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Western Dressage – The gaits of a Western dressage horse. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

April 17, 2016

A common question that comes up about Western dressage is, “What are the various gaits of a Western dressage horse?” Gaits are the footfalls of the horse. In Western dressage, the basic gaits are walk (four-beat), jog (two-beat with a time of suspension), and lope (three-beat with a time of suspension after the third beat). The lope can be either on the right lead or the left lead. Within each gait, there are variations, which will be explained below.

The degree of difficulty of the gaits depends on which level you are training or competing in and follows the dressage training scale, which builds upon previous levels. For example, the collected gaits are only developed after the horse has consistently shown good rhythm and relaxation in the working gaits and is beginning to show more engagement of the hind end.

In the working gaits the horse’s nose should be in front of the vertical, with the poll as the highest point. The horse should show even, balanced movement. In the walk and the jog the horse’s hind feet should reach into his front foot steps. The rider should maintain a light, soft, contact with the horse’s mouth, allowing the horse to move his head naturally, and with a relaxed back. In the lope the horse will be marked on the suppleness of his back, engagement of the hindquarters, and maintaining his rhythm in a balanced frame. At the working gaits, there should be an obvious push from the hindquarters as the hind legs step actively up under the horse. The working jog may be ridden posting or sitting, however, it is recommended to sit the jog in level 1.

Mav working jog

Working jog: poll is higher than the withers. Horse could have the nose slightly more in front of the vertical for Intro/Basic level. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

The free gaits are ridden with a light contact and show the horse’s relaxation as he is allowed to stretch forward and down with his head and neck with his nose reaching in front of the vertical with the poll slightly lower than the withers. The horse should be balanced and maintain the rhythm of the working gait as he stretches and lengthens his stride slightly. In the walk and jog the horse’s hind feet should step in front of the front foot prints. The free jog may be ridden posting or sitting until level 2. The purpose of the free gaits is to show that the horse can lengthen his frame and strides with light contact without rushing or losing his balance, and stay in control. A loose rein is acceptable as well. The obedience of the horse may determine the amount of contact. If the horse is drifty or “looky”, the rider may need more contact to maintain the correct flexion and position on the circle.

Mav free jog

Free jog:  horse is reaching forward and down, rounding the back and maintaining the same rhythm with a slightly longer stride. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

Lengthening of stride is introduced in level 1. The horse must maintain his balance as he moves freely forward in a longer stride, covering more ground while maintaining the same tempo as in the working jog. The horse must not appear to be rushing, which can sometimes happen if the horse is not balanced and gets heavy on the forehand. The tempo of the lengthening will be the same as the working gaits, but a longer stride will be shown. The horse’s nose should be slightly in front of the vertical with the poll as the highest point. Lengthening of the jog may be ridden posting or sitting until level 3, when it must be ridden sitting.

Legacy free walk

Free walk: this horse is demonstrating the reach needed for a free walk. You can see how his hind step is reaching past his front foot step.l His neck is stretched forward and down, allowing the horse to stretch through his body from back to front. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

Collected gaits will show the horse moving with more of an uphill tendency with more engagement from the hind legs. The stride of the collected gaits will be shorter as the horse puts more energy “up” as opposed to the lengthening of stride, which is more forward. The horse’s nose will be close to vertical and the horse will be in contact, or “on the bit”, but showing self-carriage, meaning the hocks are more flexed, the hind legs reaching further under his belly, and the horse lifting his back and shoulders and raising and arching his neck. The collected jog must be ridden seated. Collected gaits are developed through lateral movements such as shoulder-in and haunches-in, for example, which are introduced in level 2 and will be the subject of future articles.

Reno collected lope

Collected lope: engaged behind with the forehand coming up. The stride will be shorter than a working lope as the horse develops more engagement of the hocks. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

The gaits of a Western dressage horse should not exhibit the slow gaits and low head carriage of a Western pleasure horse, and the horse should not be on the forehand. Through correct training, the horse’s three gaits will be enhanced and improved. As well, correct training will develop the horse’s balance and strength, which allows him to carry his rider with ease while maintaining correct rhythm and an even tempo.

Reno collected lope with rein release

Rein release at the lope: the horse should maintain the same frame as the collected lope while working on a loose rein. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

Western dressage is a fun way to develop your western horse through the training scale. Each level provides goals to achieve and by developing your horse through each level you will build both your horse’s confidence and your own.

This article is the third one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, mentorship programs, as well as student programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.


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