The Purity of the Gaits

A subject that, to my mind, is not often talked or thought about is the purity of the gaits. It is not just a topic that comes under discussion at the end of a competition test sheet where a mark has to be given for paces. The whole purpose of classically training the horse is to preserve the horse’s health and mental well-being, promote a longer working life and to enhance the movement of the horse. Too often it seems that the purity of gait is lost as the rider tries to make the gait more artificially extravagant or when the horse is pushed through movements that he or she is not ready for.

“If the gaits are to be considered correct by classical standards, they must demonstrate absolute purity of footfall, and be constant in rhythm regardless of the degree of extension or collection.” (Erik F Herbermann, The Dressage Formula)

The Walk:

The walk should show a clear four-time beat, the sequence being near hind - near fore - off hind - off fore. There must be an even beat with the same gap between each footfall. There is no moment of suspension in the walk, so at any given time there at two or three legs on the floor. The walk occurs therefore in eight phases.

The problem that happens with the walk is that the beat goes two-time, i.e. the horse walks in lateral pairs of legs, the near hind and fore move together, then the off hind and fore move together. This is normally caused by either tension in the horse or faulty riding which could include rushing the horse, trying to collect the walk too early, too much lateral work in walk without paying attention to the gait. The rider must feel for the regular 1-2-3-4, not 1-2 (lateral walk) or 1-2....3-4 (walk verging towards lateral).

The Trot:

The trot is a two-time movement with the legs moving in diagonal pairs with a moment of suspension (period where all four legs are off the floor) between each pair of legs touching the ground. The trot therefore has four phases:

  1. Diagonal pair of legs on the floor, other in the air,
  2. Moment of suspension, i.e. all four feet off the floor,
  3. The opposite diagonal pair now land as the other is in the air,
  4. Moment of suspension.

The possible problems here are many. The diagonal pair of legs can be broken by either the foreleg being still on the floor after the hindleg has lifted or by the hind leg being left behind when the fore leg has lifted. This splitting of the diagonal pairs is a product of the horse being on the forehand. Another fault is when the horse moves with lateral pairs as opposed to diagonal pairs of legs.

The Canter:

The canter is a three-time beat. The outside hind, diagonal pair of inside hind and outside fore then the inside fore followed by a moment of suspension. The reason that I use inside and outside here is deliberate - because when the horse is going directionally to the right, the canter sequence starts with the left/near hind. When the horse is going directionally to the left, the sequence starts with the right/off hind. Although the inside fore is called the leading leg, it is not the first beat in a canter stride. It is called that due to the fact that it leads out furthest in the canter stride.

The canter therefore has 6 phases:

  1. The outside hind lands on the ground
  2. The diagonal pair lands on the ground
  3. The outside hind is lifted off the floor, leaving just the diagonal pair
  4. The inside fore lands
  5. The diagonal pair lift off, leaving the inside fore
  6. All legs are lifted off for the moment of suspension.

The canter gait may become irregular if the beat goes four- time, i.e. the diagonal pair is broken and there is a ‘roll’ to the gait. When a horse is stiff / lazy the horse sometimes ‘ca-trots’ as I call it. This is when the horse is not fully in the three-beat canter stride and is somewhere between trotting and cantering. The other common problem with the canter is that it can go dis-united. This is when the hind legs are on left-rein lead and the forelegs are on the opposite, or vice versa.

Potential Problems with the Gaits:

  1. Stiffness - if the horse is either laterally or longitudinally stiff there will be the potential for gait irregularities. The walk could ‘pace’ i.e. go two-time or it could remain four-beat but look stilted and lack the impression of ‘going somewhere.’ Trying to ask for an outline within a walk gait that is stiff and therefore having no forward flow will inevitably lead to further problems. Stiffness in the trot can lead to ‘leg goers.’ This basically means that there is little or no lift to the trot, At the back stays on a horizontal plane and the legs just go ‘back and forth’ underneath the horse. The canter will suffer greatly through tightness in the horse’s back and muscles. The sequence becoming disunited is the most common result. Also, when the horse does not use his back, his legs are taking much more of a pounding which can result in unsoundness.

  2. Straightness through the horse: This will have a great effect upon how the horse moves. The best example is when the rider tries to ask for lengthened strides in the trot on a horse that is crooked. The horse may show some difference but normally there will be a diagonal irregularity - one diagonal pair will take a greater stride than the other. The bigger the steps asked for the more noticeable the difference between the diagonal pairs. The other possibility here is that the horse cannot lengthen so simply rushes and falls more onto the forehand. The lack of straightness and suppleness will prevent a rider from working on transitions within the gaits, and so progress will be very limited.

  3. Sometimes a metallic noise can be heard when riding, a striking of metal upon metal. This is called forging and is where the toe of the hind shoe strikes into the underside of the front shoe. This is normally a sign that the horse is on the forehand and rushing - the front foot has not had the time to get out of the way before the hind foot comes through.

  4. Tracking up: This is defined as when the hind foot steps into the foot print that has just been made by the fore foot on the same side. When the horse over-tracks, the hind foot should come over and land in front of the print of the fore foot. When the horse under tracks, the hind foot will land short of the fore print. Tracking up can be a useful indicator of how the horse is working.

  5. When we talk about horses working correctly we should be referring to the length of stride and certainly not the speed. The basic walk and ‘medium walk’ should show a clear over-track. The working trot should track up. Medium and extended trot should show over-track but the collected trot may under-track. This is because the stride has shortened due to higher steps - the speed is the same but what is lost in length of stride is gained in height. When the gait is faulty, there may be more of a reach of one hind leg than the other resulting in a different length of over-track. The hind leg should also move in the direction of the front leg on the same side, and a sign of faulty work is when the hind leg print is not in line with that of the foreleg.

  6. A tip for observing the canter. Tracking up does not really apply to the canter. When you look at the horse cantering, try and look for two triangles. As the horse completes a canter stride the first triangle will be made up from the ground as the base and the two front legs as the sides, the other triangle will be made with the ground and the two hind legs as the sides. When a horse is on the forehand, the triangle made by the hind legs will be smaller than made by the front legs. When the horse starts to show a working canter then the two triangles should, roughly speaking, be the same size.

  7. There will always be some variation on the training techniques for dressage, but some principles should always be adhered to. The horse must have the desire to travel forward, and this must be preserved and nurtured at all times. The purity of the work, and in particular the purity of the gaits, is also one of the key principles in correct dressage. The rider should take what nature has bestowed on the horse and, through the correct suppling, straightening and strengthening work, enhance the brilliance and beauty of the gait. The movements that are used in the training are intended to further the education and physical being of the horse. Too often they are instead used as items on a check-list, or because they appear in the next dressage test the rider is preparing for. This is when the horse is pushed through work that he is not ready for and the gaits suffer. We see irregular piaffes, trots that have lost the purity of the diagonal pairings, canter pirouettes that are ridden into in a three-beat canter, break into four-beat through the pirouette and then return to three-beat upon exiting the movement. When the right time is taken with the training, and good solid foundations are laid, the work evolves into natural brilliance, not artificially produced work that lacks purity. When the right time is taken with the training, and good solid foundations are laid, the work evolves into natural brilliance, not artificially produced work that lacks purity.