I had my first glimpse of the Ribatejo, the region of Portugal that is home to the Lusitano and all its heritage, in the spring of 2011. Following the Tagus River south, the plane flew over a vast delta heavily cultivated and glowing green with rice paddies and hay fields. The margins of the delta rose gently to a shelf to the east, and the land turned into pastures and open woodlands. As the plane neared the city, we circled out over the Atlantic and then flew right back up the Tagus. This time I could look down and see the Tower of Belem, the Jeronimos Monastery and the hills of Lisbon just behind.
The landing was abrupt and too near those populous hills for my taste, but after dreaming of the glorious Lusitanos and Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, I had finally arrived. From my first glimpse of the Ribatejo I felt a connection to the land that was both surprising and forceful. I traveled with Dominique and Debra Barbier and we saw a lovely performance by the School of Equestrian Art in the outdoor ring at the National Palace at Queluz, visited Sintra and toured the Coach Museum in Belem.
A visit to master horseman Luis Valença would take us north, following the Tagus up into the Ribatejo. I was now at eye level with the watery landscape I had viewed from above, and I was seeing horses dotting the open woodlands, rolling hillsides and intermittent grasslands. There were fields with black bulls lazily munching grass in the heat of midday while nesting storks made condominiums of the electricity pylons. Wading birds of all kinds were busily bobbing beaks and heads up and down in the rice paddies.
Listening to Barbier reminisce with Valença was like turning the pages in a history book of the great masters of dressage. Of course there was much discussion of Nuno Oliveira and each man shared favorite personal reminiscences, but they also spoke of the great breeding families of Portugal—Veiga, Coimbra and Braga. These were names I had heard often and seen on the genealogy of fine Lusitanos from Brazil.
After we left Valença, we traveled to a tiny village west of Vila Franca and stepped back more than 30 years in history. We visited the manege of Oliveira, where little had changed since the years that Barbier had lived and studied there. It was quiet, with only a few horses in the old stalls. The arena sat empty, with the chair in the corner where Oliveira would sit each day to offer the occasional comment to his students. Though dust covered, it was still there.
The names of the horses that Oliveira shared his life with were all still there on the outside wall of the Picadeiro. The hand-painted azulejos of the haute école movements were still at the end of the arena, waiting for the next rider to passage beneath them. Time stood still in melancholy anticipation.
Though we traveled on to Spain and other wonderful sights and events, my heart remained in Ribatejo, Portugal, with my brain trying to figure out how to get back.
Return I did, and I am continually delighted by the costumes and romance with which the country adorns itself. Seeing the landscape turn into a sea of wildflowers this spring is something I will never forget. It was as if they had blossomed just to greet the new crop of foals, to welcome them to a paradise of color, sunshine and beauty.
I thought I knew intimately the groves of cork oaks, olives and hillside vineyards. I’ve felt the summer heat and the shade of the oaks. I knew the gold- and wine-colored tones of autumn and harvest time and the mists and fog of the winter season that greens the hillsides and meadows. Now I know the exuberant technicolor of spring. And in each of these landscapes you will find the serenely beautiful Lusitano weaving in and out of the forests, stallions watching over their mares, just as they have done for hundreds upon hundreds of years.