Q: I'm an amateur dressage rider and have been riding dressage (school horses) for about eight years, schooling Second Level. I adore Baroque breeds, particularly Andalusians, and am thinking of buying one. What should I look for in a Baroque horse? —Casey Hall of Fredericksburg, Virginia
A: I think choosing a Baroque horse for your first purchase is an excellent choice. They are known for their level-headed temperament, rideability, not to mention their comfortable gaits and good looks. As a general rule, Baroque breeds have certain tendencies that I take into consideration when I'm looking to buy a horse of that breed. The qualities I look for are rideability, temperament, gaits and conformation.
The first thing I look for when purchasing any horse is the quality of its gaits. Let's begin with the walk. In the walk I look for a clear, four-beat rhythm with over-reach. Spanish horses are known to have little range of motion in the walk and therefore tend to have little over-reach. The horse should at the very least track up (hind-foot prints stepping into the front-foot prints). Ideally, you would like to see the hind-foot prints surpass the front-foot prints with room to spare. If you plan on showing, the quality of the walk is very important as it is almost always a double coefficient.
Baroque horses are usually very well-suited for collected work such as piaffe and passage. Therefore you need to look for a horse that shows the ability to lengthen and extend in the trot, not one that runs and gets quicker as it goes. Most Baroque horses tend to have more knee action. Look for one that not only moves up but out as well, and one that also has the ability to lengthen in his frame.
Many Spanish horses tend to paddle with their front legs, especially in the trot. Paddling is when the arc of the flight of the foot doesn't swing straight forward, but rather wide and to the outside before landing straight in front of the horse. It's important to be sure that both front legs rotate at the same rate of speed or the horse can look uneven, especially in the extended trot. If you are looking at a horse that paddles, pay attention to how much torque is being put on the knee and fetlock as the horse travels. Most horses paddle to some degree. Only when it's severe do you need to consult your trainer and veterinarian and discuss possible long-term soundness issues that may or may not result from the horse's movement.
In the canter the conformation of the Baroque horse is conducive for performing collected movements such as pirouettes. Baroque breeds have a tendency to have a more extravagant front leg and less active hind legs. You will need to look for a horse where the front and hind end match. If the front legs have more knee action, ideally, you would like to see the horse articulate its hocks accordingly.
In the canter some Baroque horses can look a little hectic. Once again, you need to be sure that the canter has a clear three-beat rhythm, and that the horse not only moves up, but out (covering ground) as well.
Now that I have found a horse with three good gaits, I take a look at the horse's overall conformation. Does he have straight legs? How are his feet and does he land flat when traveling? I find Spanish horses tend to grow a lot of toe and a longer, more narrow foot, or more often, a very upright, narrow foot making them straight through the pastern with only little flexion through the fetlock. If you have any questions about the horse's feet, you should consult your farrier and make sure he is comfortable managing the horse in question.
In evaluating the horse's neck, take into consideration how long or short it is. It should be in proportion to his body. I have often found short thick necks can prove to be difficult because the horse's conformation does not allow for the ability to lengthen the frame easily, which can affect the overall suppleness and elasticity of the horse. (To read more about encouraging Baroque horses to stretch, click here.)
Also, ask yourself if the horse breaks in the correct place at his poll. It is important to find a horse with correct conformation. If a horse doesn't break at the correct place in the neck, it can appear too deep and visually has very little room for error. For example, the rider will constantly be trying to ask the horse to reach and seek out the bit, and it can make it difficult to hide any adjustments to the frame without looking like the horse is behind the vertical. It can also have the opposite effect with a horse not looking round enough.
If the horse is still a stallion, which many are (due to their docile temperaments), I take into consideration how thick his neck is, especially through the throat latch area and along his topline. If a horse is too thick through the throat latch, it can make it difficult for the horse to be comfortable when on the bit and for the rider to have a correct connection.
Unlike other breeds, Spanish horses, especially stallions, often have a large crest, which can hinder dressage performance and can even fall to one side if it becomes too large.
Kristina Harrison is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist. In 2003 she won a Pan American Games team gold medal. She has ridden the PRE Rociero XV to numerous Grand Prix successes. Based in Burbank, Calif., she operates Angele Farms.
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