February 18, 1944 – A teenage WWII hero rides a master dressage stallion — Magellan

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February 18, 1944 – A teenage WWII hero rides a master dressage stallion — Magellan

Phil returned the next day and began instruction with the master and one of his apprentices, Antonio, who was bilingual. “He wants you to mount one of his younger stallions and watch you,” Antonio explained.

As Phil rode in the enclosed ring, the master observed him and seemed pleased as the American advanced through a variety of gaits and movements.

“He wants to tell you about several difficult stances and jumps above the ground,” Antonio said. “But not to worry. You won’t be doing these today. They take years to master.”

“Ah,” Phil said. “I remember the Lipizzaner riders calling them ‘airs above the ground.’”

The old man nodded his head, smiling. “Si. Bene.”

The apprentice translated as rapidly as he could. “The levade is where the horse stands up on its hind legs with all its weight on the hindquarters. The hind legs are bent under the belly, and forelegs are bent close to the chest. The body is at an angle of about forty-five degrees to the ground, and the horse remains motionless in this position for a few seconds.”

The old man continued. “Then, on command, the horse makes several jumps, without the forelegs touching the ground. That’s called a courbette. But the most famous, and the most difficult to learn and perform, is the capriole. With this movement, the horse leaps high into the air with its body horizontal. At the full height of the jump, the horse kicks out violently with both hind legs.”

Phil nodded as the warm memories of witnessing these movements flooded back from his childhood birthday party.

“There are other dressage tricks, but those are the most famous movements. And very few breeds can do them well.” The old man took a deep breath as he turned his gaze on his horse. “The Lipizzaner is one of them.”

“Might I ride Magellan? Not to do airs, just to ride?” Phil asked.

The old man looked at him suspiciously. He thought a moment before saying, “Why don’t you let me think about it? You come back tomorrow, and we’ll see.”

The next evening, Phil and his friend returned. The old man let Phil brush and bridle Magellan, who not only immediately accepted Phil, but at the end of a walk inside an outdoor arena, nudged him.

“He seems to like you!” the old man exclaimed. “Perhaps he might even trust you.”

“I’m honored,” Phil whispered.

“In dressage,” the old man said, “your horse must know, trust, and like you. And you must understand and love your horse. A true horseman does not regard his horse with the eyes, but he perceives his horse with his heart. It’s why I believe that, at their very best, an equestrian and his horse are not joined by tack but by trust.”

After mounting Magellan, the old man made sure that Phil could perform the basic gaits: walking, trotting, and the canter. Only when convinced that Phil was indeed an excellent rider, and certain Magellan would respect and obey him, did they move to the next step—working on advanced transitions, such as a collected trot and extended walk.

The old man carefully watched Phil, occasionally barking commands to “Change gait,” “Maintain balance,” or “Don’t pull against the rein.”

“When you hold your reins still, you should be able to feel Magellan’s mouth without him hanging on your reins,” he said. “If you soften your reins forward, he should follow the contact down, neither pulling against the reins nor dropping the contact.”

Phil smiled and nodded. He knew this technique from years of riding. He just didn’t understand these particular terms.

The old man continued to coach, cajole, and command Phil. “Work on your position in the saddle, Lieutenant. Keep your heels down at all times. Keep your knees at an eighty-degree angle. The balls of your feet must rest on the stirrup irons. Sit tall in the saddle, Lieutenant, without bracing your back. Improve your balance. If you can, you need to whisper very softly to Magellan with no lip movement. It’s very difficult. Give it a try.”

Phil smiled, thinking, This will be the easiest of all. A series of soft sounds emanated from Phil’s throat. Magellan’s ears tilted forward, and he softly nickered.

The old man smiled. “Siete pronti, Tenente,” he softly said.

“You are ready, Lieutenant,” translated his friend.

Yes, I’m ready, Phil thought. Ready for a lot of things.

In case you haven’t read or listened to Dad’s book, you can learn more or order it here.

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