Lessons from a Dressage Riding Vacation in Italy

The journey to an Italian dressage school opens one rider’s eyes to the essence of equestrian art.
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Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou Il Paretaio feels like a home away from home for riders who have steeped themselves in classical dressage. With several young instructors and more than 20 high-quality school horses, it also caters to new or novice riders in addition to advanced dressage students.

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou Il Paretaio feels like a home away from home for riders who have steeped themselves in classical dressage. With several young instructors and more than 20 high-quality school horses, it also caters to new or novice riders in addition to advanced dressage students.

After succumbing to what I call incurable dressage wanderlust-—the lure of locations around the globe that inspire and add to my skills—I landed in Italy last summer. But by the second day of my week-long stay at Il Paretaio Classical Riding Center, I knew this paradise was more than just another memorable riding vacation. It felt like a pilgrimage. I had landed astride in a continuity of classical training that stretched back to trainers I have long admired. Giovanni and Cristina De Marchi, founders and head instructors, found early tutelage under the French riding master Gerard Beckrich and then refined their skills under legendary Portuguese riders Nuno Oliveira and Luis Valencia, chief rider at the national Portuguese equestrian school. 

Right as I lift my eyes to the surrounding golden countryside, Giovanni coaches me through a walk to canter transition with the enthusiasm of someone still very much in love with the art of dressage even after decades of teaching riders from around the globe, roughly 10,000 at last tally. The passion here in these Tuscan hills is infectious. Of course, with the good life, la dolce vita, so close at hand in this region of Chianti, it might be impossible not to cultivate the same joyful approach to training, or life in general, on a daily basis. 

This state of being, one of deep, peaceful relaxation along with inspired motivation, permeates more than just the riding lessons at Il Paretaio in Barberino, 20 miles outside Florence. During week-long stays, students find new feelings for everything from sitting trot to half-pass to the type of mindfulness and contentment that makes us all better partners for our horses. While the pursuit of the good life might not be what led me here initially, it quickly became evident it leads to better riding. During one morning lesson as I rode Tempo, an agile Lusitano gelding, Giovanni’s wife, Cristina, offered the advice, half-kidding, that after a few more weeks of enjoying elaborate Italian dinners and the leisurely pace of each day, my half halts would become more effective. By that, she meant I would be melting down in the saddle, remaining firm—but at ease—with my posture. In fact, a frequent prompt during lessons, which are conducted in multiple languages, is for riders to find “calm energy” in their bodies. 

Dressage in Italy

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou Lessons run throughout the day, beginning at 7:30 a.m. with a large pause in the middle to seek reprieve from the heat. Students ride together in small groups of two to three or can opt for a private lesson when the schedule allows.

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou Lessons run throughout the day, beginning at 7:30 a.m. with a large pause in the middle to seek reprieve from the heat. Students ride together in small groups of two to three or can opt for a private lesson when the schedule allows.

Italy played a major role in the development of modern dressage. In 1532, Federico Grisone opened the world’s first modern riding school in Naples with teachings based on Xenophon’s early treatise of dressage from 350 B.C. At that time, a good riding education was considered to be a requirement for young gentlemen to be successful in a courtly society. Grisone was joined by two other Italian riding masters, Giambattista Pignatelli and Caesar Fiaschi, who steered dressage on its evolution toward the sport we know today by writing down many of their methods in materials that were distributed and studied. Pignatelli’s student Antoine de Pluvinel was commissioned by the French court to establish a riding school in France similar to the venerated Naples school. Eventually, similar schools sprang up throughout Europe, including the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

The De Marchis, prior to committing themselves to creating their own classical riding center, both fell in love with horses early on. Their formative years were spent under the tutelage of students of Oliveira. They also studied and trained for many years at the National Stud in Portugal. Along the way, they have also immersed themselves in other traditions of training that feel symbiotic with their classical roots, like Centered Riding and some of the Natural Horsemanship principles. Over their last 20 years of operation in Tuscany, they have increased their school’s international reputation, but have altered none of their commitment to the training principles of antiquity along the way. 

The Il Paretaio Experience

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou A week-long visit to Il Paretaio includes accommodations for seven days/nights in a restored Tuscan inn plus breakfast and dinner daily and nine dressage lessons throughout the week. in addition to a trail ride through the countryside.

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou A week-long visit to Il Paretaio includes accommodations for seven days/nights in a restored Tuscan inn plus breakfast and dinner daily and nine dressage lessons throughout the week. in addition to a trail ride through the countryside.

Il Paretaio feels like a home away from home for riders who have steeped themselves in classical dressage. With several young instructors and more than 20 high-quality school horses, it also caters to new or novice riders in addition to advanced dressage students. Lessons run throughout the day, beginning at 7:30 a.m. with a large pause in the middle to seek reprieve from the heat. Students ride together in small groups of two to three or can opt for a private lesson when the schedule allows. Each 50-minute lesson follows the progression riders envision of a classical European school with students following instructions while in single-line formation, which puts them in a constant state of adjusting their horse’s rhythm, another reminder to stay firmly rooted in each moment. Most sessions begin with lateral movements in the walk and then progress to suppling figures at trot and then canter.

Students spend ample time in the beginning of each lesson loosening their horses by riding figures and lateral work in a lively but relaxed walk. This phase of “connecting the horse’s body to your seat and his mind to your mind,” as Giovanni explained it, sets the stage for any training session to be productive. In the walk, explains Cristina, considerable learning and progress happen for both horse and rider, but too many riders skip over it in their daily work. When they are too eager to get to the faster movements, they often skip the finer points of dressage. At Il Paretaio, students learn the value of that initial walk period, especially for touring through lateral movements and feeling every stride. 

Later in the evening, we are able to expand on some of these philosophies and the classical tenets that Il Paretaio preserves. Seated around the massive dining-room table with the sun long disappeared, students relax with bountiful and leisurely Tuscan dinners and free-flowing wine from the local Chianti region. Giovanni and Cristina, along with their son Pietro, happily share their love and wisdom of training horses and riders. Above all, lightness of a rider’s aids and harmony with her horse remain uncompromised foundations here. If sometimes their passion makes them sound like guardians of classical dressage, it is because in this part of the world, they just might be. 

Most nights, 10 to 20 students are gathered for dinner, coming from all over the globe and joined by the common bond of horses. During our week at Il Paretaio, we shared arena time and meals with couples from Germany, China and a few families from France and Belgium. As we cleaned every morsel of tiramisu from our plates, we shared stories of home and talked in the language that united us: horses. From overhead shelves lining the dining room, Cristina’s collection of more than 400 horse figurines arched their wooden and plastic necks over our lively conversations that were patched together with accented English.

During dinner, the following day’s riding schedule and horse assignments appeared on the mantle. Before lifting their post-dinner espressos, riders excitedly rushed over to see the schedule, trading notes with each other about various horses or commiserating with those assigned to the lower arena that required a long downhill trek over cobblestones. This impressive daily spreadsheet logged the rotation of 20 guests, five instructors, nearly 30 horses and two arenas. Impressively, everything ran like clockwork. At designated lesson times, every horse is promptly prepared and saddled by the school’s staff of grooms, some of whom were previous visitors to the school and have come back to stay for good. 

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou

On our final afternoon at the school, we headed out through the countryside for a two-hour ride to a private wine cellar. We rode through the slanting afternoon sun washing over butter-colored hillsides, clip-clopped through the cobbled piazzas of ancient stone villages and meandered through verdant wine farmsteads. After tethering our horses on a high tie outside the cellar, we went inside for a personalized and bountiful education and tasting of traditional Chianti wines. As our horses nibbled grass nearby, we snacked on homemade olive oil drizzled over flatbread and learned about the evolution of well-known wines like Chianti Classico. Tasting the exquisite flavors of Casamonti’s three different red wines, we detected characteristics that might only be described as passion or commitment to history. Traveling home on horseback, the hills glowing in late golden light, we nearly lost track of which century we were in. And if 20 years of successful operation at Il Paretaio are any indication, this state of being serves us all well. Lulled by the rhythmic walk underneath me, and the oncoming twilight, I grew reflective. It occurred to me how this trip to Italy, as with most experiences involving horses, had steered way off my projected course and yet arrived at a sublime outcome nonetheless. 

I had arrived at this classical riding school intending to dissect and hone the minutiae of dressage aids. Or at least that was what I thought I needed. Turns out, I needed the kind of revamp to my riding that comes in the form of improving oneself from the inside out, taking time to settle down and breathe. With quiet elegance, life at Il Paretaio improves riders in ways they did not anticipate, ways they will quickly fall in love with. This just might explain how classical dressage has survived for so long. 

A Lesson at Il Paretaio

For the first several minutes of my private lesson, Giovanni De Marchi asked me to walk Squibb, a gray Andalusian cross, briskly on a long rein to loosen his body and also to use the bending aids of my seat and leave my hands quiet. When the rhythm became regular and swinging, I progressed to riding Squibb more into the contact and then progressed to lateral movements along the quarterlines, ensuring that I cued him—minimally—from my core and not by overusing my leg pressure. A lively round of posting trot followed as I continued to utilize arena figures and lateral exercises when Squibb’s posture or engagement needed improvement. 

To maintain good swing and looseness in the horses’ backs, most trotting work at Il Paretaio is done in posting trot, Giovanni explained, including shoulder-in and haunches-in. He believes that many riders make themselves and their horses stiff by overusing the sitting trot. He prefers to see riders use the sitting trot for brief periods throughout each session when the movement is relaxed and engaged. On this note, all of Il Paretaio’s instructors emphasize how and why to ride exercises so that, even with extensive dressage schooling, horses do not become robotic or dull.

The instructors show riders how to modify certain lines of travel and tempo during exercises to retain each horse’s freshness to keep him alert and responsive. During my canter transitions aboard Tempo, for instance, Giovanni asked me to ride down the center of a 20-meter circle straight toward C and then, right before the rail, execute a canter depart and then turn immediately in the new direction. This exercise keeps both horse and rider sharp and quick. He prompted me during the exercise to cue for the canter from a slight hip movement, and using very little leg pressure. This would create a more smooth canter depart, Giovanni said, preventing my leg from becoming dull. 

Programs at Il Paretaio

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou Daily activities at Il Paretaio involve around 20 guests, five instructors, nearly 30 horses and two arenas. At designated lesson times, every horse is promptly prepared and saddled by the school’s staff of grooms, some of whom were previous visitors to the school and have come back to stay for good.

Credit: Courtesy, Jec Ballou Daily activities at Il Paretaio involve around 20 guests, five instructors, nearly 30 horses and two arenas. At designated lesson times, every horse is promptly prepared and saddled by the school’s staff of grooms, some of whom were previous visitors to the school and have come back to stay for good.

Week-long riding programs at Il Paretaio include:

• Accommodations for seven days/nights in a restored Tuscan inn plus breakfast and dinner daily and nine dressage lessons throughout the week in addition to a trail ride through the countryside. Cost: 1,200 euros (about $1,450 U.S. dollars). Additional daily dressage lessons available for purchase upon arrival, costing approximately $70.

• Nonriding spouses are welcome to join for 700 euros (about $750) per week including accommodation and meals and use of the swimming pool

Il Paretaio is located in the center of Tuscany within a short bus or train ride from Florence, Sienna, San Gimignano, Volterra, Pisa with the leaning tower, Lucca and many other artistic towns for sightseeing. Closest airports to access Il Paretaio:

- Florence: 45 minutes by car or taxi 

- Pisa: 1 hour 15 minutes by car or private transfer 

- Milan or Rome: less than 2 hours by train to Florence and then private transfer or bus to the school.

To book a holiday at Il Paretaio, email info@ilparetaio.it. Jec Ballou, book author and FEI-level rider is guiding a student trip to Il Paretaio in November. To join her trip, visit jecballou.com.

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