Recently Epona was featured in the USDF (United States Dressage Federation) Connection magazine, if you're in the USA you may have seen it. If not, a copy of the article is below with a link to the USDF site.
Enjoy reading and your riding! We hope to see you soon in Spain, it's warm here and the fields are full of wildflowers...
Fernando, Jane, Caty, Vivi, our staff, and all the horses
Epona Equestrian Center
Dream vacation immerses riders in dressage and Spanish culture
By Janet Tornelli-Mitchell, MD
Vivi on schoolmaster Habanero
Returning from Seville to Madrid, I admire
the countryside from the train window. The vast rolling hills appear covered in lime-green velvet, and there are nonstop olive groves and beautiful Moorish-style hilltop castles. I have just spent a week riding and training at Epona Equestrian Center in Carmona, Spain, near Seville.
i was a first-level rider who had only dreamed of riding piaffe, passage and other high-level movements. Now i have ridden flying changes on a pure Spanish-bred horse. i have experienced the thrill of riding half-pirouettes, canter half-passes, piaffe, passage, and the Spanish Walk.
As an avid dressage enthusiast, i had read all about classical dressage training and its beginnings, and i had always thought it would be exciting to train in Europe. So when my fiftieth birthday approached, i decided that now was the time. Epona would be my destination - my opportunity to learn and ride the beautiful andalusian horses i had always dreamed of.
If you have dreamed similar dreams, read on as i share my experience. Perhaps it will encourage you to take your own once-in-a-lifetime dressage journey.
Welcome to Spain
Epona is a British Horse Society-approved training center that offers several programs. The one i have chosen combines morning trail rides through the andalusia region with afternoon dressage lessons. i fly to Madrid and take the "fast train" to Seville, where Epona co-owner Fernando Garcia meets me.
He drives me to the Epona facility, located just a few minutes away in neighbouring Carmona. The Spanish landscape is nothing like what i am used to in Texas. i feel an instant connection with this country, whose people worship horses as the noblest of creatures.
The center of Epona is its beautiful hacienda, which is about 500 years old. The hacienda is home to the Garcia family - Fernando; his wife, Jane; and their daughters, Catalina ("Caty") and Viviana ("Vivi"), both of whom are Spanish Equestrian Federation- and British Horse Society-certifed instructors who teach at Epona - as well as to the Epona guests. Stables, two outdoor arenas, an indoor arena, a cafeteria, and staff quarters complete the facility.
Fernando shows me to my very quaint room, which at one time had housed some of Napoleon's troops. After freshening up a bit and making the rounds to meet the horses, i join my fellow guests for the week for dinner with Fernando in Carmona. Ours is a small group: fellow USDF
member Sally Davenport (see "Epona trip Benefts the USDF"), husband-and-wife British expatriates living in Norway, and me.
Over dinner, Fernando asks each of us to discuss our goals for the week. When i explain that i want to improve my riding as much as possible, he suggests that i switch from my intended trail-riding-plus-dressage program to a more intense training regimen: two riding lessons a day plus either a lunge lesson or instruction in ground work. This sounds great, but i still want to take a trail ride in the beautiful countryside. Not to fret, responds the charming Fernando: he will find some time to take me on a trail ride.
Satiated, tired, and eager to get started, we prepare for bed and the busy week ahead.
In the morning, we meet with Caty and Vivi Garcia to discuss our previous riding experience, our goals, and any concerns. i'm somewhat anxious at the thought of these experienced FEI level riders and instructors evaluating my riding; and the thought of climbing aboard highly trained, sensitive, and unfamiliar schoolmasters is also making me nervous.
When Caty asks me if i have ever ridden with a double bridle, my stomach begins to knot up. i tell her no, and she replies enthusiastically: "This will be a great opportunity for you to learn!" a few minutes later, sure enough, i am mounted on a gorgeous andalusian mare in a double bridle.
All of us riders are assigned horses that Caty and Vivi deem appropriate for our riding levels. i am concerned as to whether i will be able to sit the trot of these baroque horses, and i am pleasantly surprised to find them very comfortable and easy to ride. i also appreciate the fact that the Epona horses are very sensitive to correct aids only, which makes them excellent teachers.
Every day, i take a private lesson, followed by a group lesson in which i ride a diferent horse. The day concludes with either a lunge lesson on a third horse or a lesson in ground work.
In our lessons, Caty and Vivi emphasize correct body mechanics and the use of proper aids. They tell us that our hands, seat, and legs should be able to move independently, and i work to develop a much quieter seat than what i had been used to.
Caty and Vivi also stress the importance of precise, accurate riding. Corners are priceless, they say; the rider must bend and rebalance the horse in every single corner. We must think about the exact location we are riding to instead of cruising aimlessly around the arena.
Shoulder-in, Caty and Vivi tell me, is "the medicine for almost any kind of problem with the horse." They place much focus on teaching us to ride this important movement correctly.
Caty and Vivi tell us that the rider is training the horse- for better or for worse-every minute of every ride. They teach us how to correct our horses. For example, if the horse makes a mistake or tries to evade the difficulty of an exercise, do not stop riding that movement and start all over again; instead, make an instant correction and continue to ride the exercise. if the horse tends to get heavy on a certain side, bend to that side for a few strides, then straighten. if the horse ignores a "bump" from the rider's leg, tap with the whip instead of continuing to use the leg. During a walk break, occasionally maintain collected walk rather than al- ways giving the horse a long or free rein. according to Caty and Vivi, doing so helps to teach the horse to relax in a collected walk and prevents him from anticipating that a more difficult exercise will follow every walk on a long rein.
Before long, i am experiencing the upper-level movements i had thought would take years to learn. (i am also hearing many of the same posture corrections that my instructor at home tells me.) The opportunity to ride such highly trained schoolmasters is enabling me to work on improving my own equestrian skills. And so many lessons in such a short period of time is helping me to "get the correct feeling" and work on reproducing it over and over.
Culture and Cuisine
The Garcia family has planned some exciting "field trips" for us. One day they take us to the city of Jerez, site of the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games, located about 125 km from Carmona. Jerez is home to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, where we tour the grounds and are treated to a performance called "how andalusian horses Dance," which is nothing short of spectacular. Men and women come to the school from all over the world to train and learn about Spanish horses, and we have the opportunity to watch some of the training.
Another night, we're of to the city of Seville. There we visit a beautiful (and very affordable) tack shop before enjoying a performance by Flamenco dancers and a wonderful dinner in Seville's energetic atmosphere.
The Garcias enjoy sharing traditional Spanish culture with the Epona visitors. When they're not riding, guests can take singing lessons, guitar lessons, or Flamenco-dance lessons.
Jane Garcia's meals prove another highlight of my training vacation. Except for our dinners in Carmona and Seville, all meals are prepared and served at Epona. Jane's gazpacho - a Spanish tomato-based soup, served cold-is one of the best gazpachos i have ever had. She prepares all of the meals fresh every day with produce from local markets.
Most of the dishes are typical Spanish cuisine, such as paella - a sassafras-favored rice dish containing carrots, peas, artichokes, chicken, prawns, and lobster. People in this region of Spain eat a lot of seafood, which is usually prepared with olive oil, sea salt, locally grown aromatic herbs, and fresh vegetables. Ham is a huge part of most meals, with iberian cured hams being a favorite. Seafood- and meat-based stews containing cabbage, fennel, and spinach are also popular.
The food is healthful and delicious - and served with an endless supply of local wine. Many of the wineries are in the Jerez region, which is also known for its fne sherries. i could easily get used to the Mediterranean lifestyle!
The Big Event
As the week at Epona draws to a close, Caty and Vivi announce that we are ready for the highlight of our dressage training there: a lesson with Spanish Olympian Rafael Soto. Although i feel that my riding has improved in the past few days, i tell the women that Rafael shouldn't waste his time with someone at my skill level. They chuckle and tell me not to be so negative.
The next thing i know, i am sitting nervously atop my mount, waiting for my lesson with Rafael to begin. The Olympian proves gracious, kind, and encouraging; he makes me feel more relaxed almost immediately.
Rafael's lesson routine proves similar to that of Caty and Vivi. He asks for a steady progression of work in all three gaits on both reins, beginning with transitions and simple exercises, such as leg-yielding and shoulder-in. The exercises then become more advanced: travers, renvers, and half- pass. Rafael shows me the beginnings of a pirouette: First at the trot and then at the canter, i ride down the long side and make a 180-degree turn on the haunches, making sure that i am supporting the horse with my outside rein and leg.
Rafael Soto teaching at Epona
Another of Rafael's exercises: in right-lead canter, turn down the center line at c. From about X, ride half-pass right to K. Maintain counter-canter through the corners and then go across the diagonal, returning to true-lead canter. i practice this several times. Just as i'm proudly getting the hang of it, Rafael announces that it is time to repeat the exercise in the opposite direction!
The lesson ends with an introduction to piaffe and passage. i quickly learn the importance of using my core properly, and what a very fne line there is between giving too much or holding back too much. Although i am able to maintain the piaffe for only a few steps, it is an exhilarating feeling.
As an adult-amateur rider, i entered the dressage world in probably not the wisest of ways: i purchased a horse without any previous training in dressage and proceeded to try to learn dressage myself while i was trying to train my horse at the same time. The experience was like the blind leading the blind, and i had been debating for some time how important it is to ride a schoolmaster when trying to learn dressage properly. So as my lesson ends, i ask Rafael his opinion.
He responds: "i only provide you with advice when you are riding. Your true teacher is the schoolmaster horse. As an amateur rider, if you want to improve your riding, you need to ride horses that are better than you, who will teach you." He then poses for photographs and autographs one of my souvenirs, a book about the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art; he is now its technical director.
A Week of Inspiration
i'm on my way back to the train station in Madrid, and the Spanish sky parallels my mood - brilliantly sunny for a moment, then cloud-covered. Just this morning i rode exhilarating fying changes aboard the Andalusian Habanero; now my heart is breaking at having to leave Epona behind.
i am elated and thankful that i was able to have this opportunity, and i plan to reunite every year with the other riders i befriended during my week at Epona. Although i still have a lot to work on when i get home, my dressage-training vacation has encouraged me and motivated me to continue on my equestrian journey. i now know that those upper-level movements are not as impossible as i thought they were!
Postscript: Since my return from Epona, i have taken Rafael Soto's advice to ride schoolmasters. i have been taking weekly lessons on schoolmasters and then applying what i learn in training my own horse. i have found rafael's advice to be invaluable.
Janet Tornelli-Mitchell, MD, is an amateur dressage rider and the recording secretary of the Dallas Dressage Club. She is a clinical assistant professor in internal medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and she is an advisory board member to the Texas Tech Terapeutic Rid- ing Center.
EPONA TRIP BENEFITS THE USDF
By Sally Davenport
Support the USDF youth executive Board and have the time of your life. I did. Here's how it happened.
For the past few years, the Epona Equestrian Center in Spain (eponaspain.com) has generously do- nated a "High School and Classical Dressage" package to the youth executive Board's silent auction, held at the adequan/USDF national Convention. The silent auction raises funds for the youth Convention Scholarship, which enables deserving USDF youth members to attend convention. according to USDF youth-programs coordinator Erica Minks, the Epona package is one of the most valuable items ever offered in the auction's history.
The package includes six nights and six days in the Garcia family's 500-year-old hacienda, all meals (which are exceptional and can be tailored to guests' dietary needs), transportation to and from the Seville train station or airport, and transportation to and from the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art and other venues. Daily private or semi-private lessons on Epona's highly schooled horses are also included, as is tutelage in high-school ground work. The highlight of the experience is a lesson with Spanish Olympic dressage medalist Rafael Soto.
The package is valued at about $2,600-$3,000, not including airfare. I was the winning bidder on the USDF Epona package at the 2010 convention, and I was finally able to take my trip in April 2012, where I met fellow guest Janet Tornelli-Mitchell, who recounted her experiences in this article. Our group proved quite compatible and was rounded out by a British couple on their tenth trip to Epona.
For me, the opportunity to ride and train on Epona's well-mannered horses-performing multiple flying changes, passage, piaffe, and other upper- level movements - was remarkable. The Garcia family made us feel so welcomed, and the daughters proved to be top-notch instructors.
Trying to lose weight, I took a salad plate for my frst meal, which was also the last time for just a salad plate. I ate like the proverbial horse from then on, but we did so much riding that I did not gain a single pound.
After I won the trip, I sustained a fall at home, fracturing a vertebra and twisting my pelvis. At the time that I was to leave for epona, I was still sore and also somewhat reticent about riding unfamiliar horses. I was soon reassured that the horses are not spooky, although they are sensitive and tuned to fne aids. I was also happy to see that safety is a priority: riders are required to wear helmets, and all of the trail saddles are equipped with safety stirrup irons.
I returned home thrilled with having ridden the more advanced movements (which I had not done since the early 1980s) and confdent once again. In fact, I had such a wonderful time that I am returning to epona this month!
Sally Davenport, of Scituate, MA, is a USEF "R" dressage technical delegate and a Level 1 FEI dres- sage steward. She heads the New England Dressage Association's continuing-education program. She is the USDF's former director of sport horse and special programs.
We are very happy to announce that pricing at Epona in 2013 will remain the same as 2012!
So why not book a holiday and come and stay with us this year... We would love to see you again soon.