September 2015 - Dressage & the Spanish Steed
Written by CRM
Wednesday, 02 September 2015 01:27
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Two trainers offer tips for indentifying an Iberian horse well suited for dressage.

The popularity of Spanish breeds for dressage has been growing for several years now. Where once they were rare and sometimes thought the victims of prejudiced judging in competition, Andalusians and Lusitanos are now competing alongside the sport’s traditional Warmblood breeds at all levels of the sport.

Evento was the first Spanish horse to contest the Olympics, where he carried Spanish rider Ignacia Rambla to a 14th place at the 1996 Games. In the two decades since, Iberian horses have helped their riders to international medal podiums several more times, including team bronze for Spain at the World Equestrian Games in 2002 and team silver at the Olympics in 2004, when three of Spain’s team members rode pure Spanish horses.

They have become far more prevalent in the levels dominated by amateurs. The breeds’ famously fine temperaments make them enjoyable to work with for riders of all abilities and their dramatic beauty is another of their many selling points.

As they get more popular in the States, traits and trends have emerged that help identify what to look for in Spanish horses intended for a life in dressage. We asked trainers Shayna Simon and Dan Rocks, both experienced with various breeds, for their perspective on this subject.

Shayna Simon. Photo: Sydney PratherShayna Simon

San Diego trainer Shayna Simon’s strongest advice is to horse shop with someone who has a lot of experience with the breeds you are interested in, and with the bloodlines within each breed.

“There are things that you can’t necessarily articulate, but if you’ve ridden enough Iberian horses, you just know,” she explains. Having focused on developing Lusitanos, which she describes as the “sporthorses of the Spanish breeds,” Shayna notes that Luistanos and Andalusians “are not the same.”

Ground coverage is one thing to look for in any Spanish breed. “Some horses have a lot of action (in their gaits) but they don’t go anywhere.” Ground coverage is not a characteristic that can be judged by watching the horse move at liberty. That’s especially true for young horses that haven’t built up significant muscle yet. For horses of any age, their gaits are greatly affected, for good or bad, by the weight and ability of their riders.

Regarding gaits, Shayna says little can be done to improve the walk and canter, but the trot can be improved through conditioning and schooling.

Conformation-wise, short necks will make it harder to perform and earn good scores in higher level dressage. And strong angles in the hocks will make it easier for the horse to reach under itself and round its back.

Great temperaments are a common denominator for Iberian breeds. “Temperament is the most important thing and that’s why I ride this breed,” says Shayna. Among Lusitanos, she is especially fond of the Portugal and Quarteto lines: her own Dequartetto is a son of the latter.

Dan RocksDan Rocks

Dan Rocks is known for using dressage to bring out the best in many breeds. That’s included horses recovering from severe abuse and neglect as well as those on steady tracks for upper level success, like his newest FEI horse, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood by Jazz, named Voyager.

Based in Santa Rosa and working with clients throughout the Bay Area, Dan has also ridden and worked with students riding the Spanish breeds.

His biggest advice to those thinking of purchasing a Spanish horse for dressage, and for those who already have and are training them for the discipline, is to not be fooled by their natural ability to perform upper level movements before they’ve been trained for them.

The breeds’ naturally compact and round conformation enables them to achieve piaffe at very young ages and before they’ve been trained or conditioned for it. Or at least to perform movements that mimic a properly-prepared piaffe.

That can be “intoxicating” for owners, Dan notes, and it can also be exploited by less-than-scrupulous trainers out to market a horse that is not as trained or physically prepared as it seems to be.

It can be seductive, but dangerously so.  “What I run into most often with Iberian horses, in general, is that, because they have a talent for piaffe, or can demonstrate something that mimics piaffe, most of them have been schooled in it too early,” he explains. “Often, they are doing it before they have lead changes and before they are through from behind and up in their backs -- before they have the power for it.

“Because they are round and more compact, they can mimic that roundness that we work so hard to get in Warmbloods, but it’s not really there,” he continues. That can ruin some things, like lead changes, that need to be part of the horse’s foundation, from the standpoints of physical strength and training.

“The question for me is, do they struggle with changes or is it that they’ve been collected too early and, therefore, are struggling with changes?” Dan asks. He would love to answer that question by having several 3-year-olds to work with from the beginning to see whether, if trained in the proper sequence, they would have the challenges he often sees in their lower level work.

Be Patient

The solution, he notes, is to work with the Spanish horses in the same training scale used for Warmbloods and any other breed in dressage. “Be patient,” Dan stresses. “You may be buying a horse with great talent for piaffe down the road, but don’t let them offer it. There’s no point in getting a ‘trick’ that’s due down the road if you can’t get the ‘trick’ that’s appropriate to their current level.”

The excitement riders feel when a horse, of any breed, “offers” a movement is a sore subject for Dan. “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, my horse was so good. He just did 10 one-tempis down the rail.’ You may be excited about that, but if you didn’t ask for it, then your horse did an evasion. It’s no different from rearing or anything else you didn’t ask for. It’s a slippery slope.”

With the Spanish breeds, it’s sometimes tension that leads to what looks like piaffe. “They arch their back and, combined with their big round neck, it looks like piaffe, but the problem is it’s coming from a tight place and sometimes it’s really a spook.”

In Spanish horses as dressage prospects, Dan looks for the same things he looks for in a Warmblood dressage prospect, in particular a long, ground covering trot in which the rib cage swings side to side. It’s not the easiest trot to sit, Dan notes, just as it isn’t in a Warmblood. But it’s the trot that represents big movements powered by the well-conditioned muscles needed for dressage.

“A smooth trot that rides like you’re sitting in a golf cart is another thing that can get you into trouble,” says Dan. “You’ve got to build the big movements to build the big muscles to get the real collection you’ll need later. The tight back that produces a smooth ride doesn’t help with that.”