Q: How do I distinguish between the various trots—working, medium, lengthened and extended— and practice each correctly? —Sam Alvarez of Palm Beach, Florida
A: As a judge, trainer and competitor, I think this is an excellent question that needs to be clearly understood. As a competitor, it is difficult to fulfill the criteria for a movement when you are not sure what the criteria are. To obtain a complete description of the objective and criteria for specific movements, you must consult your dressage section (DR 101) of the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Rule Book. So many riders neglect to read this material. Judges are required to be wellread on the purpose of each level and movement of every test they are licensed to judge. The Rule Book is a wealth of information explaining bending, angles and ground cover pertinent to the movements or figures.
When discussing the variations within the pace (lengthening, medium, extended), you must first be able to show the quality within the particular gait. To understand what quality really represents, refer to the Rule Book and the training scale. Your horse must be able to show a degree (depending on his level) of uphill balance, engagement and elasticity with a lively impulsion in order to begin to demonstrate the variations within the gait.
The working trot is a gait of two beats on diagonal pairs of legs driven by a lively impulsion. It is of moderate stride length and a frame with the poll as the highest point. For a lengthening in the trot, the objective is to show a clear lengthening of frame and stride while maintaining the quality of the trot. The medium trot covers more ground. The extended trot is similar to the lengthening, which is more “across” the ground but with more power and ground cover. The suspension of the legs is more accentuated in the medium paces as the frame of the horse remains more collected frame than during the lengthening or extended paces.
In all variations, uphill balance and cadence (air under the horse’s feet) must be maintained. If the horse loses balance or rhythm during any of the movements, there will be a deduction in points. The judge is looking for both the frame and the stride to lengthen. Even if the competitor manages to show some change in length, but loses quality, the score will not be very high. Competitors should realize that developing and maintaining the quality of the gait during each exercise is essential to obtaining a positive score for the movement.
Lengthening the stride begins at First Level. Typically horses learn to lengthen by going quicker. Ideally this change in tempo will be eliminated in this longer stride as your horse gains more strength in his core. Riders are permitted to either post or sit the lengthening. This can help some riders balance their horses more effectively.
I ask my riders to imagine they are pumping up a balloon, even thinking of the Macy’s parade balloons, while supporting the energy with their seats, then carefully releasing the air out the front by slowly pushing their hands forward toward the horse’s ears. The image of riding the hind legs into the bridle is helpful. The lengthening should “grow” and be at maximum length over the center of the line you are riding. Clear transitions into and back from the lengthening, where the horse is engaging his hindquarters, is part of the score of the test.
It is important the rider has a proper education on riding the frame of his horse if she wants to be effective in adjusting his stride. Riders must take caution to always ride their horses “back to front” with a series of half halts to obtain the lightness on the horses’ mouth and the freedom to the horses’ shoulders. The half halt is an educated technique that allows the rider to balance the horse throughout the ride. There should be no leaning in the bridle or bracing in the topline to hold the horse in a frame. The half halt must be ridden with the idea of pushing the horse forward into an elastic connection and then gently supporting his power back onto his hind legs to produce the cadenced, ground-covering steps.
The way to the horse’s back and hind legs is through his balance. A horse that is lengthening in the front legs is not always lengthening in the hind legs. The stretching circle exercise at Training and First Level is a crucial exercise for many reasons, not the least of which is how to lower the neck to engage the hindquarters. If the hind legs are trailing out behind your horse, it may be necessary to adjust his balance.
When you train your horse, tempo changes are an easy way for him to get the idea of longer and shorter steps. A lively, quicker tempo smoothly brought back to a slower tempo is a great way to teach him to use his back like a spring, but only if you keep the energy in front of your leg. Your seat and legs create the energy, and your hands and your seat contain it. So if you are attempting to lengthen his stride, you must first have him reliably in front of your leg.
Next, you must be strong enough in your core to support the thrust coming from your horse’s engine (haunches and hind legs). As dressage riders, we are compressing our horses into a frame to achieve a degree of collection required to perform the lateral exercises. These lateral exercises develop the strength in your horse. The stronger the horse, the higher the level he can go. Medium paces are introduced at Second Level, and extended paces begin at Third Level.
When we show the medium and extended paces, we are now saying to ourselves (and the judge) that our horse is strong enough to cover ground in an uphill balance with a rhythmic stride. The medium and extended paces require more uphill balance due to the more increased power the horse should have in this level. Developing the engagement (this is the “loading” phase of the stride where the hind legs are carrying the weight) and leaning to release the energy into an uphill thrust (impulsion) without the horse losing his rhythm is a difficult task. Practicing the exercise on a 20-meter circle is helpful as the horse needs to stay more on the rider’s aids as opposed to using the corner to compress his frame.
Horses learn from repetition, but remember: Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. My advice to all riders and competitors is to take the time to read the dressage portion of the USEF Rule Book, and become familiar with the definitions and terminology used by judges.
Melonie Kessler is a USEF “S” dressage judge and a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. A graduate of Pleasant Hollow Farms Horse Career School in Pennsylvania, she is a successful competitor and trainer through Grand Prix. She trains at El Sueño Equestrian Center in Somis, California (MelonieKesslerDressage.com).