PROFESSIONAL RIDERS take note: the Iberians are coming and former big business manager and Grand Prix rider Karen Shepherd and her Pepperwood Park stud and training centre can put you on the inside track. She believes that if British riders ignore Iberian gene pool potential they could soon find themselves out-distanced not only by the Germans but also by the Americans.

Karen has backed her belief by investing in two Iberian stallions. Her new purchase, pure-bred bay eight-year-old Lusitano, Esmerilhão da Sernadinha (Merlin), arrived this August. She has owned Pura Raza Española stallion Pepperwood Ostentoso XIX, (Toto), also now eight, for two and a half years. Karen believes that both have grand prix potential and that newcomer Merlin has the talent to be competitive at international Grand Prix.

Pepperwood Park plans to stand both Toto and Merlin in 2018 alongside progressing their competition careers: “We will be offering fresh and chilled semen and keep some frozen from both stallions”

Karen says: “Horses from Iberian stock are becoming increasingly popular and competitive and we are going to get beaten by them in future with American and German riders. The Germans are already big into breeding crosses and that’s what I plan to do. We need a UK supply of competitive dressage Iberians. People here could do very well putting a modern Lusitano on a warmblood mare, because they would get a fabulous small, compact, rideable horse with a good walk, a good canter and the ability to collect — and may be the scope of a warmblood, too.

“In my own breeding programme I want to be able to take on and beat good warmbloods. I have already bred one ‘Spano-varian’ using my best Hanovarian broodmare and the resulting filly foal scored 8.7 at the BEF Futurities. My plan is to breed more Iberian x German warmblood youngstock and — given time — German-Iberian three-quarter-breds and Iberian-German three-quarter-breds.

“People have only just woken up to the fact that Iberians have huge potential in competitive dressage. In Spain and Portugal they are now breeding them for sport rather than as the traditional high knee-action, dishing trot parade horses — or for bull-fighting

Karen continues: “Lusitanos are expensive to buy because, I am told, there are only 3,000 Lusitano breeding mares, compared with an estimated 25,000 PRE mares in Spain — against several hundred thousand warmblood mares in Germany. International sales have significantly increased in the last two years and I think Iberians are on the cusp of becoming really big in international dressage.

“They are being bred bigger and for more movement, because breeders know that’s what the market wants, but that is a big debate in Portugal. There are a lot of people who want to stay true to the breed. For that reason I chose Merlin who is faithful to the breed type — small, short and compact but also very strong —  and he also boasts an outstanding walk.

Esmerilhao (Merlin) was bred at Coudelaria Santa Margarida and his sire is Spartacus by Xaquiro (Quina) and thus Merlin carries the genes of Firme (Andrade), Opus 72 and Universo (Veiga) — some of the top bloodlines in the Lusitano breed. Spartacus was National Champion at the Lisbon Show each year from one-year-old to four years old 

Merlin arrived with the ability to compete at small tour and is working towards grand prix. I am aiming him at international small tour next year — I’m going to go for it! He knows a lot of the advanced the work already, but I just want to confirm the way of going that dressage judges look for, working from behind and through. My immediate competition aim is to qualify him for the Winter Championships at Hartpury.

“Merlin has already competed at PSG and he can piaffe and then immediately go into a nine walk — and the other way round — a rare and highly desirable quality that any competitive Grand Prix rider would appreciate but he is tiny, 16hh. I like that, too.

Karen knows that there are a lot people who understand that over-large horses can be more vulnerable to injury — and are more demanding in terms of rider physique and time to mature.

Her initial Iberian purchase of black licensed PRE stallion Ostentoso XIX was made with the encouragement of Spanish senior team trainer Rafael Soto Andrade and Carl Hester, her long-time trainer. Karen explained: “It was Rafael when he gave a lecture-demo at Pepperwood Park who first made me want to go out and buy an Iberian horse. PREs tend to be weaker behind the saddle compared to Lusitanos and PREs historically have been used as parade horses — for ‘socialising’ and showing-off to your friends as you bar-hop along the town boulevards. But the Spanish are also increasingly breeding competitive PREs for dressage.”

Pepperwood Ostentoso is one of these modern PREs with the ability to collect and extend and Karen says, “Already after the two years that I have been training Toto for competition you can see the difference it has made to the muscle development over his back and quarters.

Toto has won the British ridden PRE Championship for the past two years (2016 and 2017) and also won the Iberian Sports Performance class at the Hartpury GB PRE show in 2017


“I have found that Spanish horses take longer to produce than Lusos, but by the time Toto is 10 I am hoping he will have evolved from the advanced medium horse that he is now to big tour level.”

Karen continues: “I decided I also wanted a Lusitano stallion because generally they are not only stronger than PREs but also, speaking personally, I have found them to be more trainable. PREs are hot; the Lusos, perhaps because they’re stronger behind the saddle, don’t find the work quite so challenging and so remain calmer. Both the Spanish PREs and Lusitanos are physically suited to dressage but the Lusos find it easier, especially when you are at a level where you want them to start producing good changes.

Karen’s Pepperwood Park marches under the banner “For the good of the horse” — because, she explains, “that underpins everything we do here”. Her 70 acres, which encompass Martin Collins-surfaced indoor school and outdoor dressage arenas, a 65 x 65m showjumping arena and all-weather gallops, are set on top of the Hampshire Downs. She offers up to 15 livery places which currently inhabited by a mixture of advanced dressage horses, international showjumpers and advanced eventers.
Karen comments: “Living here on the Downs you become conscious that we inhabit a globe and the stars you see at night are amazing. The environment has a very therapeutic, relaxing effect on horses and people. A horse can arrive with a box-walking habit, or other stress-related problem, and that just goes away. I don’t like just training horses in an arena all the time — although an indoor school is wonderful in bad weather — it’s bad for their brains. The all-weather gallops are an amazing facility for dressage horses. It’s nice for the younger ones but it’s also very useful to take them uphill on the gallops when you’re teaching them changes or passage.”
Clinics and training are available with Karen Shepherd and with visiting national and international trainers

“With the big fronted PREs it’s very important that the issue of longitudinal balance is tackled from the word ‘go’ so that they learn to use their back end and that they’re not allowed to pull themselves along with their forelegs and hide behind the contact. That is what I have learned from the famous Gonçalo Carvalho Conchinchas who took Rubi from Novice to representing Portugal at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky — and then to the London Olympics.

“Gonçalo gives clinics at Pepperwood Park and he’s a brilliant trainer and he knows how to train Iberian horses. They are different.

“Compared to the big-moving warmbloods, which demand that you have a core of iron to sit their extended trot across a long diagonal, they are very kind to your body”

A short-coupled little Iberian is a lot easier to ride in that respect. That is why a lot of older riders are attracted to them — the only problem is that they can be quite hot and sensitive. I want Pepperwood to start specialising in Iberians and helping people with them. I feel that I now have more knowledge to be able to do that.

“With an Iberian you have a horse that historically was required to be very brave in the bull ring, able to turn on a sixpence and also one that has been used to being handled by men in their native countries. When they are stallions they do need to learn discipline but they have been bred over centuries to respect the people who are managing them.

“When people buy Spanish horses in Spain, as well as the difference in the training they may have had, the new owners have to understand that the animal management has to be adapted to a horse that is bred to work very hard and live on a meagre arid pasture diet, and usually straw, not hay. Instead we treat them like our British-bred horses — we give them access to good grazing and hard feed, but may only work them for only 40 minutes a day. This can be a recipe for disaster.

“PREs are very reactive: that is where it can often go wrong. They are definitely horses for educated riders. They are very busy in the brain and you have to be a super-sensitive rider. Normally, I don’t tell horses off anyway, but you can’t even say, ‘Bad Pony’ to a PRE because it’s session over and you’ll be spinning round for 20 minutes before you can get them calm enough to focus on you again.

“Iberians take a piece of your heart. They are ‘old souls’. Like in the film Avatar, where the humans take a piece of their hair and connect with the mane of their horse and they become bonded for life. I love my warmbloods, but the Iberians are quite special. You have a connection with them like with no other horse”

“I always used to say when I rode Grand Prix on Highland Henry, ‘I’ve run $100,000,000 companies, I’ve raced cars but nothing is as difficult as riding a Grand Prix test’. Now I suspect there is something harder than that, it’s riding a Grand Prix on a Spanish stallion! They are so hot that you have to be “on it” every nano-second with them. I have huge admiration for the Spanish and Portuguese riders at Aachen; they are doing a great job just keeping a lid on the energy levels around the test. You don’t realise that unless you’ve ridden one.

“When you ride either type of Iberian you cannot take your focus off them for a second, you can’t chat to friends in the warm-up and expect that your horse’s mind won’t have wandered. As soon as they lose your attention, their less desirable traits come to the fore. You have to ride them totally focused. I love that; it’s almost like a meditation being so closely melded mind to mind. Iberians also have a very special dressage talent. I want to take mine out and say to the World: “Watch this!”

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, October 2017

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