The only woman among the 17 professional horse riders at La Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre (the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art) in Jerez, considered to be the world’s best riding school of its kind, Belen Bautista is “a gifted girl” according to colleague Javier. “She makes something so difficult look so easy,” he says, “And she adds a certain femininity to her work and to the performance.”
A resident of Jerez, yet born in the nearby village of Sanlucar de Barrameda, the 27-year-old has been riding since the age of four. Aside from Belen’s mother, every member of her family rides. Belen started working as a dressage student at La Real Escuela in 1999, becoming a professional rider in 2005. She now rides in the School’s stunning spectacles, trains horses, and teaches riding students, working beside the likes of celebrated Olympian medalists such as Rafael Soto and Ignacio Rambla.
Why is she the only woman? “Up until recent years, horse-riding was a male world and this could be quite a sexist culture,” Javier explains, “Although things are definitely changing.” A petite woman who is passionate about her work — Javier says “riding is in her blood, it’s in her DNA,” — Belen is also passionate about Jerez, as she revealed when we talked to her at the Real Escuela today:
Q. What do you most love about your work?
A. I love the novelty of working with horses, the daily training, and the satisfaction of seeing the results.
Q. Why should people come to Jerez?
A. Because of the variety of things to do here, the city’s gastronomy, and its fantastic location near both the beach and mountains.
Q. Three words to describe Jerez?
A. Charming, quiet — yet alive!
Q. And the locals in Jerez?
A. Friendly, hospitable — and with personality!
Q. Top three recommendations for visitors?
Q. Best souvenir from Jerez?
A. A sherry glass.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Do a tapas bar hop around the old centre to try the tapas at the different restaurants.
Q. Most essential thing to learn?
A. How to adjust to the local way of life, especially the times that people keep here. The people of Jerez take siesta, especially in summer when it’s hot, so shops and other businesses close for the afternoon. The only people on the streets are tourists.
Q. Most important phrase to learn in Spanish?
A. Hasta pronto — see you soon! It’s much nicer than adios, which means goodbye.
Q. Any other advice?
A. Don’t be afraid to ask locals for help. People in Jerez are nice and friendly. When you catch a bus, you’ll see everyone talking together, even strangers. In the old days when someone asked for directions, it was the custom to escort them to the place they were going!