side turned back in half pass and once I reached the quarter line, I continued in renvers. At the end I changed the stelling and did the same on the other rein. And the clue was to do this all in one flow instead of doing shoulder in + half-pass + renvers + change of stelling + shoulder in + half pass + renvers. It was extremely rewarding to see how focused and relaxed Quinny stayed when I maintained the flow while repeating the exercise with her at home.

Letting go of fear

The take-aways from Morgado Lusitano have made a significant change in the way Q and I work together at home. I’ve had huge challenges with Q. After a serious accident I’ve been afraid of Q. One of the things the experience of being able to ride the stallions has done is for my brain to let go of the fear: being able to get a stallion to cooperate and want to work with me, learning to ride the Morgado Lusitano way, has given great confidence in rebuilding my relationship with Q.

The more I think about it, the more ingenious I think the Morgado Lusitano system is. It allows to take in riding school level riders, let’s them feel what Grand Prix level movements feel like and develops their riding step by step in the right direction. And the stallions are so highly trained, they won’t put a limit to what the rider can learn. The program builds motivation and horsemanship. Kudos Morgado Lusitano for this grand programme!