If there is one thing that distinguishes a master rider, that results from years and years of working with horses up to the highest levels, it is having an extraordinary sense of “feel.”
Text & photo by Maria Cooke
This intangible quality is invaluable, enabling a rider to simply “know” what is needed in any given moment, and have the ability to harmoniously and seemingly effortlessly influence the horse to bring out its best through training.
One rider that truly demonstrates this is António Borba Monteiro. A master classical rider and trainer with a lifetime of experience, António has a level of skill and feel that transforms the horses he works with, often improving them within a few minutes. He also has a tremendously easy, kind, and second-natured way with his horses, whether they are young and still slightly wild, or trained up to Grand Prix and haute école.
So, I have a library, my uncle had his library, and we have a lot of books we can read. It’s also something that we like to do; it’s studying. We know that it’s not enough by itself, so we should have talent and be able to practice it, and see if we can discover something when we are sitting on the horse, to follow his rhythm, follow his nature, and try that things come, also with a lot of technique, a lot of science, a lot of engineering, a lot of aerodynamics, a lot of mental inclination; studying the mind of the horse to understand the small things he does, the way he likes things, and the way he reacts.”António Borba Monteiro
Antonio spent almost 40 years as a Rider and later Master Rider at the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, classically riding and training horses up to the highest levels of haute école. At the school’s performances, António rode the capriole, and in training was often the rider others would turn to for assistance with a tricky horse or training problem.
Having come from a family of riders, António has been deeply involved in Portugal’s tradition of classical riding since he was very young. His uncle, Guilherme Borba, co-founded both the Portuguese School in Lisbon and the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, and became an esteemed breeder. Two of his horses, Hostil GUB and Rico GUB, went on to become extremely successful, and highly influential stallions for the Lusitano breed.
His relatives were also friends and students of classical Master Nuno Oliveira, who lived and worked nearby. In fact, it was Nuno Oliveira who told António when he was ready to join the Portuguese School as a rider. And, when Nuno departed for Australia decades later, it was to António that Nuno Oliveira entrusted and left all his horses, clearly recognizing his skill.
If there is one thing that is unmistakeable about António’s riding and his depth of “feel,” it’s the sense of harmony you can observe when he rides and works with horses that makes you want to understand what it is about him that allows him to achieve this so easily.
Today, António continues to ride, train, and generously share his knowledge with riders at his stable, Santo André Lusitanos, located just north of Lisbon. Once having belonged to his grandfather, this beautifully historic and quiet estate is hidden away; a riding oasis at the edge of the city, framed with eucalyptus trees.
In an insightful and candid interview about his perspectives on riding, I was able to sit down with António and talk about his work, philosophy, horse training, and more. This, I found, illuminated some of the key insights behind his incredible feel and ability. I’ve also incorporated some notes on his thoughts, to elaborate on and explore some of his ideas.
Here’s what António shared.
How would you describe your philosophy of working with and training horses?
“…it should be sustainable: I should ride “from the horse,” and try to understand him the best I can, and build something with him that he could build with me.”
When you say sustainable, do you mean by preserving the health of the horse, for example if they are trained well, then they stay healthy? Or, to develop a good relationship, and in that case they work better with you?
“Yes, it’s all that. And also, believing that he gets joy in building something with me. If we don’t believe this, it’s a little strange for me. Then it’s always making, making the horse do something. But in my experience, I always see that the horse gets more excited with the work and he starts checking for
himself what he wants to do. Like, if I do an exercise one day and he did it, he understands it, it’s because it’s in his “code.” And because he has good work, good energy, and good performance he’s in good form.”
Already, António brings out one of the most fundamental ideas of his work that allows him to create a level of both harmony and performance with horses: This idea is that he rides “from the horse;” meaning, he looks to the horse to thoroughly understand it from the inside out, and discover how to develop training to bring out the horse’s best.
He explains how he observes each horse, looking for example to the horse’s reactions, biomechanics, conformation, and temperament to inform training. By doing so, he learns and understands how the horse functions as an equine and an individual – “the horse’s nature or “code.”
“Then, rather than simply applying a pre-conceived method, training is developed based on the horse and its nature. By basing training on the horse in this way, through genuine curiosity, understanding, and kindness, training evolves to bring out the best in each horse as it is customized to the horse’s temperament, the biomechanics of its conformation, and so forth.”
This, he says, leads to a comfortable, healthy horse, curious about and stimulated by his work.
António then went on to describe his focus on creating a partnership in which the horse can find joy in his work – “something that can only arise out of establishing genuine harmony”;
“It’s a little difficult to explain that someone with a bit, with a saddle, with someone on him, that he could get pleasure in that work. It’s difficult to explain this. It is something that we should practice, we should feel it. If you don’t do it, you can never speak about it. You can never say this or feel it. It is something that is always in our heart. When we ride, we should make sure that we are not aggressive with the horse all the time. Sometimes it is ok, it doesn’t matter, but all the time… we don’t like to do something in which we are always fighting, always making the horse go. We like to see the horse free, going on very elevated movements, so… if we could do that on the horse, that’s better.”
Could you tell me a bit about your background, and everything that’s shaped your riding, your knowledge, and your approach?
“My background was family; it was people that liked horses a lot.”
You learned to ride with your uncle?
“With my uncle and with my grandfather… everyone in the family, they all ride. If they are not ill, they ride. We can see in the films of the arena of Nuno Oliveira they are always there riding, it’s nice. So, the background was my family. And then when I started to ride more professionally, it was the people that rode here – it was friends of the breeder, trainer and rider Guilherme, people who came from different countries to ride in the Portuguese manner; Dom Diogo, professor Celestino da Costa… And all of them were students of the previous legendary rider and trainer Nuno Oliveira. Nuno had his arena here close by on the farm, but in some buildings that we rented. My grandfather invited him to come because he had his arena on the other side of the river. It was far, at that time it was very far, with no bridge, and they came here because my uncle Guilherme wanted to get better at riding.”
The riders who studied with Nuno Oliveira, including Dom Diogo de Bragança and Celestino da Costa who António mentions, have been among Portugal’s most prominent riders and teachers in classical riding. Dom Diogo de Bragança in particular is highly regarded for his work, including his now-classic book, Dressage in the French Tradition, which gives detailed insight into classical riding theory, history, and practice.
António went on to describe how the farm – now the home of Santo André Lusitanos – was a lively destination for parties and equestrian shows, drawing high society from the city to experience equestrian life. He explained;
“…society at that time was traditional, very connected to horses, because, in the country, we always had someone in the family who would do bullfights, or sing Fado music; doing 2 years around bullfights, 2 years singing Fado, 2 years just riding well; at that time with a lot of French influence, from Baucher.”
François Baucher was an influential French classical trainer of the 1800.
Do you still use Baucher’s work?
“A lot of things. It’s a tool… Sometimes, we have problems with the horse which we must decompose into parts to see if we can find where the problem is. Baucher’s method helps, … and we can tend to forget it until we find something that we don’t understand.”
“We need the balance because we need stability. So, to understand the horse’s balance, it requires a little sensitivity and to know a little physics, but I think it’s also something that we can understand instinctively. We can understand if the horse is falling forward, or backwards or sideways. It’s like if we build a table, and when we finish we put the dishes on and they all slide off. So, we start to put the legs on one side bigger or on the other side shorter. So, it’s a little the same – we need to understand where the horse’s centre is.António Borba Monteiro
What do you think are some of the most important things you’ve learned for riding and training?
“Most important, is that you love it. And then you have a lot of people that have written about it, from ancient times like Xenophon, or King Dom Duarte. So, what we see in them is a soul that loves and wants to see what is better for the horse and for the rider, and if we take that position, we always learn with everybody. So, I have a library, my uncle had his library, and we have a lot of books we can read. It’s also something that we like to do; it’s studying. We know that it’s not enough by itself, so we should have talent and be able to practice it, and see if we can discover something when we are sitting on the horse, to follow his rhythm, follow his nature, and try that things come, also with a lot of technique, a lot of science, a lot of engineering, a lot of aerodynamics, a lot of mental inclination; studying the mind of the horse to understand the small things he does, the way he likes things, and the way he reacts.”
Here, António explains another key to his work: of always looking to learn from others. This open attitude allows him to learn and so benefit as much as he can from diverse riders. This also includes horsemen throughout history, such as Xenophon from ancient Greece, whose writings are the earliest on horsemanship that we have, and King Dom Duarte of Portugal, whose foundational writings delineate 15th century Portuguese riding. Whether they are modern or historical, António remains focused on
learning as much as possible, and remaining curious about the work of others.
I know you were often the rider at the School where if someone had a problem with a horse they would give the horse to you. What do you think helped you help those horses, or why were you able to do that?
“First, wanting nothing.”
“Wanting nothing from the horse and just seeing, trying to understand what causes the problem. So, for example a problem that horses have a lot is sensitivity on the back. So, for example a spooky horse, he goes to the side, so the rider tries to impede him going forward; the rider leans back and the horse starts to be sensitive on the back. This spookiness takes maybe 2 years to get better, but after only 3 months after they start again he is already sensitive, and then he starts to be more afraid of the actions of the rider, like when he leans back and tries to control the horse. And so, they start to fight harder each time.
“Sometimes, I took those horses and I just rode on the stirrups. I would rise on stirrups like for riding outside, in a suspended seat. If they are already sensitive, it is better not to touch that part, and to stay on the horse’s centre of gravity. They improve sometimes on the same day; they improve immediately.”
One of the key things that António notes which has helped him immensely, is his absolute openness with the horses – of wanting nothing. He emphasizes simply trying to understand the horses and what he might be able to build with them together. This attitude seems to help him uncover and resolve any problems in training more easily, without being mentally preoccupied with “getting” something specific from the horses. With this openness, he is able to notice more things, and so come to learn and
understand the horses much more.
When I asked António what he would recommend to amateur riders looking to progress in classical dressage, he recommended developing our own balance as riders, and learning to understand and follow the balance of the horse.
“We need the balance because we need stability. So, to understand the horse’s balance, it requires a little sensitivity and to know a little physics, but I think it’s also something that we can understand instinctively. We can understand if the horse is falling forward, or backwards or sideways. It’s like if we build a table, and when we finish we put the dishes on and they all slide off. So, we start to put the legs on one side bigger or on the other side shorter. So, it’s a little the same – we need to understand where the horse’s centre is. Horses have a special conformation; they have more weight on the front legs and they can balance themselves with small movements of the neck and with joint flexion of the hind legs. So, my family would say we start with the natural balance, the one the horse does almost without any energy, and when we can do that on the 3 gaits, changing a little the speed, it starts like that. Doing the circles and straight lines, also outside it’s even easier, small jumps, things like that help us to understand the horse.
“And then, if we see that he falls too much forward it’s because he has that tendency, if he doesn’t want to go forward maybe he is a little without energy, lazy, and then we start to train accordingly to these observations. At the end all the methods are the same. It’s the method for that horse, that particular horse.”
Here, António brings out another key understanding; that in the end, all dressage methods are the same, in the sense that they have a very similar ultimate aim: a supple, strong, and balanced horse. However, these methods are applied differently to each individual horse, to bring out their best according to their unique physical and temperamental characteristics.
Because sport dressage appears to be becoming more dominant, it feels like we’re losing enough people that practice classical dressage. What would you want the new generation of riders to learn and maintain?
“I’m not too worried, but one thing is that you should have conditions in which you can ride the way you think is better. If you are a developed rider, then you want to have, to find your method. To find the “code.” To know the code of riding the horse. And that code – you can explain it in a different way than other developed riders. You do the same as the others, but you have your way; you find it. So, you need to ride that way. The way you find; your method.”
“And I think now the knowledge spreads so quickly everywhere with the internet and movies that people are always sharing, so it could be easier to spread the good techniques, the way of riding. But we should try to do the best we can all the time, and search that way in the horse’s nature. That’s it. I don’t know if in the next 20 years we’ll ride in the same way, because now we can learn faster, because everyone has the ability to see immediately both good things and bad things.”
António’s years of experience and knowledge enable him to not only train horses to the highest levels, but it also seems to create a level of harmony with the horses that is beautiful to watch. His ability to create this sense of harmony also appears to arise out of his underlying approach and philosophy; from his “focus on creating a sustainable partnership by riding “from the horse,” to remaining open by learning from studying others, and in wanting nothing from the horse.”
These key ideas seem to allow him to notice the details, and to learn from and understand the horse.
If you’re interested in António’s work, you can read more about him on his website.