Is the Training Scale Fit for Iberian Horses?

Matt McLaughlin answers this reader question.
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The Training Scale is an important guideline regardless of the breed of the horse. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - arnd.nl
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The Training Scale is an important guideline regardless of the breed of the horse. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - arnd.nl )

Q: Do you apply the Training Scale when working with Andalusians? As far as I know, the Training Scale was invented for warmbloods, who seem to be more stretchy in their gaits and frames. I find that few Andalusians are trained to show correct rhythm, contact and impulsion. Are these qualities necessary at all when working with this type of breed? If so, how do you teach your Andalusian rhythm, contact and impulsion? —Name withheld by request

A: In my work, the Training Scale is always fluctuating. I work on each element every day, and the lines between the elements may get blurred. I constantly ask myself which quality needs to be stronger, e.g., if I need more straightness or a better connection. The Training Scale is an important guideline regardless of the breed of the horse. However, when working with Andalusians or any baroque-horse breed, there are two big points you need to focus on: First, it is essential to watch the tempo and how it affects rhythm. Remember, tempo is simply the footfalls or beats per minute, whereas rhythm is the overall quality of the gait, including engagement, regularity and clarity of the gait as they are defined in the rules. Second, it is crucial to control the base of the horse’s neck. If you neglect these two points, chances are great that your baroque horse will never live up to his true potential.  

The reason for the importance of neck control and control of the tempo and rhythm lies in the conformation of the baroque-horse breeds. Most have a neck where the base comes higher out of the withers than in the typical warmblood. This high-set neck makes it harder for the horse to engage and lift his back. While Andalusians have great talent for collecting—they are extremely athletic horses—they often work too quick and short. This saved their lives and their riders’ lives in the bullfighting arena, for which they were originally bred (the more phlegmatic warmbloods would not have done well in this discipline). But if your goal is to achieve correct collection as required in modern dressage competitions, you must focus on slowing down your horse’s hind legs so that you can start working on increasing the length of stride, all the while maintaining your horse’s impulsion. Warmbloods usually require the opposite; you must quicken their hind legs to obtain this.

To achieve a slowing down of the hind legs, which ultimately will give you more engagement/suspension/airtime, you must make sure you have a good control of the base of the neck. Here I don’t mean roundness in the jaw. I never focus on the second and third vertebrae. I also don’t mean to apply rollkur nor do I mean to ride the horse long and low for extended periods of time, but rather I mean to slightly lower the first 12 inches in front of the withers.

Once you are able to lower the base of the neck, you can start to encourage your horse to bring up not just the neck, but the neck including the shoulders. Then, the back of the horse will come up, his pelvis rotates more easily, the half halts will come through better and you’ll achieve a slowing of tempo producing a better overall rhythm. When the horse learns to reach out of his shoulders and has correct forward intent, his gaits will show more expression, not just knee action, which the Andalusians are famous for.

Riding on a circle is a wonderful exercise that makes it easier for the horse to lower the base of his neck. Horses tend to lower the neck when being bent correctly. I believe this is because the bend of the neck is coming from the base of the neck in front of the shoulder instead of just bending out closer to the jaw. When the neck bends this way, it makes it easier for rider and horse to lower the base of the neck. Also, the lift of the rib cage achieved by the bend will lower the neck. Adding a shoulder-fore, shoulder-in or leg yield helps with this as you are trying to develop the same control off the circle. However, you must make sure to control the tempo. Keep the tempo steady and slower without losing impulsion and maintain clear rhythm when going from one exercise to the next or from one school figure to the next. When your horse is younger or still green and you still mostly post the trot, you can dictate the tempo by slowing your posting. Don’t follow the horse’s quicker tempo. The same applies to the sitting trot if you and your horse are more advanced. Circles can develop into shoulder-fore and shoulder-in to help slow the horse’s tempo and develop better straightness as a positive side effect.

Relaxation is more of a byproduct of correct work. I usually don’t focus on relaxation alone. The actual German translation of relaxation (Losgelassenheit) implies more of a loose, swinging back, the quality of which then travels to the rest of the body, including the mind. If the horse’s back is tense, there is no relaxation. If the neck is held up instead of slightly dropped at the base, there is no relaxation. Relaxation is an all-inclusive state. When the contact or connection is based on impulsion and straightness, the horse has relaxation in his body and mind as well as a constructive tempo and rhythm. They all tie into each other. However, as mentioned above, when working with horses who have a high-set neck, controlling the base of the neck and working the horse in a slow tempo are key to opening all the other doors to the Training Scale.

Andalusians are famous for their smooth trot. This is because they tend to hold their backs and move only their legs (knee action). However, once you are able to control your horse’s tempo and get the right connection, he will literally develop more bounce and swing in his back. Then you will feel more movement through your horse’s back.

I’d like to emphasize how intertwined the elements of the Training Scale are. One leads to the next but also depends on it. Working with your Andalusian is like a give-and-take game. For example, engagement is tied to impulsion. If you slow the tempo to get more engagement or air time with the legs, but you feel you lose impulsion by doing this, you might have to ask your horse to go more forward. If he is going too much forward, going too quickly, you’ll need to address the tempo again by using straightening exercises such as shoulder-in. If you feel your horse is going more forward automatically, without you having to drive him while keeping his impulsion and tempo, you will get real engagement and hence real collection as the ultimate byproduct of this give-and-take game. 

1a Matt McLaughlin by Heather Black

Matt McLaughlin is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. He graduated from the USDF “L” Education Program with distinction and is awaiting the next ‘r’ judge program. Holding a 5-star rating on Centerline Scores, he has trained multiple horses to Grand Prix, including baroque breeds and warmbloods. He currently trains, competes and provides instruction at his farm in Saint Cloud, Florida.   

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