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For some people, there is a once in a lifetime horse. The horse that will always have a very special place in your heart, they teach you a lesson you will never forget, or open a door that would never have opened if not for their presence.

Last week, while riding and studying at the Centro Equestre da Leziria Grande in Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, I learned the story of a special horse who not only changed the life of his rider, but also of generations of equestrians.

The Centro Equestre is an equestrian oasis, with white stables accented in red, yellow, and blue with clay tile roofs and brilliant green plants.

The riding center sits nestled into the outskirts of Villa Franca de Xiria, a town North of Lisbon and people travel from all over the world to learn the traditional style of Portuguese riding and training under Mestre Luis Valenca. But it may not have even been possible if not for a special golden stallion.

Luis Valenca began his education with horses at age 3, when he would accompany his godfather, Fernando Ralao, to a riding hall in Lisbon, where Fernando trained carriage and riding horses.

Senor Luis continued his training and classical educational in horses, working with Mestre Menezes, a master who had worked in the era and method of Baucher. Senor Luis also worked for years under the tutelage of and as an assistant to famed Portuguese horseman Nuno Oliveira.

He would ride horses by day and then change and wait tables at night, because as Senor Luis says “Sometimes you have to experience hard times in life to better appreciate the good times.”

However, one day in 1971 a palomino stallion was brought to Senor Luis for training. The horse was a Lusitano crossbred called Sultao, and after Sultao appeared the career of Mestre Luis began to change as though the horse as “like a star to light the way.”

Senor Luis worked with Sultao every day and taught him all of the classical exercises for performance. However, since Sultao was a palomino, he was considered to a feminine color and needed a female rider, so Luis’ eldest daughter, Luisa, at the time only 11 years old, performed with Sultao, riding bareback and thrilling crowds with their performance of even the most challenging exercises, cantering in place, cantering backwards, levade, passage.

They toured all over Europe, but at an event in Paris, an offer was made that gained much media attention for Mestre Luis and the budding Centro Equestre.

A Nigerian couple offered one million Francs for Sultao, but Luis refused because “money is not everything in life.” However word of the incredible sum of money that had been offered for the golden stallion spread and newspapers from all over came to see Sultao.

As word of the horse spread, people began to travel from all over to see the famous horse and to learn the methods of Senor Luis.

The publicity from Sultao built the Centro Equestre into what it is today, a place where tradition continues, with classical paintings and gold adornments on the walls, flowers, plants and palm trees lining the stalls, and generations of equestrians learning the classical method of training the horse.

Sultao continued to perform until age 27. He lived out his life at the center, passing at 31, but his essence lives on, in the pictures on the buildings around the center, and in the museum room, dedicated to Sultao’s life and contributions to the career of Senor Luis, the Centro Equestre da Leziria Grande, the spirit of the Iberian horse, and improvement of riders around the world.

On the last day of my stay and riding at the school, I asked Senor Luis about Sultao, about what made him special. He began to laugh and said “ahh, see he was very special, it has been over 10 years and still you know about Sultao!”

With passion, he relates the story from the beginning of his training with the stallion, to the performances in the shows with his daughter, and the competition dressage riders he allowed to ride Sultao – Isabel Werth, Anky V. Grunsven, and Nicole Uphoff. He tells of how the opportunities with Sultao brought the people and circumstances into his life to build and finance the center.

Regardless of any argument on training method, it is clear that the essence of Senor Luis is one of reverence for horses. He loves the horse, he is at the center every day, mostly sitting quietly watching the training and offering words of wisdom as the working riders and handlers pass by.

I found this quote from Senor Luis, “You know, you don’t ride primarily with your assistants (aids), but with your heart. Do you have your heart with you, training is quite simple. All you do is that simple. From here (with hand on his heart) to your body and thoughts.”

In the days following my week of study at the center, I realized that my biggest takeaway was not one of technique, for example, how to train the Spanish walk or how to vibrate the reins to supple the bend, but instead it was of the passion for the art of training that Senor Luis so strongly emulated.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is there a special horse that has affected your life? Tell us the story!

See you in the comments!

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Comments

39 Responses

  1. Loved this beautiful story! Riding with your heart will remain with mea.lways I think!
    My heart Horse was a chestnut Arabian mare,Nobilique. I got her when I was 40 and she taught me soooo much! She was bred to be a hot saddleseat horse but didn’t fir the billthank goodness! Instead, my fiery redhead became my soul partner and we rode some of the toughest trails herein the beautiful mountains of Eastern Oregon. She took such good care of me and I her, in return. She passed at 24 and I thought I would die as well. Thank goodness after 5 years, my Arabian mare Lina and I found one another. I swear she is Nobie reincarnated! ❤️❤️❤️

  2. So true. I have had that “once in a lifetime” horse. I was riding in a clinic given by Liz Graves when she said “Treasure that horse. Only once or twice in a lifetime does a relationship like you have with that horse come along.” That horse died over 10 years ago. I am still looking and hoping that I can find that partnership again.

  3. Hi Callie sounds like a great trip. The story of Sultao brings something to mind I would like to share. I had a horse named Majestic Glory called him Majic. He was a five year old beautiful blue roan thoroughbred. I had a latch on a gate that we used for years with never a problem. One day he got very excited punctured himself fatally. From this I learned do a walk-around all the time look for things that your horse could get into. What’s been working for years could cause a freak accident one day something you don’t want to ever have to deal with. I miss him all the time. I helped his mama deliver him. I miss his comic personality. But in the end, my Ranch is a much safer place for all my other horses thanks to him.

  4. I visited a castle near the Equestrian Center on a visit to Portugal last year. I didn’t realize it was there until it was too late in the day to visit it. I wish I could have seen it. Thanks for the article. If I go back to Portugal I will make a point of including it on my itinerary.

  5. Callie this is one of my favorite posts. Looking forward to hearing more about your experience. Thanks for sharing with us!

  6. Well yes, very simply the first horse I started riding on one year ago, a school horse, mare, named Viva, changed my life by just being who she is. She likes to work, some times trots a bit too fast, and only canters if you give more or less the right aids, which taught me to pay attention. Very trustworthy, which is nice for a beginner like me!
    I ride other schoolhorses too, but when they put me on Viva, it is always a joy.
    Thanks for your blog, ellen

  7. I felt an enormous joy reading this article because I ride at Centro Equestre da Leziria Grande every week! In fact, I’ve just arrived from there . Senhor Luís and all the team are fabulous, as teachers and as human beings! I am sorry for not having met you there Callie.

  8. Wonderful post, Callie. Thank you. My once-in-a-lifetime horse? Dasani, a polish Arab, who taught me more about horses, training, and life than most of my other life experiences combined. He’s still his goofy, beautiful self at 16, and he remains all HEART.

  9. I started riding aged 61at a sanctuary. The horse had breathing problems which is why I initially tried bitless.
    Isis was an 18hh mainly shire, who had been a brood mare for 12 years following a hunting fall after which it was impossible to put a bit in her mouth. Touch her head and you would be wearing 8″ dia hooves as ear rings.
    One night after feeding on impulse I tried to put the dr Cook bridle on her and she let me. I rode her at walk the next weekend. It was to be 3 years before we did that again. In the field I had direction control, but no brakes. Stopping was go toward a fence and pray. Strangely I never felt in any danger with her.
    Hacking out was interesting. She was queen of her field, but scared of anything outside. Napping was an understatement.
    For 3 years I lead her further and further, I was walking over 5 miles. Remember I knew nothing of horses, I was using techniques from teaching teenagers with behaviour problems.
    Mounting had been a problem from early days, and I had been just standing next to her on benches during the walks. One day for no reason that I know, she started rearing when I did this. It must have awakened some bad memory.
    One night she was injured, we believe by a dog attack, for several weeks I was treating her wounds. After this there was a bond of total trust between us. I knew what she was going to do almost before she did, she knew what I wanted before I asked. Totally together.
    It is now more than 5 years since I had to make the decision to let her go and it still hurts

  10. Great story Callie! In 2017 I went to see a girlfriends new horse. I had not been around horses for 50 years and had no intention of being around them at 69 years of age. I saw her new horse and she began giving me a tour of the stable and the horses boarded there. At one point she pointed up to our right at a Paint mare, saying that her owner has neglected her for the year that she had owned her, and that kept changing her mind of selling or not selling the horse. When we came up to the fence of the paddock, the mare came up, put her head over the fence and on my chest, and just stood there. At that moment, she stole my heart. Happily I was able to buy her and she has totally changed my life for the better.

  11. Callie – I love your message and as someone else said, it applies to all that we do. Portugal sounds wonderful – excited to hear more!

  12. Hello Callie,
    Quoting from your article,…
    “I found this quote from Senor Luis, “You know, you don’t ride primarily with your assistants (aids), but with your heart. Do you have your heart with you, training is quite simple. All you do is that simple. From here (with hand on his heart) to your body and thoughts.”””
    I believe this emphatically to be true. In just the reading of this quote,… I find that it evokes emotion. That said, regardless of my emphatic belief in this,… it is not so simple,… and necessitates an almost childlike “flow-mindedness”,… a willingness to become lost in the heartfelt listening and learning. And it compels a very strong, heartfelt desire to learn horse centric skills, aids, language,… because ultimately the horse is the master of his/her own elegance. They are the teachers if we are willing to listen through the heart using a common language of the aids to access their elegance.
    I have had wonderful horses in my life. My horse now, because of his intelligence, sensitivity, kindness, impatience (will not suffer fools and I have been a fool periodically), elegance has provided me with a world where it is safe for me (as long as I do not get too opinionated) to listen and learn. I have also worked with a few horses over the years (highly sensitive horses) who have compelled me to listen (really listen) or else (get into trouble),… who have changed me (though at the time I may not have known it). These horses appeared to know what I was thinking before I did!! In the end (today), I was/am honoured that they felt safe enough with me to have taught me how to access their elegance. I was a bit young, opinionated and stupid to realize their gifts. I definitely realize their gifts today,…
    Awesome adventure for you Callie and I really enjoy reading about it. It’s inspiring and I look forward to reading more! Did you find that that the experience there changed you,….left you with a heartfelt change in how you see/feel your practice with horses?

  13. I always like to hear what you have to say and love the videos Callie, the horse who stole my heart was a mare called Sox, she was so fast and exciting but she didn’t have a bad bone in her body. Sadly at the age of 20 the school retired her and I miss her so much, I am told she has settled in well and is happy in her new home. I now ride at a different school but these horses are really boring but as I am heading towards 73 I suppose it’s time to accept this and just be grateful that I am still able ride, we do have a nice, if sedate time !

  14. What a great takeaway from your trip, and the picture of you with such a big smile!

    Horses have been in and out of my life since forever, but I followed a whim and started riding lessons about 4 years ago now. The barn I ride at gets more than a few horses “off the truck” from a horse dealer, and one day he brought in a little bay mare. I found out later that she came from the auction in PA. This mare, while gentle and tolerant, has high expectations of her riders. I saw someone else ride her in a lesson one day and knew that very day that I didn’t want anyone to ever ride her so rudely again. Here we are almost 2 years later and it’s been one of the best journeys of my life. I hope to some day be the rider she deserves. We are a work in progress!

    This year, this old lady (52;) and my little bay mare are joining the barn’s show team! Never thought I’d canter, much less jump, but it turns out we’re up to the challenge. Peer pressure from the best barn rats in the world helps.

    Happy Trails:)

  15. I can so identify with the comment about riding with your heart. All of my horses have been trained this way, and all of them had been considered ‘problem horses’ previously. I came back to riding after 20 years of not going near a horse. My first horse was a renegade of sorts with quite the history of buffaloing riders. I fell in love at first sight, and finally bought him after he gave me a fall when jumping that made me too scared to even get back ON him! He knew from the first day I owned him that his life had changed. He was still a handful, but our relationship was such that I could ride him with no saddle or bridle sometimes. He lived to be 30 and was a happy boy for that time.
    My next horse was also considered a ‘problem horse’ as he was so independent and strong minded and athletic that people who looked at him didn’t think he was a good horse to work with. He actually ‘chose’ me when I looked at him, even though I had never trained a young horse or even ridden a horse that young and untrained before. We had 25 wonderful years together, and they were not uneventful but I always learned a lot from him, even when I ended up on the ground. He was a once in a lifetime horse, and was strong and fit and quite the handful until I lost him to colic when he was 29.
    My newest horse was a rescue and a frequently ‘not chosen’ horse at the rescue because of her intense energy. We are only at the beginning now, but she has shown me that she is straightforward, kind, tolerant, intelligent, and very willing to learn; traits I really love in a horse and which make training so much easier. I’m in my 70s now, so some days when she’s especially rambunctious, I have to choose not to get on her, reluctantly, but overall she is an amazing girl with incredible movement and stamina and desire and ability to learn. She is, again, MY teacher in so many ways and every day with her is a gift. She is quick to pick up on things, almost an overachiever, one might say. And is so affectionate that seeing her every day is the highlight of my day, even if I don’t ride her.

  16. All of my horses have been special in one way or another. But two that stand out are Gaydin, or Oasis, as she was known and Ibn. Oasis was my first Arab and she just taught me to ride, plain and simple. She wouldn’t put up with any ignorance, and if I didn’t learn to ride balanced and be soft with the reins, I was going to do a lot of walking. She was as smart as a dog and had the heart of a warrior. Ibn was abused. When I brought him home, he didn’t trust anyone or anything. Riding him was suicidal. He made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about horses and learn the virtue of supreme patience and kindness. Oasis passed away some years back. Ibn is one of my two riding horses. We spent many hours on the trails together.

  17. Your mention of vibrating the rein to soften the horse makes me wonder. Wouldn’t this be annoying to the horse?

    1. Monica, it is even less than what you are thinking! The vibration is very, very small as to not be any type of annoyance or nagging to the horse!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  18. Beautiful, Callie. I was 12 and a total beginner, and Bimbo was 25. He had been purchased for some enormous sum of money for the daughter of the riding school owner, had been a champion pony hack at Australia’s biggest show, was always overweight. He was the schoolmaster. Years ago I wrote a poem which begins….

    Did ya learn to ride on a grand old schoolmaster
    Who’d toddle the kids and they’d wish he was faster?
    When with curb and spur he was asked to show off
    We’d win us blue ribbons, we’d rode like a toff!

    All this because the school would take a truckload to local shows and gymkhanas, pony clubs were taking off, we had riding classes, pairs and fours, and hack classes. I quickly became a “working pupil” and a trusty, to take ponies to the forge, or to fairs and fetes where the pony rides were donated, and we’d ride across Canberra, lead kids and take money all day, hand that money over, and ride home exhausted. Then I was “spotted” and picked up by a mentor with a string of show horses. Without Bimbo to start me properly, my life would not have been as it was. The horses, and I, got better and better until the poem ends….

    Did ya learn through the years, in the giving and taking
    That the grandest to ride are all of your own making?

    And now I am 71. Now the farrier comes to you, everyone owns a trailer, no-one gets to make a great horse by riding across town. Thank you Callie.

  19. Hi Callie and thank you so much for that moving and expressive story. I felt as if I was with you in Portugal and, as a rider in Spain, also felt the Mediterranean warmth and love for horses throughout your share. I rode a Luisitano for a year until he was retired to a gorgeous farm near Madrid. He taught me things about horses, and myself, that I would not have learned if not for him. I´m so happy you enjoyed your experience in this marvelous part of the world…thank you for sharing it with us.

  20. Hi Callie,
    Your last paragraph in this blog is the one I will re-read . It is a useful reminder of how and why we approach our work with this fundamnetal awareness . In my experience horses expect it from us . I’m glad it was a meaningful experience for you and that you have shared it with us. Keep sharing!

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