Discovering Dressage (Again) in Portugal

After hip surgery, a dressage rider unexpectedly finds the way back to her former self during a Cross Country International trip to Portugal.
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After hip surgery, a dressage rider unexpectedly finds the way back to her former self during a Cross Country International trip to Portugal.
Patricia Stuart and her 3-year-old, 17-hand Dutch Warmblood mare, Ubet | Photo courtesy of Patricia Stuart

Patricia Stuart and her 3-year-old, 17-hand Dutch Warmblood mare, Ubet | Photo courtesy of Patricia Stuart

Hip replacement surgery, especially when it's the second for the same body, changes a person's priorities. It does other things to a 63-year-old brain, creating second and third thoughts about whether the risk associated with any ride on any horse is worth the crippling pain, the weeks of immobility and the therapy struggle, not to mention the checkbook anguish of medical bills.

A year passed after my second hip replacement, and the members of my small herd of horses remained safe from any possibility of being pulled into the dressage arena. "Leave the horses in peace," was my new motto. "Breed, don't ride," became its subset.

"When are you going to start riding again?" became a familiar question from family. My friends would ask, "You been riding lately?" No one but me seemed to see my crippled state. "Katy is pregnant," I would say about my dressage horse and change the subject to the latest exploits of my daughter, Robyn, an energy engineer with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

Sixteen months after my surgery, Robyn called. "Let's meet in Portugal," she said. "I'm going to need to depressurize after Baghdad. How about some riding?" A memory of Portugal's overhanging trees and steep hills, the whitewashed buildings and long-maned horses at the Quinta du Brejo, Nuno Oliviera's farm in Avessada, almost brought tears to my eyes. To ride in Portugal. To go back. Wouldn't that be splendid?

"All you must do is sit calmly," I could hear the master's voice from alongside me as he tapped my horse on the croup, asking it to elevate its legs. "Hold the rhythm," he would say. "The horse must do the work. You are the brains. It is his body that must be responding."

Could I go there again? Should I?

Dozens of excuses for staying home tumbled through the ether to Baghdad: Katy is foaling, I can't afford it, Portugal's too hot in June, we're irrigating. Besides, I thought to myself, Nuno Oliviera is dead, and Portugal will be different after 30 years. But I had a catalog from Cross Country International. For weeks it stayed open to a picture of Coralie Baldrey in traditional Portuguese dress riding a white stallion across a golden field.

Katy foaled. Her baby was perfect. And one brilliant Wyoming day with the irrigation under control and the grass growing, I called Baghdad. "We have reservations in Arraiolas," I said and went out and tacked up a borrowed (read "considered safe and easy") horse to begin working flab, to reconnect old circuits.

The new horse promptly dumped me, leading to an MRI and more enrichment of the local medical community, but that's another story. I was back on my feet, had six hours of potting around an arena under my belt and was ready to go when United and Continental's flights bore me east to Lisbon. From there, a rented car took us on to Arraiolos, a community on a high hill, crowning the summit above Coralie's barn.

My memories hadn't lied. If anything, I had forgotten the visual impact of a Portuguese village's blinding white walls, red tiles and narrow, cobbled streets. And this one, Arraiolas was steepled by the solitary splendor of an ancient, square-towered church.

Coralie Baldrey | Photo courtesy of CCI

Coralie Baldrey | Photo courtesy of CCI

Bougainvillea burst with brilliance there. The cool lavender of jacaranda blossoms drooped overhead and made scented carpets underfoot. Trumpeter vines fell across walls, trailing their golden flutes in descending tiers almost hiding gardens rampant with rose trees.

I walked through this beauty the first morning to swing an artificial hip, with great care, over the back of a white Lusitano. Then, wondering about my safety, made my way down a slippery cobblestone drive past feathery mimosa trees and a wilderness of vegetation to the lower of a pair of stair-step arenas cut into the hillside. Coralie Baldrey, a dressage graduate of the French Cadre Noir at Saumur, joined us.

"Yes, super," she agreed with my conservative approach to getting acquainted with this new mount-working at the walk. And, "no," she disagreed with my assessment that I was riding unbalanced to the right and that my back was too hollow. So, there went those excuses. Might as well trot. Half an hour later I was adding in some canter work.

Coralie was busy with the other two riders. Robyn, a former Pony Clubber and event rider was dealing with some massive shying problems. The third rider, who had joined us from Florida, was a dressage neophyte, meaning that the three of us were as mismatched in one arena as lost socks in a laundry room.

"Oh, God, tomorrow we are going to be so sore," Robyn said to me, as we walked back to our lodgings on one of the ubiquitous cobblestone drives, through gardens planted by nuns, past arbors and shaded bowers, the sun beating down on our sweat-soaked hair. But tomorrow was far away. In the meantime, we had only the afternoon to rest up for a scheduled three-hour evening ride.

"This is really good for you guys," I said, as we ate a lunch of fruit, avocados, and shrimp by the pool of our hotel, a restored convent. "Coralie's teaching's just what you'd get from a top-notch certified instructor at home or one in Germany." The shadow of a pair of geese swept over the pool, the birds winging along the tree-studded slope behind us and out over the cow sheds, reservoirs, and pastures of the valley beyond.

"Everyone said I'd be better off riding in Portugal rather than Germany," said Pat, our new Florida friend. "It's not as tough here," Pat speared a grape. "Better for me." Although I knew exactly what she meant, I thought of Pat on one of my Dutch horses, first cousins to the German breeds, of their gaits with the thrust of jet engines. They were sure too much for me anymore. Savoring the texture and flavor of another shrimp, I decided that the smooth-gaited Lusitanos were just right for a rider new to dressage, like Pat. Or, for someone riding injured, like me.

"Rising trot, please," Coralie called when, having resolved the mismatched socks problem by scheduling us for private lessons, she had me in the arena alone. "This horse is a little long in his back. To make him use it, we must engage his rear legs. To do this, we must begin with the rising trot." But it was so delightfully easy to sit the trot, to relax and, as Nuno Oliviera had said almost 30 years earlier, "Let the horse do the work." Okay. I lifted my seat bones off the saddle. I would humor Coralie, but I hoped she didn't expect too much.

A family staying at our hotel strolled down the hill and stopped in the shade to watch. One of Coralie's Labradors appeared on the terrace outside the barn above and lay down to keep an eye on proceedings. Robyn took pictures, and, half an hour later, including timeouts for me to catch my breath, the Lusitano and I bumped into gear, and, suddenly, I was sailing around the arena on a huge and lovely collected trot. Wow! I never thought I'd feel that again. Then a small shift and ... passage. Fantastic!

"He needs work on passage-trot transitions," Coralie said, her words a command, not a suggestion. Could we do more than one? Two, three, four transitions later, with sweat soaking my hatband, I was ecstatic in my own way, which means I smiled. I could do it! I could still do it! I had shed 20 years and a massive load of defeatism. I was superwoman. I could fly. I could do trot-passage transitions. And I remembered being in an indoor riding hall with a whip tapping my horse's quarters and a voice telling me what to do, except that I had learned those lessons. I knew what to do. I had muscles imprinted by many, many years of experience, and I had the health to use them.

Eighteen months after the second hip and there I was, riding again. Not potting around on a borrowed horse or climbing mountain trails on a ranch gelding or slouching about a dressage arena making excuses for myself. I'd had to cross a continent and an ocean for this, but I was riding ... really riding.

Patricia Stuart writes and raises warmblood horses on her piece of Heart Mountain, Wybar Farm, in northwestern Wyoming, having put in a career as an intelligence professional, living in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Dressage Today magazine.