Text and photo: Anneli Westlund
Anja Beran was born 1970 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, As a teenager, she discovered her passion for classical dressage and at the age of only 15 her passion brought her to Portugal where she rode with the excellent master of horsemanship, Luis Valenca.
Then she met the Portuguese rider and bullfighter, Manuel Jorge de Oliveira, who became her equestrian “mentor”, a student of the well-known Nuno Oliveira, that could re-establish a sense of balance in difficult or spoilt horses by means of consistent gymnastic training, and ultimately could bring them on to a level of brilliance.
In 2018 I participated in a one week education workshop for Anja Beran, Germany.
What is your background Anja?
-I was told if you want to really learn how to ride and classical dressage you have to go to Portugal. So okey lusitanos is the kind of horse that works good. My mother, she was also riding and she always had,, eh she was open for that and I asked: Can I go to Portugal and she: Okey why not.
I was really faschinated of the lightness, and even though I was just I think 15. So I was very young and of course just a little bit developed, but I could ride all difficult exercises and also these horses is very easy (laughs).
And like this I wanted to stay with these horses, call it method or whatever and then I went every holiday to Portugal, always Portugal. That is why I am very familiar with the Lusitano horse, I know very well. And with the trainer. After two years I got contact with a trainer. I stayed 26 years with the same trainer there.
Even later, up to here I work for my own, he stilled travelled here, I travelled there and we had really a very close contact and after 26 years it´s very nice because you can solve problems by phone. Because you just call and tell the horse problem, this, this, this… and as he knows you and the way you ride and your language. He said try this. Next day I tried and then he called me and Ah much better. So that was really a very, very good relationship.
And here in Germany I had the chance at the same time to find a French rider that also was when he was young in Portugal and in Spain, that had Iberian Horses and I worked with him for sixteen years. And there I had the chance to ride 8-9 horses a day. In the end it was the combination of these two riders that made my life with horses.
Where the trainers famous?
-The French rider in Germany was famous as he was the first one who promoted the Iberian horse here with a lot of shows to show this type of horse so yes, he was very well knowned here. And the other one was in Portugal.
He was a bull fighter but he completely changed his system of riding, because these guys they are all very good on the horse, very close to the horse, they know how to ride but he discovered the training of Nuno Oliviera and he watched him for several years and then he changed all his training method.
Because, before he also made piaff, passage, flying changes because he needed pirouette for the bull fighting. But then he changed the way, and that was exactly that time I arrived there. And he changed everything and that was so interesting and fascinating that I stayed with this philosophy.
How long have you had this place? Do you work with just horses or both?
-Here I have been now 19 years, almost 20 years.
Do you take horses or students also?
-Yes, this is based on taking horses for training, I have now about 55 horses, and I don´t take horses just for feeding or so, but it´s all for training. And I think half of the horses are from other countries, we have horses from Switzerland, Austria. I have from Argentina, I have from Thailand, from the United States.
So we always try to have some horses from all over the world. Yes because one can train them very calm because they don´t come here every day or every week so it´s very progress in the training. That´s how I like it.
How long do you have them in training?
-It depends. For example we make breaking in for breeders in three or four months. But I have many horses for six, seven years. If they want training up to high school they stay mostly seven years.
Yesterday at the workshop the subject was about young horses and it was a veterinary here. Can you explain what to think about, what is the most common problems, physical problems to problems with the horse industry?
-Yes, to young, to fast, too much, that´s very easy to explain. They put the horse with less than three years already in a frame with auxillery reins. They put them to early back from the field to the box, they feed too much, they ask too much trot and canter, trot and canter, every day, one hour sometimes. They jump to high for three year olds, show jumping and everything.
They are prepared for three years and that’s all too much. If you start very early, you can sell the horse very early, very expensive. After that it is not your problem. If you do it very slow and take your time, you don´t get the price because the horse needs years to shine and look beautiful and get fat and full of muscles.
And these years costs money. And when he is dying during these years with the colic you have lost all the money. So it´s better to prepare it quick,and you have the money and then it´s gone, and then when he is dying after it´s not your problem.
Do you get many ruined horses? You talked about the white little arab yesterday. About broken back, he was here a second time…
-It was the German horse. He was here two times because he made the tests for the stallions. First the horse was ruined. Then he was bucking. Yes, we get many like this. That is the problem. You want normally a training center to train horses, but the truth is, you get just horses that somebody else tried to train and something got wrong. Then you get the horse.
That’s our problem. Because I am not a name or I don´t compete, so if you want to compete you don´t come here and even with the breeding stories, I don´t have anything to do so you don´t come here. So the truth is, nobody coming here. Just when they have really, really problems and the last solution, maybe we try there, so.
Have you noticed the last years that people have got more understanding for these old things coming back more?
-Yes, but it´s like a little bit in the eastern part of Germany when we had been separated. It´s a little bit like that. It´s coming from the base. It´s not in the top. In the top the federation all stays with their rules.
They have the greatest, and most famous and best riders in the world, Germans anyway and all is perfect. But the base, those people starts to think, we should ride maybe in another way, we should feed the horses maybe in another way, maybe they should go more out in the field.
There is a lot of thinking and discussion. In the past, somebody had a horse in the riding club, he went there, riding one hour, twenty three hours box. That doesn´t almost exist anymore. Because people care more for the horses, they read more and even some vets thinks the horses should move more so that yes. But on the top, no change. So if there is a revolution, it´s coming from the base, not the top.
What are the first exercises you start with a young horse?
-First it´s just that the horse learns to go forward. He has to accept first your lunging whip, and your voice and then your legs. He should never kick against your leg or go backwards of your leg. He has to learn to go forward because no matter what you want to do – eventing, show jumping, dressage, the horse must react on your leg forward.
If not, you are lost. So that’s the most important exercise. And if you train this very well you don´t have many problems, for example trailer loading is not a problem because you put the horse in front of the trailer, somebody behind with the whip and as he is well educated, even if he is afraid, he will go inside. He is a little shy but he will go because he is educated. So it solves a lot of problems.
So you start out from the ground and you take it with you in the saddle?
Do you do the schools on the ground first?
-It depends. With a small horse you can make a little work in hand and teach him some lateral movements or even piaff from the ground. With the tall horses we do it together. So first you always start to work the horse, first you have the ABC. It doesn´t matter if the horse is stiff on the forehand, natural bended.
You have the ABC, to have one language with the horse. He has to understand you, your commands, that´s the basic work. Then after that, you need the analyzes of each horse, to find out what this horse needs; heads up a little, heads down, bent a little more to the left, bent to the right. This you need to find out.
Then you make the training and gymnastic program for each horse in a different way. And of course the movements you need are the natural movements. It is the key. It is the key to put the horse straight, it´s the key to make the horse mobile, it´s the key to bring the horse to the aids and it´s the key to collection.
How do you use the aids? Is it that you do not use the legs and the reins at the same time?
-No that never but it is very easy to explain. Never aids against each other, and you give the aids always very polite. And if there is no reaction you don´t continue 10 minutes with polite aids, because it makes no sense. The horse will not listen to you.
So you ask very, very polite, then you give immediately when there is no reaction, you give it stronger and then you return to lightness. And the reward is always to give up the aids. When the horse is good in the movement, don´t continue, don´t continue and ask for more, more and more. No, when it´s okey, don´t do anything. That is for him the biggest reward.
So the goal is self carriage, that the horse can do it himself without any aid?
-Yes, just when you feel he will lose the position, you help him a little to continue or to make something else. But if he is okey, just let him, because that is good motivation for the horse.
How should a horse move correctly? Because you are talking about you don´t want to use forward down too much, it´s just a test, relaxation or release. What is the problem, because you see in some classical dressage or Academic art it´s a lot of forward-down/neck extension?
-Yes. It´s unnatural because a horse is an animal that tends to escape if there is something, so he will put the nose on the ground to eat, but all the other times he has the head up cause he has to watch the surrounding, and you will never see him running with the nose in the sand, so always with the head up.
So I think if you want to ride correctly you always have to watch nature and for me it is not natural. Of course if I work the muscles of the horse very well, they have a wish to stretch, that’s good and I think that was the original idea. In all old books you will never find pages about forward and down, never ever. They just say release the horse. Give him a break. So then he can stretch and then you take again, and then you continue.
But you never make kilometers with the nose down. Because these riders they have problems later to put the horse up. And you see this with the hand even with the piaff sometimes or passage. You have the impression they are carrying the horse. And that’s the contrary. In a good passage you put the hands down and let the horse fly, and not up.
You also talk about the asymmetry, the weight should be equal on all for legs, not about having more weight on the hind end?
– You have to put the weight back in the beginning. All horses have too much weight in the front because of the weight of the rider. So you have to put the weight back but at the end you put the weight back to balance the horse, not to put more weight on the hindlegs. That´s wrong.
Just to balance the horse, and they should move with the poll up with a big neck, straight, with contact left and right and you should be able to give contact, and to give up contact whenever you want. It is also close together, for example when the horse makes this and gives up contact is a big mistake but you see just loose reins but it´s the horse who makes this.
If I give reins you see also loose reins, but I gave up the contact, then it´s very good. And to understand or see the moment, good or bad, is very difficult to understand cause you see loose reins and think “Ah good rider”, no, sometimes it´s the horse who makes this, that is a big mistake. So if the horse is in self carriage I can give up the reins sometimes for a test and the horse should stay in the good position with poll up, big neck, engaged, straight.
How do you start piaff? You start it from the ground with the rider, just a few steps?
-Yes just a few steps forward. Mostly from stop, reinback or walk. Mostly from the short walk. Reinback is used because it is diagonal steps and piaff is also diagonal, so it is a good preparation and puts a little weight to the hindlegs and gives freedom to the forehand. So it brings the horse in a better balance. Better balance and diagonal footsteps.
What is the best exercise you use, shoulder in, quarter in?
-All these lateral exercises is very important and all of them make your horse more mobile, more supple, but if you want to put a horse straight you have to find out which exercise on which side is good for the horse. So if you want to go deeper and put the horse straight, then every horse needs individual program of working by side, but all the exercises are important.
Because you cannot say “for this horse Shoulder in is very good” and then spend half an hour in Shoulder in. It s boring for the horse. Then it´s always the same muscles, they get tired so it´s the mix that makes the horse mobile.
What is your opinion about draw reins? What effect does it have on the horse?
-First of all it has a very, very strong effect. Very strong. Second problem is, the horse should have the poll up and should react to the riders hand here. (Anja is showing). The poll up here, but with the draw reins you don´t have this effect because the horse starts to break at the withers. And if you are not able to do this to the horse, no they get round in the neck and that is not good because you break the contact at the withers.
And I mean the contact, the horse, there the connection starts between the ears, over the neck, over the withers, over the back, over the croup to the tail. And this connection is cut at the withers and then you have a neck like this, without any strenght in the beginning of the neck and they cannot carry their head and neck anymore, because these muscles here never works because the neck is hanging.
And like this they have no strength to carry the forehand and without forehand you never can engage the hindlegs. And with the forehand is hanging, how do you want to engage the hindlegs? It´s impossible!
That is why horses, for example jumping horses, they all do gallop with the croup up, always with the base very down with the shoulders, and head and neck very deep, and with every jump the croup goes up because they can´t be engaged, because to be engaged in the back, they need to lift the front. That is the problem. So draw reins for me is for nothing.
And when we talking about piaff again, how is it good for the horse, how does it strengthen the horse?
-It´s the only exercise that really asks the horse to close the back, because you feel you sit a little bit higher because the back gets really short and the belly muscles starts to work but also helps to lift the back.
And all the joints of the hindlegs starts to be bended, so the muscles of the hindlegs gets very strong also. And normally the horse makes a very good neck so the position of the forehand gets also very good. So it´s a gymnastic excercise and for the shoulders and the whole horse. We use it as a gymnastic.
At which age do you start this exercise?
-With preparation of lateral movements, stops, reinback, forward in a shorter walk and then at five normally I start to touch them a little.
Some say Spanish walk is not classical, not good for the horse. How do you use it?
-I say, it is all classical what the horse shows in nature. So, if I put my horses out, half of them, when they are really full of energy they move like this and if they come a little close to another stallion they also show this. So it´s in the nature of the horse. It is nothing artificial. You can watch it, first thing.
Second thing, you can watch many things but they are not classical. For example, that the horse is sitting is not classical but the horses do it, during they get up there is always a moment they sit. If it is classical, it has to have a gymnastic effect.
The Spanish walk has 100 % a gymnastic effect, because it is very good for stiff shoulders. I get so many warmbloods with a walk like this (stiff), and with the Spanish walk they get back the freedom of the shoulders.
They can move the forehand much better. At the same time they have to lift the neck a little and it´s good because most of them is hanging to deep, so they have to lift the front a little.
The shoulder is getting free and it´s the most important thing when the horse lifts the right frontleg and at the same time he has to lift and push with the left hindleg. If he doesn´t do that, you see often Spanish walk like that, and it´s wrong. Moves backwards or makes noise on the floor.
The horse must lift the diagonal hindleg. When he is here, he has to push with the diagonal hindleg and only then, he can put this leg down. In trot we have the same situation but trot is much easier because you have the power and the movement more foreward. So the movements are shorter.
In walk, the horse has to balance himself very well because there is a moment he is on two legs in a very slow moment and that is good for balance and coordination of the horse. So the Spanish walk has many benefits.
Anja runs her own horse training center at located in Rudratsried in Germany,. This has been Anja Beran’s home since 2000. She has around 50 horses in training from around the world – most of them stallions.
Listen to the interview with Anja Beran in my private study group www.facebook.com/groups/Relationshipbasedartofriding/
Copyright: Anneli Westlund. All rights reserved.