Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Cowboy Dressage Gaits

One of the things that uniquely defines the cowboy dressage horse is the quality of the gaits.  Being first and foremost a western discipline, dedicated to the production of superior western
 horses, we ask for movements and gaits that showcase the ability and strengths of the western horse.  Looking back at the heritage of the cowboy and western lifestyle, we strive to capture
 the very best of what the cowboy was and is supposed to be and recreate that in our modern equine partners.  How do we define the the western horse's gaits?  Do we use the benchmarks established by classical dressage?  Do we use the traditional western descriptions and terms?  Is there truly a difference in the western jog and the english trot or is it just nomenclature? This article will attempt to lay to rest those debates and help define the terms and vision of the movement of the
Cowboy Dressage horse.

Cowboy Dressage showcases three gaits; the walk, the jog and the lope.  In the creation and development of those gaits we also ask for lengthening of each off those gaits and mark the distinction between the shortened gait and lengthened gait by using the terms working and free.  A working gait is one preformed on a softened frame with the horse working off of soft contact on the bit.  A free gait is one where the horse is showing lengthening of the stride and working off a long rein with light contact. For example, the working walk is defined as follows:

       Working Walk : Four beat gait with forward reaching steps.  The head and neck should swing naturally as a result of a relaxed back and free shoulders. The horse maintains a light
contact with the bit with his nose slightly in front of vertical.

Because one of the goals of Cowboy Dressage is to create a soft and willing partner, relaxation and willingness through all of the gaits is important.  If you consider the tradition of the 
working ranch horse, having a calm and willing partner that possessed an easy to ride gait was of considerable value.  It is the same in Cowboy Dressage.

The confusion and debate in the discussion of the Cowboy Dressage horse and his gaits generally doesn't start with the walk.  As luck would have it, almost all disciplines expect the same
basic qualities in the walk and agree without dissent that it is a 4 beat gait.  Discussion of the jog and lope can be fraught with a little more obscurity and confusion which unfortunately arises
from the "dressage" in  Cowboy Dressage.

In creating Cowboy Dressage, we attempted to select some of the basic principles that are to be valued most in dressage to apply to our western horses:  an emphasis on slowness of
training and a step-wise training program, the benefits of markers and a court for establishing accountability in training and visual benchmarks for horse and rider, a tried and true scoring
system that is easily adaptable and useful for our Cowboy Dressage shows.  What we didn't adopt in Cowboy Dressage were the gaits required and desired by the competitive modern
dressage rider and this goes beyond just nomenclature.

Let's consider the difference between the jog and the trot.  A jog is a distinctly western gait.  Unlike the difference between a couch and a divan, it is not just a regional language variant.  The jog is a two beat gait that is meant to be smooth, quiet and comfortable.  In it's purest form it is relaxed and easily on both horse and rider.  It is the quiet confident gait used by the western horse when moving between pens, or between groups of cattle with low enough energy to not spook the rodear up and over the next hill.  It originated on the ranch and was meant to be an all day energy saving gait.  Back in the dawning of Western Pleasure classes it was also one of the defining gaits of a horse that was supposed to be first and foremost a pleasure to ride.  Cowboy Dressage defines the working jog as follows:

    Working Jog:  Two beat gait and forward with even and elastic steps. The back is relaxed and the shoulder is free.  The hind legs should step forward and under the horse. The horse maintains light contact with the bit and his nose is slightly in front of the vertical.  The rider must sit the working jog.

Here are some photos showing the foot fall patterns in the working jog:

Here you can see all four feet on the ground briefly as the horse changes diagonals.  There is no moment of suspension at the jog.

Here again the change from right diagonal to left diagonal.  The left diagonal pair has already hit the ground before the right diagonal finishes their flight pattern. 

The Cowboy Dressage working jog should look much different than does today's Western Pleasure jog. While the two gaits have the same origin, much of the Western Pleasure horses have lost the forward and elastic steps that we are striving for in Cowboy Dressage.  Having a free and relaxed shoulder gives the horse a quality of gait while maintaining elasticity and comfort of movement for both horse and rider.  This is not a jarring gait but a soft two beat gait. Proper propulsion in the gait is evident, even in the softer frame, by the horse reaching forward and under himself. Propulsion in the gait is the force that moves the horse forward.  Without proper propulsion the gait dies and ceases to be a forward movement.  The Western pleasure horse jogging in painfully slow increments around the ring is lacking in propulsion.  Impulsion is the upward force in the gait and it is the beginnings of creating suspension in a modern dressage horse.

Cowboy Dressage defines the lengthened or free jog as follows:

Free Jog: Two beat gait with forward movement allowing lengthening of even and elastic steps.  The horse is relaxed and allowed by the lengthening of reins to lower his head and neck and to stretch
forward.  The horse maintains light contact with the bit with his nose slightly in front of the vertical.
Posting is an option.

Here is a sequence of the free jog demonstrating foot fall patterns, again without suspension.
Right diagonal pair weight bearing

 Here is the moment of shift from the right diagonal pair to the left diagonal pair without a moment of suspension. 
Left diagonal pair weight bearing. 

When you compare the Cowboy Dressage Jog with required gaits in other disciplines the difference and value of this gait becomes even more clear.  If you consider the lofty trot favored by
dressage the horse is asked to display a moment of suspension in the gait and there are those that believe that without that suspension the gait is both incorrect and somehow exhibits
different (and therefore incorrect) footfalls.  The moment of suspension does not create the beat of the gait.  The beat of the gait is created by the rhythm of the feet striking the ground.  The moment of suspension only serves to increase the concussion of the feet as they strike the ground.  The dressage horse creates suspension by increasing impulsion not propulsion in gait.

It is also true that suspension in gaits is often an illusion of sorts.  Many believe that a true trot only occurs when there is a moment in time, however brief, when all four feet are off the ground.
While a large and lofty trot will exhibit suspension when accompanied by increased impulsion, most horses do not exhibit suspension characterized by levitation and instead will just shift weight from the diagonal pair before the other pair leaves the ground.  It's true that you can have a trot with suspension, but it is false that only a "true trot" will have suspension.  Instead there is a moment between diagonal pairs when the weight shifts from one pair to the other without accompanied impulsion or complete suspension.  The horse can and does correctly perform a trot at liberty without a rider both with and without suspension but will most commonly choose to trot without suspension and exhibit a gait with flat propulsion.

The reason for this should be obvious.  While increased life and adrenalin can create increased impulsion in a horse, it is not the most efficient or comfortable form of movement.  The
increased concussion and elevation does not make the the horse cover more ground.  It only serves to increase the concussion on the joints and muscles as it lands.

You can also create suspension by increasing the speed of the gait.  This is the case when you view the difference between the lope and the gallop.  The lope is a three beat gait that is relaxed and soft.  It is characterized by the footfall pattern of the leading leg, diagonal pairs and then the off hind leg.  A four beat lope is created when the footfalls of the diagonal pair are split and hit the ground not together but separately so that you have the beats of four feet hitting the ground.  Notice that in none of the descriptions we have mentioned for footfalls in gaits is there a beat accounted for in suspension phase.  The three beat lope in the Cowboy Dressage horse does not have a moment of suspension.  Instead the off hind follows so closely to the leading foreleg that it touches the ground before that leg leaves the ground and removes the suspension in the gait.  There is no change in beats of the gait because you still have 3 sets of feet hitting the ground independently.  The off hind, diagonal pairs, then leading foreleg.  The footfall of the off hind following so closely on the leading foreleg still creates a footfall beat the same as if you stood in place and marched one foot at a time. The beat of the gait is exhibited by footfalls, not suspension. By increasing both impulsion and propulsion from the lope to the gallop you create life and speed and introduce a moment when all four feet are off the ground in true suspension. As the stride length changes and the weight of the horse is carried forward with speed and impulsion into the gallop it ceases to become a 3 beat gait and becomes a four beat gait with the front leg of the diagonal pair hitting the ground first.

Here are the foot fall patterns in the lope.
In a right lead the left hind leg initiates the stride. Beat 1.

The diagonal pair of the inside hind (RH) and outside fore (LF) strike the ground together. Beat 2

Then the inside foreleg (RF in the right lead) strikes the ground and carries the stride forward. Beat 3. 

This shows the left hind leg striking the ground before the right foreleg has finished it's stride.  This eliminates the suspension in the gait but doesn't change the beats.  

Lengthening of the strides is accomplished primarily through the use of propulsion.  We ask the horse to stretch the limbs forward and out and not up in elevation or in speed.  Because there in no increase in impulsion in the free (lengthened) gaits called for in Cowboy Dressage, these gaits also do not include suspension and should be as comfortable to ride sitting as they are posting, and having a soft, willing partner that is a joy to ride should be a primary goal of every Cowboy Dressage participant.

While the discussion of the nuances and differences between gaits can be confusing and overwhelming the take home message for the Cowboy Dressage enthusiast is simple.  Cowboy Dressage asks for your horse to have an easy rhythmic gait that is correct and soft for both you and your horse.  That end goal will look different from one horse to the next but the softness exhibited should be easy for even the casual observer to see.  We aren't going to tell you how your horse should look.  We are only trying to help you understand how your horse should feel.


  1. Wonderful explanation- thank you.

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