The Exceptional Gaits of Modern Dressage: What’s Natural? What’s Not?

The following article was written by Haley.  Some of you may remember her from this blog posting two years ago.  Hey, Haley, the readers may want to know what you and Flecha are up to, and what did or did not change from seeking input.

One of the basic principles of dressage training is that, performed correctly, it will improve a horse’s way of going. The back lifts, the steps become lighter, and the horse moves with greater suspension, balance and grace. It’s a beautiful image, and certainly worth aspiring to, especially when we are told this movement is beneficial to the horse. But is that what we’re seeing in the Grand Prix dressage ring?

To the casual observer, upper level horses in competition appear to have lift, suspension and thrust in spades. Here’s the horse many consider to be the epitome of such ideals, Moorlands Totilas, in 2009:

This stallion trots with such incredible bounce in his step that the gait seems to be a distant cousin to what our horses do at home. His extended trot takes him across the ring in the blink of an eye. The canter is a study in contained power.

Another stallion, Fuego XII, piaffes with snapping knees, and his front legs articulate with such reach in the trot that he seems to pull at the ground beneath him:

These two stallions represent modern breeding strategies. Let’s take a look back at Donnerhall in a video from, I believe, circa 1994:

I am not the movement, training and conformation expert Mercedes is. Therefore, I cannot say if what we see in this video is “better” or “more natural” than what we see in the previous two. But it’s easy to see that it is definitely different! The trot is light and elegant, but more subdued and with less airtime. The piaffe and passage express power, but the limbs “snap” less. The canter strides have a faster cadence and are less bouncy. What causes the difference between Donnerhall’s movement and the previous two stallions? Conformation, training, or both?

Here’s a horse that caused a bit of a stir on the Chronicle of the Horse forums several years ago:

In the walk, he stomps at the ground. At the trot, his front feet are flinging forward while his hind feet never seem to reach the midline of the body. There’s no doubt he’s overbent and his back is tense. One commenter said he looked “like two men in a horse suit.” Ouch! But the video led me to wonder: what does this gelding look like at liberty? How did he come to move this way?

We can get a good look at the before and after of a horse’s gait development as it comes along by looking at two videos of the same young stallion, Don Juan De Hus. First, let’s look at this recent video from February 2015:

This horse has a very articulated canter; his front limbs coming perpendicular to the ground before landing. His front end rises and falls like the prow of a boat on a choppy sea. Check out the still image of his piaffe at the beginning of the video, and his stretch at 1:16. I see a horse heavy on the front end in that still image (though judging just one moment in time isn’t always ideal) and overflexed and bent too far to the inside in the stretch.

It is interesting to watch his piaffe at 2:01. His hind end is more active than the front-not what we’re used to seeing! But looking at the angle of his front legs, it looks like he’s still not engaging his abs and sitting down. Could it be that activity in the back is leaning on the forehand?

Let’s see what he looked like when he was younger (2-2.5 years old, to be exact):

Here he is at liberty during a young stallion test. His trot is lovely and he’s excited, so those knees are snapping up on their own, no rider required. The canter is long and ground-eating. You get to see him use his back and haunches at 0:05, to evade his pesky handlers.

In the same video, we see him, still less than three years old, being schooled. He’s on a longer rein, his nose is frequently on or in front of the vertical, though he does tuck it in from time to time. The canter is big, but clearly adjustable. So in which video is he moving better? What does his body show us? And is his way of going now improving him physically?

I would argue that if there’s one thing we know for sure, expert or not, it’s that dressage horse breeders are selecting for more extravagant movement that comes naturally to the horse. Such gaits get big scores in the ring, and the stallions who pass this quality on to their foals are in high demand. But what happens when these naturally exceptional gaits become even more, well, extreme under saddle? Are they being improved? Are such gaits themselves detrimental to the horse (causing strain on joints, tendons, muscles and ligaments)?

One could liken the horses we see competing at Grand Prix today to the haute couture on the runways in Paris, Milan, New York and London: carefully conceived at great cost and meant to be worn-or ridden-by a mere fraction of the people who admire and aspire to having them. Certainly high fashion and high level dressage share many other similarities: fame is a commodity, money and influence determine the outcome of who gets access to the best the industry has to offer, and both worlds see their share of scandal.

For me, the horses of the dressage elite also share a similar role to that of the models chosen to wear high fashion. Both are subject to the preferences of individuals in positions of power. Is a judge scoring well for high knees and huge extensions the same thing as a designer telling a teenage model to lose even more weight? Of course not. But it’s important to remember that physical extremes by their very nature are hard to achieve and maintain.

Artificial or natural, pure or impure, innate or trained? Let’s discuss more in the comments! What do you think of the breathtaking movers we see in Grand Prix dressage? What do you think of the current state of affairs for breeding dressage horses? What is its effect on the breeds and the sport? Share your opinions on the videos. Let’s talk!

I’d like to thank Mercedes for the opportunity to write about this subject, and I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading!
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19 thoughts on “The Exceptional Gaits of Modern Dressage: What’s Natural? What’s Not?

  1. Very well done. Bravo. But since I am a humble trail rider, and to tell the truth I did not watch the videos all the way through because – well because I find it boring. But here is my 2 cents.

    The one with the bell boots and extreme action looked like it had some carriage horse blood. My first thought was Saddlebred, but someone in the comment section said carriage horse, and that makes sense. As for the exaggerated movement, well some gaited breeds paddle and have all kind of wacky movements and stay sound. For a long time gaited horses were prefered to trotting horses, remember the fabled Narraganset Pacer? I have no interest in this kind of dressage, my ideal remains the Spanish Riding School.

    Now I will sit back and see what the experts have to say.

  2. I’m an eventer working hard to improve my dressage. I don’t have much of a trained eye yet but one of the things I look for, that makes sense is the open throat latch that happens with the lifted withers, rather than the head and neck at a closed angle and high neck with dropped withers. But you rarely see it. I didn’t see any of these horses doing it, maybe the young Don Juan.

  3. Without doing an exhaustive analysis of each video, look for signs of tension and lack of stretching/adjustability in the top line, mouth gaping, excessive foamy saliva, tail swishing and tow flicking. Almost all warmblood breeds have/had a high percentage of carriage horse which is why they are warmbloods, hot blooded stallions crossed on cold blood mares for the most part to create lighter riding horses. Almost all top dressage horses have traded fluidity for leg snapping, showier gaits because it wows the crowd. Mercedes hasn’t covered muscles much yet, starting with the skeleton, but correct movement looks soft, limbs move and retract without tension, without looking more like a robot mimicking natural movement. The unridden video of Don Juan shows what tension looks like in an unridden horse combined with his skeletal structure that tends toward high knee action, but it is the tension that adds to the up down action. He is being chased to keep him moving, this isn’t a relaxed horse moving for the joy of moving who will look different. Not how many times his tail is not a relaxed rainbow and he lifts his head, dropping out the base of his neck as much as possible for a horse that is built uphill.

    One difference to look for between Totilas and Fuego, both of which are ridden with heavy contact, nose always at or behind the vertical, showing some tension, etc., is the degree to which Fuego can still stretch over the top line in the walk and in his extensions. The length of the spine should stretch along the top line in a horse in extended gaits. Extension requires collection, but one allows the energy to create more forward and less up, by holding in the head you can restrain the front end, tighten the neck and chest muscles and cause the exaggerated front end movement and get the toe flicking/flinging reach that is rewarded. But one no longer sees in the trot or canter extensions any true stretch. And if one has locked down the neck, one has impeded stretch over back as well. These modern horses are built to be uphill, to have an head start on collection. And modern dressage then does everything it can to ultimately kill true collection in favor of flashy leg movement.

  4. Excellent post, thank you. It’s interesting to see the comparison videos. Go back a bit earlier, to Klaus Balkenhol on Goldstern or Reiner Klimke on Ahlerich, and you horses and performances of a different conformation and kind. The horses in Klimke’s and Balkenhol’s last Olympic rides looked more like horses, well trained and moving correctly, rather than the overdeveloped, over-flexed, artificial-looking horses we see in today’s FEI competitions. The earlier training seemed to place less emphasis on relaxation and developing a topline, but you don’t see noses cranked into chests, and legs snapping upward into a strange imitation of saddle seat gaits. Going earlier, there’s footage available of earlier Olympic rides, with the 1964 Olympics being particularly interesting. Most of those horses appear a bit hollow, but still move better and more naturally than what we see today. And we also have to remember that the earlier 60’s was still suffering from the years of destruction and setback to equestrian sports done during WWII. The one thing I see in common in those earlier films/videos is that the competition horses looked more like riding horses – which is, after all, one of the main goals of dressage, isn’t it?

  5. Not an expert by any means, but the Chronicle Horse looks like he is “laboring”. If he was a saddleseat horse I would lighten his shoes. How is this beauty? The Dutch Harness Horse blood is certainly showing up in the top Dressage horses with the exaggerated movement. It is attractive in harness which allows the horse to lift and extend. Not so attractive (in my opinion), under saddle. Podhasky certainly did not think much of the “suspended” trots. Clearly, these are not horses for the rest of us anymore.

  6. Wow, I hadn’t realized how much dressage had changed since 1994 (which, to my middle-aged self, seems like “not that long ago” instead of twenty years back) but the modern movement sure is flashy. Not sure Donnerhall would even place nowadays — he’s just not a big enough mover compared to the modern dressage horses.

    The Don Juan horse looks like a really fun ride at 2.5 in the “younger” video. He’s rhythmic and elastic and moving well, tracking up and springy. He looks like a happy young horse doing his under-saddle work. But, he looks quite unhappy in the “more mature” video — front legs are stabbing the ground at the canter, hinds aren’t reaching at all. I guess he’s “more collected” but collection is not supposed to lose the hindlimb reach or kill the suspension, both of which pretty much happened. If I’d only seen the “mature” video, I would have figured he had a craptacular canter. Also, his 2.5 yr old trot is springy and reaching but the “mature” trot is…. no. Again, what I liked is gone. In short, what looked like pretty good movement to me on a 2.5 yr old colt newly under saddle became “do not want” movement on a trained 7 yr old horse. I am not particularly a student of modern dressage, but I don’t *think* it’s about Taking Decent Movement and Crudding It Up.

  7. I wish that I had time to leave a “real” comment, but…

    Modern “show” Dressage sucks for horses. Just plain sucks right out loud 😦 I wish people knew what the hell they were looking at.

    • Well I do have a few minutes here, I’ll go again. My early exposure to dressage was the spanish riding school, and to me the goal was to make the aids invisible, and to my young untrained eye it looked like the horses hind legs really stepped under themselves. One of my best memories was reading a book that the author said he rode a horse that some superior of his thought was a crap horse, took that horse and trained it in dressage, and showed it to the same person who did not recognize the horse. That is what the molding from the inside to the outside musculature did. Of course, I have never ridden dressage, never had lessons, and my experience is different from those of you who have trained and ridden a lot of horses. I have not. But I still do not like what I see of some of the modern Dressage – exagerrated aids, bouncing butts to make the horse piaffe, etc.

      • Well, the development of the musculature is one of if not the biggest gains of riding dressage. I recently hung up my western saddle for a black, long flap, dual billet type and rode my first ‘dressage’ test. The judge was not complimentary of my ‘western’ horse and his efforts and a comment was even made, with a bit of a snicker, regarding his downhill build. So does this mean I quit? Hell, no! Everything I’m doing (or trying to do) when I ring ride is mostly for the benefit of my horse, though I do enjoy the challenge of my own personal growth as well. My cutting bred horse is learning to lengthen his stride, has a good base of lateral work, performs travers and ranvers, etc. Our training is backwards as we began with lateral work and collection long before lengthening but that is our evolution. Traditional dressage horse? Not in the least. Am I going to let one sour grapes judge thwart my efforts? Nope. It may have taken a lesson with a professional to get my own head back in the game but on this we both agree. Regardless of the horse’s conformation, a horse ridden for strength movements and lengthening will benefit 10-fold over a horse loping (crabbing?) around a WP class all day, every day. We can improve but we’re on the way and I can find no reason to discontinue our training and competition goals. It should always be for the benefit of the horse first and foremost. Though I think we’d be fibbing if we said we only did it for them. It’s a superb exercise in psychological growth.

    • Right about Don Juan. In my opinion, most of the reasons for his evident decline are in these two videos. First off, why is he working like that under saddle at 2.5 years old? Too much, too young for a horse that won’t be physically mature for another 3+ years. In the second video, at 7 years old, the rider just plain rides him poorly, and contributes to his deteriorated gaits. (I don’t know how long that particular rider had been riding him, or what had transpired in the 4.5 years after the earlier video, so this is just an in-the-moment comment.)
      Even with a reasonably correct training program, insensitive, incorrect riding can ruin a horse. Happens all the time and it is a shame in every instance.

      • I ride dressage with my Quarter Horse. It’s all about proper development and it takes time and patience to build the proper topline for any breed of horse. No, my horse doesn’t have the neck set or movement like many million dollar movers (which many look and move more like hollow backed Saddlebreds), but he can still be developed to achieve a proper topline. The essentials are the horse MUST be working over the back at all times, no matter the gait or movement, and in relaxation, starting with consistent long and low work in all 3 gaits, then simply bringing them up from that point.

  8. agreed, never should have been in the kind of work he was in at 2.5 years of age, and even in the second video, at 7 he has just attained what is considered the typical age for full skeletal maturity. Given his long leg build, especially in proportion to the bones of hip, he isn’t particularly well suited to collection in the sense that even as he approaches maturity at 7, his length of hip is not as great as the femur, he also has long cannons up front, part of what gives him so much action , that cannon is a long pendulum to swing.

    Particularly though in the 7 year old video, though he has muscled up, grown some depth and length to his hip, notice that he doesn’t engage. The ls joint engages and every joint of the hind limb should fold up proportionately to the engagement of the ls joint. Look at the lack of rising of the back, engagement at the ls joint and folding of the hind limb. Go back and watch so of Secretariat and watch that horse’s back engage and his hind limbs follow suit, go back to the big thread here on various styles of horses and look at the tolting Norwegians and the engagement they showed. Collection completes the stretch of the spine that starts with engagement, the neck stretches and arches, ligaments over the withers raise the back to complete the stretch of the ligaments at the rear begun by the engagement and fold of hip at the ls joint. Don Juan is being held in front, blocking stretch and then forced through a scooping and therefore unquiet and potentially painful seat and spurs to move behind. The ls joint never shows much engagement the back doesn’t rise as it should and the leg joints don’t fold much. A collected gait is less forward, it has less reach, it should have more folding.

    This horse is mimicking upper level movement. It is almost all front leg and neck and no sitting down behind compared to what it ought to be. Wasted years to the detriment of the horse to suit a style of showing. The training has been lost.

  9. All this being said, I would appreciate any observations about DuJardin and Valegro. When I watch them, I see a tremendous connection between them, something lacking in some of the other top dressage riders, who seem to be forcing a performance. The horse, frankly, looks like he is enjoying himself, and so does she.

  10. Much less tension, and the horse will stretch when offered the opportunity, and rarely goes behind the vertical, the neck doesn’t show any breaks, she sometimes has a little trouble with the canter pirouettes losing a little impulsion, but still nothing ugly. Compared to a lot of what is out there in competition dressage and has been for the last few years, it is good horsemanship and riding that doesn’t break down the horse, which is what we all want regardless of the discipline.

    • And again, for years I called that horse Tortilla. How old is he, anyway, just scanned the article, maybe I missed it.

    • What an odd and entirely unrevealing diagnosis: edema in the bone. So are we talking inflammation of some bone marrow? Are we talking about around a bone due to a strike of some kind, getting cast or some other physical contact? Are we talking about joint inflammation and resultant arthritic changes? And what about this edema is career ending? Why wouldn’t some time off resolve it?

  11. Deeper in the article it says he was diagnosed with periostitis, bone infection. Bone marrow edema can be a result of infection or injury, as well as arthritis which may be injury induced as well. They didn’t say what bones so hard to guess. One also wonders if he received a joint injection during his time off that went wrong leading to infection. All speculation of course.

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