Researchers Go In Search of the Perfect Passage

Researchers Go In Search of the Perfect Passage

Researchers recently went in search of the perfect passage, and observed the ideal FEI passage in 27% of the images they evaluated.

Photo: Dirk Caremans/FEI

A horse performing a passage nears the pinnacle of collection perfection at the trot. But is the “ideal” as described by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) really attainable by living, breathing, moving horses? Or, at least, is the ideal what’s most frequently presented by horses and riders in Grand Prix dressage competition?

Recent research from Canada implies it’s not and indicates that, at a very high level of competition, even professional horse and rider athletes don’t consistently achieve the FEI’s definition of a perfect passage. The study’s results were presented as an abstract poster at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware in Newark. The research team included students Jade Sheiner and Mia Tiidus of the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, and their professor Katrina Merkies, PhD.

“This was an undergraduate research project designed to determine if standards of competitive dressage differ from what is actually seen in the show ring,” Merkies explained. “Flashy movements, such as seen in passage, tend to be crowd pleasers, but the limits of physical ability and effect on the horse have been questioned.”

The 2011 FEI rulebook defines passage, a required Intermediaire II and Grand Prix dressage movement in the tests from that year, as a:

An example of a passage considered ideal by FEI standards.

Photo Courtesy Dr. Katrina Merkies

“[M]easured, very collected, elevated and cadenced trot … characterized by a pronounced engagement of the hindquarters, a more accentuated flexion of the knees and hocks, and the graceful elasticity of the movement. Each diagonal pair of legs is raised and returned to the ground alternately. In principle, the height of the toe of the raised forefoot should be level with the middle of the cannon one of the supporting foreleg. The toe of the raised hind foot should be slightly above the fetlock joint of the supporting hind leg.”

To test this definition, the research team went to the top of the sport at the international level—the 2010 World Equestrian Games—and derived five still images of passage from each of three dressage tests performed by five horse-rider pairs, with the final research set including 74 images. The team members the categorized them as:

  • Ideal as described by the FEI;
  • Above the FEI ideal; and
  • Below the FEI ideal.

They looked at the front and hind leg pairs separately, comparing when each (front vs. back) where at, above, and below ideal. Ultimately, the researchers found a large variation in the quality of passage steps:

  • The FEI ideal passage was observed in 27% of the images;
  • The ideal passage was observed more frequently than any other combination;
  • The front legs were above FEI ideal 39.2% of the time;
  • Of the front legs observed above FEI ideal, 66% were paired with hind legs steps below FEI ideal;
  • No horse in the sample set demonstrated both front and hind legs below ideal at the same time; and.
  • Individual horses in the sample set alternated between at least two, and generally three and classifications.

“High front leg elevation occurs most frequently in Grand Prix dressage competition, often coupled with hind leg elevation below FEI ideal,” Merkies said. “Because of the small sample size, no correlation could be drawn with (event) placings to determine if horses displaying higher front leg elevation were awarded higher marks.”

About the Author

Michelle N. Anderson, Digital Managing Editor

Michelle Anderson serves as The Horse's digital managing editor. In her role, she produces content for our web site and hosts our live events, including Ask the Vet Live. A lifelong horse owner, Anderson competes in dressage and enjoys trail riding. She's a Washington State University graduate (Go Cougs!) and holds a bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in business administration and extensive coursework in animal sciences. She has worked in equine publishing since 1998. She currently lives with her husband on a small horse property in Central Oregon.

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