Clinic Report - Filippa Valenca

Luis Valenca's daughter from Equestre da Leziria Grande, Portugal.

This was arranged at quite short notice when Filippa suddenly became available due to some cancellations of the "Appassionata" show dates. Their loss was our gain! The lessons seemed very expensive at 100 euros - approx £90 at the current exchange rate but she gave real value for money frequently running over on lesson time and working tirelessly through the day, (and part of the night!), without any proper break. Her work was noteworthy for the calm, confident way in which she dealt with both horses and riders and her genuine desire to help them improve. Her tuition was clear and purposeful and very "hands on" although when she took a break from the PA headset, it was difficult to hear her from the gallery. However, everyone should have studied the way she worked the horses from the saddle and from the ground; she stayed completely in her back - very "grounded" yet "carried" and exemplified Erik's description of sitting "like a 200lb canary"!

Her lecture demo was inspirational and this word was used many times by other people who watched. She started with Joy's 8 year old Lusitano stallion, Trinco and showed how she would start with lunging and work in hand. She then proceeded to do the same type of work under saddle demonstrating a clear logical progression through simple leg yield, to shoulder in, to half pass and counter flexions then progressing to canter work and an introduction to flying changes, piaffe and passage. It was all the more interesting because it was not all perfect and she talked through some of the issues as she was working through them. She then did some more "finished" advanced work in hand with Andrew's Jaguar, a Lusitano gelding, and complemented both Andrew and Joy on their horses. (They didn't stop smiling for hours!). To finish, my Luso stallion Icaro and and Andalusian stallion Cantinero were put through their paces, Filippa on Icaro and I rode a very flamboyant Cantinero who seemed quite excited by the idea of a late night party. Filippa worked on making Icaro more supple through some flexions as a warm up for Piaffe then we did some more Piaffe with Cantinero. It was interesting to see the difference between the horses as Icaro finds it quite difficult to engage and bend through his hind legs so goes against the rein whereas Cantinero "curls up" and sits with his hindlegs so far forward that he gets stuck. Again, Filippa talked us through the good and the not so good as she worked and showed an improvement with both. When Cantinero did a few good steps he was immediately dismounted and rewarded. The evening was much more about the horses than it was about Filippa's ego and I for one thought it was a refreshing change!

Sadly, I was so busy "observing" that I did not make many notes but here are a few observations. (I have been a bit free with poetic licence for the quotes...)

Shoulder in versus leg yield

  • "Shoulder in is the aspirin of dressage"
  • "The volte helps the shoulder in and the shoulder in helps the half pass. We use this combination all the time."

She and other Iberian trainers often talk about shoulder in or counter shoulder in when I would say leg yield. When questioned, Filippa used a Portuguese expression which she translated as "lateral work" and the expression "leg yield" was new to her. I have heard the argument before when people say that they never do leg yield because the technical definition requires a straight horse with a slight flexion at the poll. Therefore they argue, they would prefer shoulder in which asks for a bend through the whole body. True, if you only do leg yield on straight lines, but you can also leg yield on a curve or circle and therefore it can be done with quite a wide range of angles and bends which makes it a very useful suppling exercise. Shoulder in (in my opinion) is far more exact in terms of angle and bend and has a much more specific collecting feel. The difference in expressions and words and understanding what the trainer means goes a long way to explaining the weird and wonderful techniques sometimes advocated for shoulder in. It is so easy to just bend the neck with the inside rein and shove the horse sideways with the inside leg back thus ending up end up losing the shoulders or the quarters and therefore no chance of collection. (I am pleased to report that there is a very clear explanation in Erik's latest book, the 4th edition of "Dressage Formula".)

Bending, Lateral work and Flexions (or whatever...)

  • "I don't really do the Baucher flexions in hand. My father used them once on a very difficult horse but I don't do them. (said with a shrug of the shoulders)"
  • "I don't read books much. How can I know what they mean when I haven't had the experience of riding with the person who wrote them? I read Oliviera because I rode with him and therefore I understand what he means in his book."
  • "When I ask for flexion I never ask the horse to bring his head in, I only ask for flexions to the right or to the left."
  • "I don't oblige him to stay round"
  • "I never give the position (flexion to the inside) if they don't want to advance (go forward)."
  • "I give the position and then do nothing with the hands."
  • "With the young horses I will use these exercises (bending, leg yielding etc...) every day but once the horse understands I don't need to do them more."

Most of you know that I am not a big fan of flexing the horse's head and neck no matter how many "Great Masters" write about it. I am far more interested in what the horse feels like under my seat than what it's front end looks like. Therefore it was interesting working with Filippa who flexes the horse and uses a lot of lateral work from almost the first day of training. She explained that the Iberian horse does not have the big paces of a warm blood and therefore they need exercises to develop the strength to move better. The warm bloods have different weaknesses so need different exercises. What I find fascinating about this argument is that even with the specific training traditions of each country, the majority of warm bloods still don't bend their hind quarters and collect and the majority of Iberians still have choppy paces and can't extend. The problem with flexing the horse in his head and neck is that it appears to make the horse "soft" and "round". If only it had the same miraculous effect on the hind quarters! True suppleness comes from bending the major joints in the hind quarter - the hip, hock and stifle - which is far more difficult than just making the neck, poll and jaw supple.

HOWEVER, and it is a big however... seeing Filippa work the horses it is transparently clear that she has such an excellent back and seat that she rides the horses with her whole body, not just the hand which is a minor, (albeit important) player in the scheme of things. She also has a lifetimes experience of riding and training horses and knows the feel of a horse that is truly engaged behind. She knows what she is looking for - no one seeing her could doubt that. But if you haven't got sufficient knowledge and skill you end up playing with the front end only which at best looks and feels quite nice and at worst gets the horse going in two halves with his head pulled down.

There is another "however" in that working with more flexion and lots of sideways stuff lends a certain clarity to the work: the horse will more obviously either fall in ("stiff" side) or fall out ("soft" side) so the rider has to use their seat, legs and weight to counteract this. By taking the weight off to the outside you can influence the horse to fall out more (sort of leg yield - sit right and go left). By taking the weight more to the inside you can influence the horse to fall in more (sort of half pass - sit right and go right). Filippa sometimes used her weight aids very clearly changing direction from leg yield/shoulder in to half pass but again, her seat was right where it was needed. Also, the forward energy from the inside leg and the contact on the outside rein played a crucial role.

During all this lateral work her hands remained absolutely quiet. There was no hint of fiddling left and right and using the reins as a crutch when things went wrong. Everything came from her body.

If only one could teach this in just a couple of days!

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