Thursday, August 1, 2013

MASSA MAGIC, by Francesca Prescott

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to go on holiday with my horse. Of course, when I was a child, there was a slight flaw to the concept: I didn’t have a horse. Much later, when I finally got a horse, years went by but the opportunity never arose. And then one night, earlier this year, Marie-Valentine Gygax, my long-time trainer and friend, met part of the Massa team at an international dressage competition in Saumur, France. And between you and me, from what I’ve heard about that evening, a great time was had by all those present…

My Lusitano, Qrac de la Font, is a Massa. Qrac comes from the Massa stud in the south of France, but I didn’t buy him from there as he’d been sold to his previous owner as a three or four year-old. In all honesty, when I first saw Qrac neither Marie-Valentine nor I had any idea of how prestigious his Massa bloodlines were; we knew next to nothing about PREs or Lusitanos. She’d never sourced anything but German or Dutch warmbloods for clients before, and I was totally clueless.

When I bought Qrac, all I knew about the Massa stud (Elevage Massa) was that one of their Lusitanos, Galopin de la Font, had qualified for the Beijing Olympics, which struck me as pretty impressive for a French breeder of Portuguese horses. But I wasn’t going into buying a new horse with the idea of doing much competing; until very recently it’s never been my thing. I bought Qrac because I fell for him at first sight, despite the fact that he didn’t tick all the boxes in what I was looking for in a horse. Ideally, I wanted a horse with fa
r more established work, and Qrac was a very green seven-year old. Our first weeks together were rather tumultuous, and there were definitely moments when I thought I might have bought myself a little too much horse!

Qrac enjoying the view of one of the arenas at Château Font du Broc
Fast-forward two and a half years, and love, dedication and hard work have produced a wonderful partnership. Call me soppy, but I get a rush of sheer joy every time I arrive at the stables and see his handsome arched neck and beautiful head. Qrac has a gentle, affectionate personality  and a great work ethic. Also, from the feedback I regularly receive whenever we venture out in public, I’ve come to realize that he’s also recognisably “Massa”. For example, a few weeks ago, just as he and I were coming out of the arena after completing our best program ever at a show (we got our first plate! Yay!), a young woman approached me and asked if my horse was a Massa. This had happened to me before so I wasn’t totally surprised, but for the first time ever it occurred to me that people were seeing Massa horses in the same light as a high-end brand, if only on a sub-conscious level.

Another thing I’ve noticed since I bought “a Massa horse” is how much criticism surrounds this breeder, especially from owners of non-Massa Lusitanos. You wouldn’t believe the nasty stories I heard whispered behind my back about my horse when I first moved to my current stables a year and a half ago. As for the gossip and bitchiness surrounding how Sylvain Massa developed his stud farm at Château Font du Broc in Les Arcs-sur-Argens in the south of France, it’s all so preposterous that it always struck me as sour grapes. However, I must admit that the bitchiness got to a point where it bothered me; criticize Sylvain Massa and you’re indirectly criticizing my horse. Why are people always so jealous of success? According to some of the mudslingers I’ve met, Elevage Massa’s nomination as France’s number one breeder of dressage horses in 2012 was nothing but a giant scam. As for the atmosphere at Château Font du Broc, according to these naysayers it was horrendously snooty and unpleasant.

The more backstabbing I heard, the more I wanted to see for myself, so when Marie-Valentine returned from Saumur and recounted her fortuitous nocturnal meeting with a mile-wide smile I was even more eager to go. My girlfriend Joëlle and I had had plans to go and do a dressage clinic with another trainer in the north of France in July, but Joëlle’s PRE’s long-term injury wasn’t getting better, so we’d cancelled because I didn’t want to drive up there all alone. Now, Joëlle’s horse seemed a little better and the idea of going to the south of France, riding in the mornings and spending the afternoons lying by a pool held a definite appeal, especially after our never-ending winter. So I emailed Anne-Sophie at Château Font du Broc and asked if there was any possibility of ten days dressage training and accommodation for two horses in July. I was delighted when she answered they’d be happy to have us.

Unfortunately, Joëlle’s horse’s injury worsened again, so when we set off earlier this month Qrac was alone in the trailer, but Joëlle had made arrangements with Font du Broc to ride some of their schoolmasters in order to improve her skills. She had also tentatively told them that she was thinking about buying another horse, as her current PRE’s prospects of returning to work seemed increasingly compromised. However, Joëlle insisted, this was early stages and she would only seriously start looking for a new horse as of September. No way would come back to Switzerland with another horse.

Famous last words!

The drive down to Font du Broc seemed endless; we loaded Qrac at five in the morning and finally made it to our destination approximately nine hours later. Both of us were exhausted; excitement had kept us up most of the night, but Qrac behaved angelically throughout the trip, never bothering about the massive trucks lumbering up behind him. Qrac also settled right into his massive, super luxurious stable, knee deep in straw, and didn’t fuss or freak out when Francisco, one of the Massa trainers, kindly offered to take him to stretch his legs for fifteen minutes or so after his long trip. I’d have walked Qrac myself but once Joëlle and I had unloaded all my horsey equipment (yes, I practically took the kitchen sink) we had to rush off to find the guest house we’d be staying at as the hosts had to go out for dinner.

With riding lessons scheduled for eight o’clock the next morning, virtually no sleep the previous night, and nine hours of trailering down busy French motorways, Joëlle and I could barely rustle up enough energy to go out for dinner. But we were starving, so we zombied out towards the closest village and staggered through the door of the first restaurant we came across. We got lucky; the food was delicious, although the service was slower than we’d have liked considering the circumstances. We then zombied back to the guest house and fell into bed before dark, excited yet also slightly nervous about how our riding lessons might go. We’d been so exhausted upon arriving at Font du Broc that the jaw-dropping beauty of the place hadn’t quite registered. Trust me, it definitely registered the following morning.

As equestrian facilities go, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Nor have I ever seen so many serene-eyed, beautifully kept, stunning horses. A team of grooms fussed over them as they prepared them for their designated riders, kissing their noses, chatting to them and among each other happily. The atmosphere was relaxed, professional and friendly. My assigned trainer, Renaud Ramadier, (who had already made a great impression on me the previous afternoon when he kindly offered to park my trailer for me. I hate parking my trailer; reversing stresses me out!), greeted me with a lovely smile and a series of French customary kisses, complimenting me on Qrac’s condition which he said had improved immensely since the last time he’d seen him, approximately four years ago, when Qrac had been sent back to Font du Broc for a few weeks training. Joëlle’s trainer, Francisco, had prepared Nativo, a Grand-Prix schoolmaster for her, and from Nativo’s condition it was hard to believe he was twenty-years old. Over the next ten days, Joëlle spent many hours in heaven as this wonderful horse gave her a taste of what it is to ride dressage’s most difficult movements.

I loved my first lesson with Renaud, which took place in Font du Broc’s indoor arena, an incredible stone building with stained glass windows, chandeliers, and huge mirrors draped with heavy golden-yellow curtains. The arena is apparently an exact replica of the indoor arena of the famous Cadre Noir school in Saumur, and both Joëlle and I felt as though we were riding in a church. Renaud told me to warm up Qrac as I usually do, watching carefully from the gallery before stepping down into the arena and getting the party started. Initially, his main comment was that Qrac tends to either escape through his outside shoulder, or fall onto his inside shoulder, especially tracking right, and I wasn’t about to contradict him since I’ve been working on this recurring problem since day one. Also, Renaud noted, although the overall outline looks good, we tend to cheat a little, and Qrac needs to learn to carry himself “like the big boy he is”.

With this in mind, over the next ten days Renaud helped Qrac and I work on improving our balance, stay in a more regular rhythm, and establish more self-carriage in order to progress to more complex exercises. We rode miles and miles of shoulder-in in all three paces on the second track, worked on travers and then moved on to half-passes, improving to the point that by the end of our stay we were doing pretty good zig-zag half-passes! As early as four days into our stay, Qrac felt like a different horse; he seemed to grow ten centimetres beneath me, developing a power I’d never felt before. In fact, when I posted photos on Facebook, friends from my stables in Switzerland later told me they hadn’t dared comment as they weren’t sure the horse I was riding was actually Qrac! Can a horse change so dramatically in such a short time? Or were the photographs just really well timed?!

Renaud also helped Qrac and I establish the basics of piaffe, which I found very exciting. Qrac amazed me by not becoming the slightest bit flustered by this new exercise and immediately understood what he was meant to do. The problem I now face is that, so far, I’ve found nobody to practise this with at home, and I’m not confident enough to work on it myself. What I particularly enjoyed about working with Renaud was that his enthusiasm and his determination to push Qrac and I beyond our limits, to bring out the best in us, to get me to feel the movements on a whole new level. He also had a great sense of humour,
making everything fun, keeping the mood light-hearted yet working us hard. Renaud also rode Qrac a couple of times, while I watched and drooled. Who knew my horse could move like that?!
Renaud Ramadier on Qrac

Joëlle and Umbrella de Massa
As for Joëlle, her tentative quest for another horse got off to a rubber-burning start when Renaud mentioned she might like to try Umbrella de Massa, a five-year-old Lusitano Sport mare out of Oldenburg Rubin Cortes and Qarioca de la Font, a Lusitano mare sired by the aforementioned Olympian, Galopin de la Font. Umbrella had very little work for a five-year-old due to the great number of colts born during the same year, so she’d been broken in and then returned to pasture for two years. Renaud Ramadier had started riding her again early this year and had really liked her. Well, so did Joëlle. She took a series of lessons on the young mare and got along remarkably well with her, telling me right after the very first time she rode her that she’d “felt right at home.” Qrac and Umbrella got along very well too; the four of us went on wonderful long trail rides through the vastness of Font du Broc, with the grand finale being a cooling splash in one of the large, beautiful ponds on the property. This was kindly photographed by Renaud and fellow-trainer Ludovic Martin, who zoomed down to the pond on a quad bike in order to capture this monumental moment! Ludo had been away on holiday during most of our stay, but we got to know him over the last few days and were thoroughly charmed by his big, colourful personality, not to mention his top-notch equestrian skills. I’d wanted to go into the pond with Qrac since the moment we arrived at Font du Broc, having seen dozens of beautiful photos of Ludo fooling around in the pond on horseback over the past few years (we’ve been Facebook friends for a while), but the fact that he and Renaud went out of their way to drive down and take photos of us in the water with our horses (yes, Joëlle totally caved and bought Umbrella!) was very touching.
Qrac and Umbrella, they practically match!

Château Font du Broc, the boutique and garden area
Our entire stay at Font du Broc was fantastic. The lessons were excellent, my horse was extremely well looked after, and the property manages to be stunning, peaceful and spectacular, yet without an ounce of ostentation. Everyone was friendly, helpful, going out of their way to make our stay the most enjoy  
able possible, be it the team at the stables, the administrative staff, or the ladies who run the lovely boutique selling Font du Broc’s wine and olive oil. Marion, head of administration at Elevage Massa, was brilliant. When Joëlle decided to buy Umbrella, Marion still drove us to see the younger horses at Chateau Bretonne over in Saint Martin de Crau, close to two hours
away, to make sure there wasn’t a three-year-old over there Joëlle might be interested in buying instead. We loved seeing all the youngsters; the three-year-olds, the two-year-olds and the yearlings, all friendly and content, all healthy looking and used to
being handled. We were shown a selection of three-year-olds in the indoor arena, and if I could I’d definitely have treated myself to a gorgeous black, very uphill Lusitano (yes, I know, I already have a black one…) with big floaty paces. Joëlle admired a lovely grey guy with a playful personality, but her heart was already set on Umbrella. Marion later took us to visit the brood mares and their babies at another locale, where we oohed and ahh-ed at the dozens of little beauties flocking around us, all of them gentle and curious. Marion also amazed us with the efficiency with which she organised the paperwork to enable Joëlle to bring Umbrella back to Switzerland; once the mare had passed the vet-check the timeframe to get everything ready was extremely tight, but Marion made calls and rushed around and made it happen. Early on Monday morning, Joëlle and I loaded our two sleepy horses into my trailer and reluctantly set off on the long trip home, already working on potential dates to return to this incredible place as soon and as often as possible.
Some three-year old Massa stallions

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to go back before next spring, which seems a long way off right now.  Next time we go, I’m hoping we’ll get the chance to meet Anne-Sophie, Sylvain Massa’s companion, who was away on holiday with Sylvain while we were there. Anne-Sophie handled my initial emails about coming to Font du Broc with Qrac, organised our stay, regularly checked on us and remained reachable by phone the entire time. She was also sweet enough to make sure we came away with Massa caps and Massa saddle cloths to match our Massa horses. And what will these two Massa owners be wearing when temperatures drop? Why, our matching Massa jackets, of course!

Believe me, after an experience like ours, I defy anyone to not become a diehard fan.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Do you enjoy going on holiday with your horse?


Laura Crum said...

I've never taken my horse on such an elegant vacation, Cesca. It sounds wonderful. My horse vacations have all involved camping trips in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which were lovely, and I enjoyed them very much, but uhmm, not at all elegant like yours.

Francesca Prescott said...

Haha Laura, it didn't matter that it was elegant, it was just so perfect and wonderful! I'd also enjoy a more laid back trip with Qrac at some point! Opportunities, you know?!

Laura Crum said...

If I had the opportunity to take your vacation, Cesca, I'd jump at it. Sans dressage lessons--we could just replace those with more trail riding, thank you very much. But otherwise I think that I (and Sunny) would love a little trip to the South of France. I'm afraid those folks at Massa wouldn't think much of my QH trail horse though (!) And the trip getting there would be daunting. Actually, that's the daunting part of my horseback adventures in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, too. The eight hour drive hauling horses to get there. I don't love that part--not at all.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh that's not far from me!
My dressage days are over (not that they were ever anything to write home about !) but maybe I can go for a visit some day :D

Unknown said...

I LOVED reading of your trip with Qrac....something I can only dream of doing. I really enjoy reading of your experiences. Thank you for sharing!

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, I'd go down there once a month if the trip wasn't so long. I think five or six hours is do-able when you're alone, but nine is rough, so best to be two drivers. So I'm totally with you on the daunting driving issue. Teleportation needs to be invented now!!!

Francesca Prescott said...

Tailsfromprovence: it's definitely worth a visit, if only to do a tour. The wine cellar is something absolutely out of this world!!! Spectacular! I didn't have my camera with me when I went down there, but wow! The wine is good too; we especially enjoyed the Font du Broc rosé, and their red, and their white, too actually! Also they do a nice aperitif wine called Frisson which is great. Yeah, I guess we liked all the wine! And their olive oil is amazing too! Go visit!!

Francesca Prescott said...

Kris, I'm glad you enjoyed reading my post. I had to control myself or it would have been ten pages long!! So much enthusiasm, so much to tell! So exciting! Thanks for reading :)

Martha Seaman McKee said...

I would happily read 10 pages of this adventure. Hard to believe that some place so beautiful actually exists! You are blessed.

Francesca Prescott said...

Awww, Martha, thank you:)I know how lucky I am! I hope you can visit this beautiful place someday, it really is magical. Lots of love!

Alison said...

Sorry I am commenting so late--what a wonderful holiday, horseiday and adventure you treated me to! I felt as if I was there without any of the work (nor the good food and great lessons.) I love how you and Qrac have turned into such a team.

Anonymous said...

Hello Francesca,

nice to read about your holidays in south of France with Qrac.
I wasn´t there but I met Sylvain Massa and it´s Team in Switzerland last weekend as an other time earlier in Belgium. He and his team are always so professional , nice, passioned etc.. They would do anyrything for you to make you feel good, to find the right horse or like me to help me for breeding with their stallions.
Baila , Qrac´s daughter is now 2 y. old and so nice and promising. This year as Qrac isn´t a stallion anymore (!) we got a foal of Quazar his half brother , the star stallion at stud at the Massa breeding farm. The foal called Django is getting wonderful, loves to fool around with his sister and I do not regret one second working together with such passioned and professional people like Sylvain Massa and his Team.
I loved to read about your holidays, I was on holidays once with one of our mares a few years ago, I can´t wait to do it again, this experience nourished me months and months...
With you plenty of nice adventures with your good Qrac.
Alain Jost