When you watch a gaited horse performing a dressage test, do you expect to see the show gait movement of a rail class? If you don’t see show gait movement, do you think that dressage training has ruined the horse’s gait? Or that the movement is the effect of bad training? Do you think that dressage permanently alters show gait movement? Is riding show gait or gaited dressage as simple as flipping the switch of rider aids?
There are many misconceptions of gaited dressage that I’ve heard over the years: Dressage will make my gaited horse trot; cantering a gaited horse will ruin its natural four beat gait; and dressage will ruin my 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 believe that dressage permanently alters gait. I think these are misconceptions of gaited dressage and here’s why.
While show gait movement might work in Intro levels of dressage, it becomes biomechanically impossible as the horse moves up the dressage pyramid of training into higher levels of collection and lateral work.
Rail class movement ridden on a straight line and dressage movement ridden on a perpetual bend are like comparing apples and oranges. Larry Whitesell helped me understand this biomechanic difference when I rode at one of his 2012 clinics (see story Form and Function).
Rail class awards big strides and exaggerated head nods. High scoring dressage tests award the horse and rider who produces 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. Gait quality, harmony, and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and the rider’s use of aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.
While a horse ridden in rail class predominantly rides straight lines, dressage tests utilize circles, lateral exercises, and changes of bend to produce a soft, round, relaxed, engaged, and balanced movement. 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 bit acceptance.
As the horse advances to higher levels of collection, it lightens its forehand by engaging and bending the hocks and hips to carry rather than push forward, and the horse neutralizes or slightly rounds its back. The movement produced from this posture is biomechanically different than that of the show gait. As my gaited horse moves to higher levels of collection, it has never been my goal to shorten the stride. The stride shortens naturally as the horse engages and compresses in collection. The horse bends its hindquarter joints and steps deeper under its body while the trailing hind leg reduces its length of step back. It is the biomechanics of collection.
Does this mean that dressage has ruined the show gait?
A resounding, “no.” I believe that dressage movement is simply the biomechanical response of a set of rider aids and training that are applied to the horse for the requirements of the test. If you want to ride show gait, simply release the aids of dressage and apply the aids (and tack if needed) for show gait. In fact, I believe dressage training athleticizes and increases a gaited horse’s range of motion so that it is able to move even better in its show gait.
About a month ago I stumbled upon the TWH Dressage Facebook group. I have participated in deep discussions such as the biomechanics of collection as we grapple with dressage as it applies to the Tennessee walking horse. Among the participants are gaited dressage trainers, naturally gaited trainers, national TWH judges, TWH rail show folks, traditional dressage instructors who also teach students with TWHs, avid gaited dressage riders like me, and people new to the concept of gaited dressage as it applies to the Tennessee walking horse. If you haven’t been following this group, you’ve got to check it out: TWH Dressage Facebook Group.