The Wisdom of Dressage Master Nuno Oliveira

In this book review, Mary Daniels remembers when she visited Nuno Oliveira in Portugal
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The Wisdom of Dressage Master Nuno Oliveira
By Antoine de Coux

184 pages, published by Xenophon Press, available at xenophonpress.com, at HorseBooksEtc.com and by calling (800) 952-5813.

When I visited the Mestre, Nuno Oliveira, in Portugal many years ago, very few riders in America knew who he was or what his training was about. Today, a number of books are coming out, one after the other, published by his former pupils, giving him homage and describing what the experience of working with him was like. He is now considered a legend and singularly responsible for the recognition of Portugal as a horse culture worthy of respect. 

One of these former students was Antoine de Coux, a magistrate in the Belgian Congo, reportedly one of the most loyal students of Oliveira. De Coux was a rider, but he also watched the lessons of others, taking copious notes, filling more than 40 notebooks. 

When Oliveira died, de Coux decided to organize his material into a book. Unfortunately, de Coux, too, passed on before it became a reality. Suzanne Laurenty, another disciple of Oliveira, finished de Coux’s work, first published in Paris in 2007 as Paroles de Maitre Nuno Oliveira. This is the one-and-only English edition, well translated with copious explanatory footnotes by Frenchman Jean Phillippe Giacomini, still another devoted disciple of Oliveira with firsthand knowledge of the master’s teachings.

While I like all the books on the Mestre I have seen so far, this one engaged me in a special way. The advice contained here is for a variety of riders and horses. It includes an extensive chapter on starting young horses. One thing you will notice in the text is constant repetition of certain important concepts and principles, which was a key technique of Oliveira’s. Here is some material from the book that may pique your interest: 

As the translator tells us, a characteristic of Oliveira’s work was the very slow but very energetic walk he preferred when practicing the gymnastic exercises that he used systematically to develop suppleness, balance and straightness in the horse. This slow walk was one of his signature approaches, and the way he managed to create that much energy in the walk had a lot to do with his other great achievement: slow, calm and elevated piaffes. 

One of the great assets of this book for me is that it contains information on the sequences of exercises that Oliveira designed to resolve particular problems. These prescriptions for sequences of exercises are like learning the secrets of a great trainer. (Oliveira always said the shoulder-in was “the aspirin of equitation.”) Here, these sequences, more effective than a single gymnastic exercise, are revealed in working mode. 

There is some organization, but it is not in the conventional step-by-step way. This book goes back and forth, just like real life, and I think the freshness of this approach helps lay new memory tracks in the reader’s brain. Here is what Oliveira had to say about that walk. “A collected walk must have distinct steps, be majestic like a ‘church walk,’ and nothing is majestic that is rushed. In walk, it is useful to close your eyes for three or four strides and count the footfalls. It helps us feel if the strides are equal. If we use the spur during the walk, the horse will rush his walk.”

My equestrian life has included a quest on how to truly straighten horses. Oliveira has a lot to say about it, certainly more than I have found in other books: “A young horse may walk straight but be rigid. A horse can be straight and on the forehand, just like a piece of wood. What we are seeking is a horse that must be straight, but flexible, rather than rigid, as supple in the left bend as in the right bend. One must feel the play of the engaging hind leg. The hip must move slightly left when the left hind advances. Then the horse is straight in the good meaning of the word.” 

I also like what he says about student attitude: “If once the lesson or the class is finished, you bring your horse back to the stable without any more empathy than if you were parking your car in the garage, all of what I am saying here will not be of any interest for you.” Amen! The student of equestrian art remains one for life.

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