JP has published over 100 articles on the history, training and the philosophy of horsemanship and dressage. He animates a forum called 1Artoftraining on Yahoo groups on which he writes frequently. He is currently translating a book of Antoine de Coux: "Words of Master Nuno Oliveira" and preparing book that will be a unique contribution to the training process.
J.P.'s Story - In His Own Words...
When I was 8 years old, my father took me to the circus where I saw a fantastic High-School presentation by the late master Roberto Vasconcellos in the center ring of the 'Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey' show in Paris. His horse did Canter-to-the-rear and on 3 Legs, Piaffe and Passage with no reins and fit One Tempi (flying changes at every stride) in the 39 feet of a circus ring. The man made it all look easy. It was 1958 and I had just begun to ride some disobliging, hairy ponies at the local riding club. My passion for horses was already settling in with absolute certainty, like some unrecognized memory resurfacing from another lifetime. I was transported by the display of this Centaur who was performing incredible feats of elegance and control. By the time I came home from the show, my passion for horses was solidly redirected on a quest for the first steps of horsemanship, though I couldn't quite spell the word, yet. Much later, I learned that this magical apparition (seen through the eyes of an 8 year old), was impersonated by a bonafide Portuguese viscount living in self-imposed exile in America. He was a classically trained follower of the great Fillis and his horse was actually an American Saddlebred.
After this inspiring vision, I started a very long equestrian education at the local riding club that mostly consisted in learning how to stay on the pony without falling off too often. The club was expertly directed by a retired French cavalry officer, Capitaine Hubert Clauzel. This dashing rider, dressed in winged "Saumur" riding breeches, a small Trilby hat cocked on his head, had a passion for western riding and often used a stock saddle. He collected horses of every imaginable color and called them "Utah", "Nebraska", "Santa Fe" and "Trigger". His views on teaching were entirely military, experiential and quite testing for the weaker amateurs. We rode in "reprises" (group of 10 to 12 riders performing arena patterns), got our stirrups taken away most of the time, and exercised in the saddle the "mise en selle" ("getting in the saddle") exercises that had left indelible (and somewhat painful) memories in the mind of every cavalry recruit or equestrian enthusiast who practiced them for any length of time. These mild acrobatics consisted in leaning back and balancing on your tail bone in all 3 gaits, holding your leg in your hand with your thigh vertical until your thigh position was suitably "descended", ride without reins or stirrups doing all kind of movements with our arms, etc. These exercises were performed in the arena as well as in the huge forest that surrounded the stables. Another favorite lesson was to ride in "varied terrain", an assortment of slopes, bomb craters left over from World War I and massive banks we crossed in 2 points position (called "position in suspension" in French). He also took us to cross country and show-jumping events that we reached by riding on the roads (no trucks) and slept in a barn with the horses all tied to a manger. Fun was had by all! He also got me to ride in steeple chase amateurs races on the big race tracks surrounding Paris (like Maisons Lafitte and Fontainebleau). This was a fabulous experience that served me well years later when I went to train eventers in England.
Clauzel's teaching style was very simple: we learned by doing and we became convinced that, as long as horses were going forward, everything would be fine. Fences were met in a positive rhythm and we developed a sense of balance and impulsion that made later education into more complex aspects of horsemanship much easier to assimilate. It was really a wonderful education that covered the basis in a way that is rarely available nowadays. We rode horses of many breeds: Thoroughbreds and trotters off the track, Barbs retired from the Spahi Regiments (North African light cavalry that belonged to the French Army), un-papered Spanish horses of every color, Appaloosas from Poland saved from the slaughter house and everything that the local horse trader would drop at the barn for training or resale. We also mucked plenty of stalls, brushed endless school horses and took clients on long trail rides.
One of the clients at the barn, Georges Caubet, owned a beautiful Barb and a Spanish horse of great energy but afflicted with a very difficult inverted neck named Kiva he bought from the Gypsies. Georges was amused by my youthful exuberance and passion for horses and took me along for rides on my favorite school horse Moukhala. Problem was, Kiva became stronger and stronger and was no longer so cooperative for the acrobatics and wild rides Georges and his friends loved. Training became sorely needed and technical questions were asked but left unanswered by our military mentor. Georges read magazines and heard about a recently discovered Portuguese trainer apparently doted of singular talents: Nuno Oliveira. He took me one day to visit the French "delegate" of the Master, Michel Henriquet in his tiny private manege in Bailly near Versailles. Monsieur Henriquet rode several beautiful Lusitanos, who appeared light on their feet, happy in their work, amazingly brilliant and quite unlike anything I had seen so far. George did the pilgrimage to Oliveira in his old school of Povoa de Santo Adriao and came back a changed man. Naturally he had no peace until he convinced a few of us to go as well. That summer, my father (a near total non-rider) and I entered the tiny Picadeiro for the master on tiptoe and quietly sat in his upstairs gallery. Faure's Requiem was playing and he was riding a beautiful bay horse I learned later to be an Alter Real called Corsario. The man on the horse lifted his gaze towards us long enough to say Hi! and returned to the intimacy of his ride. Ten minutes later, I had made the decision that I would spend the rest of my life attempting to ride like THAT! I was 16 years old, I am now 59 and my goal hasn't changed. I have made a little progress and though the road behind me is now quite long, the road in front is not any shorter. I simply know a little more about what I don't know.
Nuno's teaching was mostly done by his horses Zarco the bay who did easy changes, Pluto who taught endless riders the feeling of a great sitting piaffe, Ulisses who did passage, Spanish Walk and Reverence like no other but had a dissymmetry that took a bit of skill to manage, Violaceo the gray with his bullfighting scars and his superb lightness, and endless other unsung heroes trained by the Master or his better students for the benefit of us, the "tourists". We experienced the movements and he gave us the poetry that made it all somehow more understandable but not necessarily easier to achieve. Nuno spoke to us in the terms that made sense to him. He described emotions and concepts from his unique experience as well as from the pages of the treasures of his vast European equestrian library. He chose the horses for each lesson in a way that made us progress by facing our difficulties and taught us how to resolve the technical difficulties of riding. As far as learning to train, we had to peel our eyes watching him ride his own, first in the morning with the young horses of his clients (starting at 5:15 at that time of his life) and later in the afternoon when he rode his own horses: Farsista, Corsario and Ansioso, all bay Alters. His aids were discreet but not completely invisible, just very different of what I was used to from the Cadre Noir riders I had watched and admired until then. He used mostly the leaning of his body and the play of his shoulders to elicit most of his horse's movement and direction. The fingers took care of the details of the horse's mouth while I can only say that his hand was his shoulder, his shoulder directed his hip and his hip became his leg. The main motor of the horse's impulsion was his back, with his shoulders nearly always placed behind his hips so as to push the horse into the infallible roundness that was his signature. At the time, I understood very little of his reasons for the sequences of exercises he unrolled endlessly, but to this day I have not forgotten any of it. He had a supreme idea of what gymnastic can do for horses, endlessly perfecting their balance and flexibility in a way that dissolves all resistances and stiffness. I watched everyday for the month I spent there and returned to France with the zeal of a convert but with the skill of a neophyte. My grandmother bought me my first horse, Uphano d'Orvillars, a trotter just retired from the track and straight from the shafts of the sulky. I learned much from him and managed to teach him a few things until I finally returned to Portugal for good to indulge my passion.
In 1970, after a feeble attempt at University, I went again to Nuno Oliveira's school. I resumed the same course of study, but I soon got to ride a few of the school horses that needed work as well as one or the other of the simpler colts he had in training. A great opportunity arose when his son Joao became unavailable to break 5 colts from the famous breeder Jose de Meneses that Oliveira just received from the stud farm. They were called Jabuti, Jacobeu, Jagunco, Jaleco (all purebred Lusitanos), as well as their half brother, the Luso-Arab Jasmim. For 5 weeks, I rode those colts under the eye (and the scary voice) of the Master. The tone of the lessons was quite different from the dissertations about shoulder-in we heard during the group lessons. There was no time for explanations. It was rather: do that and do it now! Push the horse forward, ride straight into the corners, keep the head stable on a semi-loose rein and maintain the energy during the whole ride. These lessons have become the most cherished part of my apprenticeship because they taught me how important early forwardness is to the entire training process. After that intense phase, everything became easy. Shoulder in, halts, the contact, all came effortlessly because the horses were in balance and forward. Other students started to ride them in a little reprise while I rode Jasmim in front. This brilliant Luso-Arab had turned out to be quite a challenge and tested both my determination and solidity in the saddle.
After I ran out of money to pay for my lessons, I got a job as assistant trainer at the National Stud of Alter do Chao where the Alter Reals, who now remount the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, are bred. The head trainer at the Stud was Dom Jose Athayde, a disciple of Master Oliveira and a retired bullfighter who later became the first head rider of the Portuguese School. This combination of experiences made Dom Jose a very practical and skilled trainer that could resolve the many training problems presented by the Alters. The bay stallion were then in full renaissance after the damages done to their breeding by the military management of the Republic that followed their hallowed royal past as the best high school horses of Europe. Dom Jose was responsible for the training and the selection of the stallions and the supervision of the breaking of all the young colts and mares. His teaching style was very different from Nuno. He had little time to speak and no desire to speak French to me, so I had to learn Portuguese in a hurry. I did the speaking for both and asked endless questions that remained mostly unanswered. Then, days later, he would create a situation similar to the one that brought my question up and resolve the problem in front of me. If I was sharp enough to notice his game, he would them endeavor to explain to me the Why and the How. If I missed it, he would say nothing. There I rode the delicate Aoto, the febrile Brioso, the beautiful Fusil, the giant Gaio and the loyal Fiandero trained by Dr Guilherme Borba during his military service. The sensitivity of the Alters made every thoroughbred I rode later while training in England feel easy and nearly dull in comparison.
Fast Forward to 1978. At the invitation of a British Dressage team member, I went to the UK to give clinics and I had so many students that I soon moved there. I became fascinated by the British event horses and I started to train a majority of them in my clientele. Those were strong bodied horses with very strong personalities, lots of idiosyncrasies and no specific breeding based on dressage ability or disposition. Instead of the technical finesse I had worked on to deal with the Alters, I had to quickly develop some psychological smarts to deal with horses that rarely had good basic classical training but were coaxed to perform well a really difficult job by clever (mostly) females riders. Amongst those horses were Gurgle the Greek (the dearest to my heart for his incredible character that helped him win a Silver European medal and great many advanced events), Mystic Minstrel (best trot I have ever ridden, winner of 4 Gold medals), Gamble (a weird looking horse with springs under his feet that went to the 1980 Alternative Olympics), Speculator (who won badminton later), "Porkchop" a funny looking part-QH (that nearly went round Badminton) and the funny Irishman Popjoy who unloaded me in a dressage arena a few years before completing the 1984 Olympics. There are many others whose names are escaping my not-so-sharp-anymore memory, but they all of them remain dear to me for what they taught me about horse training and conditioning as well as the psychology of the TB related horse and their amazing courage.
After 5 years of complete immersion in the obsessions of high level competition, I moved to America and took a hiatus from teaching. I soon resumed my compulsion and started again helping the amateur riders I have now taught for 25 years. These have proven to be my best teachers to date because they knew a lot less than my previous students and so forced me to clarify many of my ideas, simplify my techniques and become familiar with a whole new set of equine breeds. I have now ridden Morgans and Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses and Apaloosas, a lot of Warmbloods and Andalusians, a few Mustangs, some Arabians and draft crosses, 2 curly eared Marwaris and a mule, in short I think I have seen nearly everything the equine diversity has to offer. These thousands of horses used for a myriad of purposes have showed me that the unity of classical principles prevails, that riding theory must be simplified and "equestrian platitudes" avoided, that we must be more encouraging to students that our teachers were to us, that a series of small, achievable training successes eventually a trained horse make (even for an amateur with a late equestrian start, as long as he or she is consistent and determined).
In 1992, I met Tina Cristiani, a breeder of Andalusians and the scion of a world famous dynasty of circus vaulters and trainers. I mentioned my childhood memory of Vasconcellos in our conversation and she knew all about him. Amazed by the coincidence, Tina facilitated an introduction to Ann Canestrelli, another veteran of the Circus life who had cared for the master and his horses until the end of his life. Eventually, she invited me to visit and, because of this ancient connection with the master's life, gave me the unique opportunity to ride the last horse Vasconcellos had trained. "Cheyenne" was 28 years old, and Ann had rescued him in South America where he had been sold as a performer. He hadn't gotten any serious training for 15 years, any riding for 10 and was happily living out his retirement, except for the occasional attacks of emphysema that severely limited his stamina. Ann insisted that I ride him, but only at night when the air was cooler. My wife Shelley and I travelled to Sarasota FL, for the single purpose of following the master's earthly trail. I brought my saddle along.
When I sat on Cheyenne, he instantly offered his entire repertoire with amazing enthusiasm: Piaffe, Passage, Canter-in-Place, multiple Flying-Changes, deep Reverences (bowing with both legs stretched out in front, an exercise requiring great flexibility). This was a very emotional moment for the horse, who metamorphosed his attitude from complete indifference before he was tacked-up to total brilliance as soon as I gathered the reins. Humans present were all crying. It was the closure of a cycle started more than 35 years earlier, when a show of equestrian art elicited in a small boy the beginning of a life-long passion. Cheyenne demonstrated inarguably that correct dressage is not determined by the athleticism nor the age of the horse, neither by the shape of the arena nor by the dress of the performer.
Beyond the performance of classical movements, true dressage is stamped by the yearning that the horse and the rider shared for its practice, the harmony of the performance and the aesthetic emotion it transmits to the spectator. Dressage well-understood is simply the epitome of Horsemanship, the essence of interspecies communication, the word that describes the Birth of the Centaur, the Horse-(Wo)Man, the (Wo)Man-Horse. Like any form of art, it is really God's work and, as such, belongs to all who come to it honestly, as doers or watchers. Dressage shouldn't be 'hijacked' by the owners of any particular breed of horse, the wearers of any particular costume or the organizers of any special venue. No special group with obscure language and fuzzy concepts should use their horses as a pedestal and the ancient art of dressage as their own ritual of self- aggrandizement. Dressage can be done by a rider in Topper and Tails on a Warmblood, a Cowboy on a Quarter-Horse or a Bedouin on an Arabian, but it cannot be *lived* truly without study, without effort, without principles and without compassion. If the horse doesn't display self-carriage, freedom of movement (within his genetic ability) and visible enjoyment when performing dressage movements, then the Art is surely only happening in the deluded mind of the rider. This is what masterful trainers, generous schoolmasters and inquisitive students have taught me in the last 51 years.
As the father of my beautiful children and the trainer of many gorgeous horses, I have learned to appreciate that there are only two essential components for achieving the successful education of self and others: Love and Discipline. Without love, a well disciplined child or horse is a hopeless being that has lost the divine sparkle. Without discipline, a well loved child or horse is an accident waiting to happen, while we, as parents or trainers, endure a long series of heartbreaking disappointments.
Besides it's educational value for me, my horses and my students, Dressage is also the artistic canvas I have chosen to express my soul. Thus, I am intensely moved by other artists whose work resonates in my own unfulfilled aspirations of beauty. I used to be in love with ballet, and though I have not forgotten it's grace, it's excessive athleticism combined with a bizarre, ethereal nature have grown pointless to my yearning. Rather, the appeal of the Argentinean Tango keeps fascinating me because it repeats the eternal story of love and magnifies it in infinite, subtle variations; just as the classical dressage "airs" we practice in the "manege" are never exactly the same when different horse/rider couples interpret them on their journey to Centaurdom.
The Tango, like the Dressage some of us attempt to excel at, is primal, archetypal, sumptuous and enragingly complex. These are two arts built through a Zen-like discipline, straining to organize a million essential details around a few infallible principles of which the teacher is the attentive guardian. They both result in ceremonial displays of physical intimacy between either two people or two species striving for an harmonious union. At their highest levels, Tango and Dressage are sublimated through the Divine Grace that can vibrate human and equine emotions so intensely. They are dances with no visible leader, just the music and the rules of classical aesthetics to guide both partners with unquestionable authority, together enslaved by an ancestral genetic code into the conception of a new and wondrous 'life', distinct from it's makers. The boundless energy of the dancers comes from a passion that has no other source than it's own quiet splendor, finally emerging from a liquid chrysalis of sweat and tears.
Unlike other more innocent dances, Tango and Dressage do not worship the insouciance of youth, but glorify the value of time spent learning and wisdom earned in sorrow. Difficulty confers to those elusive endeavors a deeper beauty: the painful apprenticeship, at long last, turns into effortless self control and frees the partners unto the privilege of inspired improvisation, while giving them the responsibility to refine the secular rules. The successful transmutation of two unwilling bodies into loyal and adept servants of the most antique part of their being, helps them to repair the original division, described by Plato, that fractured the unique "egg" into separated and lonely individuals. Eventually, the perfection of the Dance belies both insolence and humility: it's actors legitimately in awe of their accomplishments, but ever-knowing of the unachievable infinity that lies ahead on the road to reunification. God looks upon the ephemeral results of our struggle kindly and, through his blessing, turns the best of the Dance into a precious gem glistening in the mythical memory of mankind.