The Olympic Games presents a great opportunity for us to indulge in watching wonderful horses perform in the dressage arena, but how can we best appreciate the performances when the same movement on horses with very different training, conformation and expression in their paces can appear quite differently?
By looking for the qualities of a movement it becomes easy to compare different types of horse. An example of this is extended trot. In extended trot, warmbloods with big movement tend produce a big, expressive step, whereas an Iberian horse will show a less visually spectacular pace, however this does not mean that the Iberian extension is incorrect, or that the Warmblood extension is perfect. So how can you identify a correct movement?
An extended trot is described by the FEI as follows;
The aim is to show the utmost impulsion in trot strides with as much lengthening and ground cover as possible without a loss of balance.
The regularity of the two-beat rhythm with still longer moments of suspension than at medium trot.
One of the key phrases in the description above is “with as much lengthening and ground cover as possible without a loss of balance.” This accepts that each horse will have a different expression depending on their conformation. In extended trot I look at the movement of the horse’s shoulder, which should be free moving and the foot should be placed at the furthest point of the extension and not drawn back. Looking at the hind leg you should see an equal suspension and length in each of the diagonal steps.
The neck position is also important. Extended trot requires the horse’s neck to be lengthened and the head may come slightly in front of the vertical. If the neck is shortened, the withers will drop and the shoulders and back are blocked.
The pictures below show two breeds of horse both doing an extended trot. They are moving with a free shoulder, the fore leg carrying the reach through the forearm and the foot lowering at the farthest point of the reach. The neck is long and rises up from the withers. The horses back is not blocked and the hind leg is correctly reaching under the body.
The grey horse has a shorter more upright conformation than the other horse, but both extensions are correct, showing a lengthened frame and free shoulder and back.
At the other end of the scale is piaffe which is another movement in which it is easy to compare different horses. The FEI description of piaffe describes the qualities that should be present;
The aim of piaffe is to demonstrate the highest degree of collection which giving the impression of remaining in place. To perform the movement with forward intent while maintaining clear diagonal steps.
To compare piaffe in different horses, focus on the hind legs. The height and suspension should be the same in both legs, and the feet should be placed on the ground in line with each other; sometimes one hind foot is placed further back than the other.
In the forehand, the legs should lift to the same height on each side, and should be under the shoulder when on the ground, not back under the body of the horse.
The neck should be raised from the withers in a graceful arc. Some horses have a more closed head and neck position than others, which is appropriate, providing the rider is not restricting the forward movement with their hands.
In the pictures above the horse on the right is showing a greater degree of flexion in the hocks and lowering of the quarters than the horse on the left, but looking at the qualities of the piaffe, they are both correct.
Correct dressage training should result in a strong, supple, well balanced horse who takes weight towards the hind quarters and remains light in the hand. There should be an overall quality of lightness in all work which is the result of self-carriage. There should be no tension in the reins, with the ultimate expression of this lightness in “descente de mains”, where the rider is able to lower the hands, releasing the rein contact and the horse remains in the same frame and movement.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer