A horse taught to do a bad piaffe has a serious problem as it is difficult to overcome and replace this with the correct movement. That is what I faced with training my gray PRE (Pura Raza Español) stallion, Apagon VII.
I got Apagon, or Foka as we call him, four years ago when he was 5 years old. I traded a 2-year-old colt for Foka because he was very beautiful, and I thought he was the right age to begin serious work. He was imported from Costa Rica and comes from good Spanish Miguel-Cardenas bloodlines. But soon I realized why I was able to get him the way I did. Normally, I would have had to pay a lot more. Foka was extremely nervous and frightened and he had no confidence. His hyper temperament was like that of a very distracted child. He did not know how to walk, trot or canter calmly. He had been taught to do what Mexicans call baile or dance, which is a trot in place where the horse stamps wildly without cadence. Those who know better, call this false piaffe la maquina de coser (sewing machine) or picar cebollas (chopping onions). To learn how to do this, horses are placed on crossties in a box and then beaten, which is traumatizing enough, but Foka had also been ridden in the ring as a bullfighting horse, which added to his fears. When I first got him, he was so frightened that he would shake and urinate whenever I came near him. As you can imagine, normal training becomes a big problem with horses that have been trained like this.
I follow the classical training scale—rhythm, suppleness, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection. But the first step in Foka’s rehabilitation was to get him to relax and just walk. I put him in a snaffle bit and side reins to get him to lower his head, which he carried very high. But he was so crazy, I would get frustrated and would go in the house and say to my wife, “I am going to return that horse, send him back to where he came from.” But I knew his behavior came from being so badly treated, so I kept on trying.
My technique was to give him confidence. I worked him five days a week and by the summer, his reactions had improved. There was an apple tree in the front of my yard. I would say to Foka, “Buenos dias,” and ride him out to the tree. He would trot only in a tense way, but each time I would give him an apple as a gift, not as a reward for doing anything. When there were no longer any apples on the tree, my wife bought them at the store or I gave him peppermints.
After six months, I began to see a difference. Foka was more relaxed and confident. Now he walked to the tree. My technique here was pure half halts and releasing the reins to encourage relaxation, getting him to relax and seek a connection with the bit. After another six months, in 2008, Foka was 6 and getting stronger. He began to go with more cadence in his trot and with more looseness. I began teaching him the Spanish walk, first raising the front leg and then walking him forward a little so he would put his hind legs under him. That also helped make him more confident as it was something new he could do. Because of the way he had been previously traumatized, the most difficult movement to teach Foka was piaffe. It was so difficult to get rid of the sewingmachine movement that, once again, I went into the house and told my wife I was going to send him back. But I didn’t. I tried again and struggled a lot.
I began by asking Foka for half steps, and if he went back to doing the sewing machine, I had him go forward. This was important to do because if I just stopped him (when he did it wrong) he would think that he had done the right thing. For that reason, when he did the sewing machine, I gave him an out by sending him forward. If he did it again, I sent him forward again. It took a long time. Even once he learned a correct piaffe, if he got excited for some reason, he would remember the sewing machine and quickly go back to that. But slowly he improved.
After another year and a half, he had sufficient strength and brio (spirit) to do more advanced movements. By combining piaffe and Spanish walk, I taught him the passage. Then I began teaching him the levade, where a horse needs a great deal of strength and reunion (collection). Then I began teaching him the capriole in long reins. A horse has to have a lot of strength and willingness to do the capriole, and not many horses are capable of it, but it was easy for Foka as he had both.
He did his first exhibition at the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2008. At first, he was not accustomed to seeing so many people and the noise of the crowd, but little by little, he began to relax and from then on we gave many exhibitions, both small and large, in a variety of venues in the Midwest. Foka was supposed to go with me and my other horses to the 2010 World Equestrian Games to perform with the Mario Contreras exhibition group but, at the last minute, he had to stay home because of an injury. Early in 2011, we were well received by a big crowd at an exhibition I gave with Foka in long reins at the Illinois Horse Fair in Springfield.
What I’ve learned is that Foka, by nature, is a powerful, intelligent horse that had been traumatized, so I had to work hard to reach him. My technique was to have a lot of patience and treat him with affection. I had to create a relationship with him so that he would trust me, and it worked.
Chon Macedo performs mounted and long-line exhibitions with Foka and other baroque horses, combining classical dressage movements and airs above the ground with the music, dance and traditional costumes of Mexico. He comes from a dynasty of traditional horsemen originating in Jalisco, Mexico; at age 9, he taught a burro the Spanish walk. Macedo is based at Ran Chon, his farm located near Monee, Illinois.