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Iberian breeds are impressing at every dressage level in the UK and even have their own British Dressage championships. Inherently tough and typically level-headed, the Portuguese Pura Sangre Lusitano (PSL) and Spain’s Pura Raza Española (PRE), commonly known as Lusitanos and Andalusians, are equally popular as all-round riding companions.

A buying trip to southern Europe may give you access to the cream of the Iberian crop. However, these spectacular horses are a product of their environment; born and bred in a relatively hotter, drier climate and raised under different management systems to our own. How will your new purchase fare once home on UK soil?

Good doers

“A number of my clients have Spanish horses and it’s a breed that I like,” says Sam Cutts MRCVS of Hook Norton Veterinary Group. “These horses tend to be compact and trainable. Their less exuberant action can mean that they suffer from fewer ‘wear and tear’ injuries than bigger moving warmbloods.”

“Spanish horses tend to thrive on very little,” says Sam. “The grass is often poor in Spain, compared with ours. While we rarely see laminitis, it’s important to feed on a ‘less is more’ basis. Start with a fibre and oil diet, rather than too many sugars, and go from there. We sometimes see allergic skin disease, so bear in mind that a Spanish horse may react dramatically to fly bites.”

How do management methods compare?

“The Spanish are very strict with their horses and tend to manage them in big groups,” says Sam. “Almost all male horses over there are entire, yet keeping a stallion on a private UK yard can be problematic. Think carefully before buying a stallion and consider having him castrated before you bring him over if you’re unsure about managing him.

“Castration won’t have as much effect on an adult horse’s behaviour as it will on a youngster,” she adds. “If a stallion is managed well, his good manners should continue — but don’t wait until bad behaviour starts before castrating him.”

When buying in Spain, Sam recommends finding a local sport horse vet who’ll send pre-purchase exam results to your own vet.

“A set of X-rays is also a good idea,” she says. “There are no current blood tests required to move a horse to the UK, but have him screened for strangles as there is a high incidence of the disease in some parts of Spain. You should also check with your vet about the tick-borne infection piroplasmosis, the presence of which may be a problem, as well as a cause of complications with ongoing exportation to certain countries.

“A horse can travel here on an ITAHC [intra trade animal health certificate],” adds Sam. “Ask the export company for help with paperwork and arrange to isolate the new arrival at your yard for at least three weeks. Ideally, speak to an expert who really knows these horses before buying.”

Sherene Rahmatallah of Sussex Lusitanos is a long-term breed specialist and has facilitated many imports from Portugal.

“The climate in Portugal varies with the region — it is quite wet and cool in the north, but hotter and drier in the central area,” she says. “In our experience, Lusitanos settle very well in the UK. But it is important to understand the management of the horse you are buying so you can avoid any sudden changes to how he is kept.

“If you are importing a young Lusitano, take care during his formative years to school him in his own natural balance,” adds Sherene, who emphasises that the breed is very late to mature physically. “Gradually, as he reaches full maturity — which may not be until he is 12 years old — he can work to his full capacity. Rushing him before this can lead to physical and mental problems.”

A glass half full

According to AWCF master farrier Ben Benson, Iberian horses must be shod according to breed conformation and the job they are intended for.

“Their feet are specific to breed type — very upright,” he explains. “The position of the pedal bone in the hoof capsule is slightly higher than that of the native type or thoroughbred, so it’s important to treat them differently. The regular shoeing rules don’t apply.

“For dressage, we ask the horse to take weight on his quarters and bring his feet further underneath himself,” adds Ben, who is farrier to some of the UK’s top Iberian dressage horses. “A huge neck and crest with small hindquarters means Iberians can struggle with stability. A shoe that’s a size or a size and a half bigger will help.”

Ben explains that Iberian breeds typically have quite straight and close-set hindlegs.

“With long, slender legs and a lot of muscle mass at the top, an Iberian is built like a wine glass with a small base — any little imbalance and it topples easily,” he explains. “This creates a huge amount of torque and twist. While the shoulder can absorb this torque in front, it is held in mechanically behind and can cause hock and sacroiliac joint problems.

“The more mediolateral [side to side] stability and the bigger the platform the shoe creates, the better. A shoe that doesn’t grip too much is preferable if the horse is working on artificial surfaces, as this dissipates pressure and is less likely to cause joint and soft tissue problems.

“Foot hygiene is also vital, as upright hooves with deep frog clefts can hold bacteria,” he adds. “Thrush is common in muggy environments and when the horse is stabled for longer periods.”

Farrier Dan McDonald DipWCF shoes a number of Lusitanos. “Their hoof quality is often amazing, with great thickness of wall which is good for nailing shoes on,” he says. “But their feet are used to consistent dryness rather than our wet-dry-wet conditions, so hoof problems such as seedy toe and white line disease can be a problem.

“Imported horses usually arrive with shoes that offer a lot of width and support, but this can be impractical with our muddy fields and sheep wire, so shoes can be lost,” adds Dan. “The main thing is that a farrier does not try to turn Lusitano hooves into something they’re not, which compromises the feet. Try to find a farrier who knows the breed.”

‘I’ve completely fallen in love with them’

Alice Hurley produces and competes Iberian horses at Karen Bourdon’s Oxfordshire yard and rides Karen’s Spanish-bred PRE stallions Deseado CCV (pictured, below) and Resuelto XX at small tour level. Having trained in Spain and accompanied prospective buyers there on shopping trips, she knows the potential pitfalls of importing a horse.

“It’s easy to down one too many glasses of wine at the stud while the horse you’re trying is tacked up, and not notice that he is far greener than you imagined,” says Alice, who describes the management style in Andalusia as particularly old-school compared with the more modern methods used further north.

“Some people see a horse in 40°C heat, perhaps a stallion handled by a couple of strong lads or ridden in traditional Spanish style, and find that his temperament changes completely when he moves to our cool climate.

“We always do a full MOT when horses arrive here,” she says, adding that most cope well with life in the UK. “Iberian horses are incredibly good doers — I’ve seen some there fed little more than broccoli ends and they still look amazing. We’re very careful how we introduce feed and we give them plenty of forage.

“I came from a warmblood background and was quite dismissive of the Iberian breeds, but I’ve completely fallen in love with them,” she admits.

Ref Horse & Hound; 21 June 2018