Friday, January 13, 2012


My personal quest for a USDF Gold Medal on an Iberian horse took on a particular sense of urgency when I made a trip to Spain in 2001, in search of an exceptional PRE prospect with which to climb the levels and someday reach my goal of competing at Grand Prix. I had decided to follow my heart and buy the horse I had dreamed of since childhood. At 52, I knew that time was closing in on my productive riding life, and it was the moment to pull out the stops and reach for my goal. The making of a Grand Prix horse from “scratch” is an expensive, risky, long term business, with no guarantees. While some horses can achieve a portion of the GP test, the animal that can master the entire Grand Tour must be an exceptional athlete. I figured I had just one shot. With the help of friends I found a remarkable young horse then aged 3 ½, imported him, and changed his name to Fino. But only slowly did I begin to come to terms with the realities of becoming successful in open Dressage with a breed of horse most “experts” of the time deemed unsuitable for the discipline.

I had already earned my Bronze and Silver Medal scores back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, on warmbloods, and was no stranger to the show circuit. There had been a few trail blazers in the US before us, horses such as Temerario VII and Gaucho III, to encourage me in my aspirations. But some of my professional colleagues were so offended by my “defection” that they stopped speaking to me for a time. Had I known then the arduous uphill climb I was in for, I still would have undertaken it. Spanish horses, Andalusians, PRE’s, whatever you want to call them these days, have been my abiding passion for as long as I can remember. But… as I was to discover as I took my stallion to clinics and shows, he was definitely considered a strange duck, belittled and patronized sometimes, but also the object of intense curiosity in the community. Those early years were a time for learning patience.

I have just returned from that annual celebration of the US dressage community, the 2011 USDF Convention and Symposium in San Diego, where, 10 amazing years later, I received Fino’s and my Gold Medal. But I was again reminded that the sport, at least at the highest levels, is still overwhelmingly the domain of the European Warmblood. Yes, I know. Fuego, Evento , and Invasor have burst onto the international competitive scene with extraordinary brilliance, and no one could be more thrilled by their triumphs than myself. Still, in a roster of top horses spanning two days at our national symposium, there were only two Iberians present.

However, in the lower echelons of the sport, the Iberian horses, Spanish, Lusitano, crossbred and partbred, have made tremendous inroads into competition, finding enthusiastic acceptance with trainers and some open minded judges as an ideal mount for juniors, amateur riders, and anyone lacking the athleticism or unwilling to subject their body to physical abuse in order to ride the huge warmblood gaits. Some are even willing to concede that there are more and more Iberians being bred today that possess the gaits and elasticity to succeed quite well in the Dressage ring. Indeed, Iberian horse enthusiasts raised such a hue and cry about the unfairness of pinning horses with huge gaits over those with more correct training, that in 2010 the US National Dressage Committee produced new tests that reduced the impact of the gaits and increased the importance of the rider’s skills in the outcome of the scores. Now, that’s a good step in the right direction!
I won’t say that the dominance of the warmblood has ended, but certainly it is a positive juncture for anyone wanting to promote and campaign their Iberian in Dressage. Our horses are seen more and more often, and their popularity will continue to increase.

  1. So what should you look for in evaluating an Iberian Dressage prospect? Many things come to mind, but these are my top picks:
    Choose a horse with THREE correct, pure and elastic GAITS. When most people think of Dressage gaits, the huge extended trot with loads of suspension comes to mind. This is not wrong. But a 4 beat walk with correct cadence, good over track and NO lateral tendencies , and a pure 3 beat canter with elasticity, jump and bascule are even more important, because these two gaits are much harder to improve than the trot and much easier to ruin as well. The horse must possess a powerful hind quarter and loin with the capacity to both drive and carry, and a free and open shoulder with reach as well as lift.

  2. Seek out the horse that is unhesitatingly forward-thinking, that has a steady but energetic temperament (not spooky), and is compliant and trainable with a strong work ethic. Upper Level Dressage is hard work. Many faults can be overcome by a horse with heart and “try.” Also, it is often more fruitful to start with a horse with minimal training, than to attempt to retrain an animal already confirmed in another discipline.

  3. Pay particular attention to the conformation and looseness of the horse’s BACK. Many Iberians’ backs are very short and curvilinear, as compared to the warmblood, whose back is flatter, longer and more uphill. This is important, because dressage saddles are made for the warmblood market. Most, if not all, dressage saddles are built on a tree that is flatter and longer than the usual Iberian back, making them susceptible to bridging on our horses, no matter how cleverly padded. Saddle fit has an enormous impact on a horse’s ability to relax and properly use its back, and if your saddle bridges, your horse’s back will tighten in self defense. Probably the single most common negative comment the Judges level against our horses is that they fail to use their backs properly, so attention to saddle fit is doubly important. For hard to fit horses, the Phoenix Vogue Softree saddle by Enlightened Equitation has given me remarkable results without compromising rider position.

  4. Buy a prospect bred from PROVEN Dressage competitors with show records, not just exciting claims. Performance is inherited. Do not let color influence your decision, and of course, chose conformation that will predispose to long term soundness, because bringing a horse to Grand Prix takes years. Pretty is as pretty does.

  5. Avoid importation if you can. Buy a US bred horse, or a horse that has already successfully been imported. There are knowledgeable US breeders who can offer you a horse with the necessary qualities. Importation is costly, dangerous, stressful, and it can take a year or more for some horses to adjust to changes in management. Whether or not you decide to import, observe carefully how the horse is managed, and mimic as closely as possible those conditions for at least 6 months. Make changes slowly. The more sensitive the horse, the more important this is.

Take great care in the choice of your trainer or coach. Some German or Dutch trained trainers are practitioners of Rolkur, (which is anathema to our breeds) or at the very least, they may not understand how very different the balance and temperament, and therefore the training process of the Iberian, is. Too many trainers mistake running a horse off its balance for true impulsion originating in an active hindquarter with deeply bending joints. AS A RULE Iberians lack the steady rhythm and cadence of the warmblood, and need to be taught this essential skill. Pushing them ever more forward simply results in turning them into terrified little sewing machine movers with tight backs and no elasticity. Very often more can be accomplished toward collection AND extension with our breeds by first teaching the horse to go slowly and connecting the back by using many, many transitions, and through the judicious use of Piaf and Passage as well. In my humble experience the tried and true principles of Classical Equitation which originated with our horses centuries ago, still serve them best. It may seem odd, but it is not as easy to find a true classically based trainer now as it once was, so keep searching until you find one.
Last, be sure that you thoroughly understand the requirements of each level, and do not be so eager to climb up the levels that you attempt to show your horse at a higher test than it is ready for. Many Iberians will have better results at the middle and higher levels where collection comes to be valued as much as extension, but that does not give you license to show at say, Second Level, before your horse and you have mastered correct connection, relaxation, impulsion and cadence. You will only ultimately slow or derail your progress by creating a hole in your training that you will have to go back and repair before proceeding again. If you have a horse more talented for collection than extension, you might consider waiting until he has mastered the requirements of Second or Third Level (which means, of course, that he has mastered the basics as well) before campaigning him seriously, so as to not become discouraged at the lower levels where lengthening of the gaits in a horizontal frame is at a premium. Remember, there is no substitute for correct, patient, methodical training in the creation of a successful horse. The old adage, “Go fast slowly” should be your mantra as you pursue your quest. Good Luck, and may you too strike GOLD!

Frances and Fino achieved their USDF Gold Medal in 2011. She is 62 and he, 13. Along with a nine year career in Open Dressage, they have also won IALHA National or Reserve National Championships in Hunt Seat, Show Hack, Dressage Hack, Morphology, Doma Vaquera Alta, and a National Top 5 in Best Movement. Fino’s offspring inherit his tremendous athleticism, beauty and heart. He is a 2011 Alliance Significant Sire.

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