If you think about Spanish riding, you might see a muscular white stallion in a very collected piaffe! Also, when you look at Juan Romero Mancera’s Facebook page, you see a lot of collected work! But unlike those who have given Spanish trainers the rumour of fast training of horses to come to piaffe and passage at an early stage, Juan’s main focus is basic work and he emphasise the importance of giving the horse lots of time to develop and become strong. So those who came here to watch fancy movements might have been disappointed! The focus in all the lessons was good basic work! But we can also view it from the opposite side! Several riders that does not have Iberian horses did not dare to ride in the course, for fear of not being good enough! But I later heard them comment that they could have participated and that this is exactly what their horses would need. So for all of you who regret that you didn’t participate, I can please you by announcing that Juan will come back here in September 2020! Then you have your chance!
What I write here is my own interpretation of how Juan is training horses. He doesn’t always say that we should use a certain exercise to achieve a certain thing. Instead he guides each rider through different exercises that improves the movements of the horse. So all the theoretical descriptions below are my own, based on a combination of my knowledge and what Juan rewarded during his lessons.
What is basic?
It is easy to say that the basic work is very important with all horses! But if you compare different riders they will probably do their basic work in very different ways. To know what basic work the horse need you first need to know what you want to achieve with the basics! You can always use all these fancy words to describe the purpose of the basic work, like strengthening the upper line of the horse, get the horse more suppled and improve the horse’s balance. We can all agree on these words, but they mean different things for different riders. To get guidance for how to train the horse, you need to be much more concrete. Juan doesn’t seem to be a friend of fancy words. Instead he focus on what he wants to achieve in the horse and how he can achieve that!
If I should sum up Juans goals with the basic work I would say:
- Not to restrict he movements from the front
- Increase the impulsion in the hind legs
The most common problem in riding today is probably that horses get compressed in their necks and that they leave their hind legs behind. If you compress the horse in the front the hind legs will inevitable be pushed backwards or to the side. To be able to get good impulsion in the hind legs you need to give the horse freedom in the front, but it should be a controlled freedom. You don’t get impulsion by letting the horse rush, by allowing the horse to get tensed above the hand or by letting the horse go deep on the forehand. You must channel the energy to be able to improve the impulsion by driving the hind legs more forward!
How do you do this?
You basically do this by releasing the reins more and driving the horse more forward. This sounds very simple, but if you do it the wrong way the horse will only increase the speed, push more with the hind legs and get tension in the back muscles.
The first problem that most rider’s will face is that the horse start to speed up when you release the reins more and drive the horse forward. When that happens you need to control the horse. You do that with the reins (equally on both reins so that you don’t increase the bending in the neck). Immediately when the horse slows down you have to release again. You should release more than you probably are used to, but you should never totally loose the connection. If the horse wants to rush, you can use circles and serpentines to control the speed.
In the beginning you have to accept that the rhythm increases. Especially with a horse that is not used to take the legs forward, the strides might stay short and the horse tries to go more forward by increasing the rhythm. This is not the reaction you want, but instead of slowing the horse down to decrease the rhythm, you should give the horse some time to figure it out by himself. The first day, several horses on the course did this, but before the course was over they all had a slower rhythm and longer strides.
For me, who are used to help the horse more, it felt almost like I was abandoning the horse in the beginning. But I fully understand why I should wait for the horse to find the solution, because then I will get a horse with so much more stability who is less dependant on the rider.
To get impulsion instead of pushing you need the horse to be suppled. Juan create suppleness by working on circles and serpentines. With most horses the circles need to be large and you should have the feeling of increasing the circle rather than decreasing it. This will engage the inside hind leg more. It is important to keep the neck straight to avoid pushing the horse out on the outside shoulder. Juan doesn’t use side movements until the horse is already connecting to the hand with good impulsions in the hind legs.
When you get the horse suppled on for example circles, you can continue on straight lines such as the long side or the diagonal to increase the stride length more. Before you loose the suppleness you should return to the circle. This also apply to the canter work. You start on the circle. When the horse start to find the balance and rhythm on the circle you ride straight on the long side and then you go back to the circle to restore the balance.
The hand can also create suppleness. You should not try to lower the horse’s head and get into a deep position, but the horse need to feel suppled in the reins. What you do is that when the horse get tensed on the reins or pushing against the reins you close your fingers and wait a moment. When the horse reacts with suppleness you open your fingers again so that you have a really soft rein contact.
Don’t bend the neck
If you bend the horse’s neck you will also restrict the movements. To be able to increase impulsion, the energy have to go straight through the horse. This will be impossible if you bend the neck. Therefore don’t try to bend the uneducated horse on the long sides of the riding arena. Instead you should make sure that the base of the neck and the chest are aligned. When you turn, try to do it with the legs instead of turning with the reins. Never pull on the inside rein when turning. Instead you should always release the inside rein when you turn the horse.
Don’t restrict the back muscles
When you start to work with increasing impulsion, it is common that the legs have more activity than the back of the horse. The horse does not let the movements come through. In trot horses have more back movements than in walk. Therefore it is important not to restrict the movements in the back in trot. Therefore it is easier for the horse to let the movements come through in rising trot. In rising trot you can also help the horse a little with the rhythm.
When the movements are coming through more in trot you can try some sitting trot, but if the trot is still uncomfortable or if the horse get restricted in sitting trot you go back to rising trot.
Transitions between gaits
Different gaits will have different effects in the horse. Walk will usually increase the calmness in the horse and a good walk will also bring the horse’s shoulders more forward. Trot is usually the most effective gait to create impulsion in the hind legs and canter can with many horses increase inte roundness over the back. By doing transitions between the gaits you can use the benefits from the different gaits and bring them to the other gaits.
Transitions from walk to trot should be calm, but yet energetic. Transitions from trot to walk should be prepared by good impulsion and you should drive the horse forward into walk and release the reins. Always prepare the transition from trot to canter with good impulsion. Then try to do the transition calmly and don’t surprise the horse with the transition. To go from rising trot to sitting trot with retained impulsion is a good way to prepare the horse for the canter. When you go from canter to trot you should always drive the horse forward to retain the impulsion in trot as fast as possible.
Transition within gaits
When the horse has started to let the movements go through the body and softly connect to the rider’s hands, he is ready for lengthening the gaits. You prepare the lengthening with impulsion and softness and you should try to lengthen the strides instead of increasing the rhythm. After that you return to the working gait with impulsion. In the beginning it can be a good idea to prepare in the working gait on a circle, lengthen on one long side and then go back to working gait on a new circle at the next short side.
According to my impression, Juan doesn’t use the side movements to lengthen the neck, increase the impulsion of the hind legs and to get the movements through the horse. Instead, when you already have achieved this, you use the side movements to increase the control over the shoulders and hind legs and to prepare the horse for collected work. When you do side movements you should try to keep the rhythm in the gait and keep the impulsion from behind. Always make sure you can position the shoulders and the hind legs in the movement.
Juan put great importance to the transition in to piaffe and out of piaffe. In the beginning you should only keep the piaffe for a few strides, and then slowly ride the horse forward in collected trot. Make sure you keep the control over the shoulders and hind legs that you have gained from the side movements. You should keep the horse exactly in between a shoulder in and a quarter in.
If the horse has to little elevation in the forehand in piaffe, you can teach the horse the Spanish walk and use a tiny bit of these movements to increase elevation. You can also use Spanish walk to get the front legs more forward in piaffe, if you have a horse that wants to do piaffe with the front legs backwards. In that case it is important that you reward the forward movement in the front legs when you teach the Spanish walk, and not only the lift. You need to teach the horse to always put the front legs down a tiny bit in front of the body.
Don’t do too much when you teach the horse the passage. Think about it as a forward going piaffe with a little more trot movement in the body. Then the passage will come naturally, instead of becoming mechanical.
How can I combine this with the core stability riding?
If you drive the horse more forward, the importance of directing the energy straight through the horse increase. If the energy goes over one of the shoulders, the more you drive the horse forward, the more weight the horse will push over to that shoulder. When you stabilise the core in the horse, you get the whole body of the horse more centered and the horse start to lift the chest. Core stability in the rider gives a tool to keep the horse centered and the energy straight. It also reduces the exaggerated push from the hind legs. Therefore, by improving the core stability, you will get better effect when you increase the impulsion from the hind legs of the horse and release the reins.
The effect from increasing the impulsion from the hind legs and avoid restricting the forehand of the horse is not only that the energy increase. The most important effect is the more lifted posture in the horse’s body that it creates. You ride the horse from behind and push the hind legs more forward. This should make the whole hind quarter being more ”connected” in the way that the hind legs are lifted earlier and put down more forward. This pushes the whole body of the horse forward so that the body feels shorter and the base of the neck longer. It is not a stretching exercise as in going forward and down. Instead it increases the connection, the lift and the throughness in the horse. On the way to this position the horse might speed up and increase the rhythm. Then he will of course not be able to activate the core muscles. But when you get the horse into the right position he will start to break more with the hind legs and less with the front legs. It will therefore be easier to both get the lift in the chest and the throughness of the movements. In this position the rhythm will reduce and the horse will easier activate its core muscles.