"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Gaited Horses Can't Do Dressage"

One of the most gorgeous extensions I've gotten out of Gracie to date!
Just like there is a myth that gaited horses can't jump (which I already discussed in this post), there is also a myth that gaited horses can't do dressage. While they can't compete in the dressage show ring, they most certainly can do it. The only difference is that their legs move laterally (rack/pace) and not diagonally (trot).

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:

Fino gait
Anyway. I'm talking about dressage as the art of training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility and balance. So why on earth should only trotting horses benefit from this?

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.
When Gracie compresses and "sits." Aka engages dat butt.
(Note the slack reins: my request for engagement is coming entirely from my seat and abs.)
Note also that this is almost the exact same phase of the gait as the photo below, but here she is in maximum collection...
...while here she is in near-maximum extension. Note the REACH of that inside hind, the downwards angle of the croup, and the visible line of her flexed abs down the length of her belly: she is still using her body correctly.
This mare's back is actually longer than Lily's: the Ortho Flex we compete Gracie in is too long for Lily.
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. 

Exaggerated shoulder-in with Gracie gaiting in 4 tracks down the long side of the arena. The exaggeration was deliberate: I do this type of work with her to get her flexible and loose.  Gaited horses tend to get very tense/stiff through their necks and shoulders, and having Gracie cross her inside leg also helps stretch her hamstrings and lumbar back. Of course, Gracie was trying to evade contact in this still and I'm incorrectly collapsing my inside shoulder in an extra effort to drive her into the bend of her body, but I'm using this photo because you can see the beginnings of her crossing over her inside hind. (We are deliberately on the arena quarter line: the footing by the fence is fetlock deep, an added resistance that G-Mare does not need when performing these types of moves.)
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.
Gracie is slightly btv here, but I am overall very happy with this result: compared to the first photo of her from this angle, you can see how she is starting to look taller in front, which comes from her beginning to lift her back and engage that rear end. 
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


  1. There was a book written by a dressage master who trained a donkey. I think people confuse 'dressage' with competition and it's not the same thing. Plus your horse looks stunning.

    1. It's definitely not the same thing. Do you remember the name of the book by the dressage master who trained the donkey? I would love to read that!

      I learned to ride on Paso Finos with one of the masters of the sport in PR. It was everything that is considered proper equitation, but on horses that happened to be gaited. Over time, she had me doing more and more refined and subtle commands until it almost felt like the mare that was assigned to me could read my mind.

      Some 20 years later with Lily, I stumbled upon what we know as classical dressage today...and realized that everything I had learned with that first instructor was actually dressage. It was like my life had come full circle!

      And thank you. :D Your girl is stunning too!

  2. You and Gracie look lovely.

    My understanding is that the movements of dressage are based on things that horses do at liberty out in the field, unencumbered. It's when we add riders to the equation that it becomes complicated for the horse lol. My most successful schooling partnership was with a saddlebred. :D

    1. "My understanding is that the movements of dressage are based on things that horses do at liberty out in the field, unencumbered." - Yes, yes, yes!

      My most refined relationships when it comes to actual riding have been with gaited horses. I always feel at home in the saddle of whatever type of horse it is that I'm riding, but when it comes to the gaited ones I feel like a true centaur on them, even when I don't know the horse. The good ones, regardless of breed or name of special gaits, are usually so naturally balanced and sensitive, they are an absolute joy to ride. So I'm not surprised your most successful schooling partnership was with a saddlebred! :D

  3. I'm a firm believer that basic dressage can benefit ANY horse in ANY discipline

  4. As you know, I love it when horses do things they "can't" do. That's what I love about western dressage... they actually allow gaited horses and modify the tests accordingly! (Cowboy dressage, too! And, no, they're not the same thing.)

    I'm learning a lot about showing TWH since I'm working with Grace and company and they actually use dressage in their training :) Lots of lateral movements. And they teach the horses to free walk and then extended walk before they ever even ask for a gait. The basic principles of good gait are the same as the principles of basic dressage!

    I think the "gaited horses can't do dressage" myth is only perpetuated by people who either don't fully understand dressage or don't know much about gaited horses.

    Great post!

    1. I might have to look into Western dressage as an alternative to endurance for Gracie...I had heard rumors of gaited horses being allowed but hadn't realized it was official! That is AWESOME. :D

      It's wonderful that Grace's people use dressage in their training! The Paso instructor that taught me to ride as a kid did the same with her horses. She did the same: the horses needed to be able to work in both a free walk and extended walk before gaiting. She was considered one of the most influential breeders and trainers of the Puerto Rican Paso Fino during her time; it is so sad that the Paso show world has moved away from that style of training for the most part. I kept my Pasos at a barn where there were a couple of show trainers. They thought I was crazy for allowing my horses to walk on a free rein to warm up and cool down. I bought Indio, my second Paso, as an adult and had to *teach* him that it was okay to relax and just walk. It broke my heart. He was one of those horses that had had the crap beaten out of him for years in an effort to produce a high-strung horse that would gait "prettier."

      Anyway, this post comes as a response to something I saw at a gaited horse clinic years ago. It was hosted by a well-known and respected gaited horse trainer from this area, and it was specifically about dressage for the gaited horse. I loved her teaching and training style and thoroughly enjoyed auditing the clinic, but was surprised when she said that lateral movements (leg yields, shoulder-in, half pass, etc) should only be done at the walk, never at the horse's gait because it could adversely affect the quality of the gait. It's kind of stuck with me since then. lol

      Glad you enjoyed. :) I always love your comments. <3

    2. Unfortunately, the mare that broke my leg had the same problem. She did not understand that it was ok to just walk under saddle, let alone on a loose rein. Poor girl. I can only imagine the "training" she received before she ended up in the auction.

  5. So I thought you might like to know, there are western and gaited dressage classes available with the Maryland dressage shows. There are also gaited dressage tests with the NWHA. The 4 beat gait is maintained throughout the competition pattern. Lateral gaits are not allowed in any form of dressage so far as I am aware. So the pace (always lateral, typically inverted posture) will never be accepted in competition. And the rack can only compete if the horse can work in a relatively flat to slightly rounded posture (rounding too much will turn rack into trot).

    1. This is where it gets confusing though: in some gaited breeds, their basic four-beat gait is called a rack. Example: the alternate term for both the RMH's single foot gait and for the Paso's paso largo gait is "rack." I've owned gaited horses that had no trot whatsoever as well. A lot of Puerto Rican Paso Finos will never trot no matter what you do because it has been completely bred out of them. It used to be undesirable per breed standards on the island and Pasos that could trot were culled from breeding stock. It used to be one of the big arguments between Puerto Rican and Colombian Paso Fino fans: Colombian Pasos were considered of lesser caliber because of their trocha (diagonal) gait.

      It's good to know gaited horse classes exist in Maryland dressage shows! :) I'm not interested in competing in dressage, but wanted to discuss how lateral movements like the shoulder-in and leg yield can improve the special gaits of gaited horses just like they do trotting horses.