A Guide to Dressage Gaits

Tips from Olympian and licensed Bereiter Jan Ebeling will help you improve your training and sharpen your eye for a horse's way of going.

We all know that there are three recognized gaits in dressage: the four-beat walk, the two-beat trot and the three-beat canter. But dressage also recognizes “types” of gaits: medium, free, collected and extended walk; and working, medium, collected and extended trot and canter. Whether you’re training or showing your horse or simply watching a class at a dressage show, understanding the difference and knowing what you’re actually seeing can sometimes be a challenge.

And that’s too bad, because the quality of gaits is so important in our sport that Gaits is the first Collective Mark on every dressage test. There is an emphasis on “freedom,” which is manifested by the reach and scope of your horse’s limbs, and “regularity.” This involves his ability to maintain an even rhythm–the recurring sequence and timing of his footfalls at a suitable and consistent tempo.

What We’ll Do

In this article, I’ll explain the differences between the types of gaits, and when and why, in the course of your horse’s training and competing, they appear.

Please note: The difference between an extended and collected gait isn’t merely about the length of a horse’s steps. I always tell my students, “Don’t only follow your horse with a ruler and measure the distance between his footprints. The lengthening or shortening of his step is important, but only as it relates to his overall outline, the elevation of his steps, the raising of his forehand and neck relative to the lowering of his croup and even the lengthening or shortening of his neck.”

Another point to remember is that dressage training is a slow, logical, step-by-step progression. It builds the strength, muscle, balance, animation, activity and cadence (the sum of rhythm plus impulsion, which is expressed by an energetic lifting of the feet from the ground and gives any gait an extra quality).

The test levels at which the different types of gaits appear mirror the “building blocks” of the Training Scale: rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection. (In fact, the tests are sometimes referred to as a “blueprint” for your training.) I’m sure that if you pushed your green 4-year-old, you probably could get a nice extended canter, no problem! But when you got to the severe down transition, he wouldn’t be physically strong or balanced enough to carry it off.

That’s why, at Introductory Level, you simply want to show that your horse can be ridden on a light but steady contact (or allowed complete freedom to lower and stretch out his head and neck in the free walk).

At Training Level you want to additionally confirm that his muscles are supple and loose and that he moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit.

At First Level, he has additionally developed thrust (pushing power) and achieved a degree of balance and throughness (the state in which your aids/influence go freely through all parts of him, from back to front and front to back).

At Second Level, he accepts more weight on his hindquarters, has an uphill tendency and stays reliably on the bit. He does this with a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage.

At Third Level he shows increased engagement with rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of the bit, throughness, balance, impulsion, straightness and collection.

At Fourth Level and above, he has a high degree of suppleness, impulsion and throughness, plus a clear uphill balance and lightness. He remains reliably on the bit. His movements are straight, energetic and cadenced, and his transitions are precise and smooth.

Now, how do these requirements determine when and where the various types of gaits appear? Keep them in mind as you read on.

The Walk

The ideal walk is a regular, free, energetic and relaxed marching gait in which your horse’s feet follow one another in a four-time sequence of left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore, with no moment of suspension. It has been said that at the walk, the “imperfections of dressage are most evident.” This is because physical or mental tension (which we don’t want) is most apparent at the walk. Your horse’s back muscles get tight and negatively disrupt his all-important rhythm (remember, the first quality on the Training Scale). So important is a relaxed walk, that in all the tests in all the levels, the free or extended walk has a double coefficient. Even at Grand Prix, in other words, a little diagonal line at the extended walk counts twice as much as a line of 15 one-tempis!

Here are the types of walk:

Medium walk is called for from Introductory through Third Level. It is appropriate to those levels because it has to be clear, regular and unconstrained. Your horse remains on the bit while you maintain a light, soft and steady contact. He walks energetically but calmly forward, with even and determined steps and a moderate lengthening that allows his hind feet to touch the ground in front of the print of his forefeet.

Free walk is called for in tests from Introductory through Second Level. It is a pace of relaxation in which you allow your horse complete freedom to lower and stretch out his head and neck. The free walk may be performed on a long rein (with contact) or a loose rein (with a loop in the rein and no contact). Even though your horse should maintain an energetic, ground-covering attitude, (the longer his strides, the better) this walk should be characterized by mental and physical relaxation.

Which rein length is best for your horse? To answer that question, you have to realize that there’s also an element of obedience involved. How does your horse deal with the show atmosphere when he’s walking freely and not on your rein aids? Does he maintain his mental concentration and produce a good, clear, long-strided walk, or does he get distracted and lose rhythm and regularity? Any time you feel that your horse is tense or might create a problem on a loose rein, by all means, establish contact. In my experience, by the way, judges don’t get hung up on the length of rein. What they’re looking for are the qualities of the free walk–it’s up to you to whether you achieve them on a long or a loose rein.

Collected walk first appears at Third Level and continues through Grand Prix. Your horse’s higher level of training and balance allows him to remain on the bit and move resolutely forward with his neck raised and arched. He shows clear self-carriage without needing support from or balancing on your hand. His hind legs are engaged, with hock action that demonstrates increased carrying power. Because his joints flex more than in the medium walk, each step covers less ground and is more elevated and active. In general, your horse’s hind feet touch the ground behind or in the prints of his forefeet.

Extended walk is also required from Third Level through Grand Prix. Your horse is in a very long frame, stretching out his head and neck and covering as much ground as possible. You’re pushing the walk to the limit, eking out the last little bit of overstep and striding that he has to offer, while maintaining contact, uphill balance and the regularity of his steps. His hind feet touch the ground clearly in front of the prints of his forefeet.

The Trot

The trot is the gait of “two time” on alternate diagonal legs, separated by a moment of suspension. The quality of the trot is judged by the regularity and elasticity of your horse’s steps and his ability to maintain the same rhythm and natural balance during and after transitions. I look for reach out of a horse’s shoulder and active hocks that really move up and down, with the hind legs clearly stepping underneath the horse’s body and carrying weight.

Working trot is required from Introductory Level through First Level and is characterized by a reasonable degree of balance. Staying on the bit, your horse goes forward with even, elastic steps in a pace between the collected and medium trots. At First Level, your horse is also asked to show that he has developed a degree of thrust by lengthening his working trot: elongating his stride and outline while maintaining balance and tempo.

Collected trot first appears at Second Level. Your horse, now stronger and more supple, remains on the bit with a shorter outline from bit to hip, and his neck and withers stretched and arching upward. His hocks are well-engaged and maintain an energetic impulsion that allows his shoulders to move with greater ease in any direction. His steps are the shortest of any trot, but he is lighter and more mobile. Collection doesn’t appear until now because you need quite a bit of “oomph” for it. When your horse collects, he isn’t just going slow or stepping with his foot in a certain place. It’s about how his balance has changed over time so that he’s more elevated in front because he’s lowering behind and carrying more. It goes without saying that a horse with very active hocks and a very free shoulder will have an easier time collecting because his step can become even higher and shorter. The highest degree of elevation and animation? Piaffe and passage.

Medium trot first appears at Second Level and demonstrates a length of stride between working and extended trot. But again, you have to look at the whole picture. He is rounder than he is at extended trot, but he has more uphill balance, more forward and upward thrust and more reach than at the working trot. He remains on the bit, but you allow him to lower his head and neck slightly so he carries his head a little more in front of the vertical than at the collected or working trot. 

Extended trot isn’t called for until Third Level because your horse, remaining on the bit, must cover as much ground as possible. He must maintain nearly the same tempo and relatively uphill balance as in collected trot, while stretching and lengthening his outline and stride with an increased phase of suspension. His forefeet should touch the ground on the spot toward which they are pointing and his diagonal fore and hind legs should be parallel in the forward moment of their extension. One reason we want a horse with big, roomy gaits, a long shoulder and lots of suspension is that these features make for spectacular extensions, and for that matter, spectacular collection and very fancy lateral work.

The Canter

The canter is a gait of “three time.” Cantering to the right, say, the footfalls of a single canter stride are left hind first, then right hind and left fore simultaneously, then right fore, then a moment of suspension or “jump” when all four feet are in the air. If your horse has an active hind end, it is very likely that he will have a lot of jump, and that’s good. The longer he stays in the air, the more spectacular his medium and extended canters will be and the easier and more expressive his changes.

Working canter is called for in Training through First Level. It is a pace between collected and medium canter in which your horse, remaining on the bit, goes forward with even, light and cadenced strides and good hock action. At First Level, he is asked to show that he has developed thrust by lengthening his working canter, elongating his stride and outline while maintaining the same balance and essentially the same tempo as in the working canter.

Collected canter appears at Second Level. Your horse, remaining on the bit, moves forward with his neck raised and arched. This canter is marked by the lightness of his forehand and the engagement of his hindquarters. It is characterized by supple, free and mobile shoulders and very active hindquarters. His strides are shorter than they are in the other canters, but he is lighter and more mobile.

Medium canter, which also first appears at Second Level, is a pace between working and extended canter. Your horse goes forward with free, balanced and moderately long strides and an obvious impulsion from his hindquarters. He remains on the bit, but you allow him to lower his head and neck slightly and carry his head a little more in front of the vertical than at the collected and working canter.

Extended canter, just like extended trot, isn’t called for until Third Level. Your horse lengthens his frame and stride to the utmost and covers as much ground as possible while maintaining rhythm and lightness and again, an increased phase of suspension. Without leaning, he stays on the bit as he lowers and extends his head and neck, with the tip of his nose pointing more or less forward.

How does Jan Ebeling evaluate a horse’s gaits? “I first look for good rhythm and correct paces. Then I look at how big a step he makes.”

Born in Germany, Jan earned his Bereiter license while apprenticing under late German dressage master Herbert Rehbein, then came to the United States in 1984 to work alongside Robert Dover. Jan became a citizen in 1998 and in 2003 won the right to represent the United States at the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where he clinched the team gold medal and finished fifth overall on the stallion, Feleciano.

In 2007, Jan wowed the crowd with his Grand Prix demonstration ride during the Las Vegas World Cup on this month’s canter model, Rafalca, an 11-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by Amy Ebeling, Ann Romney, Beth Meyer and Pat Crow. He also rides and trains two small tour horses: our walk model, the 9-year-old Westfalen stallion Louis Ferdinand owned by Barbara McLean; and our trot model Sandrina, a 10-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by Ann Romney.

Jan and his wife, Amy, own and operate a training and sales facility, The Acres, in Moorpark, California.

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