Sylvia Loch: My Toughest Dressage Training Challenge

This rider made a Grand Prix schoolmaster out of an ex-bullfighting stallion.
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In this series, top trainers tell how they were temporarily stumped at some point in their careers. These tales are fascinating because most of us see only the finished product at a show or on a video and assume the training must have gone smoothly. Certainly the best riders make it look that way. The manner in which the toughest training challenge is met and solved is a lesson in persistence, patience and good horsemanship. This month, trainer and author Sylvia Loch tells of taking an ex-bullfighting stallion and making him into a Grand Prix schoolmaster.

My challenge was Palomo Linares, an ex-bullfighting stallion that I rescued in Portugal. He always had his tongue over the bit and was very tense. He ended up turning into my best schoolmaster ever, and changed my life because I would have probably given up teaching if it had not been for him. I got Palomo in l982, a few years after my beloved husband, Lord Henry Loch, died, leaving me with this huge dressage establishment, an 8-week-old baby and 22 Lusitano schoolmasters. Only a year before, I’d also lost my father, so with my baby daughter and my mother to look after, I had to sell our yard and start all over again.

Credit: Courtesy, Sylvia Loch

Credit: Courtesy, Sylvia Loch

By the time Palomo came into my life, I’d found homes for the school horses, given up the family home and decided I’d had enough. No more teaching. Instead, I decided to have one horse and ride for pleasure. 

I was living in the south of England and had just founded the Lusitano Breed Society of Great Britain. On a judging trip to Portugal, I found what I thought would be the perfect competition dressage horse. She was a lovely mare from the famous Alter Real Stud. But just as we were arranging her shipping, African horse sickness struck and it was impossible to get horses out for almost a year. With my mare stuck in Portugal, I was visiting often. On one trip, I was attending a party—one that had nothing to do with horses—when I met a lady who said, “I heard you’re into Lusitanos. We’re looking for a home for a very special horse.” She had rescued an ex-bullfighter that she couldn’t ride. “Come and look at the horse,” she said. I went out in my cocktail dress and high heels to the back of their villa and saw Palomo in a small paddock. He had been there for two years because he couldn’t be ridden. “You can’t ride him, of course. He’s impossible,” the lady told me. “But we’re hoping he might be a companion horse.”

“Look,” I told her. “He’s a stallion. No one will want him if he can’t be ridden.” So I came back the next day in riding clothes. The owner was very nervous as I prepared to get on. “This horse is just crazy,” she warned again. “You put your leg on him and he takes off.”

I got on and just sat there, legs loose. He must have known this was his chance. He gathered himself up and in the space of 20 seconds, without me asking, was into passage around the tiny paddock. In that moment, I knew I had to take him. He had looked into my eyes and we connected. At 14, he was an old horse to export. The Portuguese veterinarian said I’d be lucky to get two years out of him, but I took him nevertheless. 

Palomo Linares had been named after a famous Spanish bullfighter. He had led a tough life in the ring and as a stud stallion. He was supposed to be retired. I knew that something bad had happened at some stage, but I never really found out what. The woman who wanted to sell him had tried to compete him at Grand Prix but he would blow up on her and even leave the arena.

When the borders finally reopened, the two horses came home together. From that first moment, he trusted me, but he wasn’t easy. He had a fiery temper and a huge ego. You couldn’t go into his stable holding a broom or anything that could be seen as a weapon. 

When riding, collection was easy but he was very crooked and had no extension at all. The moment you put your leg on him, he would tense up. I gradually got him back. Within two years, I started being able to put students on him, but I had to monitor their every move.

All horses have inspired me, but it was Palomo who changed my life. He said, “Show them!” So I did. My late husband, Henry, was an amazing horseman. He was ex-cavalry and a studentat Vienna and Saumur. I had learned so much from him, and I thought of him as I rode Palomo—very quiet, proud and always listening. Palomo was like a piece of mercury under one’s seat. He could change in a second, which was good for the teacher. I had written The Royal Horse of Europe in l986 but under Palomo’s guidance, the practical dressage books started to flow.

The Portuguese, unlike the Spanish, do all their bullfighting on horseback. Their horses have to be phenomenally responsive. They literally have to be like quicksilver. They have to go from a rein back to a gallop instantly, or a pirouette to a full pass. I had to break everything down to the slightest nuance, otherwise Palomo would tense up and canter on the spot. If anyone got on him who had an ego, he’d have a really angry look in his eye, and I knew I had to take him orher off. If the student was humble, however, he was generous beyond belief.

Palomo was not a purebred Lusitano. On his papers, he is out of a Luso-Arabian mare and a famous bullfighting Luso-Arabian was his dad. The Portuguese tended to breed this mix for the bullfight. It’s a great match that brings out the best of both breeds. It is often harder for the purebred Lusitano to do tempi changes. They can be so back-on-the-hocks and high in front that it’s harder for them to change quickly. Most horses need a more horizontal balance for tempi changes. 

Palomo could do tempis. He found them easy. His piaffe was to die for, his passage lofty, but unless you did it perfectly, you couldn’t get anything out of him. You never had to touch him with the spur, almost just think it. You also had to be totally modest when you rode him with a sort of “I am nothing” attitude. He taught me tremendous tact. I already had it, having worked with my late husband. But Palomo was the icing on the cake. He gave me that inner sensitivity that I have been able to share in my writing. I had worked with fantastic horses before that, but Palomo was so picky about who was riding him. He gave me insights I never had before. He taught me to became so quiet, so sensitive to the slightest feel of tension or what he needed from the rider. He refined everything I knew.

Around 1994, I almost had to put Palomo down when he ruptured his tendon. The vet wanted to put him down. In those days, all you could do was six months in a box stall with the leg in a really thick bandage so it couldn’t move at all. “Palomo,” I told him, “this is what we are going to do.” He loved to work and the thought of confinement was anathema, but he took it.

Then came the day, after six months in a stall, that I took him out in a normal head collar to eat some grass. When I went to put him back in, I said, “Come on, old fellow,” and he got that look in his eye that said, “No!” I thought, I cannot afford to have a row with you. If he pulled free, he’d ruin his leg and that would be the end. I had to use a lot of tact, gradually inching him bit by bit with grass in my hand, back into the stable. I will never, ever make that mistake again, I vowed. From that moment on, I took him out with a Chiffney (bit). I had to make sure I had the upper hand without ever bullying him.

Another problem was his tongue. The curb he wore when young was horrific and he hated the snaffle, so I had to ride him in a rubber pelham for six years. He ended up being lovely and straight and extremely correct, apart from the tongue problem. There wasn’t much you could do except use the hands a little as possible and ride with your weight. I tried him in a bitless bridle but he hated it. Finally, he accepted the double bridle, but he still put his tongue over the bits when my students rode him unless they were ultrasensitive.

Over the years, we demonstrated all over the UK including Buckingham Palace Mews. Our party piece was me riding him with just a cord in his mouth. People would be in tears watching him. I’d ride him into the arena in a bridle and then have the groom remove it. He would do all the movements—piaffe, passage, changes—then I’d drop my hands and let the cord fall. At the end of the demo, people would be clapping, and he loved it. I guess he remembered the clapping in the bullring. Palomo was 16 hands and he would grow, feeling like 18. I always trusted that in that moment he wouldn’t take off.

I had 14 glorious years with him. He lasted until he was 28 and died in my arms. It was a magical relationship. Palomo taught me that while working within the strict classical guidelines, the development of an art can only be acquired through sensitivity and love. He really did change my life but, boy, I never expected it to bring me any fame. I never sought it, but I think Palomo did.

Sylvia Loch is an internationally known teacher, trainer, author, lecturer and video producer. She is the founder of the Lusitano Breed Society of Great Britain and the Classical Riding Club. She is said to be the most prolific and widely read English-speaking author on the subject of dressage. Her seven books to date include The Royal Horse of Europe, The Classical Seat, The Classical Rider, Invisible Riding, Dressage, The Art of Classical Riding and Dressage in Lightness. The last two titles have been translated into German and French. A new book on the aids is forthcoming in 2013 (classicalriding.co.uk and classicalseat.co.uk).

Credit: Donna Lowther Etherington

Credit: Donna Lowther Etherington

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