Monte Velho: An Eques­trian Par­adise

This Lusitano stud farm and re­sort of­fers in­ter­na­tional-cal­iber rid­ing in­struc­tion with lo­cal fla­vor.

Dressage Today - - Content - By An­nie Mor­ris

This Lusitano stud farm and re­sort of­fers in­ter­na­tional-cal­iber rid­ing with lo­cal fla­vor.

Driv­ing east from Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal, across the Ta­gus River, you dis­cover that cities be­come towns, high­ways be­come two-lane roads and, as you get closer to the Monte Velho Equo-Re­sort in the Alen­tejo re­gion, the roads fi­nally turn to dirt wash­boards. The lush cli­mate dries and the trees be­come small and scrubby. The small towns are sur­rounded by vast farm­lands, fields dot­ted with a con­fetti of sheep, vine­yards and cork trees. When you ar­rive at the stud farm, you walk up a cob­bled drive­way and en­ter through a white-washed arch, un­der which an iri­des­cent pea­cock picks at the ground among a rain­bow of flow­ers.

The barn and ho­tel are a col­lec­tion of white-washed struc­tures built into the hills. The bot­tom 2 feet of each wall is bor­dered in stun­ning indigo that matches the blue of the sky on a spring day. It is im­pos­si­ble to tell how roomy the build­ings are be­cause they ap­pear nes­tled into the sur­round­ings. There are rooms for the guests as well as a restau­rant and the home of the Lima Mayor fam­ily. There is even a chapel. Foun­tains trickle and flow­ers bloom in a va­ri­ety of col­ors. Sev­eral barns are full of beau­ti­ful Lusitano horses. Are­nas—a small in­door, a full-sized out­door and a cov­ered arena—all blend neatly into the stun­ning set­ting. I ar­rived on a bright Novem­ber day for a visit. I wasn’t sure the eques­trian-va­ca­tion idea was right for me, a pro­fes­sional dres­sage trainer, but I fig­ured I could at least re­lax and en­joy the scenery. I was in for a big sur­prise!


Diogo Lima Mayer Sr. is the owner of Monte Velho, which means “Old Home,” and is an in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tect. In 1989, at just 37 years old, he suf­fered a heart at­tack. His doc­tor could find noth­ing wrong with him out­side the stress of his job, so he pre­scribed what only the best doc­tors can: that Diogo Sr. get a hobby. An eques­trian him­self, the good doc­tor sug­gested he try rid­ing. With that de­ci­sion, Diogo and his fam­ily’s lives were changed for­ever.

Diogo Sr. learned dres­sage from Pe­dro Ygle­sias, a stu­dent of well-known dres­sage Mas­ter Nuno Oliveira, and he pur­chased his first Lusitano, Em­baix­ador, as a 3-year-old in 1992. He met sup­port­ive peo­ple, had ex­cel­lent guid­ance and en­joyed the horses so much that he de­cided to be­gin breed­ing Por­tu­gal’s tra­di­tional breed in 1992. As the idea grew, the fam­ily re­al­ized they needed more land to ful­fill their goals. In 1994,

they went to look at the property in the Alen­tejo re­gion and they im­me­di­ately fell in love. The pure and wild na­ture of the area is pro­tected by the gov­ern­ment, so the spirit of the land will re­main for­ever. The ground is not good for grow­ing, but in ad­di­tion to horses, they raise cat­tle, sheep, goats and black pigs. The farm’s cork trees are also har­vested for cham­pagne bot­tles be­cause the di­men­sion of the Monte Velho trees fits the re­quire­ments of the cham­pagne pro­duc­ers per­fectly. The cork har­vest is done every 9 years—the last one was in 2013 and har­vested around 75 tons.

The Monte Velho breed­ing op­er­a­tion, which started small, re­mains that way with just five brood­mares. The Lusitano stud book is closed to out­side blood, so each breed­ing is thought­fully cho­sen. Lusitano horses were orig­i­nally bred for work­ing with cat­tle, bull­fight­ing and pop­u­lat­ing the Por­tuguese cav­alry. Now the horses are also bred for top-qual­ity dres­sage. The horses have a nat­u­ral abil­ity to col­lect, and with care­ful crosses, the Lusi­tanos are be­com­ing big­ger and sportier with each gen­er­a­tion. Each mare at Monte Velho is bred to a dif­fer­ent stal­lion with the goal of pro­duc­ing an in­ter­na­tional-qual­ity dres­sage horse.

In 2013, the Lima Mayor fam­ily had the idea to add an eco­tourism as­pect to the farm. The goal was to help the busi­ness be eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able for the fu­ture so their breed­ing, train­ing and show­ing goals could be reached. The ad­di­tion of the ho­tel turned into a great way to share their love for the Lusitano breed with guests from all over the globe.

The ho­tel has be­come a Lima Mayer fam­ily af­fair. Diogo Lima Mayer Jr. runs the op­er­a­tion and his brother Fran­cisco is the CFO. Mar­garita, Diogo Sr.’s wife, over­sees meals and dec­o­rat­ing the liv­ing spa­ces. The fam­ily feel is tan­gi­ble for the guests. Ev­ery­thing from the rooms to the food to the gar­dens is thought­fully and taste­fully done.

The Start of My Jour­ney

I ar­rived at Monte Velho with my boots on and ready to ride. The out­door arena is po­si­tioned with a back­drop of olive and oak trees. In the dis­tance, I could see the 2-year-old foals frolicking in the pas­ture. The au­tumn sun made the warmer

col­ors of the earth glow shades of pink and orange. In the back­ground, I heard the faint ring­ing of the bells worn by the cat­tle and sheep.

I was al­lot­ted two rides per day with one of the three in­struc­tors. There are about 15 horses in the ho­tel pro­gram, from young horses in train­ing to sev­eral school­mas­ters. Many of the horses are trained through Grand Prix and sev­eral more through Prix St. Ge­orges. Like all horses, these Lusi­tanos each have dif­fer­ent strengths and weak­nesses. How­ever, one com­mon thread among the horses is that they have ex­cep­tional per­son­al­i­ties. Each is rid­den by many dif­fer­ent peo­ple in a year and yet all are so bright-eyed and so gen­er­ous when they come to the arena. They truly of­fer you a spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.

The job of the in­struc­tor is to guess, with­out know­ing the rider, which horse to use to help that rider get the most out of the les­son as pos­si­ble. How do they do this? The in­struc­tors know the horses well and know how to help rid­ers of all abil­ity lev­els find the right feel­ing on each par­tic­u­lar horse. The horses are trained but they are not push-but­ton. A rider can get a lot out of each one by rid­ing cor­rectly.

I was im­pressed by the pas­sion the in­struc­tors put into each les­son. The head trainer, Co­ralie Bal­drey, told me that for each rider she sets a goal dur­ing the first ride that she would like to see ac­com­plished dur­ing the rider’s stay. She wants every stu­dent to take some knowl­edge home with him or her. There­fore, each les­son thought­fully builds on the last and fo­cuses to­ward the rider’s goals and im­prov­ing his or her un­der­stand­ing for the fu­ture.

I was lucky to ride three of the Grand Prix horses. With every ride, I got to know each horse a lit­tle bet­ter. The in- struc­tion I re­ceived left me with some great ad­vice and cor­rect feel­ings to come home with.

The in­struc­tors were stick­lers about my rid­ing po­si­tion. They stressed that the rider keep the up­per body tall and the hips open so the seat could be deep and the rider’s weight could stay back over the horse’s haunches. To po­si­tion the hands, Co­ralie says, “carry your hands so they don’t fall too low and rest on the neck, usu­ally bring­ing the up­per body for­ward with them.”

I learned that in the warm-up, I had to be more fo­cused on the horse’s bal­ance. I was used to rid­ing horses who needed to be warmed up deep or stretch­ing, but if I low­ered the thick, cresty neck of the Lusitano I was rid­ing, the bal­ance was com­pro­mised be­cause too much of the horse’s weight shifted onto the fore­hand. The in­struc­tors wanted me

The in­struc­tors know the horses well and know how to help rid­ers of all abil­ity lev­els.

to keep the neck more hor­i­zon­tal and then stretch the horse un­der and be­hind the sad­dle by lift­ing his back. Keep­ing the horse in bal­ance is much eas­ier than fix­ing a horse out of bal­ance, so the les­son was quickly learned. We did sup­pling ex­er­cises at the walk and trot, such as large cir­cles, changes of di­rec­tion and leg-yield. Then, we worked on the trot–can­ter tran­si­tions. The tran­si­tions loos­ened up the horse’s back, but also had the ben­e­fit of help­ing me get bet­ter feel for the horse. Was he ac­cept­ing my seat when I sat the trot? Was he ac­cept­ing my aids for the tran­si­tion? Was he ac­cept­ing my straight­en­ing aids be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the tran­si­tion? Af­ter this warm-up was work­ing well, I knew I had the horse ready for col­lected work.

In the can­ter, my lessons were again about de­vel­op­ing the con­nec­tion. My in­struc­tors had me work on chang­ing the length of stride. I had to be very care­ful as the strides got longer that the bal­ance didn’t shift onto the fore­hand. As I brought the horse back into a more col­lected can­ter, I needed a lot of feel in my seat and use of the leg to keep the bet­ter rhythm from the length­ened gait and not al­low the horse to be­come ground­bound and choppy. The tran­si­tions sup­pled each horse and de­vel­oped the con­nec­tion that al­lowed us to per­form the more col­lected move­ments, such as the half-passes, pirou­ettes and changes.

In the trot, I got the won­der­ful feel­ing of col­lec­tion. The warm-up trot is rhyth­mic but small, and when you put the horse into a po­si­tion for col­lec­tion, sud­denly he is 6 inches taller and you feel this arch of en­ergy car­ry­ing you through his back. The legs are ar­tic­u­lat­ing and some­times you see the front hooves in front of his shoul­der out of the cor­ner of your eye.

In the pi­affe and pas­sage, each in­struc­tor and each horse had some­thing spe­cial to teach about the tim­ing, place­ment and in­ten­sity of the aids that helped me un­der­stand the move­ments much bet­ter and in a way I could use in the fu­ture. The in­struc­tors helped me find the ex­act place­ment for the legs in the pi­affe, which was a lit­tle back; in the pas­sage, which was a lit­tle for­ward; and then for the tran­si­tion, when the legs keep the rhythm and shift be­tween the

po­si­tions. I learned that my hip an­gle must re­main open dur­ing the move­ments. If the hip an­gle closes, the en­ergy is blocked through the back and then the horse can­not main­tain rhythm and through­ness. The up­per body re­mains ver­ti­cal and must be com­ing for­ward with the horse as op­posed to be­ing left be­hind. I en­joyed rid­ing so much that I could hardly stop smil­ing.

The Guests

I no­ticed some pat­terns among the other guests at the ho­tel. Some came as pairs with a friend, daugh­ter or sig­nif­i­cant other. Most were se­rial horse va­ca­tion­ers, and had been to many dif­fer­ent places. One cou­ple had been to Monte Velho sev­eral times. Most rode dres­sage pri­mar­ily, but not all. Many rid­ers came to learn more about rid­ing as well as to re­lax and en­joy the scenery. Of­ten, par­tic­i­pants would sit and watch the other lessons when they were not rid­ing, en­cour­ag­ing the other rid­ers and tak­ing pho­tos. The ring­side con­ver­sa­tion would vary, but was usu­ally equine-re­lated. Over­all, the en­vi­ron­ment was a dream built for horse lovers.

The meals were all served in the restau­rant that over­looks the ring and the pad­docks. The food was tra­di­tional, fresh and de­li­cious. My fa­vorites were the fresh olives and Por­tuguese cheeses served with lunch and din­ner. They also served red, white and rosé wines from a win­ery down the road. Dur­ing the meals, guests from all over the world would come to­gether to talk about their uni­ver­sal love for horses. The bonds that were cre­ated dur­ing the time spent to­gether cer­tainly pro­duced some se­ri­ous friend­ships!

Other Ac­tiv­i­ties

What do the guests do be­sides dres­sage lessons? You can jump in the swim­ming pool, hike, bike or pad­dle a ca­noe and just re­flect. Book a mas­sage or even a win­ery tour at a nearby vine­yard. Monte Velho just added a spa and hot tub for the guests this year.

Ex­plore the breath­tak­ing land­scape from the back of a horse for a spe­cial treat. Well-trained geld­ings are used for trail rides, where rid­ers can walk, trot and can­ter to­gether as a group. Rid­ing through the pond is es­pe­cially re­fresh­ing in the sum­mer—the horses like to stop there and drink. The fra­grant flow­ers and im­pos­si­bly pic­turesque scenery give the trail ride a mag­i­cal feel. You can imag­ine the Ro­mans rid­ing through the same un­touched scenery hun­dreds of years be­fore.

If you choose to ex­plore the sur­round­ing area, you can spend time in Évora, a nearby univer­sity town with an ac­tive cen­tral square. If you walk up the hill, past the knick-knack tourist shops, you find your­self face to face with a cathe­dral, a palace and the ru­ins of the Ro­man Diana Tem­ple. The view from the top of the cathe­dral shows the red-tiled roofs of the town clus­tered be­fore the stretches of fields, beau­ti­ful olive trees grow­ing in neat rows and small vine­yards sit­u­ated within the rolling hills of the re­gion.

The Lusitano Horses

Monte Velho prides it­self on be­ing a work­ing breed­ing farm with a ho­tel, not

a ho­tel that hap­pens to be on a breed­ing farm. The breed­ing and train­ing op­er­a­tion runs year-round. In the spring and sum­mer, the mares foal out in the field. The horses are weaned, started and trained by the same train­ers who also teach the lessons in an open en­vi­ron­ment, where the ho­tel guests can ob­serve. The horses that they breed are started, trained and even­tu­ally shown lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. Some are sold while oth­ers be­come school­mas­ters for the ho­tel.

The cur­rent pride of the farm is the beau­ti­ful Equador MVL. Started on the farm and rid­den by the trainer João Tor­rão, he is cur­rently 8 years old and school­ing the Grand Prix move­ments. I was fas­ci­nated to watch João and Equador work to­gether be­cause the horse epit­o­mized many of the traits that make the Lusitano such a spe­cial breed.

Lusi­tanos of­ten have the clas­si­cal, con­vex pro­file and a large, arch­ing neck. They are the liv­ing ver­sions of the paint­ings of the horses you find in the clas­si­cal Euro­pean sec­tion of mu­se­ums. The horses have a cer­tain in­tel­li­gence about them that you can see in their eye and in the way they in­ter­act with peo­ple. They act as if they know their job and they want to work. When the rider chal­lenges the horse to do some­thing bet­ter, the horse ac­cepts and gives his full ef­fort. The re­sult is of­ten a beau­ti­ful part­ner­ship that is a plea­sure to ob­serve.

Monte Velho made a deep im­pres­sion on me. In fact, I re­turned to the United States and I missed ev­ery­thing I had found so lovely in Por­tu­gal: the peo­ple, the horses, the food and the weather. I was won­der­ing how one could know about how won­der­ful Por­tu­gal was and yet still choose to leave. I wanted to come back and I did! I am now an in­struc­tor and trainer at Monte Velho. I train the horses they breed, the school­mas­ters for the ho­tel and I teach lessons. If you de­cide to come and visit, I’ll see you here!

LEFT: The ho­tel blends its stun­ning ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign into the nat­u­ral sur­round­ings, which guests can en­joy while din­ing al fresco (shown above).

ABOVE LEFT: Au­thor An­nie Mor­ris (stand­ing) vis­ited Monte Velho on a rid­ing va­ca­tion and came back to live and work there as an in­struc­tor.

ABOVE RIGHT: The view from the re­sort shows the pure and wild sur­round­ing coun­try­side, which is un­der pro­tec­tion from the Por­tuguese Gov­ern­ment.

LEFT: Equador MVL and dres­sage rider João Tor­rão

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: A herd of young horses lives in a pas­ture just be­yond the out­door arena. The barn and ho­tel are a col­lec­tion of white-washed build­ings bor­dered in stun­ning indigo. Monte Velho guest Maria Ungevik takes a les­son dur­ing her...

The Alen­tejo re­gion of Por­tu­gal seen from the top of Cathe­dral Sé in Evora

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