What do I do?


When people ask me what I “do” with my horses (which, for the uninitiated, is code for “What discipline do you ride?”) I immediately become uncharacteristically tongue-tied. My usual decisive and strong persona is thrown into a quivering, confused mess and internally I begin darting around the room like a sparrow looking for somewhere to land. What DO I do with my horses?

Perhaps my horsemanship style could be called eclectic. If it was a painting it might be impressionist or abstract. Or maybe finger painting. Psychiatric diagnostic blobs?

In my tack room I have a western saddle, an Aussie saddle, a dressage saddle and a bareback pad. My bridles range from traditional polished English sets to bitless bridles, riding halters and even a classic bosal.

I have owned Quarter Horses, a Mustang, and a part-Thoroughbred.  Currently in my paddocks are an Arab, an Aussie Stockhorse cross and two Andalusians. Hey, at least there is some consistency in that those all start with the letter “A”.

Likewise, a visual perusal of my bookshelves reveals everything from horse psychology to hackamore theory, natural horsemanship manuals to cowboy dressage and working equitation guides. But then my eyes land on the cover of a book first published in 1976 written by Nuno Oliveira. Or more specifically, the photo on the cover of that book.

The photo is of an ordinary-looking, perhaps slightly overweight, older man sitting magnificently and effortlessly on a dapple-grey Lusitano stallion. They are in a perfect levade, the horse calmly and attentively executing this controlled rearing manoeuvre on a loose rein and with seemingly no cue from his rider. It is a picture of utter peace, partnership and harmony. It is a picture of equestrian art.

No wonder this photo was chosen to adorn the cover of his book titled Reflections on Equestrian Art.

Nuno Oliveira was born in 1925 in Portugal and died in Australia in 1989. Whenever he is referred to it is often with the title of “Master”.  Although he rode and taught dressage he never competed and his public performances were often done for free or to raise money for charities. Horsemanship was his art and horses his canvases.

Oliveira spoke of riding with kindness and feel, of working with the horse so that the horse eventually wants to partner with you. He spoke of lightness and lack of force.  He wrote of tact and velvet softness. He espoused doing less to achieve more and of never violating the horse’s dignity. The levade photo is all of that and so much more.

The values that Oliveira lived by in his horsemanship transcend disciplines. Even though he rode primarily in the style of classical dressage, articles about him have been published in cross-disciplinary magazines such as Eclectic Horseman, the main readership of which is western riders. So many of the great riders and teachers of today quote him and to say that you rode with Nuno is to bring your audience to a reverent silence (even though I have heard such people neglect to say that it was only one lesson for half an hour).

In a world that values competition, winning, getting to the top of your sport, I find it remarkable that Oliveira is recognised as one of the top riders of the age yet he never rode for ribbons. His main aim seemed to be to express his art for art’s sake, for the horse’s sake, for beauty. It is somehow as if he felt he would be cheapening his relationship with his horses to put them through competitive hoops.

That resonates with me on a deep level. Or is it, as some have accused, an unconscious excuse, knowing that I am not good enough to win? Is my “artistic” approach a copout in an equestrian world where accolades and trophies are the key to fame and high breeding fees?

When I state that I don’t compete any more people seem disappointed that I can’t recite a list of wins; the proof of accomplishment is not there for them. I am seen as odd. Less than. Inferior. Once again I can’t quite explain it to them, but what once bothered me is becoming less important as time goes on. And maybe I’m just moving past the age where others’ opinions of me matter.

It is the relationship I have with my horses that is most valuable to me. Perhaps this is what I do with my horses. That these massive creatures allow themselves to be moulded and shaped into fluid, flowing expression in motion is astounding to me, and humbling. That is what I see in the photo of Mr. Oliveira, a horse that has willingly surrendered to him rather than been forced to comply. That is what I search for and work towards daily.

But again, most people don’t get it. To so many, a horse is a tool for fun or sport or work. Even more difficult to explain is the fact that most of these riders who use their horses as a means to an end can ride far better than I can and have accomplished seemingly far more for their years in the saddle than I have. A tail swishing in worry or a jaw tensed from force goes unnoticed by them as long as they get the high score or win the medal. This does bother me because the silent, unnoticed swishing tail screams at me.

Rare video of Nuno schooling his horses is calm, peaceful, almost meditative even. His horses ripple like ribbons in the wind, not jagged zig-zags of ragged energy. Again, perhaps I am merely scared of that kind of energy and this is my excuse, again an accusation that has been levelled at me. But these same accusers also value the beauty and artistry of his riding and his horses. I wonder that they fail to see the disconnect between their horses and his.

This beauty, harmony and partnership is what I seek to emulate. It is absolutely laughable to even place myself in the same paragraph as Mestre Oliveira, let alone liken myself to him. If I lived a thousand years, I could never hope to attain anywhere close to his level of horsemanship; I simply don’t have the innate talent. But his riding was his art and I think that is the closest I can get to explaining what it is that I “do” with my horses.

Whatever manoeuvres I teach my horses, even if they are not the surreal levade of Nuno on his Portuguese stallion in the photo, it is the grace and peace of my horse in willing partnership with me that I am daily searching for. I’m still not completely certain I can articulate my equestrian endeavours and I’m even less convinced that people understand it but I’m becoming more ok with that.

So what do I DO with my horses? I mould. I create. I do art.