It was the first touristy thing we’d done so far this trip, and after ambling the backstreets of Jerez, kicking back in the markets, and throwing back cervezas in bars with locals, it felt odd to be trundling along a path through the verdant grounds of La Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre (the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art) with large groups of pensioners and teenagers following their flag-waving tour guides.
Seeing the breathtaking spectacle ‘Cómo Bailan los Caballos Andaluces’ (How the Andalusian Horses Dance) at La Real Escuela Andaluza is one of those ‘must-do’ experiences in Jerez, if not Andalucia. For many visitors to Jerez, it’s the reason they come here; some don’t do anything else.
While we’re trying to avoid ticking off sights this year, the Andalusian horses, along with flamenco and sherry, are the iconic symbols of Jerez and in our experience, icons tend to be so for a reason.
Just as we’ve been seeing a lot of flamenco and drinking a great deal of sherry these past couple of weeks, we wanted to see the horses to try to understand why these beautiful creatures have become such significant representations of the cultural identity of the people of Jerez. It seemed essential as part of our quest to get beneath the skin of this place.
As we watched the show, I began to see the equestrian ballet as a dance of beauty and precision, recognising in it similarities with flamenco dancing and bullfighting, arguably two other dances of beauty, passion and bravery. (More on that in another post.) To me, the performance came to be about so much more than pretty horses prancing around an arena.
Having lived in the United Arab Emirates and travelled throughout the Arabian Peninsula for over a decade, I understood the devotion the Gulf Arabs have for the Arabian horse. They revere the animal for its intelligence, spirit, strength, and beauty, and while I could see from watching the mostly Spanish audience that they had the same kind of admiration for the elegant Andalusian horse, there was something more going on here.
As the horses and riders performed the exquisitely choreographed ‘dances’ that were part of an elaborate repertoire that included classical dressage, ‘doma vaquera’ (one-handed riding skills, including pirouettes and arreones, traditionally used for herding cattle), ‘work in hand’ (where the horse performs exercises without a rider), and ‘carrousel’ (where a group of horses and riders ‘dance’ in unison), I came to see these highly-skilled equestrians as artists.
I also recognized in the audience the same regard, respect, appreciation, and passion that Spaniards exhibit when watching a bullfight or flamenco performance. Like flamenco and bullfighting, the equestrian ballet was as much an expression of individual skills as it was teamwork, and like flamenco and bullfighting, audience involvement is a vital part of the event.
“Jerez is represented by horses, sherry and flamenco,” Javier, the media guy and our guide at La Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre confirmed when he took us behind the scenes a couple of days after we’d experienced the show as tourists. We’d wanted to meet some of the riders (see our interview with Belen Bautista) and find out more about Andalucian horses, the School, and its connection to Jerez.
“Like wine and flamenco, the Spanish horses are a great source of pride for us,” Javier explained, “We feel very strongly about these things. I’ve seen the riders speaking about the horses in a way I’ve never seen people speak about anything before.”
Javier paused to choose the most appropriate words from his very impressive English vocabulary. “The horses make them feel… complete.”
And it occurred to me then that for the average Jerezana, the horses, the sherry, and the flamenco, were quite possibly the things that completed them.
* Equestrian Ballet & Thematic Visit – when visiting the Real Escuela, it’s worth seeing the equestrian ballet, as well as doing the ‘thematic visit’, which allows you to watch the horses being trained as well as tour the stables, carriage museum, and cutting-edge Equestrian Art Museum.
* The Museum – the museum in the basement of the beautiful Cadenas Palace, designed by Garnier who designed the Paris Opera House is a must-do. It boasts brilliant interactive, multimedia exhibits on the equestrian arts, with excellent explanations of the different breeds of horses, styles of dance and steps, costumes, and more.
* Training Session – overal the Real Escuela is impressive, but what’s worth watching is a training session: 17 professional riders, paired with students who become their proteges, spend 8-10 hours each a day training five horses per team. The riders, and 30 odd grooms, care for 140 stunningly beautiful horses in total. Wander out the back to watch a training session for a while before you while. If you weren’t a fan of horses before, you will be by the time you leave.