By Jennifer Klitzke
When people watch a gaited horse performing a dressage test, I wonder if they expect to see the show gait movement of a rail class? And if so, I wonder if they think that dressage training has permanently altered the horse’s gait? Could the expression of show gait or gait executed during a dressage test be as simple as flipping the switch of rider aids?
I’ve heard a few misconceptions of gaited dressage over the years: Dressage will make a gaited horse trot; cantering or trotting a gaited horse will ruin its natural four beat gait; and dressage will destroy a gaited horse’s show gait.
Where do this misconceptions come from? Maybe people see a gaited dressage test performed and don’t see show gait. Then the horse moves up the dressage training pyramid to higher levels of collection and the movement looks even more foreign. Maybe people think that dressage tests are evaluated by the same criteria as that of rail class. Maybe they know people who show at recognized dressage shows and believe that showing dressage is only for horses that trot. Maybe people have watched upper level dressage tests where the horses are performing in collection and engagement and strides are shortened, and they believe that dressage permanently alters the length of stride.
I have really good news! First of all, dressage training and showing dressage are not the same thing. You can train your gaited horse using dressage methods and never show at a dressage competition.
Second of all, dressage tests and rail class shows are judged by different criteria. Rail class movement ridden on a straight line and dressage movements ridden on a perpetual bend are like comparing apples and oranges.
Competition dressage offers many levels and tests from Introductory two-gait tests to upper level three-gait tests in line with the Pyramid of Training. The latter demanding higher levels of collection and engagement from the horse. Schooling dressage shows are often open to Western dressage and gaited dressage entries.
In a dressage test, gait quality is only one aspect of the test score, and that includes the variations of walks, gaits, and canters. A dressage test also evaluates how well the rider helps the horse execute rhythm (with energy and tempo), relaxation (elasticity and suppleness), connection (acceptance of the aids and bit), impulsion (energy and thrust, straightness with alignment and balance), and collection (engagement, self carriage, lightness of the forehand) as they move through a series of required gaits, transitions, and movements precisely on the letter. Harmony and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and the rider’s use of leg, seat and rein aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.
Rail class awards big strides and exaggerated head nods. In order for the horse to achieve this, the horse needs to be positioned in a frame where the hind leg trails behind the tail and pushes from behind for maximum length of stride while the other hind leg steps deep under the body to pull the horse along. This frame positions the horse in a neutral to hollow back and flat croup where the push and pull of the hind legs activate the head and neck nod with each step.
While a horse ridden in rail class predominantly rides straight lines along the rail, dressage tests utilize circles, lateral exercises, and changes of bend with the goal of producing soft, round, relaxed, engaged, and balanced movements. The cues and riding position needed for dressage require the rider’s use of leg, seat, and rein aids with the concept of “inside leg to the outside rein” to connect and channel the energy from the hindquarters through the body to a soft and round acceptance of the bit with even contact.
While show gait movement may be achievable at lower levels of dressage, it becomes bio-mechanically impossible at the higher levels that require collection and engagement to perform lateral movements and small circles.
As the horse advances to higher levels of engagement and collection, the rider repositions the horse’s frame in such a way that the hindquarter joints bend, the back slightly rounds, the horse carries more weight from behind while lightening the forehand by growing taller in the wither, head, and neck position. The movement produced from this posture is biomechanically different than that of the show gait. This makes it impossible for the horse to push and pull to produce the same length of stride as in rail class. Instead the horse’s steps are shorter because there is little to no trailing of the hind leg extending behind the tail. The gait shortens and the head nods less.
Does this mean that dressage permanently alters gait? I am happy to say, “No.” Gait expression is simply the biomechanical response of a set of rider aids and training that place the horse in a frame which allows more push and pull or carrying power from behind.
If you want to ride show gait, simply apply the aids (and tack if needed). In fact, I believe dressage training develops a gaited horse’s range of motion, so that the show gait will improve in quality with deeper strides.
Enjoy the journey!