Rear Versus Levade

The levade is an ‘Air’ and the most collected movement a horse can do. Its original intent was for use in mounted war along with the rest of the ‘Airs Above The Ground’. The only places you’ll see it performed nowadays are at Equine/Military Schools such as the Spanish Riding School, in travelling shows, or exhibitions.

Below is the levade, executed nearly perfectly. (I believe this photo was taken by Sarah K. Andrew.  It’s been several years since the photographer shared it with me, so my memory is fuzzy.)

Note the placement of the hind feet almost directly under the rider’s seat, how the long pastern is almost in line with the cannon bone, the hocks directly underneath the center of the haunch and lowered, and the horse ‘sitting down’. The horse holds and balances its weight throughout the big, powerful muscling of the haunch, while the hind legs/joints act as a coiled spring. While this takes tremendous strength to achieve, the horse has the advantage of using its entire body.


The next picture (taken from the LA Times earlier this month (click on photo to enlarge) – article about the current race season at Del Mar and the number of injured/dead horses – thanks, Trailrider, it really was an interesting article) is of a parade horse that’s gotten a bit excited as the other horses leave the gate. This is a rear, albeit a baby one.

Note the placement of the hind feet (behind the stifle), and the placement of the hocks (behind the horse’s buttocks), how vertical the cannon bone remains while the fetlocks and hocks close, taking much of the pressure. The majority of the horse’s weight is forward and down into the stifles. While the withers have raised, it’s only because the horse has left/is leaving the ground with the front legs, and in fact this horse has hollowed its back, dropped its base of neck and withers.


Obviously the outrider at the track wasn’t trying to do a levade, and there’s no point in discussing the difference in rider position. Instead, these two pictures offer great comparison between what IS collection and what is NOT.

I often hear from people how Dressage horses breakdown, specifically in their hocks. Well, people, that would be because the horse isn’t actually moving correctly. The horse isn’t collecting toward the goal in the first picture, but rather doing what the parade horse is doing. A horse ridden and trained correctly will benefit with increased soundness, not suffer from injuries.

58 thoughts on “Rear Versus Levade

  1. Yea, but that was back when dressage was training. Dressage was meant to strengthen and supple the horse. I can imagine how frustrating it is for people who want to show, but the fact remains that Dressage and dressage are now two different things.

  2. Sarah truly is a fantastic equine photographer.

    Have to love the seat of the SRS rider as well.

    I agree with Trailrider20 though, modern competitive dressage is a far cry from classical high school. Everything about the philosophy has changed, young horse tests, pushing up through levels to have the horses competing Grand Prix sooner and sooner. Everything about the money to be made selling more horses. Modern society simply doesn’t seem to have time for the art of horsemanship. There is no time to allow the horses to physically mature, no time to develop quality riders and quality movement in the horses.

    Another thing to note, this is a thick necked stallion, but note how he has no trouble bringing his nose towards the vertical, his jaw still has room to come back towards the neck. We need to breed horses that are horses, not tiny heads, extreme refinement that doesn’t allow for the normal movement of the head and neck as the horse collects.

    Further, look at this picture used as an illustration on a website describing dressage movement. Modern sport dressage versus the Lippizanner doing the levade. Look at the mouth of the horse, the degree of backwards drag of the rider’s hands, the stress and tension in the sweat and posture of the horse in modern dressage versus the Lippi making a levade look easy. But the picture in the link was chosen as an illustration for a website. Not as a bad example, but as advertising and dressing up the page. Is it any wonder why people can’t see good from bad? That people chase the wrong things, can’t distinguish a good teacher from a hack?

    • One question I have yet to get an answer on that I find comprehensible is how much should the horse weigh in the hand. There is always discussion of having a horse ‘reach to the bit’ but that too is muddy to me. I’ve allowed my horse in the past year to mostly get too heavy on my hand, thinking I had the appropriate contact. He wasn’t accepting contact, he was looking for me to hold him up. I’ve taken a new approach the past dozen or so rides where I’m now putting the responsibility of self carriage on him. I like to think of the horse performing the levade as proof positive that horses do not need to have crank nosebands, blue tongues or gaping mouths. It is a constant effort on my part to make this happen and the use of legs, seat and a the tap of a whip are frequently in use. It’s also the best feeling in the world when my reins weight nothing though I have a very soft contact and he is shortening and lengthening better than ever. I think too many people try to ride as if it’s a wrestling match, it’s no wonder so many riders wear gloves. Holding a horse up is a lot of work – probably not too pleasant for the horse either.

      • the McPhail Chair at Michigan State University has done some actual scientific measurements. I am occasionally unhappy with the reports and conclusions, the methods seem to assume the outcome too much sometimes, but it is some evidence of weight.

        I couldn’t get the pdf of the report I found in one place to open, I did find a write up about the report and some information about weight on limbs as well as the amount of weight in the reins when Paul Belasik rode for them (he is considered classical not competive dressage trainer) using rein tension sensors. At peak tension on ‘good contact’ he was at a maximum of five pounds depending on where in stride cycle and minimum of 1 pound. This would be to keep sufficient tension in the reins so that there was no drape.

        Clearly in western riding, a finished bridle horse would be expected to perform predominantly on the draped rein with weight increasing with half halts on the rein.

        I think we worry about something we can not measure in normal circumstances. And so let me suggest that the feel is that you are seeking is that you have almost no weight in your hands. You aren’t looking for weight, but communication, you should not seek to feel the horse rest on your hands or for the horse to feel your hands resting on his tongue with weight but to touch and release as each of you carries yourself and just briefly engage in a touch to say, I need you to change this or are you still listening. To this end, Walter Zettl always told riders to push the rein to the horse if he hangs on your hand, don’t let him weigh on you (think of removing a leg of a stool whatever is on it can no longer put weight on it if it wants to maintain balance and believe me, horses like to maintain balance, it is life or death), and engage the legs with your legs. So, of course, I agree with you that it all seems to work best when you get to the feel of weightlessness but not nothingness, you can feel the life and responsiveness of the horse.

        • That was an interesting read and having actual pounds as a reference paints a clear picture. As the median is 3 lbs, one can easily ascertain that if each rein feels like 2 gallons of milk, something has to give. This is an instance where a bit of western riding could benefit riders who know nothing but heavy hands. A finished bridle horse is a treat to ride, always ready to react to the tiniest check ‘half halt’ to the reins and not just back and forth but laterally off a neck rein as well. There is nothing physical about the hand connection on reiners, working cow horses, even roping horses. I like to equate it to the old adage of ‘the horse can feel a fly land on its back’….they feel every touch and it’s up to us to decide how much we want them to ignore. Watch a horse race and it’s hard to imagine that any of them can be ridden lightly in the hand, yet they can and with appropriately timed releases, it can happen rather quickly.

          Though I do support the release of hold to teach a leaner to hold himself up, this doesn’t work with my horse. He doesn’t lose balance, he just flops his head down. (2′ legs, 10’ body) I’ve found I need to engage more forward which may be a bump from my legs or outside rein and say ‘hey, get up here!’. He seems to understand and spends less time overflexed too. I fell into a pattern of riding with a bounce in his mouth and my hands (consistent pressure) at a trot – and a trot is NOT a gait that has head elevation changes like a walk or canter do. He had me trained pretty well though, I’ll give him that. Amazing how much riding continues to evolve….and just when we think we have it figured out, we realize we didn’t know anything at all.

          • I might not have been clear, the rein releases and leg is applied in Mr. Zettl’s system, it is the leg that corrects both the leaning and a tendency to dive with the head. And of course, as you mentioned the fly on the horses back, a release of the rein toward the horse is not some huge movement, he shouldn’t suddenly have multiple inches of slack. You are giving him a space to move forward into so that you don’t push him into the hand when you apply the leg.

            And as Ray Hunt always said about the process of learning to ride, the last thing you learn was the first thing you needed to know.

        • One pound seems HUGE to me! I’m with Kahurangi: carry the weight of the reins. That is ‘contact’. Anything more is applied pressure.

          Have to wonder what sort of rider(s) the study was measuring/recording.

          • Actually, I grabbed my little hay scale and had a look at how much pressure was needed to hold it horizontally in the air, and it was about 1 pound…

            The amount of tension needed to ‘just’ hold the rein straight will depend on the overall weight of the rein. I’m not sure if the length and angle will factor in as well. There’s probably some maths / physics equations (Newton’s Laws?) that would tell you how to calculate the tension needed to just get the rein straight. I tried Googling this, but couldn’t find what I was after.

            The short of it though is that the heavier the rein, the more pressure needed to hold it straight (plus even with a sag in the rein, it would still be swinging on the mouth). So always use the lightest reins possible 🙂

          • I found another study by a vet student developping a low cost rein meter for the typical rider for training persons to be lighter ont the reins, she found on the school horses where she performed the tests, the average tension was 1.2 kilograms or a little over two pounds, but on a difficult horse that frequently ran off, the tension could reach 30kg. Also stride cycle still has an effect though her meter did the average, which means that riders still have to concentrate on their ability to move with the horse and keep hands quiet throughout a stride.

            I don’t think we can judge what is huge until a lot more data exists, we all probably have heavier hands than we think. We also need to remember that the draped rein has a weight, and if a curb bit or leverage device is used, that the force goes up significantly, somewhere to 8 to 12 pounds for the same force exerted on a snaffle.

      • Hi Blondemare,
        One definition of contact that I like (and try to train my horses to) is just enough tension for the rein to become a straight line and maybe move the bit in the mouth a tiny fraction – THAT is ‘Contact’ in my book. Any more is an aid of some sort, or more pressure than ought to be needed (I’m referring to riding in a snaffle or bitless – no idea how things go with curbs ). Of course there are some horses out there that prefer a more positive contact, but if they constantly lean on your hands it’s most likely a training / gear issue.
        Depending on the physical weight of the rein, that can vary on how much pressure you feel in the hand – a very fine rein will weigh a fairly minimal amount to reach that point of contact; a heavy weight rein will weigh more for that same level of contact (hmmm – what effect does that have on the mouth – presumably the hanging weight of the rein is already providing some pressure on the mouth…).
        Kahurangi, New Zealand

  3. Beautiful picture of Levade. No stirrups is a nice touch. Of course, that is probably 6 to 10 years of intense work on a hand-selected mount who is the product of centuries of breeding for the ability to physically and mentally accept that training. It is wonderful that such beauty is preserved, but if modern dressage horses had that degree of training, they would essentially be out of the price range of all but the extremely wealthy. Come to think of it, that is why only aristocrats could ever afford a high-school horse. jrga, I agree with everything you say, but in the real world, horses have to be able to “do something” within a practical frame of time (2 years) in order to find a buyer. I analogize the high-school horse to a hand-built Rolls-Royce, but most of us have to drive Chevys.
    I have been reading this blog for over two years and I have thoroughly enjoyed it (and have learned much). I think it is helpful to be able to recognize when something is done WRONG with a horse, but few of us have the luxury of spending 6 years of making sure we do everything RIGHT(and finding consensus on what constitutes RIGHT is not easy!) All most of us can do is try to produce a horse who listens to the aids, doesn’t fight the bit, and has some degree of bend and flexibility so that riding is a pleasant experience for both the horse and rider, instead of a battle of wills.

    • Airs are done without stirrups. I see your point, but here is mine. A big race track recently closed in my area (soon to be apartments) and many races were moved to Del Mar, where the turf meets the surf, and in spite of a ritzy opening to the racing season, 10 horses have died. This is part of the problem that is plaguing racing and why attendance is so down at the tracks. Transfer that to Dressage. Pushing horses to hard is breaking them down. I hear that some people get frustrated that they cannot compete without a 17 hand warmblood, that other types of horses cannot do the movements. What nonsense. Yes, the Lippizanner that shows an aptitude for a certain air is trained to do it. But, and I will say it again, all horses can do dressage because dressage simply means training, training in the ring to use certain movements meant to strengthen and supple the horse. Some horses will do better at extension, some at collection according to their conformation.

      Because I do not show you may think that my opinion is not of merit. That is true, of course, but it allowed me the “luxury” of spending as many years as I need to on my horse. I think that showing great, I do realize that my backyard horse would be harder to keep in a world that did not have shows and all the feed stores and vets that they help to support. But the serious horseman must make a mental disconnect with what serves the horse, and what is fashionable at the shows, like some of this ridiculous Dressage that we see.

    • I think your thought process is what’s generally wrong nowadays, and I don’t mean to pick on you or single you out because I believe you’re good to your horses based on what I’ve read here.

      This goes back to some of the other posts that seemed to indicate a successful riding school for youngsters could only be successful if its main focus was pumping out fun at the expense of teaching rider/riding correctness. And that’s just a big ole pot of slop.

      The thought that there’s a specific/short time frame or else the horse is useless to one, or just the thought that the horse is of no use prior to finishing its training 6 years later is plain wrong. There’s a lot going on in between. I would even argue that the training is never done.

      I get that horses need to be useful for many people, that hasn’t changed over the centuries just what people want. When we depended on horses for our lives, we understood the importance of doing things right. Now that horses are mostly for our entertainment, we treat them like disposable iPhones.

      It makes no sense at all to rush a horse along so it can do something today and then breakdown tomorrow, when one can wait/take their time today and have a useful horse for years and years. Short-sightedness seems to plague the industry.

      Just as we spent decades selectively breeding for the Iberian that can do an Air, we have spent decades selectively breeding inferior horses that can barely get out of their own way. Throughout all that time we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve improved the horse and that we’re breeding horses ready to be used at 2 years of age because on the outside they are tall (TB), or big muscled (QH), but the truth of the matter is we aren’t breeding superior horses, nor ones ready to be used at 2 years of age. That some manage to stay upright and keep going isn’t a victory for humans, but a victory for the equine despite the human.

      I have owned a horse (sadly dead now) that could do the levade. She could also do the capriole, one tempis and Spanish Walk with breathtaking ease. I didn’t teach her a thing. She showed a propensity to do those things as early as 2 years old, all by her lonesome, and she didn’t cost me a fortune. True, she was Iberian, but being Iberian isn’t enough. She had the conformation such that she came out of the womb capable of self-carriage and collection. I can pick that horse out of a crowd over and over and over again, and I can breed it all day long, every day, because I know what to look for.

      In the real world a lot of people are about instant gratification, and wanting something for little to no effort. My father taught me early in life that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right the first time. With horses that means putting the horse first in your thoughts in all matters.

      Adding for clarification: I don’t think all horses need to be able to do a levade, or be a high performance horse. But all horses do need to be able to protect themselves from whatever the workload may be and to do that they must possess certain conformation traits, such as ones that allow them to engage. And, indeed, because so much of horsemanship has been lost over the years, and people don’t care to do it right, it becomes even more important for horses to be built right.

  4. I totally disagree with you Morganman about the only way we can afford a horse is to train it to move incorrectly because it is faster. Because whether you meant it or not, that is the practical effect of your statement. Most people never aspire to ride airs above the ground, I certainly don’t. But any one who thinks they are a professional starting horses to sell in the marketplace, could learn to start the horse correctly, not cranking it’s head in, killing its forward movement so the hind legs trail out behind and never learn to accept weight. That horse ultimately will probably be more of a pleasure for an amateur to own as it will be calm, comfortable, and not be tense tight and hurting so that it gives the rider no place to sit.

    Those LIpizzaners often perform well into their 20’s, meaning they have a useful working life of 15 plus years. And part of the time before the Lippizaners perform in public isn’t in training but at the stud farm breeding, so the training isn’t all that different on the time schedule for ‘low school’ and modern dressage doesn’t include much that is high school, the tempi changes, the pirouettes as examples. How many modern sport horses in any sport can perform at a top level that long? We had a diary a while back where the trainer that works at retraining many broken down dressage horses speaks of them no longer being suitable for the show pen by age 9 or so. So who can’t afford the time, the guy selling horses or the people who buy them at a substantial investment? And why do we leave the welfare of the horses out of the equation entirely?

    People who want to be in business to sell the public a finished three or four year old should be drummed out of business. The public needs more professionals who tell them if they want to save money, buy an unbroke long yearling, put it outside, monitor it for nutrition and take care of its feet and do tons of groundwork for three more years, then start to think about introducing some light riding. They won’t have the big upfront payment, they’ll be more able to afford a low level of board, they’ll learn something about their prospect and bond with it, and then they can spend some bucks on a professional trainer when the horse is ready, and probably get more done more quickly at that point becuase the horse is physically ready.

    Further, every ride, from the first ride to the last ride, ought to be done in a way that encourages anatomically correct movement, it doesn’t take more time, it takes more knowledge.

    More people ought to be able to work on their own with their horses, people ought to be in training too. It would mean that a horse stays moving properly, stays sounder and the people enjoy the horses more. It would also lessen their expenses in the long run.

    I don’t think Mercedes meant every horse should be able to do a levade, but that the examples were given so people could see what collection looks like versus a hollow horse in a rear. It is about changing what and how much people can see so they can work with their own horse, realize their trainer is full of shit and pick someone to help them who has horses that do move correctly. That is what will make horses more affordable. Horses throughout history have been a luxury item, even when they were a means of transportation and war. Which is why the aristocrats had the schools and sent their sons to study there. Because even rich people like to get value for their money, and a good horse is a major investment. It is also a living being which deserves the best we can give them. And the knowledge between hollow and weight bearing posture in an owner, can make a horse’s life so much better.

    • To ‘defend’ Morganman a bit, has anyone been following the Spellbound pony theatrics? The pony was put up for future auction (apparently without warrant) for unpaid bills by the owner to the trainer. The owner paid big money for the pony and then went on to lease 2 more ponies, on the trainer’s advice “to further the future riding career” of the 15 year old rider. The trainer is also accused of closing a sale to the minor’s mother on a future horse, that everyone wanted and giving her first dibs, for $100k. So, here’s mother with an owned pony, 2 leased and a half a sale (paid $50,000) and the half owned horse that the daughter can’t ride due to behavioral issues. The mother smarttens up a tad – requests the results of the pre-purchase (which trainer claimed was fine) to find out that the horse had navicular in both fronts, strained suspensory from 2013, arthritic changes I believe in the hocks and stifle….and a abdominal surgical scar! Trainer filled out the insurance policy for the horse stating none of these pre-exisint issues.

      So here we have a case of typical high end proportion with a mother putting all her faith into a trainer, a trainer taking advantage of the mother’s lack of knowledge, a mother who obviously has plenty of money to burn, who wants to buy her daughter’s success and happiness and lawsuits back and forth in MD and FL back and forth and over $200k on the line. This is what is out there, this happens all the time. Horsemanship is about the ever present $ sign and trainers are willing to lie and cheat to line their pockets. Nobody can tell me that the horses’ welfare comes first in this situation. Not that there is a hint of neglect – there isn’t that I’m aware of, though there is a broken down horse being offered to an unsuspecting teenager. And the ‘old’ broken down horse is 9 years old I believe. Case in point that Morganman is speaking about what IS….though not the way it should be as J stated quite eloquently. The only hope is to try to educate one person at a time and this blog is doing that. With hope of that one person educating another and another. Looking at the whole industry is like expecting to win the lottery. Money is the evil motivator, every day all day.

      • Certainly money encourage greed and fraud and abuse of people’s trust. And we can all argue that people wouldn’t breed horses at all if there wasn’t lots of money to be made, but then again, seems like a whole lot of people just want a cute baby.

        I am tired of trying to defend horses’ welfare over money. Profit uber alles. But don’t expect me to swear fealty to lucre over the living, not people not horses, not a tree. That’s the last I intend to say about money being the excuse to screw over horses.

        The you in this is not aimed at you personally Blondemare, its the ubiquitous and ever present you in general.

        If you have to ride a two year old, ride a two year old in such as way as it is encouraged to lift its back, reach and arch the neck to lift the base of the neck, and to use its big muscles to protect its boney structures that are far from fully formed and to move as lightly as possible on its feet. Don’t tie down its head, don’t run it in endless circles for weeks in a round pen hoping that it miraculously finds correct bend on its own, don’t put it in crappily made undersized shoes with an unbalanced trim on its feet, don’t ride like a lumpy sack of potatoes while you waterski on its mouth. Don’t force a false frame to make it look like a finished performer. Learn something about the proper fit of tack. If you just have to ride a baby horse then ride it correctly to give it half a chance.

        And for goodness sake, learn what is offered in this blog, not the petty rants over some obvious abuse, do the hard work of studying the science of the horse’s body, train your eye and learn. Then you won’t be that pathetic woman who thought she could buy winners and take short cuts and come out ahead. Her greed made her a victim as much as the greed of the trainer. Money can’t make up for ignorance.

        • Exactly. I feel more empathy for the mother though. I’ve watched the heartache of riders matched with the wrong horses and their entire self worth and confidence nearly destroyed to the point of quitting altogether. I hold the professional to a higher standard than the client and I’m tired of seeing so many abused financially, emotionally and physically.

          I believe it is possible to start a 2 yr old safely given a healthy individual, modest sized rider and patience to wait to push them. Studies have shown that lightly stressing bone can help lay down stronger bone as the body develops to protect itself. But there has to be common sense factored in. A horse needs long or limitless freedom to move at will, it needs balanced nutrition, regular farrier visits and short, non-stressful lessons. It needs to be taught how to balance and turn effectively by lifting and crossing in front and holding with the haunch, yielding to the bridle/halter, backing lightly off the hand and most importantly learning to relax and stretch. This is left field from having a 2 yr old on the show circuit every weekend crabbing along at a glacial pace with no joint articulation.

          • ‘Studies have shown that lightly stressing bone can help lay down stronger bone as the body develops to protect itself.’

            Those studies reference leg bone development, specifically the cannon bone remodeling by becoming thicker along the ‘shin’. Those studies do NOT reference spinal vertebrae, nor the soft tissue attached and surrounding that are damaged by rider weight, hollow movement and the fact that those bones don’t finish developing until 5/6 years of age, unlike the cannon bone which is done at 2 years of age. Big difference.

            Morganman talked about Saddle Seat horses suffering nothing more than sway backs from being ridden hollow. A sway back is a serious condition for a horse and is a body unsoundness.

            Even light riding at two years of age can cause micro tears in the dorsal ligament system.

  5. I don’t think I said that training a youngster to move incorrectly would make it affordable. Perhaps my meaning was taken to be that training a horse to move “correctly” would make them unaffordable. That was not my statement, but it certainly was the implied question in my sentence! And I should have clarified that I am not talking about training a 2 year old, but instead we have a 2 year training process, starting with a long yearling. Also, I have always found merit in what trailrider20 says! 🙂 I guess the point I was trying to make was that those of us who have young horses want to give them the best foundation we can, but we are constrained by time and cost. So, what should we concentrate upon? What do all of you think a young horse should do well in order to give the new owner a solid basis for continuing its education?
    jrga, I agree that 3 and 4 year olds cannot be sold as “finished”, but if you drum out trainers who produce ride/drivable 3-4 year olds, you will pretty much drum out all trainers in all breeds except for a tiny minority of elite dressage trainers with very wealthy sponsors. It might be more useful/practical to ask “What can an average 4 year-old horse be asked and expected to do which will allow a rider to participate in certain defined horse activities without heightening the risk of long term physical and mental harm to the horse?” If more owners and trainers knew the answers to that question, I think the majority of horse problems would go away, because so much stems from that early experience and that first owner. I disagree that there are “no bad horses”. I have known a few, including a murderous one, but the vast majority of the youngsters are willing, if not eager, to respond and please.
    The central point in this blog has always seemed to me to be how to select a suitable horse and how to reach the full potential of that horse and its rider through correct riding. I think my question seeks to put that laudable ideal to a practical test.
    I deeply envy anyone who can bring a horse along for years into their ideal. My wife and I intend to do just that, now that we are not going to be breeding and training for the market anymore. We have selected the two we are keeping to show, trail ride and (for my part)participate in the lower stages of competitive dressage. We have never rushed our training, but it will be fun to have the time to develop the minds and bodies of these two handsome Morgans. We think we got the best vintage from the last harvest! 🙂

  6. I never said that there aren’t ‘bad’ horses, but most bad horses are made, not born. There are many horses that aren’t well enough conformed for the top flight performance in many disciplines and no one should push them towards that, it is one way to create a ‘bad’ horse.

    The point of this blog is not to give rules about what a four year old can and can not do, and I for one don’t believe that it is possible because horses are individuals, and the rider’s skill can make a big difference to whether an activity is done to enhance a horse’s well being long term. Driving is different in that you don’t sit on a young horse’s back, though even that can be abused if the horse moves hollow. But it is a skill that can be taught younger with the right approach and benefit a horse that moves on to saddle work.

    I’m going to skip all the work to develop the horse’s brain through ground work, to teach it to think, look to the handler for direction and not react first and think later before riding starts, though it is never time wasted and will make riding issues easier to deal with. But let’s just move on to the physical side right now. Why don’t you tell me what the weight bearing posture is and what the horse’s body has to do to be in a weight bearing posture? The pieces have been laid out before, but I don’t think the big picture has sunk in for a lot of people.

    But all correct movement starts with encouraging the horse to move in a way that allows it to bear weight on its back, a back that wasn’t designed by nature to bear weight.

  7. I will have to defer to “A Question Of Collection” by Mark Rashid. I think that is an excellent explanation of what happens with the muscle groups as weight-bearing advances. However, Saddle Seat does it ALL WRONG, since they aim to raise the neck and drop the back. This starts with harness training. Once you go to saddle training, the horse will develop the abdominals to support the weight, but to a dressage eye, the backs are all wrong and hollow. I don’t deny it. However, the only ill effect I note is that some old Saddlebred, Arab and Morgan show horses have a sway back. And that can often be traced to certain bloodlines, and points are docked when our championship classes are judged stripped. The majority of old Morgan showhorses stay sound well into their 20s. Whether that is due to innate strength, or the fairly light work requirements on a showhorse (maybe 20 minutes/day), I cannot say. I will be the first to admire a beautifully muscled high school horse (I had the privilege of going into the SRS stables and meeting grooms and horses many years ago), but the American Saddle Seat show horse is a product of a very different approach. Only as I become more acquainted with “dressage” do I grasp how different they are. My wife was a student of Dr. H.L.M. van Schaik, yet she trains Saddle seat. I think Saddleseat has much more to learn from classical Dressage than Dressage can ever learn from
    Saddleseat, but the fact remains that many people enjoy many long years with their horses, trained and ridden in the Saddleseat tradition. Our trade magazines are not filled with ads for joint supplements, unlike any H/J or QH or, for that matter, dressage magazine. So, despite what is being done undeniably incorrectly, I have to conclude that perhaps show ring riding is not so bad for the horse. I value what I have learned from this site, and I hope to incorporate as much into the training of my “vintage” horse as I can.

    • That’s the same argument people will make about racehorses. Such and such a horse started racing at two and retired sound at 12.

      First, the horse is NOT sound at 12. Guaranteed. That it isn’t head-bobbing lame doesn’t mean it’s ‘sound’ any more than those Saddle Seat horses are ‘sound’.

      As I’ve said before, some horses survivor despite the humans. It’s a win for the horse, not the human.


      is that the post that your refer to as you say you will defer to Mark Rashid?

      First off, let me say that I have several books and DVD’s of Mark Rashid, I like a lot of what he has done. I am not a discipline snob, one is good and all the rest are bad. All can be good, all can be bad. But I am a science oriented snob when it comes to how we evaluate training answers. The horses’ bodies, regardless of breed, type or intended discipline, fit what is actually a narrow range of conformation that is likely to stay sound, a couple of degrees of angle, a quarter or half an inch in length or width or placement in another bone make big changes in movement and hence athletic ability. And these small differences can make big differences between a leg more suited to a running horse, a draft horse or a riding horse, or the ability to level the spine, etc. These things are not beliefs nor opinions, but scientifically established facts. The nonpathological, ie, within normal ranges, of shapes and sizes and lengths of bones, are actually very consistent. And the bone determines at the most basic level how the horse will move, how much it can move, etc. The bones of the spine from tip of tail to poll determine how much the spine can lift up or sink down, twist, bend, rotate, etc. No matter the training, conformation of the horse, there are some movements that can only happen if you break the bone, there are limits, and they are similar in all horses. Horses are horses because their skeleton is peculiar to horses. Ligaments, tendons, muscles, form a system with the bones to further define the limits of motion before injury occurs and to stabilize joints and bones so they don’t move to the point of injury. LIgaments and tendons don’t heal well. If, as Mercedes points out, you create micro tears in ligaments supporting the vertebra of the spine, chances are the damage is permanent and irreversible, the horse has lost ability, and may, if damaged badly enough, suffer pain the rest of its life. It is no small thing that a horse ends up sway back because of the way it was ridden, it is abusive to the long term well being and comfort of the horse.

      You don’t need to defer to anyone, you need to learn the science yourself, because then you can tell if anyone, including me, is bullshitting you about the affect of what they are doing is having on the horse.

      Rashid made some good points, no horse can achieve a weight bearing posture if it is tense, bracing its muscles and skeleton, etc. Horses early on, even before the first ride, can be prepared to support the weight of a rider. He does mention a couple of important muscles, leaves out a very important muscle, and misses the fact that the spine we are interested in isn’t only under the rider, but extends into the neck and tail. He is wrong that most horses naturally and automatically compensate for the weight of the rider on its back correctly.

      One of the most important things to understand about the mechanics or physics of the horse’s spine, is that it is set up to suspend weight beneath the spine. It is not at all designed to support weight on its spine. So when he speaks of the weight bearing abilities of the spine in nature, it is irrelevant to the natural ability to support weight on the spine. And that is what a rider is, a weight on the spine. There is nothing natural about that. We have to be aware of that, train to minimize the inherent and inescapable risks of weight on a spine to the health and long term well being of the horse.

      Every caring rider needs to learn these things, learn how to train so that our weight on the back of a horse is least likely to cause damage, acknowledge the back is the last of the bones to mature, close growth plates, etc., that this happens at age 6 to 7, not age 2 or 4, and that unlike the cannon bones and other thick bones that support weight as a column and build bone from appropriate stress of bearing weight, vertebra slip at the discs when weight increases too much and the appropriate muscles aren’t compensating for the weight to the degree possible. If you don’t know why that is significant, you will never be able to evaluate what it is good or safe for a horse, and ways to train properly for the stresses of any given discipline. You won’t be able to know why something approved of in the show ring is actually bad for horses and choose between your horse’s welfare and ribbons. And if you defer without knowledge, facts you have observed, considered, challenged and know stand up to the rigor of science, then you will forever defer to bad advice.

      This post has gotten long enough, but I have more to say if anyone is listening.

      • An essential group of muscles often overlooked as they lie below the spine and deep inside the pelvic area, the psoas muscles, iliopsoas being the larger muscle underlying the spine directly. These are paired muscles with the big belly muscles Rashid mentions, it isn’t enough to contract the belly muscles, the psoas must be relaxed and flexible enough to actually contract and with the tension over the dorsal ligament, lift the back. Longus coli interact below the spine and tie in up to the neck and with the scalenus in the neck works below the spine. One works to engage, ie, contract the big muscles of the belly, the psoas, the longus coli and the scalenus, by contracting these muscles, one rounds the posture of the horse, the spine levels to the extent possible given how level the horse’s build is, and the back lifts. That is the weight bearing posture. It is what Deb Bennett popularized as the ‘ring of muscles’. So if you want weight bearing posture, all muscles in the ring below the spine contract, the dorsal ligament system and muscle above the spine relax not contract and this stretches and rounds the horse up.

        One can encourage this on the ground, train it in with in hand work exercises, lunging and driving or long reining. That will allow the horse to build the appropriate muscles and postures to support weight as a matter of habit. However, groundwork alone can’t create the stresses of the rider’s weight, so eventually under saddle work will mean that you introduce a stressor that isn’t natural, isn’t something the horse will automatically take care of for you. And you have to remember that the muscles must contract and relax to gain strength. So you have to increase and decrease the demand for ‘contraction’ ie, rounding up, routinely in a workout to allow blood flow in and out of the muscles and the muscles to build. Remember too that you will be stressing ligaments, that don’t have the degree of blood flow of muscle, so keeping them limber and undamaged is extremely important, because they won’t repair themselves to the degree muscle will. The exercises of classical horsemanship, frequent changes of direction, changes of gait, bending, and allowing the neck to stretch forward, down and out, mean that the muscles are not being clamped into one position. Both classical western and classical dressage use these kinds of exercises. To ride the rail at one gait for endless circles, to lunge endless circles with the head in a fixed position, to round pen a horse in endless circles, to ride straight lines for miles on end, all fix the muscles and don’t let the blood flow and relaxation clear the muscles of toxins. Work like that and you will break down a horse.

        Rashid also ignored the all important neck muscles and the psoas group. He wasn’t trying to do an anatomy lesson, but he emphasized some muscles that you don’t want to contract, anything that ties in above the spine in the back should spend a minimum amount of time contracting and staying that way. Remember it is natural for these muscles to contract under weight, so teach the horse to move rounded in ground exercises and under saddle. A poorly fitting saddle is going to make the above the spine muscles contract and lock down. Being ridden with the head tied or held in will not allow the back to stretch and will keep these muscles contracted. Speed work with no stretching is going to lock these muscles down. Tieing down a horse’s head with a tie down or martingale in jumping so the horse can’t stretch the neck and bascule (fancy french word for rounding up the back) will damage the horse, using the head for balance with the reins at any time will hollow the horse. Encouraging rollkur type postures short circuits the ring as the neck doesn’t stretch to complete the rounding phase correctly.

        The next thing will be to see horses with rounded backs and proper stretch, but I am going to get some dinner first.


          “A lot of people are against our way of training because they think we over bend the horses and that will hurt the neck and the back, but two professors have conducted a research project, and soon there is an article to be published, and they have proved that riding the horse always up, is very dangerous for the horse, and riding them deep is very good for the horse, especially the neck and the flexibility. So what we did unconsciously in our training has now been proven very good for the horse’s well being.”

          In case you need inspiration J…..this is an ‘interesting’ read…..from the source of living proof that these methods benefit the horse. And didn’t this horse just pull out of competition due to lameness? Have at it. I’ll read every word you type, twice.

          • rollkur fails at a most basic level, it is not the result of relaxation and willing cooperation of the horse, hence, everything that flows from it is by force, creates tension and inhibits the relaxation that allows a horse to properly engage, stretch over the topline. These top competitors have the best horses money can buy, millionaires and billionaires fund the purchase of prospects for the teams. What can rollkur or any forced positioning of the head with the reins or devices do? It can engage the mechanical aspects of the stretch of the ligament system along the top line, which will result in some lift of the spine. But with tense muscles, the wrong muscles engaged, it doesn’t accomplish what relaxed stretching will do along with the big muscle groups under the spine properly contracting will do to lift the spine and engage the hindquarters, if the psoas muscles lift, they also engage the horse at the SI joint and pull the hindquarter under the horse. Hence the highly correct collected movement of the Lippi has it engaged under itself, all the pictures of the other people show hindquarters way out behind, huge flailing movement, but no support of horse and rider under the horses’ torso, and high front leg action because the forearm muscles are lifting the leg, rather than the longus coli and other appropriate larger muscles of the neck and shoulder, swinging the entire leg structure forward. Little muscles low down in the leg aren’t supposed to do the work of locomotion, they are stabilizers and help in breaking. Misuse them and look for problems to develop.

            So we don’t want to retract the head artificially, it cuts off the ‘power train’ of the horse, uses wrong muscles for locomotion and threatens balance and joints and the back.

  8. I absolutely agree about either not riding at all at 2 or very, very limited weight bearing. That is why Morgans are doing harness training at 2 and normally only ridden at 3 or 4. The Thoroughbred racing of babies at 2 and QH gaming at 2 is contrary to what we now know about body development. Just because the horse has reached full height and dimension does not mean the musculo-skeletal system has reached maturity. I also agree that money is what drives this “abuse”. My point, if any, was that if a particular training method results in horses who can enter competitive activities at age 4 and remain at that level into their teens and thereafter retire to occasional use for trail rides, carriage drives and the grandkids, then the empirical evidence seems to be that type of training is not abusive and deleterious to the horse. Mercedes, I absolutely agree that a horse who started at 2 is probably not “sound” when he retires at 12. There will be damage. The question is, can that 12 year old enter a new career with implicit limitations on what he is asked to do? Can he become a 3 day eventer? Probably not. Can he become a trail and lesson horse? If his mind is right, probably.

    • Morganmann, I agree that if the majority of horses entering a training discipline (of any type) can spend years in it and at the end still be sound, then even if it doesn’t fit our idea of ‘correct’ training it probably isn’t all that bad.
      The thing is, who is defining ‘sound’? I’ve seen a very large number of horses that were thought to be sound by their owners / riders / general public that to my eyes clearly were not. My definition of sound is obviously different to many other peoples.
      I have several rescues that are retired pasture puffs – although most are not obviously ‘lame’, they show enough signs of biomechanical modification (gait, posture, muscling etc) that I would never consider riding them, and yet I see worse horses under saddle on a regular basis 😦 If my rescues HAD been ridden in a more correct manner in their youth, they would most likely be far more comfortable and probably even able to be ridden now. For me, back tension and weakness IS an unsoundness, even if it doesn’t result in obvious lameness, and most of those horses have behavioural indications that they are uncomfortable.
      The other thing to consider is wastage – for every horse that comes out the training discipline after many years and is still sound, how many didn’t make it and why? How many never entered the discipline in the first place? Are the older horses able to compete effectively against the younger ones? And if you compare the older competed horses against others of the same breed / type and age that didn’t perform in that discipline, is there a difference in posture, movement etc? In other words, are the ones that are still genuinely sound after multiple years in a discipline common, or are they those rare individuals that make it despite everything?
      Remember, just because something is accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘okay’ by the majority of the people involved in it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. You only have to look at Big Lick to see that…
      Kahurangi, New Zealand

  9. Kahurangi: All of your points are excellent. And I do not doubt that you can detect very subtle signs of unsoundness from posture, to gait, to behavior. Your pasture puffs sound like they have a good life. And your query about how many are still sound after years in a discipline is a good one. I can only speak for my breed. I have said before in this blog that Saddleseat eats up 3 year olds, because people want what is “new” and “exciting”. Where do the ones go who are not so new and exciting anymore? Many of them continue to show, either with Amateur owners or carrying junior riders in “academy” classes which are a place for school horses to give inexperienced riders a chance to go into a ring without the pressure of national competition. However, honestly, there are a number that go to breed auctions, particularly in Ohio and the upper Midwest and they are snapped up by the Amish for driving horses, because of their solid driving background. In our discussion of Morgans back in March, there was a link to a website talking about the Amish and how they like the style of Morgans for driving to town. I lived among the Amish in SW Missouri for many years. They built my barns and arena. I like the people, but they are driven by pure practicality. To many of them, a horse is an implement, to be used hard until it is worn out. And they do wear out, being driven on hard pavement at a fast trot or pace. Sidebone and ringbone are seen. The horses who stand up best to this seem to be the Standardbred trotters and pacers. They are commonly taken off the track because they are slow, so they are a bargain and tough horses to boot. I suppose by some standards, they are the ideal horse with the ideal spine, because they have never, ever been ridden. Of course, from the knees down, things might not be so ideal.
    We all “use up” horses. Every activity with horses results in some artificial strain on the horse. Some require a great deal of effort from the horse, from gaming to cutting to racing to jumping to upper level dressage, and the effort, even under the best of training, will inevitably take a toll on the body of the horse. Humans voluntarily push their bodies in sport all the time, and even with the best training, and the ability to “back off” when they realize they are pushing too hard, they still break down. Instead of asking, where are the 20 year old jumpers, or the 20 year old dressage horses (except for the SRS) or the 20 year old race horses, we could in justice respond: where are the 60 year old marathon runners, or where are the 40 year old sprinters?
    We all have a responsibility to do as little harm to the Horse in our care, as possible. Jrga’s description of how to strengthen the “core” are very helpful and I intend to continue to use it as much as I can. However my chief responsibility lies in producing a young horse who has a practical basis in riding and driving, who can be safely handled and shod. He has been on a trail ride and has appeared in a show ring at least once, so I can state that he is willing to tolerate different situations. The best gift I can give that horse is to make him “useful” so that he will continue to be a desirable horse for the rest of his life wherever he may end up. That alone is the best insurance that he will live a good life.

    • Standardbreds: ‘I suppose by some standards, they are the ideal horse with the ideal spine, because they have never, ever been ridden.’

      No, they too suffer topline injury because as racehorses they must move hollow to be fast. They succeed as Amish/Mennonite horses because of the following:

      Idiot proof
      Road safe
      Excellent substance and big, clean jointed (particularly for their size and weight)
      Hardy with a strong constitution
      High level of stamina/endurance
      In abundance, so inexpensive

      Standardbreds used to be raced quite a bit under saddle, and still are nowadays for special promotional events. Here’s a link to some videos:

      I believe it’s likely agreed by all that we do have a responsibility to make horses good ‘citizens’. However, there’s no reason why they can’t be both good citizens AND sound via teaching them how to move to protect themselves against rider weight.

      Adding that I will argue that teaching a horse to move correctly and thus protect itself will actually make it a better citizen. Without the aches and pains that incorrect movement causes and its subsequent body-wide detriment, a horse is far less likely to display the myriad of behavior issues (that so many complain about) and be more eager to work and please its rider.

  10. I just want to add my two cents here, although obviously you all are much more experienced on the subject. I’ve been curious about the saddleseat soundness question, myself, having grown up riding saddleseat, but now owning an OTTB. My Tb would never last being ridden saddleseat- obviously she has a completely different conformation- but my first year with my mare was at that same farm, and I honestly don’t think the knowledge was wholey there to help me ride my mare the way I absolutely have to now with her back issues. That being said….those morgans at home were war horses, and sure, some were on joint supplements or needed other help, but I can’t think of one that had lameness or back issues…. And quite a few of those horses were continuing on down the ranks as walk/trot horses or lesson horses as they got older. My instructor’s son (now the trainer) former park and pleasure horses all stayed on to be kept as lesson horses and several became solid mounts for their Special Olympics program. Sure- a good kid’s horse is a good kid’s horse- and Morgans in general tend to be going strong well into their late 20s, but I do think the style of training has something to do with it too. These horses are not ridden for very long at a time, are not ridden every day (schedule varies between lunging in rig, long lining, and riding, and “play” days), Everything about the actual training and management (kept in stalls 23 hours a day, always worked hollow, saddles that put the rider way further back on their spines, using gadgets to get a frame,) screams for unsoundness and lameness but…they aren’t! Maybe it speaks for the breed (I don’t have experience with saddlebreds or arabian long term)…maybe it speaks for the fact that most of them are junior/ adult amateur owned (so get the love and attention a professional owned horse wouldn’t), or simply the farm I grew up on (did not work the babies very hard, buying horses that are not majorly flawed/ already proven sound) but…it works.

    • There can be a number of reasons why they haven’t broken down. As you’ve talked about, if the horses don’t actually ‘work’ a significant amount, but then are allowed the freedom of turnout – if the horse is of mostly correct conformation, the horse can ‘self-heal’ if when turnout it naturally moves correctly. I reference the following blog article:

      Secondly, there IS a way to train Saddle Seat horses without having the horse be hollow. One can have their Saddle Seat cake AND eat it too. I’ll see if I can find some pictures or illustrations for comparison. I know there is an illustration in one of the Dr. Deb Bennett conformation books.

    • All generalizations to some degree are false. But Morgans tended not to undergo the rapid transformation in the late 1800’s and early 20th centuries to lighter bone and more stylistic horses. There were some great bloodlines preserved from very hardy horses from the cavalry. So Morgans avoided some of the faults of 20th century breeding of form over function, staying a little smaller, heavier bone, shorter backed and not quite as swan necked as the saddlebreds, and with more people using more sane shoeing practices instead of quite as much stack. But that is just generalization, there are exceptions. Just as the standardbreds have retained more bone. We like ‘refined’ looking horses without realizing they aren’t meant to be refined. They don’t need to be drafts but they need to have sufficient bone in legs, joints, vertebra and even their heads to keep them physiologically sound with large wind passages in the nose, well spaced eyes, and the structural strength to hold up ever larger humans. Height doesn’t add to strength in general, in fact, it is more vertical bone with less breadth in most cases exascerbating the problem.

      The ability of a breed to withstand misuse does not justify misuse, however. If they can do well with misuse, imagine what they could do if soundness and physical health were a concern every time they were ridden. Because riding horses correctly tends to allow minor flaws in leg joint formation, etc. be less likely to cause problems. Because horses in balance, properly stretched over the top line and bearing weight on the hind legs, tend to move more lightly, barely hearing the footfalls, not dragging toes and creating tons of dust, using big muscles to move limbs and carry weight, not tight ligaments and joints.

      If you are still saying buy the best breed to last and go ahead and do what you will, you are totally missing the point of this blog. This about taking whatever horse comes your way and making that horse comfortable in the work you choose to have it do. A corollary is to recognize what work it is best suited to doing. I only trail ride, or I only ride an hour 3 days a week, is a cop out. Every ride can and should improve the horse. It isn’t a matter of only hurting it less but actually improving it to stand up to work.

  11. Mercedes: I stand corrected. (I am trying to learn a different way to think about these things, thanks to the blog). Yes, I can see why a speed horse has to develop its back and that back is strained as well. A trotter and pacer may not have the strain on the core that a racehorse or jumper have, but it still needs to be developed. I would be very interested to see some information on how to develop a Saddleseat horse without hollowing the back to raise the head and neck. Camille clearly knows about “dumb jockeys” and other means of raising the neck and getting the “frame”, as do all of us with some experience with saddleseat training. I have a very good Hunter Pleasure prospect who is driving now, and I want to use jrga’s approach when we start saddle training this winter. I am intrigued by the challenge.
    Between the comments back in March, and experiences like Camille’s, I think the blog readers can see why we Morgan people are convinced we have the best horse that no one knows about!

  12. I’d be very curious to see as well…because I was certainly taught to engage the hind end, that the horse should be working off the snaffle not the curb, etc….and I briefly boarded at another Morgan farm when I moved across state where the horses were clearly trailing their hocks and had less developed top line. So maybe my home barn was doing it right..??…their western horses were certainly beautiful movers and dressage horses in disguise 😉

  13. But I would like to add that I love this blog because I enjoy the learning. I had no clue how to get my mare to ride more round without a martingale, because that is what I was always taught to use. I was taught that when the horse was properly engaged they wouldn’t be actually using the martingale rein, but still, you had it there to help. I’m now at a dressage barn (following classic principles) and while I would never discount the knowledge and experiences I gained previously, I have learned huge amounts on biomechanics and how the rider can truly influence the horse without all of those aids in just a handful of lessons at the new barn. It is a hard road completely changing how I ride, and it can be frustrating, but I enjoy the process as much as the result. So- no- I’m not justifying the training methods, but these are in no way shape or form the “big lick” horses… and like Morganman stated earlier- these horses have jobs and are good at it- and seem to like it. Combine that with good trainers, loving owners, and I do think it’s as valid a seat as any other, and less destructive than many. (I used to want to try reining until I learned a 6 year old was an old reiner– no way!!! not for me any more….)

  14. A Tennessee Walking horse doing low level dressage in gait. Note he is stretching in the neck with contact appropriate to a low level horse, that his left rear foot in weight bearing stage is well under the horse’s torso, the right rear foot that is just barely behind the haunch has already had the weight lifted from it. Also see that he is relaxed, the front leg has swung forward appropriately having the soft graceful arc it has in nature, not the unnatural toe flick of a horse constrained in neck and shoulder. Notice his relaxed ears. Also notice his muscling, broad in the chest all the way down between the legs because the right muscles in the sling of muscles have been used to support and move the front and the weight is carried more by the rear legs so the horse doesn’t pull itself along by the front legs.

    Campare a traditional walker in stacks and ridden ‘saddle seat’ style:

    Note the neck is not stretched, and while hard to see if you look behind the coat, the shadow shows the hollow back. Also note the positioning of the legs and where the legs are bearing weight. The left rear is up under the body, but just barely being placed on the ground, you can tell by the fetlock it is not yet bearing weight. Look at the right rear, well out behind the haunch but still bearing more weight than the foot under the horse. Think about the stresses on tendons and ligaments of bearing weight stretched that far out behind the behind the body. Look at the left front leg, see the muscle contraction in the forearm, yet the shoulder angle hasn’t opened at all, the leg structure, shouder and all hasn’t moved forward just the forearm is lifting. Also see where the left front leg is bearing most of the weight of the horse, at a backwards angle and fetlock flexed.

    Earlier I mentioned the fact that front legs are columns. Columns are particularly strong mechanically for bearing weight when they are vertical, 90 degrees to the ground. Take them off 90 degrees and they tend to crumble. So what in the lower front leg of a horse is bearing weight and keeping that column from crumbling? Ligaments and tendons and to some extent the forearm muscles. Lower in the leg there are no muscles. Are ligaments and tendons designed by nature to do this under the increased stressed of large angular displacement of the leg? And with stacks on the front feet. Now yes, many walkers and saddlebreds and park morgans survive this sound, a testament to breeding in quality in bloodlines when these horses actually worked hard for years in the show ring and carriage work and farm work.

    Clearly the horse in the first picture couldn’t win in the saddle seat show ring. But it is also a lower level horse, over time it would become more collected and start to have more amplitude to its leg movements, not because of shoes or using the wrong muscles, but because the horse would gain the strength to sit down behind and pick up its feet correctly to greater heights.

    This last shot is of Chuck Grant riding a TB/Saddlebred cross and demonstrating full front leg extension done correctly:.

    Note the point of elbow of the horse’s leg in extension is out front, ie, the shoulder angle of the horse is fully opened, showing that the entire leg structure has been moved forward correctly. Note the leg still has a gentle arc, the muscle of the forearm is not bunchily contracted and there is no toe flicking. Nothing is being strained in the leg itself, big muscle in neck and across the shoulder/ribs are doing the work of moving the leg. Note the weight bearing front leg is a column, straight under the weight of the horse as it should be. The neck is properly streched. The horse is doing this at a standstill in this picture, but is slightly off square in the rear. This is a tb/saddlebred, again look at the breadth of the chest muscling, the depth of the girth and flank, the filled out hips on this horse. This is what correct work allows, all the big muscles, worked correctly, bulk up and support the work the horse has to do. Chuch Grant liked to work with American breeds, plus it hadn’t become the fashion to import warmbloods from Europe. He trained the first Appaloosa to grand prix, he like saddlebreds because they were conformed as riding horses. He generally taught all horses to gait even if they weren’t gaited breeds as was typical of the classical high school.

    on this lady’s page, the last shot of the arab at canter is informative. See the right hind leg, see how the upper leg clearly shows that the foot has been brought under to the centerline by bringing the leg in through the hip, and that the foot bears weight not only forward under the torso, but also towards the midline. You can train that movement in on the ground before ever riding, and start a lifelong good habit. Also note the extreme extension of the front leg, but without the toe flick, because the horse is properly round, stretched in the neck, and the movement started in the shoulder not the forearm of the leg. Note the outside front foot bearing weight as a column as it should.

    This is a start on looking at correct movement and beginning to see what you should look at in your own horses and every horse of a trainer or teacher you are considering paying money to. If they can’t get the horse to move correctly, chances are, you won’t learn from them how to do it either.

  15. some western shots

    This horse has stuck his butt into the ground, but notice his neck isn’t part of the deal. Now he is a bit thick necked, but much of this is manmade, note the lack of a gullet and arc, this horse hasn’t lifted at the base of the neck, the complete lifting of the back hasn’t occurred. I enlarged the picture on my screen, you can see the tell tale break at the third vertebra in the neck muscling, this horse can’t do in the show ring what it isn’t allowed to do in the training pen. He can’t stretch his neck anymore, the wrong muscles in the underside of the neck have been developped and his faults are man made. Also notice how his front left leg, the one extended to next impact the ground is going to come in braced and on the heel. Ouch!

    compare to the next horse, also with a thick and heavily muscled neck:

    Butt stuck in the ground nicely, but there is still a gullet and the appearance of the tubelike complexus muscle and nice arc to the neck. Most importantly, look at the front right leg, extended to take the next step, it is not braced, stiff and coming in heel first, it is arced much as the correct dressage leg and without coming in heel first, it will set down much flatter and without the kind of jarring impact of the first. Again, as Mercedes and I have said all along, it doesn’t take more time, it isn’t harder to get correct in most circumstances, but it makes a big difference to the wear and tear you put on the horse. Training starts out with very little asked, but what you ask must be leading towards roundness in the spine, engaging the correct muscles to move towards collection and to allow the horses’ anatomy to be used properly, within design specs if you just have to look at them as machines, to help the horse stay sound, happy to do what it can do without being hurt or causing tension. If the look of correct doesn’t fit the show pen criteria of your chosen sport, you have to decide what is more important, winning or your horse’s welfare.

    And really, everybody already knows this, they could see it? Not a single question or opinion? I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, this kind of understanding is the keys to the kingdom. You will know, not guess, whether it would be good to follow a training program, you will know when you look at a trainer ride a prospect whether you need to go on down the road or commit to retraining a horse you buy from him, if you see a teacher ride and not be able to be correct you will know to pass on by, you’ll know whether the sport you think looked so awesome really isn’t for you and you need to spend your time pursuing other activities. If you “just” trail ride, you can make your horse more comfortable, calmer and enjoy difficult terrain more. Because horses are what they live. Correct training in harmony with their bodies lets horses be in harmony with you. A horse that is comfortable because you ask him to do things in ways he can comply and not hurt himself, trusts you to lead, allows you to make choices and is not afraid in a new or scary situation because you never hurt him or ask him to do what he cannot do. Fix how you ride and you will simultaneously solve many ‘behavior’ problems in horses.

    • It should also be noted in these two pictures the difference in the slide just by looking at the dirt pattern. The first shows an explosion of dirt as if the horse was dropped from an airplane, while the second shows a beautiful, even pattern of ‘sprayed’ dirt. The slide quality is the direct product of correct movement vs. incorrect movement.

    • Great examples J. I love that you’ve brought reiners to this blog as they absolutely need to use their bodies correctly to perform their jobs. I wish as much emphasis was placed on western disciplines as English in relation to movement and healthy biomechanics.

      Perhaps you can locate a WP horse using itself properly. (BEG) Maybe?

      • My WP post is awaiting moderation, if you put in lots of picture links the blog owner has to approve the post, we’ll need to wait until Mercedes stops back by.

        Reiners are asked to do difficult and stressful body movements, they need to be done correctly. And there is no reason they need to start showing at two or three and be used up by six except money.

      • To make Morganman happy, try this one

        Neck fully engaged showing lift at the base of the neck, limbs more properly situated under the horse, full in the flank, deeply muscled in the belly, fully rounded over the haunch. Note there is slightly more weight on the rear foot (look at pasterns). Also note the blue ribbon. The judges awarded correctness and the horse shows that it lives that correctness. Of course, she was probably showing a decade or more back, who knows what wins now. Nevertheless, a correct horse and pretty color too.

        • From someone who knows diddly-squat about western – that would be nice in any colour. Dare I ask what happened?

  16. Western Pleasure

    It deserves all the nasty things said about it, an entire discipline devoted to the prettiest clothes and tack and the worst athleticism. It should not be considered a sport but a pageant. And we are all in favor of world peace.

    This horse demonstrates a fault I mentioned in Mark Rashid’s comments. This horse has lowered its head, is relaxed (practically somnambulent), and by the mechanical process of lowering its head as if to graze, the nuchal ligament pulling over the withers does act to raise the back a minimal amount. But not enough to counter the weight of the rider, notice that the rear of the back because the horse’s haunch has not been engaged, has not been raised and sinks under the saddle. Notice the lack of muscling in the haunch, not rounded over the top line (this horses doesn’t use the big gluteal to move) and hollow at the flank, notice the lack of depth in the lumbar region of the horse, this horse has not developped any belly muscle that comes from engage the ‘ring of muscles’, note the ropiness of the muscling over the shoulder area, each muscle tight, defined and distinct, this isn’t good muscling. The horse just placed the right rear foot to bear weight and it is totally on the haunch, almost where the other rear foot is leaving the ground, this horse does not transfer weight back, it drags itself along with its front legs. This horse’s body advertises that it doesn’t move well at all. Please note the placque and blue ribbon in the rider’s hand. That tells you that either every other horse was even worse, or the judge doesn’t know shit. I place my bets on the latter.

    This horse is for sale, hurry up before you miss this chance. Or do you want to pass this by and keep looking?

    A very pretty color, and the trainer, who is being thanked by the owner, is pulling the head behind the vertical and causing the horse to break at the third vertebra. Also note that the horse is bearing more weight on the front foot, see the amount the pastern is depressed compared to the back weight bearing foot, and that the back foot is not under the horse’s body and both back feet again are basically trailing the haunches, and again, less development of the big muscle over the top of the hip, hollow flank without depth. Its a half arab with a neck that could easily be engaged and yet to meet the standards of the show ring, this horse is broken back in the neck and left to drag itself along, hollow.

    The next horse is at least level and moving with his rear feet under him, his neck shows some more correct muscling, but he still isn’t really engaging. His haunch still lacks appropriate top line muscling, but at least he has a little depth through the flank. He also won some classes which means that someone out there judging is enforcing the rules at least.

    And what does it say that one of the most correctly moving horses I could find is a freaking model?

    • OMG J I’m LMAO!!! I had googled WP images and the only ones I found that showed “approaching” good form were models! Freaking funny….in a sad, morbid kind of way. I’m now wondering about my gelding’s muscling in the haunch. It has changed a lot the past 2 months becoming rounder and more defined but I wonder what I can specifically look at/for to gauge proper development. Seeing a horse every day makes assessment rather difficult.

      • take a picture once a month standing in the same position, you can also put a mud knot in the tail and take a shot from behind to see that the adductors and abductors (inside and outside of the thigh) are properly filling out. The muscles shouldn’t be defined like a muscle builder, they should be smooth, flowing without ridges or lumps and relatively soft to the touch, your fingers should be able to make definite indentations when you rub and not encounter lumps, knots or ridges.

        One of the problems the model above did inculcate was the lumpy awful muscle of the butt on the AQHA WP horses. Compare this butt to the butt of the morgan mare up above.

    • That’s funny because I was looking at HUS pictures just the other day and thinking what a great comparison those would be.

      Apologies to all – got a bunch of stuff going on in RL, thus the delay in getting a new article up.

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