Is an Iberian horse right for you? Experts offer advice on buying, training, and showing.
By Sue Weakley
Reprinted from the January/February 2023 issue of USDF Connection.
The first time dressage trainer and competitor Tyra Vernon rode an Iberian horse, “I had a blast,” she says. “I thought, oh, these little Ferraris are way easier to ride than a warmblood [and some other breeds]!”
Today, Vernon says, Iberians are the mainstay for her amateur-heavy clientele, comprising 95% of the horses at her BREC Dressage in Ocala, Florida.
”I feel like the Iberian horses have played such a big part in dressage here in the United States, providing our amateur riders with trustworthy horses with which they can more easily reach the upper levels,” Vernon says. “At the end of the day, they’re having fun, and they love it! And at the same time, you can ride one at a professional level.” (Vernon herself does just that, currently competing her 2011 Lusitano gelding, Hadrian Interagro [Baldor Interagro – Latina, Cantor], at the CDI Grand Prix level.)
Are you wondering whether a “little Ferrari” might be right for you? In this article, we’ll take a look at the breeds’ history; then we’ll share expert advice on buying, training, and showing an Iberian horse
War Horse to Dressage Court
Iberian horses have been prized for their handiness and bravery in war since 4000 BC. The Greeks and Romans used them as cavalry mounts, and Xenophon praised the “gifted Iberian horses” during the Peloponnesian Wars in 400 BC. Having excelled in haute école dressage since the Renaissance, they are becoming increasingly popular for dressage in modern times.
Seventeen breeds are native to Europe’s Iberian Peninsula—the countries of Spain, Portugal, Andorra, a small portion of France, and the British territory of Gibraltar—and are thus known as Iberian horses. Two of the best known are the Pura Raza Española of Spain (commonly referred to as the PRE) and the Puro Sangue Lusitano of Portugal (the Lusitano).
PREs and Lusitanos are carefully controlled by their respective registries, including guidelines for breed standards and bloodline purity
Buying an Iberian Horse
Kimberly Van Kampen, owner of Hampton Green Farm in Michigan and Florida, is a premier US breeder of PREs. Her criteria for buying an Iberian horse are almost identical to those for any horse intended for dressage.
When Van Kampen evaluates a prospect, she asks herself: “Is this a dressage competitor? Does it have three basic gaits, and are they good-enough quality to be scored well? What kind of temperament can I handle? If I’m a low-level rider and I’m a little fearful, I’m going to want a horse that’s a little slower to react than the FEI rider who needs a quick-moving, hotter horse. Next, do you want a mare, stallion or gelding?”Van Kampen notes that, although Spaniards generally don’t ride PRE mares, she has found that they make extraordinary riding horses. Still, she recommends geldings for their ease in showing and transporting to and from Europe because of quarantine restrictions on mares and stallions.
“Another really important thing for our breed,” she says, “is size. So many dressage riders think they’ve got to have a 17-hand horse, and in my experience, for our breed the bigger PREs are out of type. They’re a little slower, and they’re generally not as sound as the breed standard of around 16 hands.”
In addition to their smaller size, many Iberian horses have a distinct appearance that distinguishes them from other sport horses. A Roman profile is common, and Van Kampen says that their heads and often-substantial necks are usually set more upright than those of draft breeds or Thoroughbred-type horses. As a result, “They look bigger if they’re ridden correctly. I think most men that I’ve seen in Spain ride 16-hand horses, and they don’t look too big on them because of the horses’ big necks and their presence and how they move.”
Hampton Green Farm’s PRE stallion Grandioso III (Adelante – Grandiosa, Sevillano IX), ridden in the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics by Jose Daniel Martin Dockx of Spain, is a good example. “We told everybody he was 16 hands, but he really sticks out at 15.3,” Van Kampen says.
Although Iberians are known for their good temperaments, they can be a bit “spicy” to ride, says longtime enthusiast Heather Bender, an FEI-level trainer and competitor in Palm City, Florida.
“There’s a little bit of a mistake that people think, because they’re Iberian, they’re going to be the perfect adult-amateur horse,” Bender says. “That’s where the bloodlines and the breeding come into play. Lusitanos tend to be on the hotter side. The Spanish horses have spent more time in their breeding programs breeding a variety of types, and just because you say ‘Spanish,’ you cannot classify them into one box.”
We asked experts to share their advice for those who are interested in buying an Iberian horse, in the US or abroad.
Buy from a reputable dealer, and work with a trainer you trust who knows Iberian horses. Some Iberians don’t actually have formal dressage training, says FEI-level rider/trainer and USEF “S” judge Alison Head, of Aiken, South Carolina.“I know somebody who recently bought a Lusitano, I believe from Italy,” Head says. “He jumped through fire and he had Spanish walk, but he can’t walk, canter, or bend in a normal way. He doesn’t understand basic aids.” There are reputable people in Europe who put correct basics on their horses, she says, but you have to know how to find them.
Search out breeders that specialize in dressage horses. “Remember that these breeds [PREs and Lusitanos] have closed stud books, and there is no crossing with other breeds,” says Van Kampen. She adds that some breeders focus on characteristics other than dressage attributes—such as breeding for “good hair”—so doing your homework on the front end can save time.
Keep in mind that Iberians are common breeds in Spain and Portugal and may have been trained by people ranging from Olympians to “back yard” riders, perhaps using questionable methods.
“A lot of horses that go for sale as dressage horses were trained by people who have never been in the show ring and have never been patient,” Van Kampen cautions. ”They’re making horses very quickly. Look for a horse that wasn’t trained with fear and roughness as much as you possibly can. Iberians just have a superior mind, and those horses trained with nervousness and force are difficult to bring back to the relaxed kind of work that’s so important in our sport. You have to be very careful when you’re dealing with people who train these horses in their back yard.”
Don’t take the vetting for granted. Van Kampen once bought a horse that had been doped for her test ride and for the prepurchase exam. When she got him home, she discovered that “he was a monster, and over time he became crazier and crazier.
Training the Iberian Horse
Bender is currently competing two Lusitanos at the Grand Prix level: Alvarinho Interagro, a 2004 stallion (Tufão Interagro – Upiki Interagro) owned by Debra Eddington; and Diacono Interagro, a 2007 gelding (Quinio Interagro – Meiga) owned by Priscilla Baldwin. The veteran trainer—she has more than 200 Grand Prix tests under her belt and has been in the saddle for 55 years—asserts that, if she trained her Iberians the way she rides warmbloods, they wouldn’t have made it to Grand Prix.
“Yet they’re winning,” Bender says. “It is very clear what those requirements are, and how we get that done on the Iberian horse sometimes needs to be different. They can be improved in their balance and rhythm. Some of those horses, you can actually look at them in the beginning and think, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work,’ and then when you change their balance and you get them in the right place for their proportions, you can make their rhythm correct. And if you can do that, then we can talk about taking them into the dressage [show] ring.”
Vernon agrees that an Iberian’s training program should take into account its unique conformation, strengths, and challenges.
“My experience with the majority of the Lusitanos is it’s actually a little bit hard to get them long and low and really using their back,” she says. “They’re a little tricky in the connection, and it’s not as easy as it might seem. These guys are a little bit more active but hollow, and you’ve got to figure out how to put the front end and the back end together and lift the back up. In normal conformation, they can collect fairly easily because that’s what they are bred for; they can [learn to] sit and pirouette and half-pass in half the time an 18-hand warmblood does.”According to Head, Spanish and Portuguese horses often have powerful necks and large chests, with the ability for much expression and reach through the shoulders. This can give the appearance that the hindquarters lack activity or strength—and in fact, strength in the entire top line can be slow to develop. It can be tempting to send the horse more forward, down, and round “over the back” in the hopes of developing more push and activity behind. But that can be the wrong approach, Head says.
“Unfortunately, that can create too much push down into the shoulders, so that the front end is blocking the hind end,” she explains, “particularly because they are often eager to please and respond to the forward aid. You have to think a bit more toward the classical style, where you start them with a slower tempo and better balance, with the poll up and the neck reaching forward to the contact. Over time, as strength develops, you will be able to ask for more power and activity. The activity often isn’t the problem; it’s the balance.”
If you choose a horse with classically Baroque conformation and you don’t have access to an Iberian-savvy trainer, you could encounter training issues, Bender cautions. She advises riders without such trainers to consider seeking out an Iberian whose build is closer to that of a modern sport horse, explaining that these types “do well when you ride them forward, and they don’t get choppy and short.”That said, Bender adds, “I have met very few ‘sewing machines’ that I bet different training couldn’t change, so do not give up hope. Look for a different plan.”
Iberians in Dressage Competition
Bender says she has never felt any prejudice against her horses in the dressage competition arena.
“You can’t blame the judges and say that they are being prejudiced,” she says, noting that Iberians can lose points if they get “ground-bound and flat. If I got that horse’s back up and got him relaxed, my scores would skyrocket.”
In Vernon’s experience, it pays to be letter-perfect accurate when showing an Iberian. “You’ve got to outride all the warmbloods in accuracy, and you’ve got to have your square halt and rein back perfect. In the Iberian world, this is what we do.”
Is an Iberian Horse Right for You?
Those who own and ride Iberian horses tend to be passionate ambassadors of the breeds.
Bender raves about their bravery, sensitivity, trainability, and athleticism. “They are workhorses,” she says. ”They’d just as soon be out there for nine hours a day if you let them. Their attitude is amazing.”
Vernon praises the breeds’ ridability and steady temperament, calling them “more of a team player, and the riders can do more things.”
Van Kampen says that many female equestrians are drawn to these Baroque beauties, and that the attraction seems mutual.
“They are wonderful equine companions for the adult amateur, noncompetitive lower-level woman,” she says. “They’re handsome; they’re macho; they have that ‘Latin gentleman’ attitude about them that makes make them so much fun. And, of course, they love women.”
Beyond the long-maned “fantasy horse” allure, Head thinks there is a certain type of person who tends to do better with the Iberians: “You have to enjoy the challenge of the sensitivity, and then it’s really fun.”
Even with all of her previous dressage experience, Head admits that she had no clue how light the aids could be until she rode an Iberian.
“I had no idea that I could ride with that kind of lightness. To me, it was eye-opening. I do suggest that people try them, because I think if you find one that you click with, if it suits the way you like to ride, then they’re really such fun horses to have, and they tend to be really pretty sound and sturdy.”
Sue Weakley is a photojournalist and self-described Iberian-horse fangirl who divides her time between Mississippi and Florida.