|One of the most gorgeous extensions I've gotten out of Gracie to date!|
The other myth that accompanies this is that a lot of gaited horse trainers believe that gaited horses should never be worked at their special gaits for lateral movements. Which would mean that you could only work your gaited horse on flexibility and strength at the walk. Some trainers honestly think that lateral movements will be detrimental to the quality of a horse's gait.
Now, I'm not talking about piaffe and passage and all of that...which some gaited horses can ALSO do, by the way...the fino gait of the Paso Fino is technically a very accelerated piaffe where the legs move in a lateral sequence instead of diagonal.
Case in point:
Since by definition dressage has the end goal of teaching the horse to use his body correctly with a rider on board, it will also create engagement and better quality of gaits, whether those gaits are the trot and canter or pace/rack/tolt/paso/whatever. I wasn't involved enough in the Paso Fino horse show world to be able to make a true comment on how they are prepared for the show ring, but I saw enough: it is common knowledge that a lot of gimmicks are used to get gaited horses to step higher (shoes, pads, chains, and soring added into the mix in the TWH world), collect more with more animation (whipping the horse while he is tied between posts so that he will learn to gait in place. You might see this in the Paso world. If the horse isn't born with brio, beating fear into him creates a similar high-strung nature), arch their necks higher and tighter (the bits used sometimes are just...wow), etc etc, instead of just putting them through the dressage training scale like you would with most other horses in some form or other to develop those same qualities in their gaits in a natural way. (There are many gaited horse trainers that do things the right way. But there are almost as many that use...erm...shortcuts. Especially for the big recognized shows.)
Long-term readers may remember that I am a HUGE believer that dressage comes FIRST before any other discipline: If your horse is balanced and using himself correctly on the flat, he will do the same over fences in the arena or cross country, he will be stronger as an endurance horse, he will be better prepared to do sliding stops as a reiner, he will be able to collect and extend more dramatically as a gaited horse being put through his paces. For newer readers, this is what we do around here in the off-season: arena work focusing on the girls using their bodies correctly to develop strength, flexibility and balance. There is only so much trail work I can/want to do before I myself get bored with it. Going in straight lines down a trail creates fitness, and also strength to a degree (if you are adding hill sprints and mountain climbing into the mix) but it does nothing for the horse's flexibility and self-carriage. And too much trail work can make a horse just as sour as too much arena work.
Using her body correctly is something that I've worked on instilling in Gracie from the get-go and that she isn't always happy about because it is hard. So sessions are often either short and to-the-point or there is lots of reward with pressure release so Mareface can get both a physical and mental break. She is long-bodied and built slightly downhill, but she can compress her spine like an accordion and tuck her hindquarters in such a way that you would never guess her true conformation to see her in motion when she is using herself correctly.
And this is what we have been concentrating on lately. Arena rides have been in the bareback pad because I don't feel like wrestling a 30 lb saddle onto her back just to work for 30-40 minutes. Plus it's a great leg and core workout for me, and I can use much subtler signals with G-Mare. Win-win.
Last week we had a breakthrough session. I warmed Gracie up at her slower gait without asking for anything other than she be relaxed without trying to cheat by hypeflexing (her #1 avoidance technique.)
|Relaxed slow gait with withers up and forehead on the vertical.|
Once she was relaxed and working steadily at the gait I wanted, we worked on loosening her shoulders and the connection between her withers and neck, which is where she carries tension. For this we went back to the walk and I asked for an exaggerated shoulder-in, until she was bending fluidly through her shoulders. We then ramped it up by repeating at her gait.
This was repeated several times in both directions until her bend and inside hind engagement felt more fluid. It was awesome to have Carlos available for photos and video because it allowed me to confirm that what we were doing indeed looked the way it felt.
(Now if only I would straighten my shoulders...)
|And a side view of the same exercise.|
We then moved on into spiraling in and out on a circle, first at a walk and then at the gait. This was a new exercise for Gracie but I was pleased with the final results.
|Starting on the large circle of the spiral.|
|Incorrectly leaning into the circle here in the smaller circle of the spiral.|
|Larger circle of the spiral here. There could be more bend through her body but she was nicely crossing over her inside hind and keeping her shoulders upright through the circle.|
|This photo follows the previous in this sequence, taken only a stride later. Note how her withers are taller than her croup, and how far that outside hind has reached under her belly: G-Mare effectively engaged on a circle!|
Then and only then did we move on into the fun part: extensions.
|Gracie in the longer frame we use for her longer-strided gait. Note that her poll is still the highest point of her neck.|
With this as the end result.
She received tons of pats and "good girl"s, and I hand-walked her back to the barn for a well-deserved bath: this session had been almost a full hour in length!
And that, my friends, is how basic dressage concepts can positively affect the movement of a gaited horse. They most certainly CAN do dressage! :D