Why Iberian horses are booming in Britain more than ever *H&H Plus*

  • We’ve seen Iberians excelling in international dressage with Spanish and Portuguese riders, but they are growing in popularity with amateurs in the UK, too. Tessa Waugh charts the growing interest

    Thirty years ago, there were very few Iberian horses in Britain and if you wanted to ride one, you needed to travel to Portugal or Spain. More recently, British riders have become increasingly interested in Iberians and many more are being imported and bred here in the UK. There are now several competitions exclusively for them in dressage and showing, and numbers of competitors are rising in both disciplines. So why are Iberians drawing such plaudits and how do they differ from other breeds?

    Virginia Draper (pictured) traces her interest back seven years, to a trekking holiday in Andalusia. The holiday started a love a air with Diamante, the PRE (Pura Raza Española, or Pure Breed Spanish) stallion she rode on that occasion and several more times when she returned to the area.

    “His owner, Donna, always joked that I should take him home because it would be cheaper than all the holidays,” she laughs, and three years later she did.

    Diamante was 12 when he came to London and was stabled in Hackney close to Virginia’s home and the Lee Valley Riding Centre. It is testament to the versatility of the breed and the rapport he had with his owner that this foreign horse, born and bred in the Andalusian mountains, adapted so well to life in Britain.

    “He had never been in an arena and as a foal he lived in a garage with his mother,” Virginia explains.

    The two of them went on to have success in the show ring alongside TREC, dressage to music and horse agility. Diamante is currently the GBPRE (the organisation representing pure and part-bred Spanish horses in the UK) part-bred performance points champion of the UK for the second year running, and has been crowned the Foreign Breed Festival Shows national concours d’elegance champion. They are now competing in veteran classes and Diamante added reserve champion foreign breed at the Veteran Horse Society Championships in 2019.

    “I dreamed of doing one dressage test with him,” Virginia enthuses, “but he has let me do so much more.”

    Two years ago, Virginia consolidated her interest by buying another Iberian horse. Caprecossa is PRE crossed with Lusitano.

    “He is a hotter horse,” explains Virginia, “but the trait I notice in both Diamante and Caprecossa is that they like their humans a lot. The trust an Iberian gives their owner is incredible and that is what creates such successful partnerships.”

    Louise Baker is a more recent convert, having owned her Lusitano, Educado or Eddie, for four years (pictured below). Like Virginia, Louise’s first experience of riding an Iberian horse was abroad.

    “I went out to Portugal, and it was the first time I learned that horses could go sideways,” she recalls. “There are dressage centres out there where you can ride a flying change for the first time and piaffe and passage. I had only ridden riding club types and I was smitten.”

    Louise was blown away by the Lusitanos’ willingness and ability in the dressage arena.

    “They are so naturally capable because of the way they are built. We do unaffiliated dressage and some working equitation. My main focus is schooling and having fun.

    “It is all about riding something that is completely tuned into you, that you can trust and that is so easy and comfortable. Eddie is the only horse that makes me smile every time I ride.”

    Discovering a Lusitano horse has changed her attitude to other breeds: “I have ridden all kinds of horses but nothing matches the Iberians. They have incredible personalities and their attitude is always, ‘Where shall we go next?’ rather than, ‘Really? Make me do it.’”

    Louise’s friend Zoe Paramore started her Lusitano stud in Somerset with her much-admired black stallion Atinado and now has several clients who have bought Lusitanos which they keep at livery with Zoe.

    “It is fantastic to have so many Lusitanos in this small corner of Somerset,” she says. “We all enjoy watching each other progress and having fun together at competitions and other outings like fun and beach rides.”

    In Zoe’s experience, Lusitanos are more workable than Arabs, which she had previously.

    “Arabs can give you an argument but a Lusitano doesn’t,” she says. “But they are not like a cob that’s ridden once a week from the field; they are far too intelligent for that and will end up causing chaos. The ones here are not worked every day but they are worked regularly. You need to keep them occupied.”

    Charlotte Crocker-Westlake has been breeding Spanish horses since 2003 and is currently one of the biggest breeders of PRE horses in the UK. Like Virginia and Louise, her story began on holiday. Charlotte was 15 and had just lost her beloved Welsh section D when she first sat on a ve-year-old Spanish stallion.

    “My mum looked at me and said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile since Andy died,’” she remembers. “We made the crazy decision to buy him and bring him home. We went on to buy two mares and another stallion and never looked back.”

    Charlotte has done a lot with Iberian horses since then, not only breeding them but competing in dressage and showing as well.

    “There is a misconception that they are easy,” she cautions. “I’ve never known
    a nasty Spanish horse, but they can be complicated. They try a bit too hard and can get anxious when they don’t understand your commands. Also, they can be keen and people can misconstrue that. It is usually down to a lack of communication between horse and rider.”

    Charlotte adds that they are very stoical physically and will go on trying to give their best even when they are in pain. It is her view that demand has grown because of their increased prominence in the competition world.

    “A lot of professionals have taken them on as a pet and realised, ‘This horse is really fun to train and really bright,’ and wanted to do more with them,” she says. “I’ve seen more and more with some really fab riders which get them seen by a wider audience.”

    When it comes to training, Charlotte says, the main lesson is to encourage them to relax and slow down. There is also an important management detail.

    “They can be quite intolerant to sugar, so laminitis can be an issue,” cautions Charlotte. “In Spain they are used to picking at a bit of grass and not getting a lot to eat so it can be a problem if they are put onto a lush paddock in the UK.”

    Also, treatment of horses is different here.

    “In Spain they tend to rule with an iron fist and sometimes the stallions can get out of hand when they come to Britain where we are typically softer on our animals,” she says.

    Professional dressage rider and trainer Justine Armitage has ridden Iberians for 20 years, alongside her sister, Janine Pendlebury-Lee, who owns the Pen-Llyn Lusitano stud.

    “They were a military horse and then bred for bull fighting so they are extremely agile,” explains Justine, who cut a swathe through the competition on both her Iberian horses at the last Masters du Cheval Ibérique (MCI), a dressage league for Iberian horses in Europe.

    Justine says: “They begin life as a foal wanting to piaffe and passage, you just have to make them wait. They are so incredibly intelligent and eager to please that you only have to think about what you want them to do and they do it.”

    Director and studbook registrar of the British Association for the Purebred Spanish Horse (BAPSH) Mary McBryde has a long involvement with PRE horses and has watched interest grow. In 2009 overall registrations for the BAPSH were just 45, rocketing up to 182 in 2019, and this number continued to increase through 2020.
    Mary believes there are many qualities that make them attractive to amateur riders.

    “They have a great work ethic,” she says. “Some of the imported ones have had really difficult lives, but they don’t seem to lose their belief in people.”

    Their size also makes them an attractive prospect, says Mary, as the normal range of height is 15hh to 16.2hh.

    “Many warmbloods are huge and you don’t need a 17hh horse if you are 5ft 5in,” she says. “They give you a big ride for a smaller horse because of their lovely fronts, and even when they buck, they seem to buck in a comfortable way. Most of them jump extremely well, too.”

    The Lusitano Breed Society of Great Britain has witnessed a similar surge in registrations. Studbook secretary Julianne Fernandez notes that back in the 1970s, when breed a cionado Sylvia Loch brought them into the country, there were only 20 or so on British soil. This year and last, there were around 80 registered.

    “People go to Portugal and fall in love with them but when they get them back to England, they use them for all the things you use an English horse for,” says Julianne.

    For all their ability in dressage, Julianne says there is so much more to them than that. “Working equitation is an up-and-coming sport and there are many Iberian horses who do endurance. They excel at super-collected work because of their conformation and mindset but they can do all the Pony Club activities as well.”

    It sounds as if numbers will continue to increase.

    Ref: 4 February 2021

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