Dressage: The Paces

The well-trained horse can vary his stride in each pace: he takes longer or shorter steps when asked to do so by his rider.

Variations of pace

Variations in the length of step are known as working, collected, medium and extended paces.

Working paces are generally those natural to the horse before he has had much training. He should be obedient, relaxed and balanced, and move with plenty of energy.

Collected paces: The three big joints of the hindlegs the hip, stifle and hock are more flexed and the horse’s legs tuck well underneath his body at each step. The horse moves with a shorter, rounder action than in the working paces. The croup is lowered, making the forehand light. The neck is raised and arched and the front of the face is almost vertical.

Medium paces: The horse takes steps which are longer than those of a working pace, but not to the fullest possible extent. He must go with great energy, stretching his head and neck forward a little so he can take longer steps with the forelegs as well as the hindlegs.

Extended paces: The horse strides along with maximum energy, taking steps of the greatest possible length.

The walk

The term ‘working walk’ is not used: because the horse does not have much scope to lengthen or shorten his walk strides, he could not manage four variations of this gait. The horse works most naturally at ‘medium walk’; from there the rider can ask him to work at ‘free walk on a long rein’.

This means the rider lets the reins out far enough to allow the horse to stretch his head and neck forward and down. He continues to walk with long, deliberate, generous steps.

Giving the aids

To make your pony shorten or lengthen his steps takes lots of practice and patience, and you will certainly need help from your instructor. The first step is to establish good working paces. You can then ask your pony to take a few lengthened steps, making sure he maintains his balance. This can be done from either working trot or cantor. Make a half hat to balance your pony and get his full attention. Then apply both legs to encourage him to take longer, more powerful steps with the hindlegs. At the same time, let him stretch his head and neck forward a little, while keeping the rein contact.

He should lengthen his outline and take longer steps with his forelegs to match those of his hindlegs. He must keep a clear rhythm, taking steps of equal length. Your instructor will be able to tell you if you’ve succeeded. When your pony does achieve the lengthening you’ve asked for, make sure you give him plenty of praise.

At the end of the lengthened steps, it is important to make a smooth transition back to the working pace. Sit up, apply both legs and resist slightly with your hands. As soon as he shortens his steps back to the working pace, relax your hands but keep your legs against him and ride forward. Otherwise he will lose his impulsion and slow down.

Impulsion and collection

Impulsion is the power that the horse creates with his hindlegs. It must not be confused with speed. It is controlled energy produced in the horse by the use of your legs and seat. This energy is received in your hands where it is lightly guided and controlled.

You need impulsion to obtain collection. The object of collection is to ‘coil up the spring’ of energy in the hindquarters. Once the spring is uncoiled, the energy is released and the horse goes into longer steps.

To collect your pony, he must be submissive and not opposing you. The muscles of his neck and jaw should be relaxed. You cannot try to force collection by resisting with your hands.

By using your legs, you ask him for more action from the three major joints of the hindlegs. When the pony uses these joints more he steps further underneath himself with his hindlegs. This causes the croup to lower, which in turn raises the forehand. When this happens, you have obtained a degree of collection.

Once the pony is collected you can ask for medium and eventually extended paces. To do this, you maintain or increase the energy with your legs and let the pony go forward from your hands.

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