Reflections on Balance and Engagement at the Trot

Before I get started, let me give credit. Most of the wonderful photos on this page are by Cindy Lee, who has spent much time and money following me around at my longlining clinics taking splendid photos! When I finally get all my little duckies in a row and get my longlining book into print (don’t laugh, that day IS coming!), I hope she gets the recognition she deserves!

While all the basic gaits deserve attention, here I want to focus on the trot. I know the most about the trot because the trot has gotten the most press and has generated the most comment.  In dressage we do more with the trot than any other gait.  We have passage and piaffe, working trot, collected trot, expended trot.  No other gait has this range of distinctions in power and engagement.

Because I read just about everything about dressage I can lay my hands on, I find a lot of differing opinions on a lot of interesting stuff! Sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut and just have to comment. What follows are my thoughts and comments, generally speaking!

To understand why I see horses’ balance at the trot the way I do, let me introduce you to Dr. Mikael Hölmstrom. Dr. Hölmstrom is a Swedish vet whose Masters thesis was on conformation and movement. I attended a seminar with Dr. Hölmstrom which was incredibly enlightening. This was not because he’s an internationally recognized dressage rider and trainer (I don’t think he is), or even a judge (I don’t think he’s one of those, either), but because he is a scientist who seems to love horses! He is a discoverer and explainer of why, the stuff idols are made of! In 1995, D&CT published a series of articles by Dr. Hölmstrom on dressage horses’ conformation and movement. The April issue’s article, The Biomechanics of the Dressage Horse Trot, explains how conformation and movement are related. This insightful series of articles covers the same information I had been privileged to obtain at the seminar, in lesser depth. It also covers complexities I won’t even touch on here. Hilda Gurney used the information in her video on selecting a dressage prospect.

A couple of years after I had attended Dr. Hölmstrom’s seminar and the series of articles had appeared in D&CT, I wrote a neat little piece call Short Bytes, Dressage Terms which was printed in the American Driving Society’s publication The Whip. The whole article took up one page and consisted of three photos with a little bit of text. The first photo was my Dutch mare Haanik (Niki) showing her characteristic lovely trot, the second was also of Niki, falling on her face, and the third was of a Welsh mare displaying suspension at the trot. In the Short Bytes page I’ve substituted a picture of an Arab gelding, taken by Cindy, as the picture by Norm of the lovely Welsh mare didn’t come back from the publisher. (All other photos on the Short Bytes page are by Norm Evans.)

I mention the Short Bytes article because it raised a hue and cry among driving judges, not because the photo showed ADP, but because I drew attention to the ADP in the photo and used it as an illustration of correct movement. This ran against what they had apparently been given to understand was correct about the trot, that it was a strictly two beat gait with no variations.

Since that time, there has been little in print about ADP and it’s relationship to quality movement in driving. It appears in numerous pictures, but is not referred to. Picture me shrugging. Conversely, there has been lots of discussion about ADP in the riding world, and much use has been made of Dr. Hölmstrom’s study in the selection of dressage prospects. Dr. Hölmstrom’s work has also been the impetus for more studies into movement by others in the dressage world. A search on the web for “Holmstrom” will produce a number of interesting hits.

So, here we go. Lets work on the premise, regardless of our sport, our goal is to lighten the forehand and encourage self carriage, teaching the horse to carrying us along regally and effortlessly, while everyone stares in awe at our spectacularly moving beast. My goal here isn’t to tell you how to do the job, but share what it looks like, why it’s good, and give you a few examples of unquestionably great horses displaying ADP!

For a horse to achieve the correct and elegant movements of Upper Level Dressage (notice the importance provided by the capitalization) and many other athletically intense horse pursuits, the horse must be able to transfer the load to the hindquarters, moving the center of balance backward. Without this ability, levade, to mention just one movement, won’t . . . can’t happen.

Interestingly enough, the ability to transfer the center of balance toward the hindquarter is genetic (inherent propensity?). This is one of the premises of Dr. H’s dissertation, and one I have empirical evidence to support!

Now, before we really get rolling, let me tell you what constitutes (according to Dr. Hölmstrom) diagonal advanced placement. Although I dub this syncronicity ’advanced diagonal placement’, they’re one and the same. It is so dubbed because the hind leg is striking the ground in advance of the paired (diagonal) front leg. So, when a horse physically lightens the forehand, the hind leg (remember, we’re talking about the trot) strikes the ground a few fractions of a second before the front leg.

So, to extrapolate delayed diagonal placement (the following picture of Niki falling on her forehand, among others), when a horse’s weight is tipped onto the forehand, the hindquarter is lightened and the hind leg strikes the ground after the paired diagonal front leg. More importantly, when a horse transfers its balance forward, the front leg is still stuck to the ground after the paired hind leg has left the ground (advanced diagonal departure? Diagonal advanced departure? Diagonal Delayed Placement? Negative ADP?).

To touch on the genetic aspects of ADP, let’s look at genetics. Niki is the daughter of a mare with natural ADP (Wahoo! Found Photo!) who scored first place first premium with the NA/WPN.

Niki is by a stallion with natural ADP.

Niki’s granddam was also an exceptional mover (passage to die for), who was 3/4 sister to a stallon who was very successful in dressage. Niki’s maternal grandfather produced exceptional movers, one of which placed first in the nation for TB mares keured by the NA/WPN.

Good and bad balance at the trot isn’t restricted just to warmbloods or dressage! Anyone who has watched cutting and reining knows there are horses who are hind end stoppers and horses who are front end stoppers. The front end stoppers drop in front and jar the teeth out of the rider’s head when they stop. The hind end stoppers drop down behind and slide to a stop. And, for breeds not noted for engaged and balanced movement as a rule, if you think Norwegian Fjords can’t get out of their own way, I’ve got a picture of Orville Unrau and Eddie (see image in sidebar) that would change your mind! And we’re not talking just horses! I’ve got some great pictures of mules displaying ADP! Take a look at the pictures. It’s pretty interesting stuff!

In driving, the same can be said. There are horses who pull and stop with their front end . . . and horses who push and stop with their back end.

And finally, superior balance at the trot is evident even in half-pass as you’ve seen with Niki’s sire. If you happen to own a copy of The Noble Horse, look at Christine Stuckleburger on Granat (the front side of the foldout for the dressage movements). Notice his wonderful balance in half-pass. He has already completed the crossover with his hind legs and has planted the hind foot while the front paired foot has not yet touched the ground. Alois Podhajsky displays same with a Lipizzaner stallion performing a like half-pass in The Complete Training of Horse and Rider, plate 11.

For an example of a horse I can show you, take a look at photo 7. I found this great picture from the Akhel Teke Association, and they’re kind enough to let me use it! I am not responsible for the cropping, the photo came that way, but it does show enough of what we need to see of the relationship between front and hind paired legs.

There’s also a dressage book (can’t remember exactly which one) with pictures from each side of Anthony Crossley on a lower level horse trotting showing ADP. Lovely man, lovely horse. To really appreciate what I’m telling you, you should make an effort to find these books and look at these photos. It’s easy to see why these people and their horses are so revered. I can’t provide you with copies of these photos due to copyright laws, but they’re well worth studying! ADP has been around a long long time, but it’s just now being recognized, thanks to the efforts of Dr. H.!

Although there are approved warmblood stallions with advanced diagonal placement, the possession of advanced diagonal placement isn’t a guarantee of registry approval. If you have access to some older NA/WPN stallion books, look at Eros, a lovely registered Dutch stallion (I think he’s also an approved Belgian Warmblood as well as approved for one other registry (Hanoverian?)). He has excellent longitudinal balance, yet I see nothing in my information which suggests he was ever presented for approval. He is one quarter TB, one quarter old Dutch studbook (Sgldt), one quarter new Dutch studbook (NWP) and one quarter Holsteiner. (Note: Just because he displays ADP doesn’t mean he has all the other qualities required for NA/WPN approval.) And, if you’ve seen any Idocus babies, you know what lovely movement he throws. His babies are light in front and float along, seemingly effortlessly. If you haven’t seen his get, call and ask for his flyer and you’ll see exactly what I mean!

It’s interesting to see what people point to and like versus what they say they like or think is correct. The cover photo on Susan Harris’ Horses, Gaits, Balance and Movement is a good example. (You could probably see the front cover if you go to Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble Online, or take a peak the next time you’re at your local tack store. If you don’t want to bother, it’s a lovely stallion(?) showing ADP.) In describing attributes of the trot on page 42 Susan says “. . . the hind leg lands first instead of a true diagonal beat. This . . . is a sign the trot has been pushed past the limits of balance and coordination.” To me, (thanks to Dr. H.) the hind leg landing first is a sign the horse has superior longitudinal balance and should be able to accurately perform (all things being equal) the movements required of an upper level dressage horse.

In Heike Bean and Sarah Blanchard’s most excellent book Carriage Driving there are numerous photos and illustrations showing horses trotting with advanced diagonal placement (hind leg landing first) which are noted as having good/excellent/correct balance/movement. Unfortunately, there is no link between what the authors see as good balance (it is obvious the authors have a well developed eye for good balance) and the fact the horses showing the superior balance are all landing hind leg first at the trot! I only include this piece of trivia because Heike was one of the most vocal (in print) to repudiate my advocating ADP as correct movemednt in the Short Bytes article when it was published. I’m sure by now she’s rethought her position after having reviewed the evidence. (Okay, so I’m optimistic! It’s just my nature!) And, hopefully, she’s got a great sense of humor and won’t kill me for holding her views in question. . . (All joking aside, if you need a book on driving, I’d heartily recommend this one. She gets a little carried away about a few things (I love mullen bits and am NOT a gimmick fan), but overall the book is excellent.)

So, let’s go the other way. Let’s look at horses which transfer their balance to the forequarters when they trot.

Friesians can often be seen transferring their balance to the forehand, both ridden and driven. Friesians aren’t used (much) in upper level combined driving as they tire too easily. I’ve often wondered if this is due to their propensity of pulling with the forehand instead of engaging their hindquarters.

This genetic trait is apparent in more than one Dutch line but is evident in every breed.

If you can find an old farm flyer for the registered Dutch stallion, Art Deco, who is by the Approved stallion Samber, you’ll see weight transferred to the forehand aplenty. His center of balance is forward and he is displaying negative ADP. In the same flyer is his half-brother Fine Art, proof positive this attribute is truly genetic, and Art Deco’s son, Hall of Fame, out of a Thoroughbred mare. All have the same movement, as do other Samber progeny I’ve seen, including the Samber son, Domingo. (Sorry folks, I do not lie. I like movement more than I like color, so this line is not for me.) I’ve been informed of Art Deco progeny with good movement. It’s possible! There are bound to be mare lines with enough genetic strength to make it happen. The horse on the front of Susan Harris’ book just might be one!

There are other lines (I know Dutch lines, as they are my primary interest) which have the same characteristic way of moving. Some of these lines have approved stallions and/or mares, despite this particular movement characteristic. They obviously have other characteristics (to the breed judges – not me) so redeeming they nullify the effects of this particular characteristic. I, personally, can’t see it, but I’m not a keuring judge, either. My first example is the Approved stallion Souvenir. Interestingly enough, this horse is half Selle Francais and a tad over one quarter Thoroughbred. My second example is the Approved stallion Wanroij.

His bloodlines contain Holsteiner and Trakehner as well as Dutch. Both stallions are tripping happily along on their forehands (one in hand, one under saddle) without a care in the world! I would love to know how much of this is due to improper training and not to bloodlines. The one Wanroij baby I’ve seen is a really nice mover.

Please don’t think I am an authority on movement. I know what I like and I know why I like it, and I’m just pushy enough to give you my honest opinion! I’ve learned I can’t judge completely by a photo! I must see the movement in person or on video! I can watch a horse move and tell you why I think it’s wrong. I know what I like when I see it, and those are the horses I’m naturally drawn to. And, because of John Stratton’s mules, I’ve learned you can’t always go by good looks. Pretty doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna be able to get up off the ground and MOVE, not that I’m implying John’s mules aren’t pretty. While I know with correct work I can produce ADP in most horses, I would much rather put years of training into a horse with superior longitudinal balance than into a horse who will continually struggle for correct balance and possibly break down because his body is not designed for the work I want him to do. Mikael Hölmstrom’s work has explained to me why I like what I like.

I would love to explore the different riding styles/schools and see which concepts/techniques naturally recognize and assist advanced diagonal placement. I think the research would be fascinating. Until that day (I’m sure I’ll need to be independently wealthy before the day will come), I’ll keep longlining and improving and learning! To life! May you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine!


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