Washington International Horse Show, October 26 - 31, 2010

by Hidden Trails 10/26/2010

Starting today, it's the Washington International Horse Show at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.! If you’re in the area stop by to check out all the events for children and adults. Running through Halloween, this show offers tons of happenings including Washington’s World of the Horse. Introduced in 2009, this special event runs for 60 minutes and features horses of all types performing a variety of exhibitions from show jumping to Western events, driving and lots more. Good luck to all the competitors!

More information on their website: http://www.wihs.org/index.php

Classical Dressage Training in Spain

by Hidden Trails 06/01/2010

My name is Kim Yotko.  My husband and I own and operate Fox Meadow Farm Riding School in Haymarket, Virginia.  As an American Riding Instructor’s Association Certified Riding Instructor in both Hunt Seat and Dressage, I understand the need for continuing education and I embrace any opportunity to do so, both in and out of the saddle.

In the pursuit of higher learning, I journeyed to Epona Equestrian Center, in Seville, Spain along with three of my most enthusiastic dressage students to participate in the Rafael Soto Clinic.  Our goal was to improve upon our classical dressage seat and to clarify aids.  Also, we were extremely interested in learning more about the Andalusian breed.

Our group had such a fabulous time at Epona that I feel compelled to praise them and to share with you a brief synopsis of our experience.

Upon arrival we were thrilled to meet Fernando Garcia.  He and his wife, Jane are the owners of Epona Equestrian Center.  They and their staff provided the perfect environment for Dressage emersion.  Every detail was taken care of for us.  A 16th century Hacienda served as our accommodations, we dined upon delicious home-made gourmet food, and we were carefully matched up with gorgeous, classically trained Andalusian mounts.  All we really had to do was think about dressage!  I remember thinking that this was like a dream that had finally come true!
Their intensive program of lunging lessons and training classes with Caty Garcia was designed to accustom us to our horses and the techniques that would be used by Raphael later in the week.  In addition to working on our positions, we focused on stretching techniques and plenty of lateral work.  Thanks to our work with Caty we felt like we were set up for success.

Upon completion of our prep work, we were finally ready to ride with Rafael Soto.  What a pleasure!  This 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist was extremely encouraging and enthusiastic about his teaching.  He was very generous with imparting his vast wisdom and knowledge to each and every one of our rides.  It was almost as if he was riding every step right with us as we half-passed, piaffed, and passaged around the arena!  Rafael Soto is truly an ambassador to his sport.

I also must express how amazing an experience it was to ride their lovely and talented P.R.E. horses!  I enjoyed my mount Seneca so much that I actually regretted having to take a break to eat and sleep because it meant that I would have to dismount.
Now that I have returned from the clinic, I have noticed that my horses are happier than ever with my riding.  I am full of new inspiration, along with an enhanced appreciation for the Art of Classical Dressage, and of course, I now dream of owning an Andalusian some day!


Riding in Spain: It’s not just another clinic

by Hidden Trails 09/23/2009

An amateur dressage rider from Wyoming finds a clinic in Spain with Olympian Rafael Soto
By Darlene Vaughn
Epona Rafael Soto Clinic

After a lifetime of dressage lessons, this was just one more. Or was it? I was mounted on a wonderfully well-trained Andalusian gelding, and I was in a foreign country listening to an Olympic medalist giving me riding instruction. As this realization hit, I caught my breath and tried to grab and hold every detail of what was happening.
As an amateur dressage enthusiast, I am part of the largest group pursuing the sport, and I have worked hard, taking lessons, going to shows, buying the correct tack and finding the horses that suited my level of expertise. Through Hidden Trails we discovered a wonderful riding center near Seville. Epona (named for an ancient Celtic goddess) is a family owned and operated equestrian center with dressage as one of its specialties. We both fell in love with the setting, the horses, the Garcia family and the great staff. After a number of visits “across the pond,” we also feel like family.
The winter of 2006 – 2007 offered an opportunity I could not resist, even though I would be travelling alone. Epona was hosting four dressage clinics with Rafael Soto, an Olympic silver medalist. He and his Andalusian stallion, Invasor, have been a crowd favorite with the international dressage community over the last decade. Rafael is a dedicated horseman living in southern Spain and spending most of his time at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez teaching and training. He has been to the United States only a few times to teach clinics, since he prefers to be at home with his family.
The second Sunday in February of last year found me with four other gals unpacking our riding clothes after traveling from Wyoming, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wales and Malaga, Spain. We each had our own comfortable room in the hacienda on the grounds of Epona. Fernando Garcia, our host and one of the school’s owners and directors, loaded us quickly into a van and we were on our way to a typical Spanish restaurant in Carmona to get to know each other over a great meal. I learned Fernando’s riding resume included show jumping.


Monday morning we began a marathon of preparation for our lessons with Rafael. We each had a private longe lesson and then small group lessons with head instructor Caty Garcia in the covered arena. The longe horses were so solid and rhythmic that we had only to pay strict attention to our positions and transitional cues.
One of the goals was to match each rider with the perfect horse for the week. I drew one of my favorites, Trajano, a bay Andalusian I had ridden on previous visits. With the number of highly trained horses among the 60 that are available at Epona, all of us were well-mounted in no time.
Caty is a talented and experienced instructor who has worked with many international competitors and holds some of the most coveted certifications in Europe. She was able to quickly discern our strengths and weaknesses as riders and, beginning with the basic gaits and a snaffle bridle, we climbed through the ladder of relaxation, obedience, lateral movements and, finally, collected work.
We are not upper-level riders, so it was a steep learning curve, impossible without these horses. Using leg yield and shoulder-in exercises to help us get a better feel for the connection of the hand to bit and supporting leg on the horse, we understood much clearer the concept of teamwork between horse and rider. Caty was persistent and committed that all work was done properly and in a manner that kept our horses and us happy and working toward the goal of Rafael’s lessons later that week. Most American riders do not get this opportunity, and I marveled at the huge steps forward we all made in our riding skills in such a short time.


Higher Education
The other director of the school, Jane, Fernando’s wife, used her marvelous culinary skills and served us a delicious luncheon, after which we observed the traditional Spanish siesta time. Jane is another talented rider and instructor herself. Although she leaves most of that to her daughters now, she was just as excited as we were about our progress during the week. After another lesson in the early evening and another wonderful meal, we retired for the night a bit sore but totally satisfied in the food department. This was to be duplicated for the entire stay.
Tuesday we traveled to Jerez and the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art (Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre) to watch a performance by the professors and students. It brought tears to our eyes. Applications for admission come from all over the world, but few students are accepted each year at this government supported school. Vivi Gracia, Caty’s sister (Fernando and Jane’s other daughter) has juts completed four years there. A bit of Jerez’s famous sherry made for a sleepy ride home, but soon we were back on the horses with more lessons.
By Wednesday, Caty had us graduate to full bridles, and we began to attempt some of the finer movements of our capable horses. This meant complete instruction in how to hold the double reins and the different uses of the snaffle and curb bits. For those who have never ridden a passage, piaffe or flying change, the experience can be overwhelming – lots of smiles, laughs and even shouts of joy.
Thursday morning, we had another lesson but, that afternoon, we went into Seville to discover a Spanish tack store and to enjoy the art of Flamenco dancing. After four days of intense training, we were all glad to have some time off.
Clinic with Rafael Soto
Friday was the day Rafael was coming. Each student had two scheduled private lessons with him on Friday and again on Saturday. This was his fourth clinic at Epona, but you could feel the excitement in the air. The Gracia family and the other staff members at Epona are very respectful of Rafael for his riding, training and instructing accomplishments. Needless to say, the five of us were excited and more than a bit apprehensive. Would we be good enough? Would we be able to follow his instruction? Would our horses listen to us? We had our boots polished and the staff had our horses groomed, tacked and ready to go.
As we had been told, Rafael was a wonderful clinician, speaking fine English for those of us knowing only that language and explaining in Spanish for our gal from Malaga. He talked us though the basics. Then, as the lessons progressed, he allowed us to try our hand at the upper-level movements. He also concentrated on lateral movements to engage our horses. Rafael directed us to do a bit of walk, then a forward trot, using leg yield and shoulder-in. After concentrating on straightness on the long sides, bending correctly on the corners and many transitions within the gaits, we did our canter work, using counter canter as a gauge for our riding.
Toward the end of the lesson, we were encouraged in the upper-level movements. I was particularly impressed by how much preparation time was used for any change a rider requested. The shoulder-ins began at the end of the short side, which made the transition much smoother and easier for the horse. By Saturday afternoon, we were all doing flying changes on a serpentine topped off by a few steps of passage and piaffe and, of course, we had to do the Spanish walk with our Andalusians. We all felt like real dressage riders and cheered each other on throughout the sessions.
I was honored to sit with the family and our distinguished instructor at lunch on Saturday. “I think you could not find better horses in the world for our lessons here at Epona,” Rafael told us. “Without them, I could not do my job, and it would be impossible to do this kind of training.”
We ended our lessons with a ceremony and diplomas for the five of us. We were oh so tired but oh so happy that we had had an experience we will never forget. I treasure the week, the good friends I made and the excellent dressage instruction. I brought home so many new training tools to use with my own horse. I also understand the optimum method of rider education is the importance of learning on a trained mount before trying to transfer that schooling to a less experienced horse.

You can book this riding clinic with Hidden Trails, a specialist in equestrian vacations worldwide.
Call toll free at 1-888-9-TRAILS – or check out this trip on their website at:

Dressage in Tuscany - Italy

by Hidden Trails 01/16/2007

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.


Hospitable hosts

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