Day 5: Bullfighting lesson

***Disclaimer*** If you are new to this saga…I am writing several articles on California BLOODLESS bullfighting. I will address concerns about bullfighting in those articles. I will not do it here unless I bring up the subject. So read and enjoy the learning, but don’t start any debates with me now. That is for another time… I am still researching and learning.

Sunday morning I got my first lesson on a bullfighting horse. I was very excited. I had asked Manuel if he would give me a lesson so I could feel what these horses feel like so I could accurately write about them.

Manuel brought out a little mare. My heart sank a bit, thinking, “Oh I guess we’re not doing any bullfight riding.” Oh well, it will still be good learning.

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We went into the picadero, a traditional Portuguese arena…smaller than our regular arenas, usually almost square, maybe a little longer. Manuel said this was Bolota (pronounced Blota—Portuguese people eat vowels…I don’t know why, they are quite well fed). I asked if he rode her or bred her. He said he rides her because she is very good, very sensitive. Oh dear…sensitive where I come from is code for nuts. I climbed on and immediately felt her…ready. Lusitanos are really a breed apart. Anyone who rides one will agree with me when I say it’s like Avatar. You connect to them, and they to you.

I am trained in dressage and more importantly, I do mostly young horses, retrain horses with issues, or rehabilitate horses. So that means I am mostly riding horses out and forward. Just go. I don’t get the opportunity to ride advanced horses very often and don’t do much collection. Manuel had me take contact with Bolota and she came right up under me. Bullfighting horses are ridden with more contact than your average dressage horse. I think because their job is a bit….hazardous, they like to feel you, to know you are there and in control. (Sidebar: I knew of one woman who bought a retired bullfighting horse. She got to where the horse was so nervous she couldn’t ride it, which seemed odd because this was a bullfighting horse, and he was very brave. So what was the problem? The problem was the rider was timid. So this brave horse thought, “Oh hell no. I am not following you.” He was used to a confident rider, a rider he could follow. When faced with a rider who wanted him to lead, he lost confidence in her and became nervous. After all, for all he knew, around the next corner could be a bull!)

We walked around a bit, to get a feel for each other. She was indeed sensitive, but in this case not crazy, just ready for whatever you would ask. When I applied my leg, she moved. When I asked for a flexion, she gave it.

Lusitanos are good workers as Manuel says. And indeed they are. They are like border collies. As I rode Bolota, I noticed she would get a bit irritated with me when I just rode…not asking for anything. But when I gave her a job, something to do or focus on, she was happy, eager. But if I just rode around the ring a couple of times, she would get bored and annoyed. So without being excessive, I kept her busy, which she appreciated. Typical mare…very clear in her wants.

I noticed she was a little better to the right than to the left. I asked Manuel about it. All bullfighters bring the bull down the right side of the horse, therefore the horses usually have a very good flexion to the right, where they curve around the bull. But what of the left? In dressage, we try to keep symmetry. They also try to do that in bullfighting, but the nature of the work is right sided. I’ve seen similar differences in roping horses, where depending on if they rider is right or left handed, he ropes from one side or the other, and the horse develops a difference between their left and right side.

And just like people, horses are right or left handed, with the majority of them being right handed. Bolota was right handed, so her left was a little behind her right. Not excessively.

Manuel is finishing his studies in veterinary medicine. He focused on bones and in particular the bones and problems in bullfighting horses. He said they see a lot more abnormalities in the bones on the left side of bullfight horses, which makes sense based on the work they do.

A little insight into Manuel, as a person. He’s very funny. Manuel can most frequently be seen smiling or laughing. I really wish I understood Portuguese, because I’m sure I’d be laughing a lot in his presence. He is a quiet rider. I watched him ride when he was in California. He gets on, rides the horse quietly and gently. To most people, it would look like he’s not doing much. But he’s reading the horse, and he accomplishes that without needing to do a whole lot. Mark of an artist. He knows more English than he thinks, so we do well in conversations. He’s a good rider, a good trainer, and passionate about his art, his horses, and his family tradition.

Bullfighting horses are ridden mostly by the leg. Manuel said, “First we see, then we feel, then the leg, then the hand.” And indeed, if I used too much hand, Bolota was quick to let me know she didn’t appreciate it. “She’s a good dancer, “ Manuel said.

Most of bullfighting work is done in a more collected frame, not something I am used to. When I asked Bolota to canter, the girl came up under me and bounced around a bit. Manuel said “Go, let her go. She’s having fun, a bit of a play.” Miscommunication. Too much brake. So we tried again and off we went. The feeling is of riding a spring combined with an easy chair. Very comfortable, but you also can feel you’re on a powerful animal. And all you have to do is ask. Ask for anything.

“You want to do a little tourinha?” Manuel said, meaning bullfight work with the tourinha.

“Wait, what? This mare does bullfighting?”

“Oh yes,” he said.

“I thought mares weren’t used very often for bullfighting.”

Manuel said, “I have two mares for bullfighting!”

WHOA!!!!!!

He brought out the tourinha, “We always start to the left. Canter a circle close around me to the left.” I started my circles around Manuel as he circled just behind us.

“OK now go to the right. Same thing.” And Bolota cantered around.

“Now go to the corner.”

We went to the corner, diagonally from where Manuel was. “Ok now come,” he said. It didn’t take much. I basically just gave the rein. Bolota picked herself up and cantered towards the tourinha. Once we got close, she took herself to the left side, bringing the tourinha down her right side. I don’t want to say the movement was like a shy or that she fell to the left because it was nothing like that. She just moved, taking her rider with her.

I laughed, “She knows this way better than I do.” I felt like if she could speak, she would have said, “Just sit there. I know what I’m doing. Sit there and let me take care of this, ok?” But she’d say it in Portuguese and in a bordering on yelling voice that Portuguese women use when trying to make a point.

We cantered around Manuel for a circle, then back to the corner. Again, gave the rein, little leg, she engaged like a coil spring. Not explosive, but powerful. She again got close to the tourinha, then gracefully took herself to the left. The movement isn’t a drop like you see cutting or reining horses do. And it’s not leap. It just goes, like part of the stride. You would kind of have to work hard to not go with the horse. I’m sure when there is an actual bull and there is more energy and the stakes are higher that the movement isn’t so peaceful and like a ballroom sashay.

We finished up and Manuel had to run to another appointment, but he said “We ride another one later.” OK!!!!!!!!!

I again lunched with the Ribeiro Telles clan. There were some new relatives present and some spoke English, which was good since Antonio was not there! It was another lovely traditional Portuguese lunch. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was…all of this great food just runs together in my head.

After lunch, Manuel and I went out for horse number 2. This time it was a young horse. Mongol is coming 6 years old, and he is a lusitano x arab. This is a good cross for bullfighting as the arab adds some speed and endurance to the lusitano. Mongol came out and tacked up very peacefully. All the Ribeiro Telles horses are quiet. They don’t have any nervous energy. They have good energy and are ready to go at the drop of a hat, but they are also easy to park. They just turn the energy down and relax. I can tell a lot, A LOT about a rider by their horses…and these are well-ridden horses. They have a dangerous job, but they are not scared. Earlier, we walked Bolota into the tack area where 3 stallions were getting prepared for their bullfight that evening. No one made a peep….Not a noise. They all just looked at her and stayed where they were. It was actually like they didn’t care…

Anyway, back to Mongol. He’s just a baby so he was a different ride than the more seasoned Bolota. But just as nice. We did the regular warm up riding, then went for the tourinha. Mongol was not as confident, so he wanted to take a much wider path around the tourinha. Your job as a rider is to give your horse confidence. Confidence in you and in himself. Especially when you have to go face down a bull together. That is a slow process and takes time. And good riders give the horse that time. Take the time in the beginning and it will pay off for you later.

So we went to the corner. I made sure to stop and set him up slowly, not rushing. We then went ahead, again not fast. A couple of times we went a bit quickly and the little guy charged forward and around the tourinha in a wide arch. Manuel said, “More slowly. And more left leg,” (to keep Mongol from going so far to the side.) So we went again, bit better.

“With the reins, go with him. Don’t shut the door.”

I love how people who don’t speak English fluently phrase things. I truly adore it. It’s endearing. And I enjoy figuring out what they are saying. If you’ve spent any time around me, you know I love language. The words we use paint the images we are conveying. I have read whole books discussing language and spent many nights with friends discussing different culture’s use of words and their meaning. So when I am around people who know some English, but not fluently, not only do I enjoy speaking with them, but my own English starts to fragment, and I speak to them in a similar way to how they speak to me.

At one point Manuel said “A little more down rein”

… Down rein?? OHHHH….bottom rein. He meant the curb rein. See? It’s fun.

Anyway, we went at the tourinha again. Bit better. And that was good enough. Can’t be the best bullfighters in a day J

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