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Lives of the Saint: Nuno Oliveira and his disciples

Nuno Oliveira

Nuno Oliveira

Widely regarded as one of the leading figures (if not the leading figure) in dressage in the 20th century, Nuno Oliveira was by all accounts an erudite scholar of the discipline and its history; an outstanding teacher and mentor of many accomplished students; a trainer of uncommon intelligence and tact; and an equestrian artist of unparalleled brilliance.
He wrote several important books, and several studies have been written about him. Xenophon Press recently brought out a series of uniformly titled books by three of Oliveira’s disciples: 30 Years with Master Nuno Oliveira (2011), The Wisdom of Master Nuno Oliveira (2012), and The Legacy of Master Nuno Oliveira (2013). Though different in type and uneven in quality, they together create an absorbing and instructive portrait of their subject’s life and work.

Oliveira’s demonstrable genius lay not in a revolutionary and foundational reinvention of his art (he was more like Cézanne than Picasso), but in his profound synthesis of the methods of his two seminal predecessors and their schools — François Robichon de la Guérnière in the 18th century and François Baucher in the 19th — and in his rigorous pragmatism in employing the most suitable method, regardless of its origin, for a given objective with a given horse at a given moment. This is not to deny Oliveira’s originality, but to emphasize his practicality and generosity as a horseman. Oliveira believed that bringing the individual equine to its fullest potential and most eloquent expression outweighed fealty to any theoretical principle. Neither immodest nor falsely modest, he possessed the self-knowledge and self-confidence to rise above doctrinal squabbles and focus on the task at hand.

Equestrian master Nuno Oliveira with a student.

Equestrian master Nuno Oliveira with a student.

Though few of Oliveira’s books are available in English, Reflections on Equestrian Art, his most influential work, is still in print at J.A. Allen, and other titles are held in good research libraries. Written (and evidently first published) in Portuguese, Reflections on Equestrian Art attracted broad attention in 1965 in a French translation, and then again in 1976 in an English translation of the French, with new material added. Neither a treatise nor a manual, Reflections is an eloquent and elegant meditation on its subject — equestrian art — or, in Olivier’s words, “the perfect understanding between the rider and his horse.” Its main themes are clear: a horseman not only must ride, but also must observe, study, and think deeply; must be rational and calm in method, and never brutal or forceful; and must possess great tact, the virtue above all virtues. Learned in content and epigrammatic in style, Reflections is one of those rare essays — every core academic discipline has at least one — that convey more in a hundred pages than weighty tomes do in many times that length.

Setting the tone in a succinct introduction, Oliveira characterizes the horse as “the ideal companion for man, who loves him and finds in his company something rarefied and transcendent,” and equestrian art as a matter neither of warfare nor of “exhibition” but rather one of “the conservation of the horse’s enjoyment, suppleness and finesse.” His lucid reflections on this art unfold gracefully and systematically, with brevity but not haste, through some fifty topics, almost all of them in a page or two. Opening broadly (The Rider’s Position, The Aids, Tact, Dressage), they advance steadily in refinement (Canter to the Rear, Pirouettes at the Canter, The School Lavade), and conclude with this charge to riders: the horse should be made to “shine with brilliance,” producing a “vision of great beauty.” To achieve this end, in a phrase of Capitaine Etienne Beudant often quoted by Oliveira, “Ask for much, be content with little, and reward often.”

Not surprisingly, Oliveira had a multitude of students over his long career, a number of them with formidable equestrian careers of their own. Also not surprisingly, many of his students became disciples, devoted (and devout) followers of the Master (as they invariably refer to him in either English, Portuguese, or French) proclaiming his word, sharing his teachings, and honoring his name. I use the religious image intentionally: these writers and books are at their best when dispassionate, but less so when hagiographic — when they treat Oliveira as a saint and his teaching as scripture. The good news is that they are generally more dispassionate than not, and are always informed and enlightening.

Perhaps the most engaging of the three books, 30 Years with Master Nuno Oliveira presents thirty years of Oliveira’s private correspondence with his long-time disciple Michel Henriquet, along with Henriquet’s running notes and private photographs. It opens with a preface by Jaime da Costa, who had been studying for years with Joachim Gonçalves de Miranda when Oliveira, then a precocious adolescent, joined Miranda’s school. Part memoir and part analysis of Miranda’s influence on the young Oliveira, da Costa’s preface sets the stage for Henriquet’s longer introductory essay on his teacher René Bacharach, on the loyalty of Bacharach to the Baucher-Kerbrech-L’Hotte-Beudant lineage, and on the more catholic loyalties of Oliveira that drew Henriquet to him. Informal but pointed, the letters that form the body of the book trace the evolution not only of Henriquet’s apprenticeship with Oliveira, but also of Oliveira’s relationship to his precursors: “I have invented nothing at all … I find that La Guérinière and Baucher have already discovered everything.”

Stephanie Grant Millham’s The Legacy of Master Nuno Oliveira, an exceptionally well-crafted book, is easily the best “read” of the three. Hybrid in genre, it weaves a narrative about Millham’s ten years of study with Oliveira, principally with her horse Raindrop; a commentary on Oliveira’s methods for training both horses and trainers of horses; and an elegy for the Master and his times, one nostalgic for “a return to lightness and grace and — dare we say it — love in our modern contentious horse world.” It includes an excellent chapter on Oliveira and Baucher that draws heavily on Jean-Claude Racinet’s study of “the Baucherist influence on the Master,” as well as on Michel Henriquet’s rejoinder to it; and it concludes with several pages of “tributes” from other Oliveira students.

Millham neatly captures Oliveira’s style (“the best of classicism combined with the best of innovation”) and his wit  (“shoulder-in is aspirin for horses”). Almost halfway through the book, Millham describes her first visit to Oliveira’s school — a horse, a rider, “and an interesting challenge: exactly how far could he teach a rider with only one hand to train her own horses?” Deftly understated, the comment leads not into a digression on Millham’s one-handed equitation, but into an analysis of Oliveira’s strategy for enhancing its subtlety — a moving tribute.

Well-intentioned, worthwhile, but a bit frustrating, The Wisdom of Master Nuno Oliveira comprises nearly two hundred pages of notes, loosely arranged in a dozen categories, taken by Antoine de Coux over two and a half decades of his training with Oliveira. The publishers and translator try valiantly, but unconvincingly, to justify the book’s extreme repetitiveness: repetitions spread over years of training simply are not like repetitions spread over a few hours of reading. Notes taken in a manège, moreover, like those in a lecture hall, principally benefit the note-taker when left in their raw state. To benefit others, notes want selection and editing, shape and focus. (Interestingly, the now deceased de Coux saw this, but was persuaded otherwise.) Despite Oliveira’s genius and wit, treating every utterance as an aperçu, and every word as sacrosanct, arguably diminishes more than elevates his teaching. Having said all that, I also want to acknowledge this book’s genuine value. Though not “readable” as an account, nor easily usable as a sourcebook, it more than rewards the reader who dips into its pages.

Xenophon Press obviously had good reasons for publishing these three books separately, rather than condensing them into a single posthumous Festschrift that also could include original contributions from other Olivier students, a selection of published writings on Oliveira, and perhaps excerpts from Oliveira’s own writings. Such a Festschrift could provide more points of view, and create a more fully rounded picture, of this great equestrian and his work. A single volume also could eliminate much of the repetition within and across these three books. Happily, one format does not preclude the other. Xenophon has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of Oliveira with these books, and perhaps will choose to supplement them in the future with a single, broader, and denser volume.

The three Xenophon Press books are available from the publisher as a package, for $105.

About the Author

Charles Caramello is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of English at University of Maryland.

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