Q: Do baroque horses need just as much forwardness as warmbloods? I own an Andalusian mare, but feel that every time I try to collect her, her trot and walk simply get slow but not elevated and collected. How forward should I ride her to develop elevated collection, especially at the walk and trot? How do I know the forwardness is not too quick? —Name withheld by request
A: It appears that you are applying a method generally practiced with big-moving warmbloods. The current approach to collection consists of riding very forward, then reducing these big strides into shorter ones by successive half halts. If the horse has a natural rebound, this system can produce a higher, more suspended movement, but it doesn’t work well with Iberian horses not born with this natural rebound. It can nevertheless be developed by an adequate method.
Iberian horses have economical gaits that shorten easily without elevation. My own Grand Prix horse, Orion, can jog like a Western horse, but he can also produce overtracking extensions in a slow cadence and brilliant passage and piaffe. As British Olympian Carl Hester says, “Great Grand Prix horses often look very ordinary in their warm-ups.” There is no need for a display of enormous trots.
Iberian horses have considerable natural adjustability and they will develop any form of the gaits you want as long as you train it in a manner adapted to their biomechanics. If you push them forward too soon in the progression with too much energy, they will become rushed. If you then hope to transform that running stride into a higher step by shortening it from front to back as a way to get collection, you will just get the flatter trot that is frustrating you.
The majority of Iberian horses only start to offer suspension in extensions and passage. They elevate their stride easily by starting from slow collection, but not from overtempo. The late Portuguese riding master Nuno Oliveira always insisted on the importance of working horses in walk by doing endless gymnastic exercises with slow, energetic steps. It is the fluid sequence of these judicious patterns associated with the delicacy of the rider’s aids that foster real collection, not hustling or compressing the horse.
The work must be done in a tempo that suits the horse (strides just a little bit longer than his collected trot), with enough activity but without damaging his balance or cadence. The slower “school trot” will emerge from all the exercises done in that soft working trot: shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, half passes on curves and straight lines and halts and rein-backs with frequent variations of gait between slightly bigger and smaller strides. The same work must be done in canter with many transitions from trot to canter (to increase the engagement) and canter to trot (to increase the scope of the shoulders). An active counter-canter practiced forward in the bend of the turn, transitions into trot and the poll at the highest point with a loose contact will help produce impressive medium trots. Eventually an extension in a slow cadence will emerge and transform your mare.
That is the classical progression. When you develop a good school trot with a round movement, and a slower cadence in a very light contact, the horse can learn a soft form of passage, asked as an upward, forward and slow gait, that is not demanded backward from the medium trot. From there you will be able to get any trot you want: higher, slower, longer, but always engaged and with a full gesture of the front legs. The name of the game is the adjustability of the gait developed in a good cadence and self-carriage not by forcing an overactive horse into a constant big trot. If you watch British Olympians Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester, you will notice that they prefer very quiet work to maintain Valegro’s balance with the least amount of hand aids. Carl affirms that his champion started with “a very ordinary walk and trot” that was developed slowly until his amazing quality emerged. You can obtain this result by working patiently with numerous transitions, turns and exercises, letting the horse understand his job.
Iberian horses “invented” classical dressage, and this is the method that suits them. The care you give to the beginning of the training will pay you back in droves at the end. It may take a lot longer to get Iberian horses to impress in lower level classes, but if the foundation work has been done right, they will learn the difficult movements very quickly and reach the Grand Prix much faster than other breeds. Correct foundation work does not consist of endless repetition of simplistic 20-meter circles while maintaining the perfect posture of the show ring, but by the practice of many small exercises that challenge the horse’s balance and intelligence. Even if the horse is not performing those movements perfectly, he will quickly improve. Don’t be scared of making mistakes. They will evaporate with no-pressure repetitions.
“Haste slowly” is a good motto for dressage training.
Jean-Phillippe Giacomini was born in France and started his dressage career in Portugal, studying with Nuno Oliveira and Jose Athayde at the Portuguese National Stud of Alter Real. A popular clinician, he and his wife, Shelley, own Baroque Farms USA, a breeding and training farm in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.