Q: I have noticed that Andalusians and Lusitanos give you a much lighter rein contact than most warmbloods. In fact, I don’t really feel any contact in the reins at all. I feel I can shorten the reins as much as I want without ever finding resistance or a limit. How do I know that my Andalusian is on the bit, not just curling up and hiding behind the bit?
Mario Contreras: That is a wonderful question and a big issue with these breeds. This type of overcollection or evading contact behind the bit leads to many other problems, such as poor transitions, quality of gait and the quality of contact required for upper-level movements.
To start correctly, have some sort of way to be able to watch yourself—such as in mirrors, having someone on the ground to watch you or setting up a camera to take videos of your ride. If you can see when your horse is correct, it will be easier to feel when he is correct.
First, you need to establish that your horse meets you at the bit. Most people have a tendency to pull a horse to contact when, in fact, the proper way is to drive the horse forward into the contact. With the Iberian breeds in particular this element is critical. I constantly remind my students to maintain a steady and straight rein contact and to keep their hands out in front of them—almost touching the mane. This is a great way to train your hands not to pull back on the horse’s mouth. Getting a horse to be on the bit isn’t done through rein contact, but rather through the body being loose and supple.
One of the exercises I use a lot is riding transitions. Depending on your horse’s level of training, ride walk–halt, walk–trot or walk–canter transitions, incorporating rein-backs in the downward transitions. The downward portion of the transition is just as important as the upward portion. When you ask your horse for a downward transition, it is critical to continue using your legs and to continue driving your horse forward into the transition. If you do this correctly, without pulling, you will be starting to teach your horse how to “sit” on his hind legs. Executing a correct downward transition will assist you in the upward transition, encouraging your horse to spring off his hind legs, which are now correctly underneath him, instead of pulling himself forward with his front legs. Using half halts correctly through these exercises will help to balance your horse’s energy when sending him forward.
When using such exercises, it is important to start with the basics. I always tell my students to stick to the Pyramid of Training. Before you can successfully ask a horse for collection (the top of the Pyramid of Training), you have to make sure that his muscles are correctly developed. In order to build these muscles, you need to use exercises that encourage your horse to stretch for the bit (part of the basic building blocks of the Pyramid of Training). By opening the angle of the neck (stretching), you teach your horse to seek the connection to the bit. The Iberian breeds tend to hide behind the vertical because it is easier for them than stretching toward the bit and holding the correct frame. By building the proper muscles, however, you make this more attainable for you and your Iberian horse. At the beginning, I personally spend a lot of time with long-and-low work at the walk and trot. In order for any horse to be on the bit, you need to ensure that his hind legs are working underneath him and that he is pushing from back to front.
Again, I’d like to emphasize that for the Iberian breeds the stretching is even more critical than for warmbloods as the Iberian horses can be super round in front and strung out in the back, giving you a false sense of connection. When your horse is correctly on the bit, you should have a sense of elasticity and impulsion. When your horse is not connected, it feels like you are out of control, with the horse feeling too strong or too light. When the horse is truly in a relaxed, working state on the bit, you will have a sense of control over his whole body from the hind legs to the angle of the neck, which is where the correct frame will begin.
Mario Contreras is a USDF bronze and silver medalist. As head trainer for Medieval Times, he has been in charge of training horses and riders to perform in all aspects of 11th-century reenactments at the Chicago castle since 1997. He was awarded Horseman of the Year 2011 by the International Andalusian and Lusitano Horse Association and is based in Chicago, Illinois (mchorsetraining.com).