There’s a Hawaiian saying that goes something like, “The weather doesn’t make a day.” This proved true on the unseasonably cold, wet spring day I visited the Truppas—one of Italy’s most successful dressage families—in Monferrato, their northern-Italian base halfway between Turin and Milan. Italian dressage Olympian Valentina Truppa, at 28 years old, is a beautifully effective rider. Her father and coach, Dr. Enzo Truppa, an “O”-level judge and former international Grand Prix rider is a walking encyclopedia of classical equitation. The visit is like a personal master class. Both were so generous sharing their knowledge.
The day begins with Valentina warming up Fixdesign Chablis, her 15-year-old chestnut who gave her many successes in Young Rider classes, including two of her record three Young Rider European championships. Affectionately know as her “boyfriend,” Enzo explains. “Chablis was the most difficult horse because he was so dominant. Even some of the top trainers couldn’t fix his problems. I wanted to sell him but Valentina wouldn’t let me. Only Valentina can teach him. He accepts only her.
“We always work at making the horse loose. This is our mantra,” Enzo emphasizes. “Contraptions are unheard of in the stable. Valentina has never seen draw reins in her life. She would not know how to fix a problem with them. She is only 5 foot 2 inches and just over 110 pounds, and look at the horse. So I can’t believe our method is too wrong.”
After performing pirouettes and a couple of big trot extensions to finish, Chablis receives many “molto buonas” from the trainer. He has done everything asked of him so the session is short and he is put away after being fed a lot of sugar.
While Valentina’s Olympic partner, Fixdesign Eremo del Castegno (aka Eremo), is prepared for work, Enzo shows me around the stable. I can’t help but notice how many horses are named after wine: Chablis, Sauvignon, Chardonnay. Enzo laughs, “Yes, the stable is really a cellar! We all get drunk. You know, this is actually the best wine-growing region in Italy,” and like many Italians, Enzo is a wine connoisseur.
The horses range from 3 years old (Eremo’s full sister) to 15-year-old Chablis. Treadmills are used for exercise and to keep the young horses moving when the Truppas are away at shows. There is also an indoor solarium that has color therapy, where different colored lights are used during the horses’ solarium sessions to work on their immune systems and their state of mind to keep them happy and healthy, especially during the drab winter months.
Eremo is the superstar. He has a body like Rambo and is often mistaken for a stallion. Valentina performs five minutes of walk at the beginning of his training session and then loosening canter work while Enzo continues to explain the training. “We never get so concentrated on the collected work that we forget the looseness and relaxation,” he says. “How long we do it for depends on the horse.”
All the training is individualized for the particular animal. Some are warmed up in the trot, some the canter. Some are stretched long and some are not. “Take Eremo, a German magazine once called him ‘The Gladiator.’ He was over-motivated but now he understands that we do the work together.”
The Truppas do a lot of interval training, where the work is interspersed with many breaks—pressure on, pressure off. If an exercise is done properly, there is a pat and a walk. The biggest punishment is to repeat the exercise when it is wrong. The Truppas believe that if you punish a horse, he will never forget it, and that horses give everything back.
Now 12, Eremo was chosen as a 6-month-old. The Truppas don’t buy trained horses but purchase them very young. They like to own the horses so training can progress at a speed suitable to them without the pressure of owners pushing the horses too quickly through the system.
Once the big bay is loose, it’s time to train what Enzo believes is perhaps the best piaffe in the world. The whip is taken away for the piaffe/passage as it can’t be used in competition. The movement is, indeed perfect, showing why the horse usually gets awarded 9s and 10s. “Fantastico!” enthuses Enzo, “How do you like that?” he laughs. Just fine-tuning during a stress-free, 20-minute session is all that is needed today before the obligatory sugar.
Valentina’s two top students enter the arena and she takes on the coaching role. Frederica Scolari and Micol Rustignoli have already represented Italy as Young Riders with Valentina and now the young trainer wants them to join her on the Italian team that goes to the European Championships in Herning, Denmark, later in the year. They both have their first qualifying marks so it’s a reasonable goal. (Editor’s note: Both riders went on to accompany their coach, with the Italian team coming in 12th overall.) Although both are active and forward, Frederica’s horse is kept up in front while Micol stretches hers long and low, “but never deep,” enforces Enzo. “I don’t believe in deep. But every horse is different and ridden accordingly.”
Micol’s horse has a short and slightly tight back. Enzo explains: “This is very interesting. The passage gets a bit tight, so then she trots to loosen the back before trying the passage once more. Never do we use force.”
Valentina is ready to ride her next mount—Fixdesign Ranieri. Named after a Norman king, the big bay 8-year-old has just begun his successful international career at France’s Vidauban CDI. Enzo tells his story while Valentina loosens him up. “He is the first horse I have allowed Valentina to ride from 3 years old. Usually, I don’t allow her to ride them until they are 4; before that, it can be too dangerous. But Valentina would say, ‘You don’t think I can do it,’ and kept insisting, so then I had to say ‘OK, ride the bloody horse!’”
Valentina explains: “Ranieri is like a little dog. He is a funny horse. I ride him sometimes without the saddle or bridle, the same as Eremo.” Valentina has started to do some Parelli Natural Horsemanship techniques with her top horses to change their routine a little and give them mental relaxation. They play with balls, walk over tarps and get ridden in just a halter about every two months.
But today it is strictly dressage. Ranieri warms up in the canter. “We do tons of counter canter here,” Enzo explains. There is also an emphasis on working pirouettes. Next the trot is developed with shoulder-in and half pass. “Manifico!” yells Enzo before Valentina rides the first part of the Grand Prix.
When Ranieri throws in a quick 180-degree turn on the centerline, Enzo says dryly, “He is a horse with sense of humor, not always the same as the rider.” But there is still sugar waiting for him at the end of his session. “The main danger to our horses here is diabetes,” Enzo quips. “I had to stop standing next to the arena when Valentina competed this one as he used to stop all the time where I was, waiting for his sugar.”
It is then time for the younger horses to strut their stuff. Valentina is on Fixdesign Eremo’s brother Nilo. The rising 8-year-old is similar to his big brother in looks. His trot and canter are naturally swinging and his neck and back are correct, according to Enzo. The young bay is on his best behavior. “We think the piaffe will be amazing, too, but we’re not touching that yet,” says Enzo.
“Look at this horse. With such balanced paces, it is easy to sit back and do nothing, but you must control the tempo. It is like a car with five gears. You have to use them. You have to control and master the tempo. This is so important and is the basis of our training.”
Valentina checks that Nilo is in front of her leg and checks the tempo control, but she is never strong in her position nor does she overorganize the horse. “Valentina has amazing natural feel,” says Enzo. “Look. I don’t have to say anything. She is also a master of balance. Even as a child, she was always on the center of gravity, never behind or in front. It is her gift,” says the proud father, who is also her biggest critic. “I’m more severe than the most severe judge. I have to commend Valentina for being so patient as I’m very picky.”
Other top trainers are sometimes brought to the stable to confirm the training. The Truppas have worked with George and Monica Theodorescu, Wolfram Wittig, Klaus Balkenhol and Molten Thomson among others. Valentina also spent some months with Hubertus Schmidt, an experience that changed her attitude toward the sport of dressage—not so much in the training—but in her professionalism. She now rides many horses a day and runs the stable fully on her own. Enzo is busy in Milan during the week working as a tax consultant and trains Valentina only three days a week.
They finish with the 4-year-old Sauvignon who has already been longed. “[Our longing technique] is an idea from George Theodorescu,” explains Enzo. “The longing is the horse’s 10 minutes where he can do what he wants. Then it is the rider’s 20 minutes.” Valentina talks to the big, bald-faced chestnut the whole time. “I have to be clear with him,” she says.
Enzo explains further: “With the young horses, we teach a lot with voice using German words.”
“It is like what Charles V is claimed to have said: ‘I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.’ This is why German,” Enzo says with a wry smile.
Soon we are out of the cold and in the Truppa’s house meeting Enzo’s wife, Anna, who turns out to be an incredible cook. Food and wine are indeed a religion in Italy, and I fear I may have been converted.
Pieces of this interview by Rebecca Ashton were published in the August 2013 issue of The Horse Magazine.