On a hot day last August, I arrived in Sintra, Portugal, to train for a week with Miguel Ralão Duarte—a rider who was part of Portugal’s team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG). I met him because he is a head trainer for the PSL (Purebred Lusitano) Young Horse Program that I participate in.
It was so hot that the sun threatened to melt us as we unloaded at the riding center in Quinta da Beloura. The center has a few stables rented to different trainers and riding schools. It has incredible facilities, including a huge covered arena, a jumping arena, an electric walker and brand-new outdoor dressage arenas. I brought an 8-year-old Lusitano stallion named Felix, owned by my employer, Monte Velho, an equine resort in Arraiolos, Portugal. Felix has been trained to do some of the upper-level movements, but he is lacking in the basics, so I have been retraining him for the last several months. I was excited for some intensive help from a top trainer.
I worked all day at the barn and was able to watch Miguel ride some of his horses, including his 2018 WEG mount, Xenofonte D’Atela. As a rider, he is focused. He maintains his balanced and harmonious position all the time. I could see him discover an underlying training issue during his ride, address that issue with an aid or an exercise and then quickly reward the horse with a pat or a break. His vast experience gives him the ability to do this quicker and more correctly than most. I was especially inspired to see him after a difficult exercise reward the horse by lightening his seat and allowing a steady hand-gallop to release the pressure. His horses seem happy working for him and are therefore willing to give 100 percent.
Balance Starts in the Feet
I was honored to ride one of Miguel’s horses in training, a gray mare named Famous. She was sensitive and a bit hot and built long and horizontal, not uphill. In my lessons, Miguel gave me some incredible tools to help her use her balance in the best possible way. The first thing he asked me to do was to move my weight back in the saddle, closer to her tail. We were stopped and I was trying to figure out what he meant, but the answer ended up happening naturally when I scooted my seat slightly back in the saddle. The solution was to push a bit into the front of my feet—near my toes—to get the balance back closer to the back of the horse and off the front end. Otherwise, I could end up too close to her withers if she started traveling downhill. The actual movement is nearly invisible: The feet stay under your seat and remain basically horizontal. Just the small weight shift back makes all the difference.
When we were moving, I could put that pressure in my feet and maintain or improve the balance in the saddle. Famous responded well when I shifted the weight correctly because she could then allow her withers to lift and the base of her neck to lower in a much rounder frame but with a more uphill balance. The pressure in my feet grounded me and had the effect of rebalancing or half halting the horse, which is a great tool to use for many occasions, especially on this mare and on all the horses I have ridden since.
Use of the Reins
Whether I was riding in the snaffle or the double bridle, Miguel had some great advice about the use of the reins. He wanted me to keep the inside rein steady to keep the position of the flexion the same all the time. He explained that if the horse braces or loses the balance, I was to try to keep that inside rein steady no matter what. To fix any throughness problems, he said to use the outside rein as if it were a valve. You can let the horse go longer or half halt him shorter on the outside of the body. The problem that can be created with too much suppling on the inside rein is the inside rein creates a fake give when the horse releases the jaw. The inside rein releases the jaw but not all the other joints and muscles along the topline. When forced to keep the inside hand quiet, I found ways to use my seat and leg to improve the throughness much more honestly than with the quick-and-easy inside rein “fix.” Then, the horse was much more honest between the aids and achieved true throughness in the body.
Felix is a bouncy and big-moving horse. To follow his movement, I was mistakenly trying to relax all through my body. You want the energy to move throughout your body, but I was allowing a bit too much movement as well. Because of this, the horse was unable to find his ideal balance because my balance was unsteady.
Miguel advised me to sit still, which made a huge improvement. For example, in the canter I felt the horse rocking along. When I wanted to improve the jump, I was trying to increase the swing in my seat. Instead, he asked me to sit still but activate the horse with my legs. I could feel the muscles around my core engaging as I tried to stop the exaggerated rocking movement. Suddenly, the energy was moving in a more up-and-down direction and the horse became more active underneath me. The use of my core muscles was even more pronounced in the trot. I wanted to bounce the horse with my seat into the swingy trot, but I had to sit more quietly. I could feel the burn in my core, especially in the muscles under my rib cage, and then my position became a built-in half halt to improve the balance.
Overall, training with Miguel was an amazing experience. Using the pressure in the feet, a steadier inside rein and sitting more still were my main takeaways. Having the help on the ground and watching a great rider train made for an educational week that I will not forget.