Dressage for the gaited horse: Developing a naturally gaited horse’s full range of motion by teaching big striding pushing gaits and balanced and engaged carrying gaits that improve the former.
Do you like the idea of training your naturally gaited horse for more relaxation, rhythm, balance, connection, and engagement?
I know I do.
I love training my natural gaited horse with humane training methods without pads and heavy shoes, mechanical devices, and artificial enhancements.
Yet, if we are using dressage as our natural training method, how many of us realize that as we move into the carrying gaits of collection that build balance and engagement, that the naturally gaited horse’s stride shortens.
Look at the photo above which shows some of the walks called for in dressage. Notice as the horse steps into a collected walk, the hind leg doesn’t push from behind the tail. Rather it carries weight. Without the hind leg pushing from behind the tail, the stride is shorter. In the collected walk the horse compresses its frame by bending its hindquarter joints and engages its abdominal muscles which rounds its back. While the horse engages the hindquarters it lifts the whither, head and neck. The horse moves more poised and elegant. The collected walk is also a much slower tempo than the flat walk and the head doesn’t nod.
Just as the naturally gaited horse can learn to develop maximum stride length with a head nod in the flat walk and running walk, the horse can learn the collected walk. There are many benefits in doing so.
Training through the levels of dressage doesn’t mean that the collected gaits replace the big striding gaits. The horse gains a full range of motion as it develops the long, low, ground covering pushing gaits as well as the engaged, compressed and elegant carrying gaits of collection which produce balance. It is as simple as applying a set of cues, training and conditioning to direct the horse into a desired posture of movement.
Even better, the carrying gaits of collection along with lateral exercises produces balance, suppleness, and strength which in turn improve the quality of the pushing gaits as the flat walk and running walk.
I own and train a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. I’ve shown her successfully at rail class events, so I know how big strides and head nods are deeply prized at breed shows.
I am also passionate about dressage. As one advances in the levels of dressage training they will come face-to-face with the requirements of the collected walk and lateral movements.
While naturally smooth gaits like the running walk “push” from behind to create big strides, collected gaits “carry” from behind to produce balance and engagement which in turn can improve the quality of the pushing gaits.
For the rail class competitor, the thought of slower, shorter strides, with little to no head nod produced by the collected walk may seem pointless. Yet teaching the naturally gaited horse the collected walk and lateral exercises such as shoulder in will improve balance and engagement which in turn can improve the quality of the flat walk and running walk.
As a gaited dressage rider, I’ve labored to develop a big striding, head nodding flat walk and running walk. Then I began schooling Second Level lateral exercises like the shoulder in. I tried REAL hard to maintain the same depth of stride and head nod when introducing collection and lateral exercises, but realized that the flat walk and the collected walk are not the same gait.
For the collected walk in the naturally gaited horse, it means SLOWING down and SHORTENING the stride to introduce lateral exercises. The collected walk and lateral exercises improve balance, engagement, softness, and strength to further gymnasticize the horse.
In the last few years while studying French dressage, I realized this demand for maximum depth of stride in the collected walk isn’t realistic. Lessons with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson and French classical dressage clinician Fred Kappler have confirmed this. Carrying gaits and pushing gaits are two different things. Working in the slower, compressed, engaged collected gaits will build balance and strength which then improve the quality of the pushing gaits of flat walk and running walk with maximum head nod.
Jean-Claude Racinet, a classical French dressage master of Baucher’s theories describes engagement and disengagement in a horse’s stride. He says that engagement is the amount of stride under the horse’s belly and disengagement is the amount of stride behind the horse’s tail. He also said that a horse’s head and neck become STILL when in the “collected” FOUR-BEAT gaits of walk.
Think this through with me in light of what Classical French Dressage Master Racinet is saying: For the Tennessee walking horse, the flat walk and running walk both seek to reach a maximum length of stride. This stride length counts both the stride length under the belly (engagement) as well as the stride length behind the tail (disengagement). And a radical head and neck nod with every stride is highly prized.
This got me thinking about the biomechanics of collection and the biomechanics of a head nodding, deep striding flat walk. To me it is clear: The biomechanics are different and will produce different effects.
Yes, I want a soft, harmonious, round horse, with a maximum stride length, and a pronounced head nod. Yet it is not a realistic expectation when applying the aids for the collected walk. For me this was freedom. I realized that I needed to change my expectations about collection and how it impacts the movement in the naturally gaited horse.
Working in a slow, collected walk through shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass doesn’t mean abandoning all of the other work that has been accomplished up to that point. It just means that I don’t combine the expectation of big strides and head nod to the collected walk. I believe the collected walk is just one more posture I can ask of my naturally gaited horse to make her more athletic.
The collected walk has helped my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse find balance. The tempo is slow and deliberate enough for her to learn lateral exercises which have strengthened her for more beautiful gaiting. After we apply moments of collection in shoulder in, I turn her loose along the rail into her deep striding, head shaking flat walk and WOW. These transitions between collection and gait are improving her quality of flat walk and running walk!
If you’ve ever seen the DVD of classical French dressage master Philippe Karl training High Noon, you’ll see how he trains him like he would play an accordion. He works the horse in a long and low frame for a few strides and then gathers the horse up for more collection and engagement in lateral exercises and then releases the horse to more strides of a long and low frame. This is what is known as gymnasticizing the horse to develop its full range of motion: pushing and carrying gaits.
Attaining the higher levels of dressage with collection and engagement doesn’t mean we never ride with maximum stride length and a head-banging nod again. I believe our horses can learn a full range of motion from long and low, to maximum depth of stride and head nod in a flat walk and running walk, to slow, engaged shortened steps of the collected walk in order to learn lateral exercises for balance and suppleness.
For now, applying transitions between the collected walk and moments of expressive flat walk along the rail have been a perfect recipe for me and my naturally gaited walking horse Makana.