Ep 8: Sofia Valenca – Valenca Equestrian Academy, Portugal

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Have you ever gone looking for treasure. And found it? Like many who go looking for gold, the first clues came through offhand comments, snatches overheard conversations that somehow struck a resonance, a chord, in the gut. I had embarked upon a journey to the centre of the Old Masters tradition of dressage. At first, I didn’t know that was what I was doing. My quest was to understand more about how to truly and softly collect a horse and not for the usual reasons.

You see, I had stumbled into something; when riding with my then four-year-old autistic son Rowan I had noticed from the first ride that when the horse was more collected, he spoke more. Intrigued, I set out to find out why. Consulting with neuroscientists. it was explained to me that the soft rhythmic hip rocking experienced when riding a horse this way feels so good ( and we all know it does) because it causes the body to produce a hormone called oxytocin, which is in itself a sort of Holy Grail. For it is the joy hormone. Its also the hormone of communication.

So, what has this to do with my guest for this fascinating podcast, Sofia Valenca? Well, realizing that I needed to know more about collection so as to be able to produce more oxytocin and therefore get more communication from my son and the other young autists with whom I was starting to work as part of what is now Horse Boy Method, I realized I needed to learn more about dressage. Now, anyone who knows anything about horses knows that dressage, real light dressage, is a complex and difficult skill to learn, and takes about 500 years or so. I didn’t have 500 years, and I found the first dressage lessons I took unclear, unfocused even punitive, with the instructors barking orders but not really explaining how….

I consulted with dressage professionals I knew, What would you do if you were in y position, I asked, and needed to learn this impossible skill not in centuries or aons, but in as efficient and enjoyable a way as possible, Go ti Portugal they all said. Why, I asked? Because that is where they still use dressage for the original purpose of war, so they don’t mess around. They teach you on schoolmaster horses that know all the fancy stuff, and at the same time teach you the in-hand work, where you learn it from the ground and also create a balanced horse underneath you that fully understand the work. that made sense, but wait, I said, Portugal isn’t at war with anyone, right? No, it was explained to me, its about the mounted bullfight – Portuguese bullfighters don’t try and kill the bull, as happens in Spain. Instead, they learn to dance around it on horseback. One doesn’t want to bullfight of course, but to learn those martial arts skills with the horse, well, that’s true dressage.

So down I went to Portugal and found this was indeed all true. I also began to hear, not just in Portugal but in the UK, the USA, France, elsewhere a certain name began to come up over and over again. Valenca.

The whole Valenca family – headed by Mastre Luis Valenca, his three daughters Sofia, Phillipa and Bea and now his granddaughter Ines are legends in the dressage world. Not bullfightes, but equestrian artists, the family is a  hidden treasure that many have heard of, but few have found. Which is strange because you couldn’t find a nicer, more open, more approachable bunch. The first five days in their Picadoro (the small inside arena they use in Portugal) I learned more about horses and horsemanship than i had learned in years of lessons elsewhere.

I also saw a family dedicated to joy, to art, to self expression and self actualization, who were dedicating their lives to helping others set their dreams free, Its no wonder that the family produces the incredible horses that perform the fantasy sequences in the massively successful equestrian theater spectacular Cavalluna, which tours Germany six months of the year. It’s about turning dreams to reality. How do they do it? Well, listen to Sofia now. You may be into horses, you may not, but this family, which truly comprises one of Europe’s national treasures, can teach as all a thing or two about the art of whispering one’s dreams into being. Listen on.

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