Focus on Discipline: Dressage

An elegant athlete, the dressage horse moves in perfect harmony with his rider. Following the artistic traditions of European horsemanship, the performer displays supple joints and natural balance, or expresses power and grace in the demanding steps of the Grand Prix.

In the United States, dressage horses can show at five national levels set by the American Horse Shows Association, considered stepping stones to the international classes. The horse performs natural gaits in Training through Fourth Levels. He performs figures that show how he can lengthen and shorten his stride, and bend his body. As he progresses through the degrees of difficulty in the levels, he demonstrates lateral movements and collection.

Dressage is judged subjectively, with judges awarding marks for how the horse moves through the three gaits, and the quality of its movements through prescribed tests for the national levels. Most horses score from 50 to 60%, with a few outstanding animals reaching into the 70s.

The word dressage means training, and riders concentrate on schooling their horses. Dressage riders continually seek perfection, with some devoting more than a decade to developing their horses.

Selection For Elegance

Dressage is an all-breed sport, with the U.S. Dressage Federation offering awards to horses of 47 different breed organizations. At the lower levels of dressage, the breed doesn't matter.

Average horses compete in dressage and score commendably in the national levels. Karen Nyrop, DVM, MS, said, "Your horse doesn't have to be anything really special. In dressage, the collective marks at the bottom of the judge's score sheet reflect the gaits and elasticity, but the majority of the test is accuracy. You can have a horse that isn't brilliant, but present him well."

Like any other athlete, the dressage horse should be naturally balanced. Dressage prizes the horse with self-carriage, who naturally moves with impulsion. He is not "on the forehand," but moves "through," or is engaged in the hindquarters.

Horses progress through the demands of training according to their mental attitudes and physical abilities. Once the pressure increases in the higher levels, certain body types excel while others might resist the more demanding requests.

The horse bred for the classic sports of dressage and jumping is built to respond to the rider. Hilda Gurney, who has ridden on two U.S. Olympic teams, cautioned against a horse which doesn't naturally use his back. She explained, "You want a horse that's bred to be an athlete. We see so many horses that are not made to do dressage, and riders try to force them. It can be hard or impossible for horses of some breeds to move up through the levels."

European sport horses dominate dressage worldwide. These animals naturally move with the desired elastic movement and suspension. When running free in a pen, the horse talented for this discipline tends to stop with his haunches under, and he holds his shoulders and neck up and back loose.

Gurney admonished riders not to force dressage on horses which naturally hollow the back and pick up their legs high.

"Be fair to the horse," she said. "We bred them to be what they are, and we're responsible for them.

"You can't just look at gaits. A horse can have a beautiful walk, trot, and canter, but look at what's being asked for. The horse needs to be on the bit. If he wants to extend the trot and drop his shoulders, that's not good. You want a horse that grows in front and looks like an airplane taking off down the runway. If he looks like a hunter, he should go as a hunter and not be a dressage horse."

In dressage, the horse has to want to work. The lazy or hot horse isn't suited for this sport, as he has to express a willingness to perform the test. He shows trainability by submitting to the rider's requests. He accepts and obeys the slightest command.

Nyrop compared the upper level dressage horses to the eventer, calling them "The power lifters--they do basically aerobic work, that will never go on to be anaerobic work. That has been shown in heart rate monitors and lactate tests. They all work within their oxygen-carrying capacity, but they are strictly body builders. They have so much body mass per surface area of skin, that they don't lose heat as efficiently."

Conformation Produces Movement

With the goals of balanced, supple movement, certain conformation types perform better. Experts choose the horse of a rectangular frame, with the length exceeding the animal's height at the withers. The horse of a square shape tends to be less balanced for dressage.

European authorities score prospects and breeding stock according to the horse's potential for movement. The ideal candidate is built uphill, with withers higher than the croup. He has a neck well set on the shoulder and set high on the chest. His neck has a long atlas (first vertebra) so he can flex at the poll. His shoulder is long, so he can reach forward freely with the front legs.

Swedish horseman Mikael Holmstrom has published a dissertation and several articles on studies of elite vs. average sport horses. He reported that the dressage horse tends to have a more sloping shoulder.

The horse has a loose, supple back--he uses his back and rounds it. The back shouldn't be too short, or it can be stiff or hollow. "Watch the horse at the walk," advised Gurney. "If he oversteps easily, his back is fine. If he can't overstep, his back is long."

Dressage requires strong hindquarters so the horse can overstep, or track up. The hindquarters have long muscles and strong bones.

Bone proportions in the limbs affect the stride. A long, forward-sloping femur helps the horse reach farther under himself. A horse with this angulation can show better balance while moving. In his article, "Relationships between Conformation, Performance, and Health in 4-year-old Swedish Warmblood Riding Horses," Holmstrom explained: "A forwardly sloping femur places the hind limbs more under the horse and in combination with a rather flat pelvis it facilitates the work of quadriceps femoris, which probably is the most strained group of muscles when a horse works in collected gaits. If the muscles cannot keep the stifle joint straight when maximum weight is put on the hind leg, the horse must bear weight on its fore limbs and is no longer working in balance."

Holmstrom recorded the medical and orthopedic status of the horses tested. He noted higher medical scores for horses with a long humerus and femur, short metatarsus, small angle between the scapula and horizontal plane, and small angle of the shoulder joint. In orthopedic status, horses scored higher with a long humerus, large angle of the elbow joint, and small angles between scapula and femur and the horizontal plane.

Holmstrom noted that better horses show a larger hock angle, at 154 degrees. A smaller angle can affect the horse's ability to bear weight and move with elasticity. The flexion at the hock gives the horse a more powerful propulsion at the trot.

Gurney included Holmstrom's research in a talk she presented at the 1996 U.S. Dressage Federation annual meeting. She said, "The horse needs to store elastic thrust in the hock and pelvis. If he is too bent at the hock, he has to hold more bend and his haunches get too tired."

The horse should have a deep, long, large hock. A broad hock indicates strength, while sickle hocks have been associated with the development of curbs.

One of Holmstrom's most intriguing findings was the advantage of a large "positive diagonal advanced placement." At the trot, the better horses placed the hind foot on the ground an instant before the diagonal front foot. This action indicates a horse's natural balance.

Gurney explained, "The hind leg steps well under to give the horse much better balance and a more uphill frame. His hind leg is under his body, so he flexes at the poll with no problem.

"Suspension is caused by thrust. The hind end comes forward. The horse steps under to thrust himself up."

The Swedish studies also showed that the elite horses had long phalanges, and that 80% of the horses had outwardly rotated hind limbs. Such mild to moderate deviations did not appear to impair performance or soundness. Gurney noted, "The hind leg is slightly turned out, to swing through the stifle."

Gurney also recommended that the dressage horse will stay sounder with large, round feet. "You want a good heel. Low, underslung heels are a problem."

Demands of Dressage

The dressage horse should never appear earthbound, but weight-bearing can produce stress. The top performers exhibit a bending, or articulation of the knees and hocks as they spring in every gait. Upper level horses are expected to show brilliance and energy in collection and extension, and a high degree of self-carriage.

Kent Allen, DVM, who deals with Olympic-caliber horses year-round, said, "Most horses that operate at the lower levels can live with any type of conformation. It's at the upper levels that they start dropping out due to conformational flaws. If you're only concentrating on a horse that's at First or Second Level, you can live with a lot--at the upper levels these horses athletically will tolerate fewer stresses. They have to be biomechanically built right to hold up to the stress."

Correct legs produce stable movement, with the horse staying balanced in all gaits. Riders want horses to move with fluid joints.

Gert van der Veen, a sport horse authority from the Netherlands, explained how hind leg conformation affects the horse's performance: "The rider tries to get the horse to use its hind legs. Handicapped by conformation, the horse can't get his hind legs under his body, and he resists. The rider works more vigorously and the horse resists more. Mouth and back problems are likely to result, which influence the horse's character."

Experts debate the extent of back problems, which can be caused by clumsy riding. If the horse has a problem in the hind limb, he can exhibit an asymmetric gait.

Allen described the asymmetric gait: "The horse moves a full stride on one leg and a shortened stride on the other leg." He compared this horse to a sawhorse with one leg shortened. The stress affects the position of the crossbeam that connects the two ends--just like one painful leg results in a horse sore-backed due to hind limb problems.

He recommended, "You can put therapy on the back, but you're treating the symptom, not the problem. Get to the hind limb and cure the asymmetric gait."

Nyrop described how hocks absorb greater stress in the upper level horses. "With more levels of collection, the more weight is carried on the hocks. As with any horse, the majority of lamenesses are still in the front feet.

"If I have a horse that has a sore back, the first thing I do is check out the hocks. The problem may not always be the hock, because there can be primary back problems--but I would never omit checking the hocks. If the horse moves differently because something hurts, something else is going to hurt. It's like people's injuries--if your leg hurts you may get a back spasm."

She defined the type of hock problem as strain without obvious radiographic abnormalities. The horse might have cartilage damage at that point, or joint capsule strain, or the strain could progress on to degenerative arthritis, or spavin. She has found that many horses don't show extensive radiographic changes in the bone.

"We can't insert a scope in every hock joint to find out, so we assume it's maybe some cartilage degeneration that's setting up a synovitis, joint capsule pain, perhaps even the strain of putting weight back on the joints. There is a lot of twisting motion that goes on in that rotational movement--it's theorized that it hurts some horses."

She has found that with horses which might have some hock damage, the pain can be managed either through training changes or medical changes. The horse might work through that stage of conditioning, and continue to compete successfully. Like the human athlete, the horse can observe a "no pain, no gain" doctrine, becoming stronger and fitter by progressing through a stressful phase.

Medical treatments for suspected hock lameness can involve interstitial anesthesia, or a local anesthetic injected into the joint. However, this action isn't a cure-all remedy for a horse which has difficulty performing a specific movement.

During his career, the equine athlete develops physical discomforts that he demonstrates in uneven movement. Allen described how to evaluate the horse's stride length: "Have someone lead the horse on a straight line away from you, on a hard surface. Walk beside the horse and do nothing but look at how he oversteps or tracks his hind foot to his front foot. Then turn him around, while you stay on the same side, and watch his opposite side do the same."

Using this method, he recalled seeing a horse with an eight-inch variation between stride lengths, of one limb compared to the other limb. "I didn't have to jog him a step--I knew he was lame."

Nyrop sees ankle and fetlock problems in the upper level horses. "With more collection of piaffe and passage, problems occur both front and hind. If you watch the horse piaffe or doing passage, you see how much he sinks into the fetlocks to take the suspension, and how he needs impulsion to do the movement."

Horsemen debate the angle of the pastern, with a 45 degree angle considered desirable. Gurney added that the angle of the pastern is a fine line. "Pasterns that are a little straighter stay sounder. With really sloping pasterns, the horse can have suspensory problems. Don't buy a horse that's really down on his pasterns, because you'll have suspensory problems in front or behind."

Allen blamed inappropriate shoeing as a primary factor for dressage horses going lame. He recommended looking for shoe balance. "Is the shoe level? Look medial to lateral, inside to outside.

"On the hind limb, watch how the horse lands on the foot. Does he land level? That's all we care about in the athletic horse. He can stand any direction he wants. What matters to us is does he plant the foot level in the weight bearing phase? We should endeavor to make sure that the horse does land level."

He also mentioned a concern with hoof rotation. A horse which toes out can strike the outside of the foot first and cause torque. This can lead to problems in the pastern, fetlock, and coffin bone.

"The horse lands heel to toe; a lame horse lands toe to heel. The lateral to medial balance of the foot is critical. You'll see torsion of the joints if the horse is shod unlevel."

Allen advised watching the horse's topline, more at the trot than at the walk. "Watch the topline as he moves away from you. Is there symmetry to it? Is it symmetric at the walk and the trot? At the trot, watch as he comes to you. Pay attention--does he land level? I'm not too concerned about him paddling or winging out. What matters is when he places weight on the limb. That's where all the biomechanics affecting the horse come into play. He's either going to injure himself or not."

Short cannons, desirable in any equine athlete, can produce fewer problems in the suspensory and tendons. Dressage horses can bow tendons, or have problems in the branch of the suspensory ligament in the area of the proximal sesamoid bone.

Allen recommended palpating tendons and ligaments often in order to discover any changes. He said owners should look for warning signs and take action. For example, you might notice that a windpuff on the hind leg has become larger, and the horse appears slightly sore on the outside of a leg.

Allen said, "When a horse blows the lateral suspensory ligament branch, he goes lame and everyone notices it. You can prevent that by catching it in the early stages. If you feel heat, have the horse critically evaluated."

To help their horses, dressage riders focus on the quality of footing, whether schooling or competing. A single misstep in too-hard or too-soft footing can permanently damage the dressage horse. After years of training to fulfill an athlete's potential, riders are concerned about the quality of the ground.

Gurney explained how this discipline improves a horse's presence: "The horses grow beautiful with dressage. Horses don't get old. They last so long and they stay sound." She cited her Olympic mount Keen as an example. This American Thoroughbred was still carrying young riders in his 20s. In 1985, a year after his second Olympics, Gurney said of him, "Keen is not aging yet because of the kind of work he does. He works every day--he works hard, but it's in a very careful way."

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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