Horse heaven in the Catalan hinterland

May 14, 2013 by

Palomino horse in horse boxThe first thing I should say is, this isn’t a sponsored post. No-one has paid me, given me a reciprocal link  – or, sadly, bought me a horse – in exchange for me bumping my gums to the world. (I should also say that I am open to the option of someone buying me a horse, however. I am particularly fond of palominos.)

Barcelona’s uncanny ability to land me in unforeseen situations that, on occasion, gift lifelong memories, surprised me again this weekend. Living here feels like being interred inside one of those folded paper fortune tellers, that, depending on your dexterity, yield up four different corners of fate on a regular basis. Whatever else it is, life here is never predictable.

In the lap of the gods

Sitting due north of the coastal town of Masnou, about 20km away from Barcelona, the Club Hípico Vallromanes is a riding school, livery yard, and hotel resort, complete with pool, gardens and the most amazing views you can imagine. I had been invited by the owner, Antonio, to come check out the facilities and see the flamenco horse show that takes place each week.

It had been a while since I’d been out of the city, and the first thing I noticed on stepping out the car was that even the air smelt different. The kind that makes you want to inhale deeply. Set in the midst of a national park, the whole area seems to have been carved out of the hillside, and Antonio tells me proudly that he planted many of the trees as saplings himself.

The next thing I noticed was that I couldn’t stop smiling. The sort of smiling I haven’t done since I wielded a blowtorch at some unsuspecting crema catalana in a Barcelona cooking class. In a sort of helpless, hapless, demented way. “¿Te gustan los caballos entonces?” asked Antonio, receiving an ear-to-ear grin in return.

views over Masnou

Making old friends

Given my palpable enthusiasm for all things equestrian, Antonio obviously decided I was harmless enough to let loose around the yard. The show itself wasn’t due to kick off for another couple of hours, and Antonio seemed a bit concerned that I might be bored hanging around. When he clocked the fact that within the first three minutes I had actively taken photos of each horse in its box (there are around 70) and was starting to memorise their names, he quite wisely left me to it.

Flamenco rider getting ready

Limbering up Seville-style

“You’re one of the family now” said Antonio gamely. And, true enough, my guides were Antonio’s granddaughters, aged from four to 12, who were the most polite, cheerful and knowledgeable kids I have met in Spain ever. Little Aitana, aged four, eagerly appropriated her role as profe, teaching me the essential Spanish vocab and doing a great job of disguising her disdain at my ignorance.

“Sudadero” for saddle-pad. “Tijerillas” for martingale. The sort of words that don’t appear in Word Reference, and which sizzle on your tongue as you savour them. “Crin” for mane, and I start remembering some poem or other of Lorca’s, and Córdoba, distant and alone, with the olives in the saddle-bag. A whole world of associations with Spain that always bring me back to horses, poetry, and even Saint John of the Cross.

The flamenco horse show

Anyway, I diverge. My point is, the whole day was almost otherworldly.

The show itself, in the massive competition arena, would have been impressive enough, as riders from all over the world took turns at showcasing their talents. Classic dressage moves combined with displays of gaucho daring, but the common denominator that I could see was the riders’ attitude to their horses.

I had hung out beforehand in the practice arena, watching the warm-up exercises agape, struck by the respect with which the riders treated their mounts. Many ‘horsey’ people in the UK are out-and-out swines, in my experience, so to see the genuine relationship between horse and rider was a revelation.


Ying and Yang

My favourite was the plucky little Argentinean, of course.

Argentinean rider giving salute

Going gaucho

Learning to improvise

Given the setting, sunshine and equestrian derring-do, the day was already complete for me, but throw in some glasses of vino and a live salsa band in the gardens and we’re talking a whole other level.

Salsa oozed softly around us as Antonio’s granddaughters (there now seemed to be even more of them) combed through my handbag and looted my makeup. “What does this do?” they quizzed me, brandishing mascara wands into the afternoon sunshine as horses nearby failed to bat an eyelid.

Makeup perfectly pulchered, we followed the sound of the band, who seemed to segue effortlessly from one Latin standard to the next. A young woman, shoogling in her seat herself, thrust  forward her one-year-old baby, who mimicked a few steps on the table. Seamlessly, the band entered on cue: “Un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’lante María, un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’tras”.

I laughed, sat back, and counted my blessings.

Dancing in the garden

Riding facilities

If you’re a rider, you will adore this place. There are two outdoor schools, both big and set against a cliff, a massive indoor arena, and an even larger outdoor show ground. The tack rooms are replete with every conceivable kind of kit, while the stalls, stables and yard are immaculate. Given the setting, as you might imagine, the club offers hacks as well as formal lessons.

Colt in outdoor school

Coltish in contemplation

Faith healing

Massaging a horse

While everyone was still tucking in to the barcebue, shouting out requests to the salsa band and generally having a great time, I snuck away, beckoned by a whispering Aitana in the corner of the garden.

She wanted to show me her moves. Aged four, armed with a riding hat, protective waistcoat and the fearlessness you only have at four years old, she showed off her agility, guided by her older sister on the lunge. “What do you want to do now?” asked older sis. “¡Galope!” was the unequivocal reply.

And not for the first time that day, I was transported back to a different time, remembering other ponies and other places, and Ayrshire skies of a more leaden nature.

What the smell of bales of hay can do.

Huge thanks to Antonio and his family for an amazing day:)

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  1. Merry Christmas Julie,
    I’m writing a novella set in ancient Iberia and am trying to come up with an authentic Catalan name for a horse, a gelding actually. I wonder if you could make a suggestion based on some of the names of horses you’ve encountered there?

    Kind Regards
    Glenn recently posted..‘WARHORN – Sons of Iberia’ into Amazon Top 100My Profile

    • Merry Christmas to you too, Glenn!

      And congratulations for posting by far the most original comment on this blog since its inception:)

      I’ve just been going through some of the photos I took of the horses in their boxes, looking for inspiration for you, but I’m assuming that Zipi, Infinity and Isobar are all out as potentials? I like Ícaro, though I’ve just made that up. Hmm. I fear we may have to throw this open to any Catalan readers out there?

      Best of luck with the novella, it sounds amazing.


  2. Dear Julie
    More success with this one! What a great day out and lovely to see those pictures of the horses. Was it Ayrshire you came from? I lived in Troon – good long stretches of sand there for riding by the sea.

    Take care


    • Hello Kate, thanks for your comment:)

      That was a brilliant day, almost surreal in its intensity. I so miss horses, living in Barcelona.

      Yip, I grew up in Ayr, till I was ten, although am originally from Glasgow (it’s a long story). What a coincidence that you come from Troon! I remember as a kid the riding school in Ayr sometimes used to take us galloping along Troon beach. They’re some of my happiest childhood memories, actually.

      We’ll need to meet up and swap Ayrshire stories in Barcelona:)


  3. We are considering a move to Barcelona area and am just looking into the equestrian world – which is very important to me. We used to live in Seville where the horsiness was extraordinary but reading your blog post this morning gives me such encouragement to go for it. Spanish way with horses is much more free as far as I can see it, and the Andalucian breed intensely beautiful and responsive! I’e just about had it with the UK for so many reasons. I will enjoy perusing your blog this weekend – thank you!
    Sarah recently posted..Hope in Trafalgar SquareMy Profile

    • Hi Sarah, and thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear you’re thinking about moving out here – go for it, I’d say. The weather, food and way of life make it difficult to leave once you’re here. There are loads of horsey places around Barcelona, the only caveat being you need a car to reach them, which has always been my problem. There’s a great article on Barcelona Metropolitan’s site, ( written by Petra Barnby on various riding schools and locations to try out. Let me know if you do come out and maybe we could go together:)

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