Horsing around in style Couple trains stallions on Sykesville farm SOUTHEAST--Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

November 24, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

The stallion stepped lively around the indoor ring at Dedication Farm and responded instantly to soundless commands from his rider.

The two moved together, as one entity, through intricate steps named after ballet movements.

The horse, trained to obey the rider's slightest exertion of pressure or shift in weight, responded to signals almost imperceptible to those who watched him perform with the grace of a dancer.

"Watch my head and shoulders for signals to the horse," said Helene A. "Leni" Clifford to the audience. "I establish the rhythm and direction. The horse carries on and does the rest."

A slight change in her position told Urco to take one more high step. As the horse bowed, the audience broke into applause.

"That applause is like a whole basket of apples to him," she said with a smile, and introduced Urco to the crowd. "He is quite a lady's man."

Urco is a Lusitano, bred in Portugal. Lusitanos and the world-famous Lippizaner stallions are the same basic breed, which originated in the Andalusia area of Spain, said F. Cort Clifford, who, along with his wife, manages the Sykesville farm.

"Urco is a show horse and he loves people," said Mr. Clifford. "He is really intelligent and looks right at you."

"You can watch and see what he is thinking," said Mrs. Clifford. "He is so alert and attentive. Those big, brown eyes really suck you in."

The chestnut stallion stands about 15.3 hands, about 5 feet tall, and weighs about 1,000 pounds. Lusitanos are predominantly gray, like Borracho, another stallion owned by the Cliffords. Mrs. Clifford works with and exercises the horses daily.

"There is always something you can perfect when you are dealing with another living mind and body," she said.

Lusitanos, called the "horse of kings," look particularly regal in their fancy bridles, with their manes and tails braided with bright yarn. Mrs. Clifford, dressed in her bullfighting attire, frequently is invited to participate in events with them. She and her horses often are guests at nearby Piney Run Park.

To celebrate a new wine, bottled in Italy, she rented Roman costumes last month and paraded around Little Italy on a resplendent Urco.

At the nine-acre farm, she puts on several demonstrations and shows a year with the stallions. She also enters equestrian competitions and tournaments and gives lessons in riding and dressage at the indoor ring, which can accommodate 27 horses. A window in the Cliffords' home overlooks the ring.

The Lusitanos share an attached 12-stall barn with several other horses. Boarding also is available at the farm. time. The Lusitanos have become the owners' favorites.

"I was impressed with the breed right from the start," said Mrs. Clifford. "Men's lives depend on its athletic ability and brains."

About six years ago, the Cliffords imported several of the breed from Portugal. The first group, which were ready for training, included Urco and two mares in foal.

"We hand-picked and brought them here, through all kinds of bureaucracy," she said.

"We had to fly them over here at great expense," he said. "We later sold several. One of the foals now performs with the Big Apple Circus in New York."

The Lusitanos' breeding and training enable them to respond instantly to subtle commands from the riders.

"The breed was developed when men fought on horseback with at least one hand on a weapon," said Mrs. Clifford. "The rider's life often depended on how well the horse defended itself."

Today, the breed is used in the bullring and on cattle ranches. Trainers learn to cultivate the Lusitanos' natural movements, she said.

"In Portugal, where the government monitors the breed, each line must prove itself before it is registered," she said. "Whether people survive raising cattle can depend on how well the horse performs."

In this country, the Lusitanos have become popular show horses. Dedication Farm has been part of the five-county Maryland Million Horse Farm Tour since it began three years ago.

Mrs. Clifford, who was born on Never Die Farm, a 200-acre Arabian breeding facility that surrounds her present home, owned her first horse at age 3. She draws on years of experience in raising and training horses as she stresses quality and safety to her students, who now number 18.

"A horse is not a little dog," she said. "They must learn, from the time they are foals, to respond with consistency. Be aware of what you teach them, they will remember."

She said owners must build a relationship with the animals right from the beginning, when they first handle the horse. Owners who are too casual with a cute 150-pound foal may regret encouraging familiar ity instead of respect when that horse weighs 1,000 pounds.

"I respect my horse's space and teach him to respect mine," she said. "Socially, horses play and bump into each other. They can't play with people in the same way."

She uses a lunge line, a long rope, when she puts her students on a horse. Once a student is comfortable with the horse, the teacher gradually gives over the reins. She knows how to match her students, who are mostly adults, with the right horse.

"My philosophy is to make the horse and rider feel comfortable about what they do best," she said. "I wouldn't put a beginner on Urco. I would use our quarter horse, Roy."

Every horse has its niche, she said. The owner and trainer must find that niche.

"It's not fair to make a horse fit our perception of what he is," she said. "I wouldn't expect Roy to do pirouettes like Urco, but he is great with beginning students. Everyone and every horse should be individual."

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