Training in the Right Way: What to Look for in a Dressage Horse, Part 3 — Movement

Today’s  article takes a closer look at movement. In order to choose a horse for dressage, or evaluate the one you have, you need to understand what the base-line requirements for movement are, be able to visualize them, and understand why they are necessary.

You can catch up on the first installment of this series here and the second part here.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

“Dressage is for all horses, but not all horses are for dressage.”

In the past two articles we have explored what qualities to look for in choosing a dressage horse. There are three basic categories: conformation, movement, and temperament. Our last installment took a more in-depth look at conformation (the musculoskeletal framework for the horse’s balance and athleticism). In this article we will take a closer look at movement. In order to choose a horse for dressage, or evaluate the one you have, you need to understand what the base-line requirements for movement are, be able to visualize them, and understand why they are necessary.

When horses are asked to perform the exercises of dressage training, they are asked to perform as athletes. This is regardless of whether the horse is being trained for classical dressage, competitive dressage, or dressage as a method of improving the communication between horse and rider for another discipline (such as showjumping, for example). Dressage training asks that the horse be able to shorten and lengthen his frame and strides while also lifting himself off the ground in each stride to greater and lesser degrees for different exercises. Thus, the way a horse moves, and his athleticism, are critical to his suitability for dressage.

The athletic qualities of a horse’s movement are rhythm, tempo, suppleness, and suspension. These qualities of movement are what we need to assess because they make up the “talent” of a dressage horse. Although these qualities are inherent, they can be improved upon or destroyed by training and riding methods. And of course, it bears noting here that the more training knowledge you have, the greater your ability to assess and understand what can be a simple problem that will improve easily and quickly, and what may be detrimental to the future of the training process.

Rhythm is the number of beats (times the hooves strike the ground) in a stride cycle. A stride cycle is the completion of all four feet moving once in whatever gait the horse is in. In the walk, all four feet hit the ground independently, giving us four beats before the cycle is repeated. The trot has two beats with an alternating diagonal pair of feet hitting the ground. The canter has three beats with two independent diagonal legs and one diagonal pair striking the ground.

Why it is important: Dressage training is based on rhythm. The reason for that is that the rhythm of the gait tells us if the horse is tense or not tense. This is why rhythm is the biggest part of the training scale. When a horse is “out of rhythm” it is due to a lack of suppleness, particularly in the back and neck, which can be due to the horse’s inherent stiffness or training and riding practices.

Dio trotting in clear two-beat trot rhythm. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Tempo is the speed with which the rhythm occurs (how quickly the feet hit ground). The tempo should be consistent from one stride to the next and consistent within the stride cycle. The time between each foot touching the ground through one stride cycle should be essentially the same. The rhythm of trot is the same in both a Shetland pony and a Grand Prix dressage horse, because the trot is a two-beat gait inherent in both horses. The tempo of the Shetland pony trot is much faster than the Grand Prix horse.

Why it is important: Tempo also tells us if the horse is tight or stiff. The point is not that there is one perfect tempo. Instead, the tempo needs to fit the size of the animal and the length of its legs and therefore strides. So, when choosing a horse for dressage, if the horse is a 16hh warmblood trotting in the tempo of a Shetland pony, you know the horse is too stiff or too tense in the back and neck. This can be transient; any horse can develop short quick strides briefly due to fear or anxiety. It is the prolonged, consistently quick tempo that denotes a harder problem to solve.

For Willie, a 17h KWPN gelding, should have a longer stride than the above mentioned Shetland pony and therefore a slower tempo. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt.

Suppleness refers to how freely the horse can move all his body parts in the rhythm of the gait. The legs, back, shoulders, hips, and neck should move fluidly in the rhythm of the gait. This denotes the horse’s ability to use all the parts of his body and a lack of tension throughout. The degree of suppleness a horse has is an inherent trait, meaning all horses are born with a certain amount of suppleness. Some are more talented athletes and can move freely through their bodies easily while others are more restricted in their movement due to conformation and natural stiffness. All horses will become less supple when tense. It’s important to note that tension is not always the fault of the rider, or equipment. It is often caused by the environment (noise, scary movements or objects) and is always affected by the internal qualities of the animal (conformation and temperament). Dressage training, in its ideal form, is meant to create a system for the rider to be able to overcome the horse’s natural tendencies for tension by maintaining communication (on the aids) with the animal while in stressful situations.

Why it is important: Suppleness is required for the horse to be “on the aids” and “on the aids” is what dressage training is supposed to create. Whether or not the horse is on the aids is the overall basic quality that is supposed to be getting judged in dressage competition (it’s more complicated than that, but what we are supposed to be trying to prove in a dressage test is “my horse is on the aids”). Greater suppleness also increases the horse’s overall athleticism. Suppleness in the horse’s body allows for more suspension, and more compression and extension of its body and strides.

Black Velvet demonstrating suppleness and freedom of movement at the walk. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Suspension is the airtime within the stride. This is the moment that the horse appears to be momentarily suspended in the air before the next beat of the stride. The suspension between the trot beats gives the gait the appearance of “floating” or “lightness.” The moment of suspension in the canter gives the canter a “springy” or “bouncy” appearance.

Why it is important: Suspension is a necessary phase in the trot stride that gives us the “spring” and “power” in the passage and extended trot. It is also the “flying” part for the flying change. If the horse is too “earthbound” he will have difficulty learning and performing these movements.

Flair, cantering down the center line at Grand Prix. This photos clearly shows the first beat of the canter stride, right at the end of the moment of suspension. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Keeping those traits in mind, we can now consider the movement within each individual gait and what you should be looking to see.

What to look for in the walk:

First of all, look for a clear, consistent four beat rhythm. The tempo should be even throughout the four beat rhythm and from one stride to the next. The horse should move through his whole body in the rhythm of the walk. His head, neck, shoulders, back, and haunches should all move independently from each other but in the rhythm of the hoof beats. There is no suspension in the walk because there is no moment of “air-time.”

Jack Jack, a New Forest Pony, in the walk. There is no moment of suspension in the walk. Instead there are always at least two feet on the ground. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt.

What to look for in the trot:

The trot should have an even 2 two-beat stride where both diagonal pairs (right front-left hind and left front-right hind) swing forward and through the full stride evenly and in the same tempo. The horse’s neck and back should move within this rhythm, but mildly in the two-beat rhythm equally. The moment of suspension occurs when the horse pushes off with one diagonal pair before he lands on the opposite diagonal pair. The amount of time in the air should appear equal from one diagonal pair to the other.

Watch Me demonstrating an even, two-beat trot. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

What to look for in the canter:

The canter has three clear beats, starting with the outside hind leg first, then the diagonal pair of inside and hind and outside front, and lastly the inside (leading) front leg, before the horse springs into the air. It is an asymmetrical gait by nature so you must view both leads in order to assess the gait. The two leads should appear essentially the same in length, air-time, tempo, and rhythm if the horse is supple enough to be a suitable dressage horse. The ideal dressage horse should NOT canter like a boat on the waves, clearly lowering the head and neck while raising the haunches and then raising the head and neck while the haunches are down. In a supple horse, this action will be present but not pronounced. Instead, you want to see a canter that “springs” and lands in three beats and springs up again. The moment of suspension is clearly after the leading front leg leaves the ground and before the outside hind leg lands.

Black Velvet cantering. This photos clearly shows the landing phase of the diagonal pair in the canter. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Given these definitions and criteria, a horse that is being considered for dressage at any age should show some ability to make the strides longer and shorter within the rhythm and other parameters already mentioned. Also, it is important to remember that even though we tend to focus a great deal on the quality of the trot, it is in fact the easiest gait to improve. Making certain that your horse can produce an excellent walk and canter is far more important than the quality of the trot. While observing a prospect then, you should take note if the horse chooses to canter easily or is disinclined to canter; you should then choose the horse that’s more inclined to offer the canter, as this is a gait that that is much harder to improve.

Ultimately, when choosing your next dressage horse, you must take a close look at all of the factors we have discussed: the horse’s conformation, temperament, and movement. With regards to movement specifically, understanding the basic requirements of the walk, trot, and canter— and being able to assess the horse’s rhythm, tempo, suppleness, and suspension— can help you avoid major training problems in the future.

While assessing these qualities in a prospect can help you choose a more suitable partner, assessing these qualities in the horse that you already own, and wish to train as a dressage horse, has merit as well as it will help you understand what challenges you may need to address in your training program. In my next article in this series, we will look at some of the most common conformation, temperament, and movement imperfections, and review some of the exercises and approaches that can help a horse with less natural talent achieve more.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.