Thursday, February 24, 2011
It happened at the end of January. I was sitting at my computer, once again trawling the “Horses for Sale” section of Horse and Hound online for potentially interesting Warmbloods, when, suddenly, up popped a dappled grey Andalusian stabled somewhere in England. He was about the right age, about the right price, and sounded as though he was schooled to a pretty good level of dressage. I’ve always been attracted to Iberian horses, but had only ever ridden lackadaisical riding school horses on trail rides while holidaying in Ibiza. I knew they tend to be comfortable, good natured, and possess a natural ability to collect.
Other than that, I knew nada, apart from the fact that Swiss dressage judges tend not to like them, mostly because they are often a little limited in the trot department. But I wasn’t too bothered about the Swiss dressage judges. If I go to one or two shows per year it’s more than enough for me.
Also, I’d seen loads of videos of Warmbloods, and it was becoming more and more obvious that anything I really really liked was way out of my budget.
Might I be better off going south and looking at Spanish horses?
So I fired off an email, enquiring about the Andalusian advertised in “Horse and Hound”. Soon afterwards, my trainer, Marie-Valentine, called to discuss the trials and tribulations of our ongoing search for my perfect horse. “What about an Andalusian?” I said, unsure of how she’d react.
I could almost hear her brain processing the idea down the phone line. Then she said, “You know, that might be a good idea! You’ve always liked them, and although you don’t like to compete, you enjoy doing the fun stuff (she meant flying changes, piaffe, passage, etc), and they’re really good at that. Yes, I can picture you on an Andalusian! And, hey, how fun would it be to go south to Spain instead of north to Gemany?!”
At that point, our conversation soon became rather squealy and schoolgirlish, both of us geting thoroughly carried away, picturing ourselves down in sunny Malaga, spending our mornings trying fabulous horses, before pottering down to the spend the afternoons at the beach.
There was, however, one small problem. How the heck were we going to find those fabulous Spanish horses? Apart from an American friend living in Aachen who specializes in Spanish horses, my trainer didn’t know who to contact. And when I received a video of the “Horse and Hound” Andalusian I’d found on the internet, it didn’t have the level of movement I was looking for.
Determined to find something suitable, I Googled Spanish horses until I turned, well, google-eyed. I watched dozens of online videos. Nothing. Well, nothing for me. I contacted a dealer in Madrid, who sent me private videos. Too young. Too Baroc. Too little trot. No extension. Too little walk. Or drop-dead-knockout, but way too expensive! Marie-Valentine’s contact in Germany had contacted a contact in Malaga, but that contact had yet to contact us.
Argh! I was frustrated. I wanted to go and look at horses!
And then, one afternoon, Marie-Valentine rang me. She’d spoken to another dressage trainer and asked whether he had reliable contacts for good Spanish horses. He’d told her he’d put out some feelers, that he knew a few people, and would get back to her. Within twenty-four hours he rang to tell her there was a really nice Lusitano waiting for us to go take a look at him near Avignon, in the south of France. He was seven years old, a stallion, with a good level of training. There were no videos, no photos available. But he knew from reliable sources that this horse was a good one.
So a week later, not utterly convinced it was worth making the trip, yet impatient to start horse shopping, we hopped into my car and embarked on a four-hour drive south. Marie-Valentine had never taken a client to see a horse without viewing it on video. Also, she’s never ridden an Iberian horse in her life. Yet here there we were, on our way to a blind date with a Lusitano stallion!
“What if he’s awful?” I blurted, my stomach churning with nerves as we our destination grew closer.
Marie-Valentine shrugged. “If he’s awful, we’ll say thank you very much and we’ll leave. I’ll make a few phone calls, and we’ll go find some other horses to look at. A friend of mine mentioned a place not too far away. I mean, what else can we do?”
We reached the outskirts of Avignon, left the highway and followed my GPS’ instructions along country roads through pretty Provencal villages. We turned left at an old monastery and soon found ourselves deep in the countryside.
“Why do we live where we live?” exclaimed Marie-Valentine as we drooled over the silver grey olive trees, the green oaks, and blossoming fruit trees. Here, 400 or so kilometers south of a still frost-bitten Geneva, spring was already in the air. We rolled down the windows and took giant breaths of the pungent, herb-scented, Provencal air. How I wish I could import it!
Once we reached the stables, we were greeted by a smiling, blue-eyed man escorted by a couple of hyperactive Jack Russell terriers.
“Are you ready?” said Marie-Valentine, winking at me.
“I hope he’s pretty,” I replied, trembling, nervous as heck as I flopped out of the car.
“Bonjour mesdames, vous avez fait bon voyage?” asked the man in his lovely sing-song Provencal accent (okay, so I love everything about the Mediterranean!).
We replied that, yes, we’d have a nice trip, enthusing over how great it was to be in this beautiful part of the world. My knees shook as we followed him down a little dirt track and around the corner to the stables where a row of aloof Lusitano stallions gave us the once over.
Right at the back, in the last loose box, a young woman was plaiting a big, beautiful, dark bay horse.
As we drew closer, Marie-Valentine nudged me in the ribs. “Il est magnifique,” she whispered, wide-eyed.
We observed the horse as they saddled him up and bandaged his legs. He stood quietly, placidly. He had soft, warm, translucent eyes edged by endless lashes. He had a thick, black, wavy tail. Judging from his double row of plaits, he obviously had a very thick mane, too! He was beautifully proportioned, chunky yet not too chunky, with a short back, a nice bottom, a strong neck, and lovely clean legs.
Could we have got lucky the first time out, I wondered, grabbing my helmet and struggling into my riding boots? Chill, Cesca, I told myself. Sure, he was beautiful, but what was his movement like?
My trainer and I held our breath as the young woman led this stunning dark bay stallion out into the yard and up the hill towards a large, circular arena. He stood quietly as she mounted and moved off into a lovely walk. So far so good. She pushed him into trot. Not bad! He filled his tracks nicely, which from what I’d seen on the internet, is hard to find in Iberian horses. A few minutes later, she asked him to canter and he obliged, showing a lovely smooth, uphill movement. The lateral work was good, the flying changes a little insecure, but the basic work was well established, with no sign of unwillingness or bad behavior. And gosh, the guy was seriously flashy!
To be perfectly honest, I was pretty intimidated. I’ve only ridden Kwintus in the past few years, haven’t really ridden at all since last summer, and to suddenly climb onto a much bigger, far greener, seven-year-old Lusitano stallion was a little scary. But I bunged on my helmet, took a deep breath and mounted.
Wow! What a totally different feeling! He was far less stable than Kwint, and I had a hard time keeping him straight, or even moving in a straight line (the circular arena didn't help). He moved sideways at the slightest shift of my weight in the saddle and at the tiniest backward movement of my legs (and boy, did my legs want to slide backwards! I couldn’t seem to keep them long at all! Why?!). His trot felt impressively forward and easy to sit, and his canter was a dream. All in all, I had a really good sensation.
When I rode him the next day, he felt even better. I was no longer quite as intimidated, and any residual nerves soon evaporated as this lovely horse did his best to understand what I was asking. You should have seen the smile on my face when I dismounted!
Will he be coming back to live next to Kwintus? I hope so. The vet check is scheduled for March 8th, so I’m counting the days, my fingers crossed he’ll flex fine, that nothing dodgy will show up on the x-rays. Meanwhile, I’m drooling over his photographs, and soothing my sore muscles in plenty of hot water.