by María Elena Fonseca
Horse lovers come in many diverse and interesting colors. There are those who go for the western style disciplines like reining, barrel racing and cutting. Others fancy trail riding, endurance, polo, jumping and dressage. Many, and I include myself among those, are in constant search of alternative ways to enhance the relationship with their horses. And that road is not always an easy one. But, the rewards are extraordinary if you do not give up. Thats how I found myself immersed in the wonderful path of combining the classical perfection of dressage with the down to basics system of Natural Horsemanship as taught by Pat Parelli.
And this extraordinary journey started with Alejandra Gonzalez, a Costa Rican rider, Certified FEI Instructor, Two Star Parelli professional and experienced dressage rider who represented Costa Rica in the Panamerican Games in 2003. Along with her, a whole different approach to horsemanship opened up for me, where Love, Language and Leadership are the foundations to a solid and natural relationship between my horses and myself.
The setting: Vigoleno Horse Club
Two Ales : One Italian, Alessandra Schieppati, owner of the Vigoleno Horse Club located in ancient medieval village of Vigoleno (Piacenza) in the Emilia Romagna region just one hour from Milano. And the other, Alejandra González from Costa Rica. This unusual pair met in a Parelli course in the United States and decided to join forces and put together a course in Natural Dressage and Horsemanship.
The timing was perfect: June 2011. In the northern Italian mountains this time of the year the weather is hot but not so, the landscape is emerald green and the days are long and balmy. Alessandra’s barn has breathtaking views of the Appenines and the Alps, surrounded by flowing vineyards and dairy farms where the delicious Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses are produced.
The Club House is set in a restored 140 year old farmhouse decorated so exquisitely that you feel at home from the moment you walk in. Outside, the horses enjoy well ventilated stalls and are lucky to have ample pastures to roam every single day since the weather is never extreme. Alessandra´s desire is to give them the opportunity to live in a herd where each one plays a different role makes this place an extraordinary place for horses and humans alike.
Even though I had seen the promotional pictures that Alessandra had forward us via Internet before the course, arriving to the medieval Castello Vigoleno was an amazing and pleasant surprise. There she was, sitting on a bench with a few members of the small town of Vigoleno (aprox. 100 persons in the surroundings, and aprox. 40 living inside the castle), she waved at us with a warm smile and I knew Vigoleno was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. Our hotel was located inside the Castello! My heart pounded as I entered the room I would be living in for the next week. From my window I had a view of the Castello´s tower and the room had the charm of bygone days with all the modern luxuries.
It´s not easy to find Vigoleno on a map, and now I know why. They are keeping it as a special secret for nature and cultural seekers! Just ten minutes away you can visit Salsomaggiore Terme, with its famous curative waters and quaint town. Nearby are also to be found Castell’Arquato, known as the City of Art, and as many as 20 more in the area of Parma and Piacenza.
In every town you will find trattorias, osterias and restaurants flaunting the authentic “cucina tipica” consisting of home made pastas, salami, culatello being the star, all sorts of hand made natural cheeses and the indisputable delicious wines of the area.
The Course: Ale González natural approach
Who could have guessed that such a diverse group of people could get along so well? Only in Ale Gonzalez and Ale Schieppati´s mind. And thats because they know down deep that all horse lovers aim to have a better understanding with their horses. Isn´t that what natural horsemanship is all about?
The group was a good representation of countries and disciplines: Alexander from Germany, Andrea from Guatemala, Giulia, Monica, Paola, Francesca, Pino, Elisa and Arturo (Tata) from Italy. Ale G. and myself from Costa Rica. Not only did we came from different countries but our horse backgrounds were also diverse: Parelli, Spanish riding, Endurance, Trail Riding, Eventing, Jumping and Dressage
And what did Ale G. do to put us all in the same frame of mind? To start with, a story about learning to dance with a partner. Yes, we thought the same thing you are thinking now. Why that?
She gave us the example of herself trying to learn Tango (even though it was with a friend she felt awkward). She said she loved to dance by herself, “no way she was going to let someone else hold her so close and in such intimacy”. The partner was squeezing her back and curling his legs around her. “No, no, no”, she hated it. And she recalled she probably felt like horses do: trapped between someone else´s legs and feeling obliged to perform. We all laughed at the parody and agreed that Tango is sublime when both partners are in harmony; but it can prove to be a disaster when one is out of sync. Trust between the two is another mayor ingredient.
First lesson learned: You need to be in tune with your mind and body to be able to communicate with your horses mind and body. You need skills, trust and a profound desire to learn to dance together!
That wonderful first day ended with a relaxed trail ride through a 2500 hectare of protected area “Parco dello Stirone”. We were enrapture by the breathtaking views of the Alps, an ancient Celt ceremonial site, and the winding banks of the Stirone River. As we headed back to the barn we passed our lodgings in Castello di Vigoleno dating back to the XI Century and overlooking Alessandras place
At 8:00 a.m. sharp the group gathered around a perfectly set table to enjoy a typical italian breakfast of fruit, coffee and delicious croissants and pastry. The morning breeze welcomed us and the fun started. Ale G. and Alex from Germany (he´s been a fan of Parelli for 18 years) gave us a briefing of the 7 games Pat Parelli uses as a foundation for his natural horsemanship. Alex acted as the human and Ale G. was the mare learning the basics of these games. Most of the members had never heard of the Parelli method and were amazed at the results obtained on the horses attention and confidence towards humans. The games are intended to mirror life in a herd, where a leader guides the other horses and they follow willingly. They accept a leader in order to survive, eat and most of all feel safe. Leaders change every day!
In the afternoon we all saddled up our horses for individual lessons with Ale G. My exhuberant black Maremmano mare Arena was wonderful to ride, though her high spirits and desire to move forward were a bit of a challenge. By the end of the day Alex in Gino, (a gorgeous gelding) Andrea in Maja (a playful and smart arabian mare), Giulia in a white beautiful spanish horse named Ciro, Monica also in a Maremmano mare Urania and Alessandra in her young and brave Arabian mare Nesty were all exhausted but felt deeply satisfied. Ale G. had introduced us to a new and exciting Dressage Way based in principles of balance, harmony and communication. And we learned that it is possible to achieve classical dressage movements applying the Parelli natural method. For some of us these concepts were hard to apply to horses we had never ridden before. But, Ale G. laughed out loud and said: “Be happy, without frustration at the beginning there is no reward at the end” We were like, what? “What do you mean?”
Second lesson learned: If you become a fun and natural leader for your horse, he will want to be with you willingly on the ground, riding or just hanging out.
By now we were all amazed at the amount of work Alessandra and her wonderful associates Monica and Paola invested on keeping the scheduled activities overlapping one into the other. And not only that, it was showered with the happiest disposition, big smiles and the best supplies of food and drink ever!
And no doubt Ale G´s natural charm gave us also an extra shot of stamina and led us to wrap up her teachings on this final day.
By then we were able to play more proficiently the seven Parelli games, with the addition of toys like big wooden stands made by Alex of Germany, tarps, barrels, plastic cones and all sorts of gimmicks to awaken both the horses and our curiosity. It was a success.
We then moved on to the riding. Some rode bareback and just on a halter as others chose to ride the traditional way. But, to our surprise and in perfect accordance to Ale´s words of yesterday, we all had become more aware of our skills on the saddle and in the ground. And the frustrations of the first two days became the rewards of today.
Third Lesson: Think like a horse! If you learn the language of horses and let them teach you how they feel, you will become a better horseman or horsewoman. Then, you are ready to let them think that your ideas are their ideas, and dancing Tango or any other dance will be a pleasurable and fun experience.
Be natural, there is no other way!
All the photos of the event on Facebook page Vigoleno Horse Club