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A Once in a Lifetime Horse – Mestre Luis Valenca and Sultao

For some people, there is a once in a lifetime horse. The horse that will always have a very special place in your heart, they teach you a lesson you will never forget, or open a door that would never have opened if not for their presence.

Last week, while riding and studying at the Centro Equestre da Leziria Grande in Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, I learned the story of a special horse who not only changed the life of his rider, but also of generations of equestrians.

The Centro Equestre is an equestrian oasis, with white stables accented in red, yellow, and blue with clay tile roofs and brilliant green plants.

The riding center sits nestled into the outskirts of Villa Franca de Xiria, a town North of Lisbon and people travel from all over the world to learn the traditional style of Portuguese riding and training under Mestre Luis Valenca. But it may not have even been possible if not for a special golden stallion.

Luis Valenca began his education with horses at age 3, when he would accompany his godfather, Fernando Ralao, to a riding hall in Lisbon, where Fernando trained carriage and riding horses.

Senor Luis continued his training and classical educational in horses, working with Mestre Menezes, a master who had worked in the era and method of Baucher. Senor Luis also worked for years under the tutelage of and as an assistant to famed Portuguese horseman Nuno Oliveira.

He would ride horses by day and then change and wait tables at night, because as Senor Luis says “Sometimes you have to experience hard times in life to better appreciate the good times.”

However, one day in 1971 a palomino stallion was brought to Senor Luis for training. The horse was a Lusitano crossbred called Sultao, and after Sultao appeared the career of Mestre Luis began to change as though the horse as “like a star to light the way.”

Senor Luis worked with Sultao every day and taught him all of the classical exercises for performance. However, since Sultao was a palomino, he was considered to a feminine color and needed a female rider, so Luis’ eldest daughter, Luisa, at the time only 11 years old, performed with Sultao, riding bareback and thrilling crowds with their performance of even the most challenging exercises, cantering in place, cantering backwards, levade, passage.

They toured all over Europe, but at an event in Paris, an offer was made that gained much media attention for Mestre Luis and the budding Centro Equestre.

A Nigerian couple offered one million Francs for Sultao, but Luis refused because “money is not everything in life.” However word of the incredible sum of money that had been offered for the golden stallion spread and newspapers from all over came to see Sultao.

As word of the horse spread, people began to travel from all over to see the famous horse and to learn the methods of Senor Luis.

The publicity from Sultao built the Centro Equestre into what it is today, a place where tradition continues, with classical paintings and gold adornments on the walls, flowers, plants and palm trees lining the stalls, and generations of equestrians learning the classical method of training the horse.  

Sultao continued to perform until age 27. He lived out his life at the center, passing at 31, but his essence lives on, in the pictures on the buildings around the center, and in the museum room, dedicated to Sultao’s life and contributions to the career of Senor Luis, the Centro Equestre da Leziria Grande, the spirit of the Iberian horse, and improvement of riders around the world.

On the last day of my stay and riding at the school, I asked Senor Luis about Sultao, about what made him special. He began to laugh and said “ahh, see he was very special, it has been over 10 years and still you know about Sultao!”

With passion, he relates the story from the beginning of his training with the stallion, to the performances in the shows with his daughter, and the competition dressage riders he allowed to ride Sultao – Isabel Werth, Anky V. Grunsven, and Nicole Uphoff. He tells of how the opportunities with Sultao brought the people and circumstances into his life to build and finance the center.

Regardless of any argument on training method, it is clear that the essence of Senor Luis is one of reverence for horses. He loves the horse, he is at the center every day, mostly sitting quietly watching the training and offering words of wisdom as the working riders and handlers pass by.

I found this quote from Senor Luis, “You know, you don’t ride primarily with your assistants (aids), but with your heart. Do you have your heart with you, training is quite simple. All you do is that simple. From here (with hand on his heart) to your body and thoughts.”

In the days following my week of study at the center, I realized that my biggest takeaway was not one of technique, for example, how to train the Spanish walk or how to vibrate the reins to supple the bend, but instead it was of the passion for the art of training that Senor Luis so strongly emulated.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is there a special horse that has affected your life? Tell us the story!

See you in the comments!

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