The horse’s anatomy and its natural biomechanics do not change, despite efforts which are sometimes made to produce individuals with “extreme” conformation. Since 1930, Saddlebred horses with narrow bodies, long backs and extremely long necks have become popular with trainers who are not interested in having the horse “round up” and who may not, in any case, know how to train one that does. Roundness does not, in any case, conduce to the high knee action that has become all-important, and the degree of collection necessary to produce a level forearm is so great that the result is not a “park” trot but passage—as many old photos show. American Saddlebreds learn to passage with great ease, but Saddle Seat rule-makers after 1930 have generally not wanted show standards to move in that direction, so that passage-like movement in the show ring has been made illegal.
Do top-class Saddle Seat trainers know this? Do they know that riding a horse with its neck pulled back and its back hollow strains every part of its body? Of course they do. Finding images of skillful trainers schooling champion horses outside the show ring is not easy, but I have managed to find a few that show how roundness can be (and I would say, must be) used to condition and strengthen horses which will then be ridden “upside down” in the show ring. This approach is far more sustainable than that of many less knowledgeable luminaries who merely imitate what they see (or think they see) in the show ring, and thus ride their horses “upside down” all the time.
changing leads or falling down) proves that the horse is generating less impulsion than it would take to execute a change of leads that “flies.” It is possible for a horse to either
“trot” or “canter” sans suspension.
In a suspensionless “canter,” the body-gestures (movements of the back and neck) are similar to those of a cantering horse, but the footfall is exactly the same as the walk (left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore). In other words, compared to a canter, the right hind-left fore pair is decoupled in such a manner that the left fore lands earlier than the right hind. There is no period of suspension, but there are four audible hoof-strikes so that this variation is termed a “four-beat” or “4X” canter.
The canter contains only one period of suspension per cycle (per musical bar), that is to say, it has only 50 percent of the potential suspension that the trot has. This is one reason why it takes greater skill to aid a horse effectively at the canter.
THE GALLOP AND GALOPE
The gallop, galope (pronounced “ga-LOW-pay”), Spanish trot and rack are closely related gaits. A gallop can be considered as an evolution of the canter which develops due to greater thrusting effort by the horse. Greater thrust by the left hind (the first “beat”) pushes the horse upward as well as forward, and this is doubled when the right hind (the second “beat”) touches down, so that the combined thrust of the hind limbs is great enough to loft the whole forequarter, which in turn delays the strikedown of the left fore—thus decoupling the right hind-left fore pair that we find in a right-lead canter. This decoupling
is the opposite of that in a suspensionless “four beat” canter, since here the right hind limb grounds before the left forelimb. The gallop is a five-beat gait with footfalls in this order: left hind, right hind, left fore, right fore, suspension. Notice that this is a hind-hind/fore-fore sequence, rather than (as in the walk or 4X canter) a left-left/right-right sequence, and thus both gallop and galope require significant weight displacement to the rear. In rare cases (see “Secrets of Secretariat’s Speed,” EQUUS 434), the most talented racehorses achieve two periods of suspension per cycle and thus produce a six-beat gallop: left hind, right hind, suspension, left fore, right fore, suspension.
When hindlimb thrust (the effort made by the horse) is reduced to only a moderate level and the horse is relaxed and collected, the variation of the gallop called the “lope” emerges (“lope” being a corruption of the Spanish word “galope”). Suspension is minimal in a lope but still present, and the diagonal remains coupled. Should the horse’s motion become stilted and the collection false or absent, suspension disappears, the diagonal decouples, and the lope degenerates into the “jope” (jogging lope or four-beat canter) often seen nowadays in Western Pleasure competition.
Going in the opposite direction, when hindlimb thrust is increased to a maximum while the horse is collected, we enter the world of the Californio reinsmen and the mounted bullfighters, with pirouettes or rollbacks done à la galope rather than in a “pure” canter, the low airs terre-à-terre and mézair, and the rarely achieved manège gait called the Spanish trot. In all these gaits, the hindquarters are markedly lowered and the horse spends much time taking all of its weight upon hind limbs alone, with both forefeet out of contact with the ground. In the low airs, the forehand
is cantilevered quite high.
The Spanish trot is almost identical to a “natural” big-lick running walk and very far from the stilted ersatz in heavily weighted boots which we see nowadays in shows for the Tennessee Walking Horse. The Walker and the Saddlebred are both eminently capable of galope—or of a spectacular running-walk—without artificial appliances. The Thoroughbreds, Lipizzans, Andalusians, Tennessee Walkers and American Saddlebreds trained by Tom Bass, James Fillis, Etienne Beaudant, Col. Hiram Tuttle, Arthur and Dorita Konyot, Maj. Thomas Heyer, Fredy Knie, Albert Ostermaier and Chuck Grant and his students needed no weighted boots to perform the Spanish trot! We will be seeing more of these mastertrainers and their horses in our next installment, because many of the great circus, manège and competition dressage horses of this and the last century have been American Saddlebreds.
THE “SLOW” GAITS
So far I have referred to the “slow gait” in quotation marks because it is not now, nor has it ever been, a gait itself but rather a term used to describe any easy gait done at relatively slow speed that is distinct from the rack. A “slow” gait should not merely be a bottled-up rack in which the horse is held back with considerable tension, but relaxed and precise and performed on relatively loose reins, giving much pleasure to both horse and rider, and sustainable for miles of road travel.
Historically, the gaits that fulfill this role as performed by American Saddlebreds have been the fox-trot, flat-walk, running-walk, stepping-pace, or amble. All of these cover ground a
little faster than the working walk of the dressage and hunter-jumper world, which typically proceeds at between three and five mph—whereas “slow” gaits go at from about 6 to 9 mph. The term “amble” can be used as a synonym for any “easy” gait, but here it describes an ideal isochronal “slow” gait with footfall order and cadence exactly like a walk, but executed with a rounder topline, an arched neck, and more energy and forward speed. The flatwalk is also usually isochronal but is more ground-covering, relaxed and countrified than the amble.
The other “slow” gaits listed are typically, although not always, nonisochronal. The stepping-pace is like an amble, but with a pacey limb coordination and, usually, somewhat sharper and higher knee and hock flexion. The running-walk is like a flatwalk, but somewhat faster and with a trottier coordination; here the hind step can be extraordinarily long (the so-called “big lick”) and the horse may also be quite high-stepping in front. The fox-trot is also trotty, but knee and hock flexion are typically minimal. In both the running-walk and fox-trot there is a considerable up-down movement of the neck and poll, which is called “nodding.” When the horse is very relaxed as he performs, he may go with mouth loosely open, in which case his teeth will click in time with the nod.
The rack is ideally isochronal (“square”) and carried out with vigor, animation and considerable speed— from about 9 to as much as 30 mph, little slower than a gallop. Like all the other “easy” gaits, it has the same footfall order as the walk. A horse can rack “round,” i.e., with a lengthened and rounded topline. Today a “round” rack is almost never seen, and fast-racking horses perform