At the Monte Velho estate, in Portugal, the Lima Meyer family breeds magnificent Lusitano horses. Less than thirty years after its creation, this real equestrian paradise, which is also a riding school and a beautiful countryside resort, had the merit and the honor of bringing its own horse and rider to the Olympics in Tokyo
This is a story that begins with a medical prescription, arrives at the Tokyo Olympics, and continues as a wonderful equestrian adventure. Like any adventure, it is scattered with successes, defeats, sorrows, and joys.
In 1990, Diogo Lima Meyer, at the time only 36, was already one of most successful architects in Portugal. His studio had won the contract for the renovation of the entire network of agencies of the BCP group, the most important Portuguese private bank. He coordinated a group of dozens of collaborators, in his country and abroad, an important and demanding job, for which he received many awards. Success, however, had a price. One night, Diogo woke up with the symptoms of a strong cardiac arrhythmia. He was brought to the hospital and, once the crisis was treated, he underwent the necessary investigations. The cardiologist had no doubt that the attack was an alarm bell.
“Too much stress – he said – To relieve the tension, you should do some sport.”
“Which one?” Diogo asked him.
“Horseback riding would be perfect”, suggested the doctor, who was related to a breeder and knew the equestrian milieu.
Thirty years later, Diogo tells me his story, while seated in the patio of his estate of Monte Velho, in the Alentejo region.
“About a mile from my house, in Sintra, there was the Quinta do Pombal, the equestrian center of Pepe Iglesias, a student of Nuno Oliveira. I then bought a horse and I brought him to Pepe, so that he could train him and teach me how to ride him. Pepe was very well known in the world of Portuguese horsemanship and his riding school was frequented by some of the best Portuguese riders, such as Dr. Guilherme Borba, one of the most influential figures of the Lusitano horse world, and by Joāo Pedro Rodrigues, who would later become Mestre Picador Chefe of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art as well as a well-known horse breeder. That’s where I took the first steps, having the good fortune to meet real masters.”
At the time, Pepe Iglesias had a magnificent stallion, with impressive movements. His name was Xaquiro. Dr. Borba, who was a great expert, as well as a very fine rider, had the intuition that that horse could give a great character to the breeding of the Lusitano horse and proposed to introduce him as a breeding stallion in the state-owned stud farm of Alter do Chāo. The idea proved to be correct. The horse brought a real genetic boost to the stud farm, contributing in a decisive way to improve the Lusitano horse breed. The agreement with the owner was that the service would be paid to him with three gray foals, while the bay ones would be intended for the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.
“When those foals arrived at the Quinta do Pombal – continues Diogo – we immediately realized that they were exceptional. Shortly after, we discovered that one of the mares that gave birth to them was destined to go to auction. With Pepe and another partner, we decided to buy her, together with two other mares. By crossing them with Xaquiro, we obtained foals that immediately began to have a string of successes in breeding competitions. Unfortunately, the third partner died of cancer and Pepe had to sell his riding school for economic reasons. Then, I decided to buy the mares. For a lucky coincidence, at that time I learned that my wife’s family had a property for sale in the Alentejo. At the beginning, I didn’t think I would buy it, but, my wife and I decided to take a trip and go to see it anyway. When we arrived there, we found ourselves in front of those hills covered with cork trees, and we immediately understood that this was destined to become our place of the heart.”
At that time, the Monte Velho estate was almost abandoned and only the ruins of the old manor house and some attached buildings remained. Diogo reconstructed the property with the taste and respect for traditional Portuguese rural architecture. He then transferred his mares there and began to breed horses, in what, for twenty years, would remain the Lima Meyer family’s country house.
Over the years and with the 2008 world economic crisis, Diogo began to ask himself how he could make the property economically sustainable for when he would, in the future, leave it to his children. Thus, the plan to transform it into a rural tourist resort, combined with the practice of equestrian sports, was born. With the help of his wife, also an interior designer, he then built nine rooms, providing all the comforts of a real agritourism resort (to visit its website, just click on this link: Monte Velho equo-resort). It was an immediate success.
At this point, again, a pinch of luck and a lot of foresight played an essential role in the equestrian adventure of Monte Velho. Sometime after starting the tourist activity, Diogo hired at his stud-farm a young man, as a working student, who was attending a university master program in Equestrian Sciences. Soon he realized that the very young Jāo Torrao had a talent and dedication that was out of the ordinary. After two subsequent periods of apprenticeship, he proposed that Jāo work permanently at Monte Velho, with the task of taking care of the horses, of starting and training the foals, and giving lessons to the guests staying at the resort.
More or less at that time, it was time to start a promising bay foal of the stud-farm. The horse had a prestigious genealogy: the father, Quo-Vadis, had won a gold medal at the 2006 world championships, while his mother, Dam Que-Há, was the daughter of another very famous Lusitano stallion, Hostil. The horse was called Ecuador and Diogo entrusted his taming and training to Joāo. Ecuador was a splendid, powerful, and elegant specimen. Despite his strong character, he immediately proved to be intelligent, expressive, and with an extraordinary aptitude for dressage. Above all, Diogo realized that between the horse and Joāo there was a special understanding, which, although both still very early in their training, made them an excellent team with enormous potential. It was, at that point, that he began to consider competition in their future. However, something was still missing. The horse was very young, as well as his rider. Someone was needed who had the experience to help them grow.
Diogo then decided to call Coralie Baldrey, an instructor who worked at an equestrian center in the area, to work with Ecuador and Joāo. Graduated at the National Riding School of Saumur, France, home of the famous Cadre Noir, Coralie proved to be a game changer. She deserves the credit for having been able to harmonize horse and rider, instilling confidence in her young student and helping him to develop a rational training program, in which working in the arena was combined with relaxing trail rides in the countryside. The results came quickly, and they were truly amazing.
There are too many successes to list them all. Suffice it to say that in their international Grand Prix debut in 2019, Ecuador and Joāo won the Cascais CDI ***, with 69.391%. It’s hard to believe that before arriving at Monte Velho, Joāo had only participated in a competition at an amateur level! In the same year, in the GP Freestyle test, of the FEI World Cup in Mechelen, they achieved their personal record, with a score of 78.9%. But, above all, in the European Championship in Rotterdam, they contributed to the first qualification in history of the Portuguese team at the Olympics!
Meanwhile, Ecuador and Joāo continued to work hard and were granted the privilege of training with what is perhaps the most talented rider on the current international dressage scene: Carl Hester. There are so many riders in the world who aspire to his advice. Only after seeing the videos of Ecuador and Joāo, Hester was convinced of the qualities of both horse and rider and agreed to host them at his own riding center.
“It was a very important experience – Joāo tells me, while grooming a horse in Monte Velho – Carl is a true master, endowed with an incomparable sensitivity and experience. His advice was a source of immense inspiration for me and allowed me a further qualitative leap.”
In March 2020, Ecuador and Joāo Torrao won the Cascais Grand Prix in Portugal with a score of 74,978%, setting a new record for a Lusitano stallion. The prospects for Tokyo were therefore excellent. Unfortunately, however, the summer trip to Japan, for the Olympic Games was made very complicated by draconian anti-Covid measures, did not go as hoped for them, even if the Portuguese team shined for the magnificent performance of Rodrigo Torres and Fogoso.
Nevertheless, everything gave hope that after the setback in Tokyo, Ecuador and Joāo would soon return to new successes. Destiny, however, follows inscrutable paths that, at times, lead to tragic outcomes. One terrible morning, just over two months ago, Joāo entered the stable and immediately realized that Ecuador was not doing well. The veterinary checks revealed a serious spinal injury, which was unexplained as the horse had not had an accident. Diogo and his son Diogo Jr, who leads the Monte Velho team, contacted a famous French surgeon, the only one in the world known to be able to perform surgery on such delicate lesions.
“He immediately told us that it was a very difficult operation – Diogo Jr tells me – However, he assured us that he would do the surgery by any means. The operation took place and was technically successful, and, in the first few days, the post-operative course seemed good, but the situation suddenly worsened, and Ecuador did not survive.”
There is no person in Monte Velho who has talked to me about Ecuador without his eyes turning red with emotion. Only those who love horses can understand what this terrible loss can mean for them. Those who know and love animals also know that, unfortunately, their life is generally shorter than that of those who are attached to them. Despite this awareness, losing a life partner like Ecuador, in such a sudden and senseless way, was a very hard blow for everyone.
“But life goes on – Diogo tells me, with a hint of a smile – Ecuador was not only a champion, but also a fantastic breeder. On the hills of Monte Velho run several foals and fillies that are his offspring. And, not just them, because in our stable there are new interesting prospects, which Joāo is preparing for new goals. The Monte Velho team, led with passion by my son Diogo JR, supported by Coralie’s experience, and made up also of Nuno Neves, Lorena Souza, and Bernardo Neves, continues to work with enthusiasm. Just as my family continues to dedicate our energy to welcoming guests from all over the world and make them feel at home in this little corner of paradise. We all feel a strong commitment to honor the memory of Ecuador.”
* This article was published on July, 3 2022, in the website of the Italian newspaper la Repubblica (you can see the Italian version by clicking on this link: L’avventura di Monte Velho, paradiso equestre dei cavalli lusitani)