The Long and Short of It

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Under the heading of “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it,” I was bummed last weekend because I was due to be 30,000 feet over Virginia when the Belmont Stakes went off. Then a thoughtful USAir baggage handler left a compartment unlatched, which delayed my exit from Buffalo for three hours, and I got to see the race live at an airport sports bar.

This Arabian is showing a longer outline in his canter lengthening than he does during his working canter.

This Arabian is showing a longer outline in his canter lengthening than he does during his working canter.

My dressage judge brain kicked in as I watched American Pharoah’s galloping stride, comparing it to the horses in his wake. During the preshow I heard his jockey Victor Espinoza describe AP’s stride as being so long that he seemed to be going slowly when he was really going fast. Gee, I thought, that sounds just like a lengthening in a dressage test. (Okay, dressage brain, there are times when you should shut up and just enjoy a beautiful horse and performance!)

A really good lengthening or extension in a dressage test, one that would score an 8 or above, might not actually feel that way, at least for someone not used to a lengthening of that quality. The stride is so long that it has more air time and less concussion with the ground, almost as if the horse is going in slow motion. The rider may tell it’s a mondo effort because she has more wind in her face and feels more swing through the back muscles under her seat. That kind of lengthening requires preparation well before the first corner to increase the engagement and lighten the forehand for the transition.

A lot of riders, when they are first learning to lengthen the horse’s stride, will confuse quicker with longer. They will feel the horse trying his hardest to go fast and think they’ve got a good lengthening underneath them, but they may not recognize that a quicker stride is not the same thing as the longer stride and frame that comes from increased thrust.

I searched all over the internet the day after the Belmont trying to get data on the length of a race-horse stride. There were all kinds of general comments but few real numbers, and those I found contradicted each other. In general, it seems that AP has a longer stride than Secretariat did but not as long as Man ‘O War’s, although I have no idea how anyone could make that last comparison for sure. Another interesting dimension, besides length, is the angle, measuring the base of the stride by degrees in full amplitude (front and back feet extended), with the horse’s belly as the apex of a triangle. Again AP seems to have a favorable comparison here.

In the dressage ring, we see a lengthened canter that maintains its 3-beat rhythm, as opposed to the 4-beat rhythm of a race horse in full gallop. Therefore we don’t see that complete stretch of the front and back feet when the horse is fully airborne. We do, however, see a clear change of outline/frame and increased air time of the stride.

It’s fantasy, of course, but I’d really like to see what AP – not to mention Secretariat – could do at First Level during a canter lengthening down the long side of the ring.

(By the way, The Wall Street Journal put together a side-by-side comparison of Secretariat’s and AP’s Belmont Stakes runs [http://blogs.wsj.com/dailyfix/2015/06/08/american-pharoah-vs-secretariat-who-would-win/?KEYWORDS=Belmont+Race]. It’s interesting to watch and appears to show that Secretariat would be the clear winner over AP, possibly by as much as 13 lengths – his margin of victory in 1973 was 31 lengths – although of course actual race conditions might affect that. AP’s run was the sixth fastest ever for 1 ½ miles in the Belmont Stakes, but it’s still 2.6 seconds behind the unimaginable time sent by Secretariat.]

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