Trotting Up A Storm

The trot is a two-beat, diagonal leg pair gait with a period of suspension. Its the most energy efficient gait for the horse to cover ground. The diagonal pair of feet should land at the same time and the horse’s legs should create two equal triangles between the front legs and the hind legs and a third triangle upside down under mid-body.   Impurity in the trot can be caused by poor conformation, soreness, injury, muscle tension, bad training techniques, tack that doesn’t fit, rider imbalances etc…

This is a pretty good extended trot for this horse, showing the three trotting triangles. (I love that the person longeing the horse has her back turned.)


The stride length of the hind legs is identical to that of the front legs.  The hind foot is going to land a fraction before the front foot.  There is some tightness through the loin and shoulder; the loin should be full and round, the front leg straighter via the knee further back.  The tightness causes the near miss between the two feet.  If the horse engaged more (rather than swinging the legs a bit like a leg mover vs a back mover), the back would round,  the haunch would lower (it’s a bit in the air here), weight would be transferred rearward, and the front end would lift (and loosen).  All that would change the timing of the trot and give the horse more room for the deeper hind leg step that would result, without the close call.

Trot - Marked

This is a very nice extended trot for a draft (or draft cross).   As discussed in the conformation series, typical first gear gearing (that one would expect this horse to have) creates a shorter stride behind, but this guy is working it.  Unfortunately the photo is taken at an angle so we can’t get a clear picture of the haunch.  The angle also distorts the measurements of the hind and front stride length.  It appears as if the horse has taken a way bigger stride behind than in front.   Some of this difference has to do with the tight extensors.  The left forearm is in front of the vertical and there’s more bend in the knee than with the first horse.  Less tightness would bring the knee back and straighten the leg creating a bigger front leg stride and triangle.


The draft horse has reached further forward with the right front than the first horse.  Compare where the foot is in relationship to the horses’ noses.  (Both horses have equally short necks, so this isn’t a case of the nose being further out on one horse.  Both horses also are exhibiting equal shoulder slopes, so it also isn’t a case of a difference in potential stride swing from the shoulder.  What differs are the shoulder angles, the draft is 105 degrees while the other grey is 98 degrees; undoubtedly the draft carries a more open resting shoulder angle.  This connects back to previous discussions about the importance of the humerus bone and shoulder angle and its affect on stride.

Other distortion in the photo makes it look like the draft has stepped up under his wither, while the first horse only stepped to mid back.  Note that some of this has to do with the draft horse being much shorter bodied.

There is a touch of impurity in the timing of the gait of the draft with the right hind toe still touching the ground while the front is long gone off the ground and the left hind foot about to land before the right front, but I’m just not going to fault this big horse for using his haunch this well.  Some stretching and suppling work of the front end would help even out the gait.

TrotL - Marked

Trot - Marked Shoulder

And now let’s look at what Dressage rewards as an extended trot.


There is so much wrong here, that I’m not even sure where to start.

1) Clearly a much shorter step behind than in front.
2) The hock of the landed leg is pushing off from behind the horse’s point of buttocks rather than from under the horse’s hip.
3) Horse heavily on its forehand as indicated by the much deeper flexing of the fetlock on the right front than on the left hind.
4) Right hind leg is going to land barely in front of the point of hip, when it should be landing under the rider’s seat.

Complete gait impurity.

TrotK - Marked

In this photo we have many of the same traits but with the added insult of a ‘toe flick’ via a hyper extended leg.


 Under the circumstances, this horse is doing a decent job of a lower level working trot.


The horse is taking a smaller step behind than in front.  Why?  Notice the lovely tubular complexus muscle in his neck and that it extends right into his shoulder; he’s lifting his base of neck nicely here, lifting his wither.  He’s also lifted his back some, but there is tightness and angularity to his loin, which is also a bit shallow, and some angularity to the haunch muscling.  Looking at his hind leg conformation we see that he clearly has a femur shorter than his tibia.  What’s happened is two fold; the short femur naturally limits the length of stride and the horse has stressed his loin at some point, which further blocks the leg from swinging forward.  Release the loin and the horse could swing the hind leg more freely forward, creating more engagement, blah, blah, blah.

TrotC -Marked

Here’s another working trot, with the horse taking a bigger step behind than in front.

Extend Trot Junior

We have the same flat, tight loin and lack of fullness to the rump.  The bigger step behind on this horse is (partly) the result of being over angulated behind, not from being super engaged.  We have a shorter femur to tibia, but the femur is long.   This is a case where the horse often likely over strides (steps beyond the front footfalls), but isn’t actually engaged.  It’s why when someone says their horse ‘tracks up’ it doesn’t always mean the horse is moving well, or when people instruct that a horse should ‘track up’ and doesn’t, it’s not necessarily an indication the horse isn’t engaged.  It’s all relative and dependent on conformation AND use of the body in the moment.

Most disturbing in this photo is the atrocious neck usage and muscling.  This is a horse that has been trained and ridden ignorantly.  At the very least this horse has a low neck set, but I suspect she’s? ewe-necked.  She’s been ridden in some sort of restraining apparatus; martingale, probably draw reins, likely both.  While I believe the previous horse could use with a touch more release of the hand, it’s no contest which one we should be aiming for.  As a result of this heavy handed training and riding, this horse has been blocked from freely striding in front, locked onto its forehand (right front still on the ground while left hind off the ground, and right hind going to land before right front leaves the ground), and killed the suspension of the gait.

Extend Trot Junior

In this photo we have a horse whose trot has been severely manipulated by training and riding to meet a show class ‘look’.  And not in a good way.


While it’s clear the front end is taking a bigger stride than the hind end, both ends have been severely shortened by bad training and riding, so much so that the horse doesn’t close the middle triangle of the trot (and would so naturally if allowed).  We finally have a horse that has a femur at least as long as its tibia, what we want in the riding horse to create the potential for a deeper step behind.   Problematic conformation for this horse is a natural downhill build (which has been encouraged and increased) and a low set neck.  Despite those, there’s no reason for this horse to be moving this poorly (planted on its forehand – which its trying real hard to get off of – and lacking suspension – which it naturally has in spades) except that his people are ignorant.  Note that the lowering of the head here is not the result of lifting the base of neck (again, the horse is trying real hard to do it right).  This is a ‘putting my head down to graze’ posture.

TrotO - Marked

 Not to exclude our Western readers…


A bigger stride in front than back due to the horse being on its forehand (downhill build), but most of what’s going on in this photo is conformation related.  This horse is post-legged and has a closed shoulder angle giving it a short-stride back and front with little joint articulation, and no suspension.  I’m not disappointed in how it’s being ridden – probably the least offensive WP horse I’ve seen in a long time – but rather in the traits that have been perpetuated by breeders.

TrotP - Marked

In this photo by Jennifer Buxton, we have a WP horse with more purity to its jog and almost a period of suspension.  Still a bit on its forehand, it’s not bad given the downhill build and post-leggedness.  This horse is using itself pretty well under the circumstances.  Note the muscle contraction line of the abdominals.  There’s a very faint outline of the tubular complexus muscle from lifting the base of neck.   It would develop and be more prominent if the horse was more willing to seek contact and wasn’t so tense in the jaw and poll.  I’m left with the impression that the horse was started half right and then rushed/forced (put your head HERE) to be finished for the show ring.



17 thoughts on “Trotting Up A Storm

  1. I just wanted to say thank you, Mercedes, for providing such good information in your posts. I look forward to reading each and every one of your blog entries. 🙂

  2. This was so clear and informative! Lovely illustrations, too. (And I’ve been thinking the “dressage trots” looked a little weird for a while, what with the front legs and back legs not matching angles and such. Glad to see it’s not just me.)

  3. i’d like to second the first commenter, i always look forward to your posts and learn so much. if you compiled all your posts into a book, i surely would buy it.

  4. And how long did it take to find the halfway decent photos of the trot? *BEG*

    Modern competition dressage is a disgrace, stock horse breed shows in wp and english hunter on the flat are also disgraces. On the later, no wonder some stock horse people want to ride ‘western dressage’. If they wanted to ride classical high school, so much the better.

    There’s no place to go to call home, such a tiny handful of instructors and performers that understand what correct is, and since it is rarely welcome in the show pen, they don’t tend to get any great following.

    Saw a post somewhere else today with someone looking for video because you can’t see proper preparation in a still photo. Mostly, no one has taught them how to look. Most people (trainers/ upper level riders) can fake a few strides of ok, but the horse’s body tells the story everytime. This blog is a great service to people, you have been greatly patient in explaining and illustrating concepts for people to study.

    • A veryyyyyyyyyyyyy long time. *sigh* But faster than a collection of Arab, TB & QH counterparts to the conformation series. Those might take me a few months.

      Thanks for your kind words.

  5. You’ve outdone yourself once again, Merc and this is ironically a perfect time for me to read it. Out of respect for you I am choosing not to share this post with a certain FB group that appears to lean toward the extended “Dressage” trot you have illustrated as the ideal. I’m relieved that my horse’s trot would not be the worst or the best of these examples and would love to improve to the level of that hotty totty gray draft. Who’d have thunk he could move so well?!

    This is a wonderful form to function post as now we have articulation and movement to help readers understand if we or our horses’ physical limitations are preventing improvement. I’m sure it is considerably more often the latter as the bay HUS above illustrates. He could be correct but his rider keeps saying lower, lower. This post should go up at all the stock breed shows!

    • it was no accident that two of the better trots were horses that were riderless. The level (given its build) wp horse (bay/rider in black) was about the only ridden horse that was close to its physical potential, ie, coming up to its conformational limits given it is a pretty down hill and posty behind. And even that horse managed a reasonable trot that was not damaging to the horse, it wasn’t tense, it’s back wasn’t hollow, its face and neck weren’t constricted. It is also probably a pleasure to ride if not a greatly athletic ride.

      Only a few of the horses that we’ve critiqued would not make the pleasure to ride/not bad for the horse category for an amateur owner with a little bit of good training. And that would satisfy most owners, a happy, comfortable horse to dink around on, see the sights, maybe do a local show once in a while. So much better than seeing well bred horses who could do so much more be crushed into contortions of natural movement that cause them to break down.

      • That said is twofold. Those looking to purchase a horse for a specific discipline should be able to take a discerning eye with them based on that learned in this blog to increase their success of purchasing a suitably conformed horse. Those looking for a barrel racer would be able to turn away horses with an overly angled hind leg, long loin and closed shoulder. While those looking for a horse with upper level dressage potential are going to pay special attention to the haunch; pelvis length, femur to tibia ratio and snub their noses at a short hind leg, closed shoulder and a flat, short humerus.

        Given all the education presented, it would be pleasing to know that many of us will take a good, hard look at how we ride our horses for their own well being. Even better to think that this blog may have reached some WP or HUS riders who never gave the thought, due to lack of information, to how their riding can affect the horse’s health and soundness. And as much as Merc digs at WD, it’s a great outlet for those of us who want to do better by our horses and for ourselves.

  6. Yes, as everyone else said, thank you! It really helps to confirm some things for me. First, I don’t claim any discipline, I just dabble in whatever the horse that I’m riding enjoys the most. However, I’ve long been confused when I hear dressage people talk about the horse coming under himself, using his hind end, engaging, being off the forehand and all the popular catch phrases. I’ve always been confused because what they always say is not what I see. I’ve always thought I was dumb and just missing something. And then you write this post with these pictures and now I think–well, maybe I’m not so dumb and my eyes do not betray me after all! What I thought was so obvious in high level dressage is true. THANKS!

  7. Kate,
    I thought the same as you…. I must be dumb or missing something. It turns out, we’re not thanks to Merc who has taken the time to write educational blurbs that confirm what we originally thought to be correct.
    I think what’s happened is that so many people/horses are training/going incorrectly that it has become the norm. Therefore, when folks such as those following and believing in the information provided in this blog, question the training or way of going, we’re the odd man out. Seeing that we seem to be the only advocates of going correctly it obviously means we must be wrong. If we were right, then everybody would be doing it.
    I think what adds to the problem for me personally is that I know how the horse is supposed to go (or at least feel) and I could perhaps even point out some errors that are happening while under saddle but when I’m asked to explain it, I struggle. I know the horse is supposed to push from behind, work over its back, be relaxed and supple blah blah blah but WHAT are the cues to get that and HOW are they applied and WHEN. Yes, that is what good coaching is for but that, to me, is the true challenge We can all read about how the horse should go but actually applying that knowledge or fining the right person to help you can be a struggle.
    Perhaps the other issue is money. This is no excuse of course but it is a harsh reality for some of us. I’ll use myself as an example. A number of years ago I answered a part board ad ( I don’t own my own horse even now). I ended up at a very fancy dressage facility. Thankfully the lady that owned the horse didn’t really need the money, she just didn’t have the time which was a good thing for me since I could afford the minimal $200/mth she wanted. I was also keen to take lessons with the owner who, in my opinion was a superstar dressage rider. At $80 for 1/2 hour, it was expensive and I worried BUT, it was worth every penny so I made other sacrifices in my life to afford it. Not only was the horse great, the instruction was as well. I learned a ton in the short 2 years I was there but alas, the cost just became too much and I had to stop riding there. Although I’ve come across 1 or 2 other coaches that were okay, none compared to this person, not only was/is she a good instructor, we were a good fit personality wise. The nice horse helped a lot too of course!
    Since then, I’ve had a few other part board opportunities but due to circumstance, I am stuck with either using the “in-house coach” or finding a new coach that is, frankly, good enough (meaning that I can learn from them). I know, I know, not all in-house coaches are terrible, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that that particular in-house coach might not specialize in a particular discipline. In my area, 99% of the barns are jumper, hunter or eventing. Sorry, but the dressage in these disciplines is just not the same as the dressage taught at a reputable dressage facility (which happen to be all high end and I can’t afford).
    Horses are a luxury and they are expensive so money, not just knowledge, can contribute to the issue. If I don’t have the knowledge, at least I know where I can get it, I just can’t afford it.
    Perhaps this is the case for many other people.

    • Yes DangSportPony, our stories are similar except I haven’t been able to afford lessons and for many years have just picked up horses that people don’t have time to ride. My biggest problem was highlighted in Warmbloods Today (not sure why this comes to me, I don’t pay for it). It was titled “Warmblood Whispers, What your horse is trying to tell you.” As a non-owner (despite my equine sci degree and animal behavior work) a lot of owners don’t often like to hear my opinions or anyone’s for that matter so I try to keep my mouth shut. I am not a great rider AT ALL, but I’m usually good with resolving things like bolting, bucking, head throwing etc–those “bad” behaviors just don’t often happen with me because I feel, listen and work WITH the horse before these things happen. LIke you, I don’t know how to explain what I’m doing exactly, I just know when it feels right–and usually that’s when both horse and rider are happy! :o) I love it when the horse is soft, supple and you can feel his back come up, its like the stars have aligned!

    • It seems to me that you still want to ride high end dressage, and nothing in this post has altered your basic belief that there is where you will get the best training. If winning in the show ring is your goal, that is where you need to be. But look at those dressage pictures again, and then go look at innumberable other competition pictures, and then decide if that is what you want to ride. It isn’t a horse pushing from behind, rounding up, lifing its back, it is clearly not purity of gait. And ask yourself why you want to continue to pursue that.

      This critique should disabuse anyone from rushing off to learn how to ride competition dressage or competition WP or Hunter for stock horses. Just keep looking until you can find people who can ride a horse in collection without forcing it’s head in, rushing it off it’s feet until it is tight in its back and flailing its front legs and leaving the hind feet out behind. They could be in any discipline, but they probably won’t emphasize modern competition riding in the big three of competition dressage, stock horse breed shows or arabian breed shows.

      Find someone who corrects your seat. Can you immediately see the seat faults in the pictures above and point them out and why they aren’t good and the effect they have on the horse? Do you know how to correct those faults in yourself? It is amazing how much fixing the rider fixes the horse’s way of going.

    • jrga has a point, but here is mine. You seem to have the desire, also the “gift” for riding. Unfortunately, money can be a problem. But you were lucky to find even one person that was really able to teach you. Good teachers are few and far between, and not just riding instructors, anyone trying to teach. There just aren’t to many of them. From my school days to taking different kinds of dance, etc. classes, most of them just suck. That makes the few that you do connect with so important to you. I can offer you no suggestions that you probably have not heard a thousand times before, but I do encourage you to pursue your riding.

      As a side note, aren’t the dressage saddles morphing into some weird shapes? Sure don’t look like the saddles from the “olden times” that I grew up in.

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