First, a sampling of walks. These photos and video frames are all of my competition horses, and I take responsibility for any departures from perfection you may find: I can critique my own riding without being sued. I call your attention to the chestnut Württemberger gelding Vulkan, who is shown during his competitive years (age four through 29) and at his retirement at 30, where he still has the powerful thrust of an extended walk. All these horses remained sound until old age or illness (autoimmune liver disease in the case of Rio) ended their careers.
Walks of four different horses of three breeds. All show the long stride of thrust behind, with comfortable reach toward the bridle (double bridle or snaffle bits). I like my position in 2 & 4 the best, although my hands on Smokey could be a bit lower at one finger width above the withers. 1) & 2 Morgan gelding Raynyday Maximillian in extended (bareback) and collected walks, showing the purity of the gait maintained in forward collection. 3 & 5) Vulkan in extended walk at 14 years and in free longe at age 30. He retained his athletic ability during more than two decades of national competition. 4) Morgan gelding RaynydaySmoke ‘n Mirrors in extended walk. ^) Rio Sereno (Rhinelander-Canadian Hunter cross) in an unconstrained walk.
In terms of a forward walk, my Azteca mare Rosita Del Rio will serve for a brief discussion of some major muscles that create forward thrust from behind. Horses have a “motor” in the digital flexors of the front legs as well, but this is a topic for later discussion! These are the tensor fascia latae (TFL) and hamstring group. The TFL should be well developed and without lumps or spasms as it brings the hind leg forward. When it relaxes, the medial gluteal of that side plus the hamstring group work to pull the leg forward while grounded. This is tremendous work and well named as a “duty factor!” Riding variations of walk well is too often neglected as a way of developing muscles without concussion. It serves a central place in all training and is very useful in rehabilitating an injured mount. My personal preference is to perform about 70 percent of my riding in walks, including all forms of lateral work.
Rosita Del Rio in two limb positions of extended walk. 1) The instant of over-step, just past the “vee” of the walk. 2) Head bob starting down, where the left hind will come into swing phase helped by a uniform stretch of ligaments of the topline. A forward walk always has a clear head bob. Pancero photos
For trots and canters, criteria for impulsion (thrust, willingness to go forward) apply as in walk. Gaits under rider and in freedom should reflect balance, thrust and unconstrained ability to breathe. For the latter, it is useful to examine the angle of head and neck, where muscling makes a smooth roll from poll to mid shoulder. My horses verify their training in that their work on free longe reflects their training under saddle. Horses will respond to comfort: in this case, increased balance and regularity are pleasant to their large bodies on spindly legs! Rider aids should be minimal. Use the seat bones to inform the horse concerning the pattern of the gait. The medial gluteals of the back working under the saddle on a well-schooled horse have much to tell the rider about coordinating motions of the seat. Kicking the horse into trot or canter is not helpful in developing precise, accurate aids. That is why school master horses are worth their weight in platinum.
Forward riding is shown in the next examples, with search images for contact and freedom of action are important. My rider position is sufficient, if not always stellar. I have chosen different breeds at different ages and degrees of training so you can see that forward riding advances by stages. Ask for a little, reward often and be delighted with any sign of progress.
Video frames illustrate two horses in various moments of trot and canter. Vulkan (1, 3, 5) shows an extended trot (1) and collected canter (2) at age 30. He performs a flying change right to left at age 14 (5). Note that the limb swap of the flying change alters leg position (timing) of canter: compare to Max in collected canter (6). Max shows collected trot of an advanced horse (2) and maintains straightness with his head in the center of his chest in shoulder-in on three tracks: bend is in rib cage while hind legs do not cross (4). Compare Max’s posture with Rosita in collection (next images) where she is less advanced in terms of uphill carriage of her shoulders.
Rosita is not as advanced in her training as were Max and Vulkan, but she can show the paces (variations of basic gaits) in their early iterations. She will carry her shoulders more effectively as she gains strength from practice by intervals. She is naturally short and wide backed, having inherited her “chunky monkey” muscular build from a Doc Bar Quarter Horse dam and a bullfighting lineage Andalusian sire. In spite of her powerful body, she needs to become stronger for clearer self-carriage. It is worth mentioning that frequent dressage transitions are a potent means of suppling and strengthening your mount. We will discuss the details of true dressage transitions in another article.
Rosita in ordinary trot (1), medium trot with given rein (2), medium trot reaching for the bit (3) and collected trot of a beginner at that pace. Notice that her forward activity is expressed in higher knee and hock action while she covers less ground than in the ordinary or medium pace. At this stage of her training, she is just starting to show cadence or marked duration of balance on a diagonal pair. Her poll is a bit low in 2, although her nose is just ahead of the vertical. In all four images she shows the clear parallelogram of the trot. I have my feet too far in the stirrups on occasion (you decide). Pancero photos
In canter, Rosita shows her capacity for collection more clearly. It is not unusual for a horse to have a “favorite” gait. In Rosita’s case, her canter tempo is easier to regulate than her trot. Max and Vulkan had more easily regulated trots than canters. Riders and trainers should be alert to specific talents of their mounts and use those talents to advance the weaker aspects of a training program.
Finally, there are some movements you might think are not forward riding, possibly because they have slower tempos or do not cover much ground. These are passage, piaffe, rein-back (multiple counted steps in rein-back/forward are called “swing” or “shaulkel”) and pesade or levade. I have included these as examples of advanced schooling with forward aids.
Rosita shows her talent for collection in canter (top). She carries her forehand (plus me) with her left hind leg ahead of her tail at mid stance. Compare this moment in her canter with earlier frames from videos of Max and Vulkan. She shows a longer body stretch in her medium canter (bottom). In both cases, her poll is up and her nose is slightly ahead of the vertical. Her contact is slightly stronger in the medium gait: it is important that for horses in early stages of learning the medium and extended paces that the rider maintains a connection that helps the horse stay regular and balanced. As in previous images, all my horses have well-developed TFLs, smooth hamstring groups and effective strides. In her trot and canter, Rosita shows reasonable freedom of her shoulders, in spite of very heavy inherited muscling. Not shown here is the frequent work I do with all my horses in long-low stretches. I am riding better in canter than in trot. Pancero photos
Reinback is a movement that often gives riders trouble. This usually comes from too much hand combined with a loss of connection with lower leg. Hand without leg loses forward impulse and may even result in a dangerous evasion where the horse gets behind the leg and refuses a request to move ahead promptly when legs are reapplied. Aids for reinback are those of absolute forward riding where the lower leg is steadily and elastically maintained in contact with the rib cage. Lightening the seat may be done with a slight inclination of the head (which weighs 12 to 16 pounds) or with a slight upper body shift forward accompanies by finger touches on the rein. Aids are delicately timed with diagonal steps back and collected walk, trot or canter forward. If the former is your choice, then you should not nod your head in the salute of a test. You decide which technique to use.
Max performs reinback (selected video frames). !) Halt with hocks ahead of tail, balanced equally on all four feet. 2) Diagonal steps back. 3) Diagonal transition to forward collected walk. 4) Collected walk out of reinback, head bob down. Reins are not used in this sequence except for a slight release of ring fingers to initiate forward stepping (3). Lower legs maintain soft elastic contact through whole series of steps.
I teach piaffe in hand as walking in place (another article!) while the horse is still in its early stages of training as an exercise in right-to-left plus back-to-front balance. Horses that can perform a basic piaffe have a foreleg in mid stance, hind leg in braking position based on a walk diagonal that never appears in trot! A balanced horse in control of its center of mass with the walk diagonal balance skill (balance is more than “not falling down”) is much easier to ride forward without rushing. Unbalanced horses are prone to rush.
Piaffe, as you will see from the example, is walking in place, with the tripod of the walk gradually edited out. Piaffe does not share any leg positions of the trot parallelogram, but its diagonal pairs, as has been emphasized, are that of walking. Just because piaffe is diagonal does not mean it is trotting. In fact, all three basic dressage gaits have diagonal pairs: they have different phases when two legs are grounded.
In the piaffe series, Rosita is able to perform diagonal balance in hand with a given rein. Her balance translates to work under saddle, with alternate light actions of lower leg and a light seat. There is a reference photo of the walk tripod moment that is preserved in piaffe when all but the foreleg at mid stance and the hind leg in braking mode are edited out. This leaves the diagonal pair in walk phase. During the gradual training of piaffe, you encounter nearly all your horse’s balance problems as well as resistances to the forward aids of leg and seat. For instance, Rosita preferred the diagonal pair LF-RH. It was helpful to know this because she has an old injury above her tail to the left medial gluteal. Logically, she was protecting a weak left hind leg. I rewarded her with favorite treats if she would use her RF-LH diagonal. Let us say that that it became a “64 carrot” piaffe. A warning to trainers eager for piaffe: be cautious about applying whip to hindquarters as it can result in an unengaged croup-high form of the air while forelegs merely shuffle.
Rosita working on her piaffe. 1) piaffe in hand with shoulder fore position: this is a classical technique to discourage a base narrow or “goat on a mountain” form of the air. 2) Piaff under saddle with “rein guided by gravity.” 3) Reference frame of walk showing the diagonal pair preserved in piaffe. Pancero photos
Passage comes to horses at various times in their training. Rosita has been a “piaffe first” horse while Max was a “passage first” horse. Anchorman, my first high school dressage horse, was a “piaffe first” horse, as was Vulkan. I use the principle of training the air the horse seems to prefer as a first step in the airs of the high school. Passage is a cadenced form of gait that borrows from both walking in its transition from piaffe and from the ballistic action of legs from trot. It should show engagement in the positioning of the hind legs, freeing the forehand to carry the shoulders and the front legs to make “the grand gesture.” All too often a passage in competition shows trailing hindquarters and a diagonal pair where the foreleg lands before the hind leg of the diagonal. In this case, it is both hollow and on the forehand, not having been taught from a sufficiently forward form of either collected trot or piaffe ahead of the leg.
1) Max in passage at liberty, showing high spirits. 2) Passage under saddle with poll up and expressive foreleg. 3) Transition from piaffe to passage, which can also be a passage in place, if a trainer so desires.
In closing our discussion of forward riding, it is worth mentioning the issue of suspension. I have waited until now to summarize the role of suspension. I encourage you to examine video data sequences to verify that suspension (air time involves falling with acceleration of gravity) in trotting is longest in extension and least in passage. The marked tempo of passage comes from long stance times on diagonal pairs. Some dressage literature can be confusing on this point, a problem that is solved by the data set provided by video frames. I have not encountered a piaffe with suspension, but the astonishingly elastic stallion Absent came close! Tempo in canter as well as its ground covering capacity is the most variable of the gaits. In suspension, the extended form (about 95 strides per minute) covers the most ground while collected canter and pirouettes (about 65 stride per minute) achieve their slower tempos by longer stance phases, as in passage. This is basic physics: an object or animal in the air will fall to earth at 32 feet per second per second. It would take absurdly high lift off the ground to achieve long drops for slower tempos. Not only would this require every step to seem like jumping, it would be very stressful on connective tissue. Fortunately, horses do not follow what people imagine they do (remember the Muybridge photos at Stanford University that made the Currier and Ives prints look false), but perform what works in the real world.
GO BACK TO PART ONE
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR DR. NANCY NICHOLSON