The Artist, Author, Musician, and Classical Legend, Nuno de Oliveira

The Portuguese Classical Dressage legend Oliveira was a profoundly religious, aspiring and visionary person, who devoted his life to finding ultimate harmony with the horse. A harmony he always found opportunities to perfect. EQUILIFE visited his previous home in Portugal, in search of a more in-depth understanding of his never-ending search for perfection.

Text: Therese Alhaug. Photo Lena Saugen

Nuno de Oliveira (1925-1989) is renowned by his fans as “The Last Master” in classical dressage. His riding philosophy has inspired riders and trainers worldwide to follow the classical and academic approach to educating their horse. This equestrian philosophy has roots dating back centuries and continues to be the foundation for all modern riding.

EQUILIFE visited Nunos Oliveiras home in Portugal, that is still run the way he left it.

The home to Nuno de Oliveira is located on Portugal’s west coast just as he left it when he passed away in 1989. Clinging fast to the hillside high up above behind Lisbon ́s coastline is the village of Quinta do Brejo. To the right of the main street of the village we follow the narrow road, ”Rua Mestre Nuno de Oliveira”. The road has been named after the master.

In a steep and luscious hill, we arrive at Oliveira ́s home and workplace through his last 20 years. Polished cobblestones and robust brick walls testify to the farms’ long history. The main house is filled with older, heavy wood furniture; the shelves with rows of worn hardbacks. All the rooms have worn-down stone floors, and the walls are decorated with religious reliefs like crosses and gypsum figures which creates an almost formal atmosphere in the old house.

“The horseman who constantly holds his horse with a strong touch can never improve; only the horseman who knows how to work his horse free will discover the art of riding.”
Nuno de Oliveira

The musician and the artist
The old riding hall is on the hilltop and just below it, with a view of the property is a small brick house. This is Oliveira ́s office as he left it. The master is said to have used many hours each day on his studies on the subject of ‘the art of riding’. The walls are filled with books from the floor to the ceiling, and behind his desk, the wall is covered with framed illustrations. Riding theory was just as crucial to Oliveira as was practical. Daily he spent hours on his studies and authorship.

Two worn armchairs in leather adorn the short wall, one for the student and the other for the master. For years students from all over the world have come here to soak up Oliveira ́s teachings. Even 20 years after his death students come here. The stables are frequently visited, and today former students of Oliveira who have taken over the daily operations attempt to maintain his teaching.

Soft opera tunes still resound over the property as in Oliveira ́s time. Classical music was important to Oliveira, who especially had a fancy for the composer Verdi. Daily he trained to the sound of classical music which was soothing to both rider and horse alike.

Traveled worldwide
Nuno de Oliveira was born in Lisbon on June 23 rd, 1925. His interest in horses started early when his mother had filled her farm with Arabian horses. Early on he was interested in the education and training of Lusitano horses. The teaching of Maestro Miranda at The Portuguese Royal School provided the basis of his teaching. Miranda, himself, was a student of the instructor Maralvaa and is recognized as having introduced the French equestrian art from the school in Versailles to Portugal. This is how Portuguese bullfighters adopted many of their particular riding skills. Nuno Oliveira decided to study at the Equestrian Academy in Versailles. He is said to be able to absorb knowledge like a living encyclopedia. His search for knowledge introduced him to various schools within Equestrian Art, not to mention the leading countries and cultures he visited on his trips. However, the most influential teachers were the equestrian masters Francois Robichon de la Guérinière, Gustav Steinbrecht, and François Baucher.

Polished cobblestones and robust brick walls testify to the farms’ long history.

“When you get off your horse, it is not the people who looked at you, neither the judge, that has the right to judge your session. It is the horse that turns around to you with his supple body and kind eye, which is the judge. This is the number one tribute I take as a student.”
Nuno de Oliveira

The author
During his lifetime Oliveira wrote numerous primers, studied and taught all over the world and trained horses of all races and types. Wherever he went, he made new fans. The most visited riding schools were Cadre Noir and Vienna. In 1973 he bought his farm, Quinta do Brejo, which remained his home and workplace until his death in 1989. According to hearsay, Nuno was found dead in his hotel room in Australia, to the tones of Verdi.

The main house is filled with older, heavy wood furniture; the shelves with rows of worn hardbacks.

Combining different theories.
When a renowned horseman leaves us, much of his knowledge is also lost. However, with Oliveira, this was different. He left behind more than 24 authored books jam-packed with lessons and illustrations for our benefit. His books have inspired riders and trainers alike to practice the classical equestrian training approach. However, how did Oliveira ́s knowledge and riding differ from that of other classical riders? According to former Oliveira students, this had to do with the master’s ability to combine different riding theories (the classical German with the French and somewhat lighter form, Baucherism, and in this way bring out the best from each style. He remained open and receptive until his death. He did not wish to categorize the various riding styles like many before him, and after, have tried to do. On the contrary, he managed to adapt his riding style according to the horses’ physique, type, temperament, and race. In one way he objected to surrendering to just one riding theory and instead urged to seek understanding that every horse requires an individual approach.

Oliveira practiced different theories on different horses, and in this manner arrived at different principles that would both promote the thoroughbred ́s talent for flow, forward motion, stance and contact, the shorter Iberian horses higher degree of grace, carriage, ability to assemble and inflect. He also rode Portuguese horses more forward than what had been traditionally done. In this way he fostered several new gaits and extensions giving rise to what we call today “schwung” in the Iberian horse.

Nuno’s spirit is still alive at his yard.

You have to be able to feel each horse
Oliveira was also known for riding his horses more open and relaxed. The placement of the horses head and neck was less important, as his goal was for the horse to move more freely and relaxed but at the same time assembled. In other words, a horse could carry himself both “behind” and “in front of” the bite if he so desired and had the physical prerequisites to do so. He recognized the individual race ́s different premises for assemblage in line with the horse’s physique. The common denominator, however, was to achieve movement, ease, and liberation, assemblage, flexibility, and agility.

Oliveira’s son once said about his father:

“There is no Mr. Oliveira System, there is only Mr. Oliveira.”

His thought was that his father ́s system could no be departmentalized. His foundation was rather his father ́s ability to adapt to each horse – and his ability to “feel” each horse. The approach adopted could therefore vary. Throughout his childhood, Oliveira progressed from solely riding Iberian horses to riding most races, and this probably gives him a deep insight into the secrets of riding.

Religious approach
Oliveira had a somewhat unique approach to equestrian art. Not only did he upgrade his riding to a form of art, but he also gave it a religious content. He regarded harmonious riding to be a “Gift to God.” Explaining that he had experienced “harmony with the horse” as the most pleasing he could give back to his creator. He viewed the horse as his ultimate teacher and explained this in the following way: “Perfect interaction with the horse can only be achieved when the man himself behaves in harmony, with humility, and with respect”. Oliveira interpreted a satisfied and balanced horse to be the result of man ́s good behavior, the way God would have wanted man to behave towards nature and each other. Thus Oliveira gave riding a religious perspective. When, as a rider, he behaved humbly and justly, the horse would respond by working in harmony with his rider. Consequently, the horse became his coach.

The search for perfection
Oliveira was also known for his rarely well-developed feeling for riding and distinctly good seating, something his fans viewed as an almost masterly trait. “Most of the secret lies in the rides back and haunches, ” he explained. He possessed a rare love and respect for the horse, and this extended throughout all his work. Also, he was regarded as an intelligent and disciplined person. This contributed greatly to his popularity worldwide. He was also strongly religious, seeking and visionary, and devoted his life to finding the ultimate harmony with the horse with a minimum of intervention – a harmony he constantly sought to perfect.

His dreams, however, outdid most people, that resulted in having to go without in many areas. This especially affected his own family. Throughout his life, he strove for perfection in riding. Despite his fans ‘regard for him as a master of his profession, he never felt completely trained. This bothered him late in life.

“You should think, and the horse responds” is a known quote which is a good description of Oliveira’s riding philosophy. In many ways, he was a self-learned artist, but he was also constantly a student, devoting all his time to practicing and studying riding ́s many features.

Therese Stub Alhaug
Therese Stub Alhaug


Therese is the editor of Equilife, and is truly dedicated to equestrian sports and horses. She started riding as a little girl, and enjoys her free time with her two horses back home. Portrait interview is her favorite topic, as it has the gift to inspire others through peoples stories, knowledge, training and general life-philosophy, and certainly, their lives with horses.

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