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!