On Gaited Dressage
I have long argued that there should be no difference between gaited dressage and “normal” dressage. Good training is good training. I’ve watched these past almost 20 years as gaited dressage has grown and improved. Now, I am ready to recant my argument. Indeed, there should be some differences between what we do in dressage with our gaited horse and our trotting horses.
I often find myself returning to Lee Zeigler’s work, and most specifically her article “Cure That Pace”. In it, she explains how to use dressage techniques to teach the horse to use his back and core and go from pace to flatwalk. However, Ms. Zeigler cautions: “if you go too far in collecting a gaited horse you will lose the gait and convert him to a hard trotting horse. This happens because to continue in gait a horse requires a bit of looseness in the back that disappears with true collection. ….. Some gaits are actually best done with the back in a neutral (not rounded, not hollow) position. “ ….. “Dressage really works for Walkers, but apply the spirit, not the letter of modem "sport" Dressage."
A local instructor (a good one) here in my home town uses the acronym “ORBITS” to describe dressage training. Obedience, Relaxation, Bend, Impulsion, Tempo, Straightness. Clearly, all of these qualities are desirable for our gaited horses, and for any horse (which lends itself to the argument that Dressage training is beneficial to any discipline). But, one word is clearly missing from what we think of when we hear the word “Dressage”. That word is: COLLECTION.
What is “Collection”? Ask a hundred horse people and you get 100 answers. Vague ones at that. Some people say that the horse is “collected” when his nose is on (or behind) the vertical. Some say the horse moves more slowly. There are many answers in between. To the dressage enthusiast, “Collection” has a very specific meaning.
COLLECTION is when the horse shifts his weight rearward so that his haunches carry more than the shoulders. The horse lowers his pelvis and increases the flexion of his hind legs so that they behave more like springs. The back rounds, the neck raises, and the head comes up from the withers. The poll is the highest point (not mid-neck). Generally, the collected horse takes smaller forward steps because much of the energy generated by the gait is transmitted in the up-and-down direction rather than the forward. In trotting horses, the passage and piaffe are the most collected forward movements. In traditional dressage, the levade is considered the most highly collected movement
Try this human exercise:
Go for a walk. Just a normal walk. As you stroll along, think about your back muscles. Are they static or moving? Are they tense or relaxed? Think about your legs. How are they moving? At the “normal” walk, you will notice that your heel contacts the ground, followed by your toe. At that point, the muscles in your foot engage followed closely by your calf – which propel you forward. Then your thigh muscles bring your leg up and forward to start the cycle again.
Take bigger steps. Take smaller steps. Is one easier than the other? How does the size of your step affect the movement in your back and legs?
Next, hollow your back. Stick your butt out, pull your shoulders back and chest forward. Go for a walk. What about your back now? Static or in motion? Tense or relaxed? What about your legs? Do they move differently? Take bigger and smaller steps. Is one easier than the other? What do you feel that is different? Is it more or less comfortable than the “normal” walk?
Finally, round your back. Bring your belly button up toward your nose. Your pelvis will come slightly forward. Once again, go for a walk. What about your back now? Static or in motion? Tense or relaxed? What about your legs? Do they move differently? Take bigger and smaller steps. Is one easier than the other? What do you feel that is different? Is it more or less comfortable than the “normal” walk?
As you work through the exercise, you will notice that how you hold your back has a great impact on how you move your legs. As it is with the horse.
The most-used philosophy of the day – the “dressage training pyramid” shows us that collection is all the way at the top. So, while collection may be an important part of upper-level dressage, it is not something that one should try to achieve before mastering the base qualities
What do we want our horses to do? We want them to carry us. We want them to be in balance. With the walking horse, we place high value on length of stride. The trick, then, is to use dressage to enhance the walking horse’s movement without losing the signature gait.
I believe that Relaxation is the key to both dressage and a good flatwalk. I might argue that one cannot really get a clear and consistent rhythm without it, and I might put it at the bottom of the pyramid (but that’s an argument for another day). A relaxed back is one that moves and allows energy to come from the back legs and into the bridle, while a tense back does not allow for energy movement (Impulsion). Horses that go in a tense, hollow “frame” exhibit an altered, stiff gait, including the pace. Only when we have relaxation should we begin to move up the pyramid.
While most gaited horses benefit from learning relaxation, connection, impulsion, and straightness, as we move toward collection and further engage core muscles, we also start to alter gait. Even in the trotting horse, the horse who is taught to use the hind quarter moves differently from one who is not. In the gaited world, as the horse learns to relax his back and engage his hind quarters, he moves away from lateral. Soon, he begins to use his hocks to push. If we ask for more core engagement, we encourage more hock action as the horse tries to reach and spring. The resulting gait has a shorter stride. In walking horses, this hock action is not desirable.
At the lowest dressage levels, we expect to see Obedience, Rhythm and Relaxation. As one progresses further, we begin to look for connection, where the horse’s back is relaxed and moving and he is using himself well, and, as we move up through the levels, collection. One begins to see “collected” gaits on the USEF tests at second level.
Because we value length of stride so greatly with our walking horses, and because we don’t desire a trotty gait, we might want to consider limiting “collection” in our walking horses to the collected walk (which has strengthening benefit) and possibly the canter. Why not teach a horse ORBITS and go to the second-to-top stage of the pyramid. What we obtain then is a horse who is light, willing, and forward with a more “neutral” back and less hock action. Perhaps second level work with emphasis on a more correct flatwalk as the intermediate gait is as far as gaited dressage should go.
Joe London Training, LLC