Dressage in Tuscany
Classical riding, stunning countryside, great food and wine
– Andrea Moffat had the perfect horse lover’s break in Tuscany.
In the heart of Chianti country, between the fabulous Tuscan cities of Florence and Sienna, is one of Italy’s top riding establishments.
Owned and run by Cristina and Gianni De Marchi, “Dressage in Tuscany” is a magnificent 18th century farmhouse set in outstanding countryside, with stabling for some 30 horses. A riding centre founded on classical principles, it has been established for 13 years. With a variety of horses, all beautifully schooled to advanced levels, it offers a very high standard of tuition.
Riders can select programs designed for beginners or for the more advanced rider. Groups are small and tuition for dressage riders is with Gianni or Cristina, both of whom were classically trained in Portugal following Nuno Oliveira’s principles.
As well as classical dressage lessons, you can ride out from the center into some of Tuscany’s most spectacular scenery, so the trail riding is worth going for alone, even if you don’t want lessons. But I most certainly did!
Pure riding pleasure
On the evening of my arrival, I had my first lesson on Pacha, a very well-bred Lusitano stallion who belongs to Cristina. I was slightly apprehensive under Gianni’s watchful eye, but he soon put me at ease. And Pacha was an absolute pleasure, so light and responsive – I considered it a real privilege to be allowed to ride such a horse.
With classical music playing gently in the background, Gianni talked me through the aids for passage and as Pacha responded I felt as though I was riding on air, it was truly exhilarating. I dismounted very reluctantly at the end of the lesson, already excited about the prospect of riding again the next day.
Supper was quite a feast – four courses of traditional Tuscan cuisine, chianti wine and excellent company.
Cristina and Gianni are a charismatic couple, warm and hospitable. I was captivated by their stories of horses they had owned and bred. They have never sold a horse, just because it was too old or lame to do the job, and they believe wholeheartedly that training methods based on lightness are the reason that their horses are all so sweet natured and willing to work. Their philosophy “to respect and not abuse our horses” makes them an establishment to admire.
The horses are not worked hard; the high ratio of horses compared to the number of guests riding means that not only is it possible to assign the right horse to the rider, but also that the horses get plenty of rest days.
For the love of horses
Before they set up the riding center, Gianna had a promising career as a lawyer, and Cristina was studying modern dance, but a passion and desire to be with horses drove them to give it all up and leave Milan in favor of running a riding centre.
They have competed, but the riding they teach now is not about winning rosettes or riding complicated figures, but about understanding and relating to the horse, developing feel, and the hardest lesion any rider has to learn, about listening to your horse.
Horses have become their life study – Gianni explained that becoming a good horseman takes a lifetime and that horses can teach you something new every day. I felt as though I was learning something new every five minutes since my arrival!
Talking with the other guests over supper, I was amazed to hear from one couple that was there straight from the wedding chapel! This was Stefan and Nana’s idea of the perfect honeymoon: two weeks of dressage tuition, with the occasional trail ride, lots of relaxing by the swimming pool and a shopping trip or two into Florence.
For New Yorkers Larry Stern, Susan and their four-year-old daughter, Arianne, the stay was to combine a little riding for Larry, sightseeing for the whole family, and some serious shopping for Arianne who proudly showed off her new shoes over supper.
For myself, there was another magical lesson, trail riding and some sight seeing and before I knew it, I was racking ready for departure. On the last night, it was a beautiful evening and we watched the sun go down with drinks on the terrace before the evening meal. I watched in fascination as Cristina demonstrated how she was teaching her dog to passage. A cheeky lurcher hunting dog, Wilcock loved the attention and delighted us all by showing off his steps.
Bed and board
Accommodation is largely in the main house which has original wooden beams, terracotta floors and high arched ceilings. The six upstairs rooms are spacious, and all with twin beds and a private bathroom. Extra beds can be added to rooms if required. There are also two apartments for two to four people, each with a kitchenette and sitting room, ideal for families. The rooms are very clean and comfortable and are tastefully decorated. Evening meals and breakfast are included in your stay.
Dinner is a lavish affair and there is plenty of it. Pieranna, the cook, has over 120 recipes up her sleeve and it currently writing a book. Guests eat in the cozy surroundings around an enormous dining room table, framed by an enviable collection of some 400 equestrian print and models.
Excellent Chianti wine is served and dinner are cooked with organic virgin olive oil which is made locally. Special dietary requirements are also catered for.
Go as you please!
Riders can put together their own program of riding, or select one of the itineraries on offer. Here’s a few examples:
● Lessons and riding out for beginners or intermediate riders – includes three days of two hours of lessons and three half days riding out
● Lessons only for beginners – includes six days of two hours of lessons per day
● Dressage for advanced riders – includes five days of two lessons per day and one half of riding out
● Riding out only (not possible for absolute beginners) – includes six half days of riding out
I’ll be back!
The day before departure, I watched Cristina and Gianni’s two children, Pierto and Giorgia, having a lesson, with Christine, a BHS qualified instructor from England, who is responsible for teaching and most of the beginners and novice riders. The children rode two super ponier and I was once again impressed with the level of tuition; as you can imagine, children are very welcome
When I finally came to leave, it was a real wrench. I would have liked to have stayed for a month or more. Cristina told me many guests return again and again, and I can see why.
‘Ciao’ – I will most definitely be back!
Out of the Saddle
If you want to take a non-riding partner, he or she will be extremely well catered for – it’s an excellent base for sightseeing around Tuscany. With Florence and Sienna so easily accessible, you are spoilt for choice – classic architecture, churches, museums, history, art and culture all rolled into one. A 20 minute ride by car will take you to San Gimignano, world famous for its medieval towers, and nearby you can visit the medieval town of Certaldo and Colle Val d’Elsa (the city of crystal), 45 minutes by car and you are at Volterra, a charming and ancient Etruscan city which boasts a fabulous museum, and directly south of Sienna is Monte Oliveto Abbey which contains marvelous paintings from the 15th century,
For those who have never visited this part of Italy, it is simply the breathtaking! Tracks weave in and out of the Tuscan hills, through woodland and olive groves and of course, past plenty of vineyards. Visitors can sightsee by foot, by mountain bike or by car, although horseback is the perfect way to take in the landscape. For non-riders who simply want a holiday in the sunshine, but away from the beaches, tourists and traffics jams, then this riding center has its own pool. The setting is wonderfully peaceful and the food is so good you don’t need to leave the farm unless you want to.
You can make reservations for this wonderful Tuscan getaway with Hidden Trails, one of the leading equestrian holidays specialists in North America. Their website for Italy is http://hiddentrails.com/tour/italy_dressage_tuscany.aspx