Story – Chris Hector Photos – Roz Neave
In 2009, on a visit to Portugal with our friend Miguel Tavora, we were very fortunate that Miguel took us to see Rodrigo Torres, the young man who many view as ‘the new’ Nuno Oliveira. It must be a seriously worrying title for such a modest and charming young man, especially as he has only seen Nuno on film.
Rodrigo – unlike Nuno – competes regularly in Working Equitation and also in straight Dressage competitions, which is wonderful. Great as Mestre Oliveira’s influence has been, it would have been so much greater if he had led a Portuguese team to take on the rest of the world at a time when the world of dressage was much less set in its ways. An Olympic medallist Nuno could have had a huge positive influence o the development of dressage. As Miguel Tavora remarked, “competition dressage isn’t perfect, but as a reality test it’s a lot better than looking at yourself in the mirror of your own riding hall…”
For me, it was a very special moment to sit in the indoor arena of Torres Vaz Freire Stud and watch 32-year-old Rodrigo Torres work his horses, and right from the start it proved that when these Lusitano horses are nice, they are very fine indeed.
When we arrived, Rodrigo was working a rose grey five-year-old stallion (they are very few geldings in this country). The horse was so sweetly forward, engaged and athletic. Triple canter pirouettes, two times changes… is this too much for a baby? Seemingly not, Rodrigo drops the rein and the horse is so calm and relaxed. And this seems to happen with all the horses this gifted young man rides, give the rein and they unhesitatingly take it, and it is seldom indeed that you see a tail swish. Some of our group were a bit taken back by piaffe being used as a warmup exercise but I seem to remember that the great German rider, and student of the Spanish School of Vienna, Richard Wätjen, recommended a bit of piaffe to get rid of stable stiffness.
next Rodrigo works with this horse’s sire
One of the more famous horses in the stable is the eleven-year-old Raja, the sire of the first horse we saw. It is amazing that Rodrigo can ride the horse in the most amazing piaffe and then go instantly into a totally immobile halt – and I mean into it, it is halt almost as an upward transition! And yes, he rides a canter pirouette in counter canter… truly amazing.
Perhaps the most exciting horse of all is the five-year-old dark brown, Zimbro. This is the perfect type for competition dressage and he is absolutely cool and relaxed even though he is doing all the movements of the Grand Prix and then some – voltes of changes, triple pirouettes… toss him the rein, and he is relaxed.
If I told my friends, oh I have seen a five-year-old stallion doing all the advanced movements of the Grand Prix, they would say to me, oh the horse must be crazy and the rider also, but the horse is not pressurized, when you drop the rein he is cool…
“He is completely relaxed. The way to do this, is when you have a very strong horse with so much talent to do all the exercises, and you put that horse in a good balance, you can begin to make some steps of all the exercises, not many steps, just a few steps. Few steps of piaffe, a few steps of passage, and he will begin step by step to be stronger in the body. You need to build this very slowly but when you put the body of the horse in this balance, you can do it.”
But this is an exceptional horse?
“An exceptional horse. In my breeding I have been searching for some horses with this talent. I rode all the stallions, and I know all the mares, that makes it easier to produce a horse like this.”
You also ride in competition dressage? You would like to compete for Portugal?
“Of course, why not? When the horse is ready, then I will try. But I am a breeder, and for me it is not very easy because it is expensive to stay in the competition, but I want to try.”
But many riders, particularly those associated with Nuno Oliveira, they had the attitude, competition riding is bad, it is not the high art of riding?
“For me what I really like is to teach the horses. I try to understand the way to teach all the horses – when they have problems, when they don’t have so much talent to do one thing, this is what I really like, but it is important for me to compete also. I think it is the same, of course to compete, then I need to change some things – to put the horse more strong in the back and to relax the horse more. The steps need more swing all the time, so I need to change some things in my work.”
This one is a four-year-old
Were you always going to become a rider?
“Since three years old. When I was sixteen I made my first horse that could do all the movements. He was eight years old – we still have him, he is very old, 25 years old.”
Do you feel yourself to be in the tradition of Nuno Oliveira?
“I just saw Nuno Oliveira riding in movies. I see some things in him that I can be more or less in the same way, but I never learned with him. Maybe it is what I feel about horses, maybe when I feel the horse, I don’t know if I feel the same things he felt, maybe? Some of the pupils of him, say I am like him, but I don’t know.”
I found it interesting, when you ride, at any moment you can come to total immobility…
“That is very important. I can’t say how I do this, there are things I need to feel, I try to keep it in myself and in the horse – put the body and the balance of the horse in the good way. You must feel this…”
Nuno used to read many old books – are you a reader of the Old Masters too?
“No. Maybe I have read one old book, I am not so much of a reader, the horses tell me what I need to know.”