Basic Concepts of Dressage: The Gaits/6

di Enzo Truppa

The main goal of dressage and the principles that inspire and govern it are presented in detail in the Italian National Regulation for Dressage Competitions (Derived from FEI Regulations)

The contents can be summarized as follows: the aim of dressage is for the horse to consent and submit to the harmonious development of its body and abilities. The goal is to make the horse at the same time calm, light, decontracted and flexible, trusting, attentive and permeable, achieving a perfect understanding with its rider.

These qualities are expressed with the freedom and regularity of the gaits, the engagement of the hind legs that originates from the impulsion and allows for the raising of the forehand as a result of lowering of hind quarter with the progress of the collection, as well as the harmony, lightness and ease of movements and submission in decontraction.

In the FEI regulation, the concept of “HAPPY ATHLETE” was appropriately introduced, meaning a horse in harmony with its rider, in the absence of negative tension.

The horse, trusting and attentive, generously consents to its rider’s requests; it is straight in all its movements, both in straight lines and circles (in that case the bending follows the line of the circle). In every moment, the horse’s haunches must be active and move in response to even the minimum request. The horse generously obeys to the aids of the rider, with calm and precision. It must also be “in hand”: its neckline is more or less raised and rounded according to the degree of training and extension of the gait, its submission is shown with light and soft contact with the hand, the head remains fixed, the ears at the same height, the nose ahead of the vertical, while the poll remains the highest point of the neckline.

From among the principles presented in the Regulations cited above, we note that one of the fundamental aspects (certainly the “primary” one) is the regularity of the gaits, that is, walk, trot and canter to the point that any deterioration of one of these affects one of the main goals of dressage, that we recall, is to improve or at least preserve the horse’s natural gaits.

Let us now examine in detail the characteristics of the three gaits.

The gaits


  1. The walk is a “marching pace” in which the horse’s legs mark out four times beat with equal intervals between each beat.
  2. When the four beats are not equal and regular, we say that the walk loses the sequence and shows, at times, the most serious defect of this gait, the laterality of the movement.
  3. It is during the walk that imperfections in training are revealed the most.
  4. There is a distinction between: collected walk, medium walk, extended walk and free walk.

Collected walk: the horse rises its neckline which becomes round, and the head approaches the vertical. The haunches are engaged and active; the tracks of the rear feet should generally not overtake those of the front ones.

Medium walk: steps are, regular and with moderate lengthening. The horse walks energetically, but calmly and the tracks of hind feet touching the ground in front of fore feet.

Extended walk: the horse covers as much ground as possible without changing rhythm, clearly overtaking. Without losing contact, the rider induces the horse to extend the neckline.

Free walk is a rest walk in which the horse is given the freedom to lower its head and extend the neckline.

Correct walk sequence

  1. The trot is a gait with two beat of alternate diagonal legs that are separated by a suspension period. The horse moves forward by opposed diagonal two-hoof beats, simultaneously putting down a front leg and the rear leg of the opposite side.
  2. The quality of a trot can be seen in the overall impression deriving from the elasticity of the movement, the softness of the back, the activity of the hind legs, and above all the regularity.
  3. The different types are: working trot, collected trot, medium trot, and extended trot. The horse maintains the same rhythm when making a transition from one trot to another.

Working trot: the horse is not yet collected, it moves with secure and symmetrical strides and a good hock action.

Collected trot: the gait slows down and becomes more expressive, the strides are shown with more pronounced bending of the joints, while the neckline rises and stays round.

Medium trot: this is the intermediate gait between the collected trot and the extended trot, both as concerns the length of the strides and the general posture. The impulsion and rhythm are maintained as in the other types of trot.

Extended trot: the horse moves forward with the longest strides possible. It changes its posture, but always remains in balance. The fore feet should touch the ground on the spot towards they are ponting on the ground.

Sequence of trot beats

  1. The canter is a gait with three beat pace that entails a regular succession of the footfalls and the lift-offs in the following order: a hind leg, a diagonal two-beat, then the front leg followed by a suspension time of the four legs before starting the next stride.
  2. The canter is disunited when the order becomes: a hind leg, a lateral two-beat, a front leg. If the diagonal is dissociated, the horse will canter with four times beat.
  3. The canter is broken when the suspension time disappears.
  4. The different types are: working canter, collected canter, medium canter and extended canter.

Working canter: at this gait, the horse is not yet collected but is balanced and submissive, the haunches are active and the horse moves forward with even, active and light strides.

Collected canter: characterized by the engagement of the hocks, the flexibility and lowering of the haunches and the lightness of the forehand. The neckline is high and rounded with shorter and more pronounced strides than the other types of canter.

Medium canter: characterized by being between the working canter and the extended canter both in terms of the extension of the strides and the general attitude. Both the impulsion and the rhythm are maintained.

Extended canter: the horse covers the maximum amount of ground, remaining in balance and maintaining the same rhythm. The neckline is extended with the nose in front of  the vertical.

Counter canter: the horse canters in correct sequence on the right foot on the left hand and vice versa. The poll slightly bent towards the outside, that is, the inside of the direction of the canter.

Correct canter sequence


There are two types: 1) from one gait to another; 2) in the context of the same gait.

From one gait to another: the transitions must always be clear and not hesitant or performed abruptly. The rhythm of the previous gait is maintained until the change of gait.

In the same gait: their progression is a function of the level of class performed.

In any case, calm, obedience and correct sequences of the gait must be maintained.

Piaffe and Passage

Despite having dedicated a specific chapter to the discussion of piaffe and passage as well as the specific work on canter (changes, pirouettes, etc.), we believe it is useful to provide a preliminary introduction to the fundamental principles of these figures in this chapter in order to provide an overall view of the basic concepts of dressage.

The Piaffe

This is a diagonal movement that is extremely collected, raised, rhythmic, and that gives the impression of being performed on the spot. It is characterized by the lowering of the haunches, the elevation of the legs, and the suspension time. It gains value with general flexibility, and with the elasticity and liveliness of the gestures.

In principle height of the toe of the raised forefoot should be level with the middle of the cannon bone of the other supporting foreleg. The hoof of the hind leg being lifted should rise to above the joint of the hind leg that is down.

The neck should rise and be arched, while the head shall remain almost vertical. The horse should remain “on the bit”, and poll remains the highest point.

Forward piaffe: this is a preparatory exercise for the piaffe, the passage, and the transition from one movement to another. Its characteristics are the same as the piaffe, but the horse can move forward slightly while the lowering of the haunches is less pronounced, the neckline less raised. The poll in any event remains the highest point.

The Passage

The Passage is very collected trot, showing “dressage cadence”. It has the general characteristics of the piaffe, but is distinguished by the projection of the body in the forward movement, with a more accentuated flexion of the knees and hocks.

In principle the height of the toe of the reaised farefoot should be level with the middle of the cannon bone of the other supporting foreleg. The toe of the raised hind foot shold be slightly above the fetlock joint of the other supporting hindleg.

The neck shold rise, be gracefully arched, while the poll wich remains the highest point and the head approaches vertical.

The Piaffe-Passage and Passage-Piaffe transitions must be performed softly without abrupt movements or hesitations or contrasts, and without alterations of the contact and rhythm.

The movements

The precision indicates the consenting cooperation of the horse. The movements must be performed or terminated at fixed points.

The halt: the horse is straight, standing square, attentive, immobile, the neckline raised, the head slightly ahead of the vertical. It is ready to start moving upon a minimum request from the rider.

Steps backward: retrograde movement in which the horse, remaining straight, lifts and lowers the legs simultaneously diagonal two-beats.

Flying change (in air): This is a change of leg performed in strict relation with the suspension time that follows each canter stride. Can take place regularly in series of 4, 3 and 2 normal strides (also called 4, 3 and 2 times) or each stride (are tempi changes).

In sequences of flying changes the horse must remain light, calm and straight, maintaining the impulsion while the strides remain equal. The rhythm and balance must not change during the entire movement. To facilitate the subsequent changes and to avoid shortening the strides during the series, it can be accepted a slightly less pronounced collection. The quality depends on the horse being straight, with impulsion, synchronism, elasticity of movement, freedom of the gesture of the shoulders, and  symmetry of the canters.

Work in circles

Circles and voltes: the horse must bend from the head to the tail according to the design of circles and voltes. The smallest circle that can be traced is six meters in diameter, and in that case is called a volt.

Corners: in the collected gaits, the horse must pass in the corners tracing a quarter-circle with a radius of approximately three meters. In the working, medium or extended gaits, the radius of the circle must be increased.


This is a succession of opposite curves: the equal “boucles” are generally tangent when passing the short side of the arena. Their design and number are a function of the class level. Starting or finishing a serpentine entering the corner is an error.

Common errors


– Lack of activity of hind quarters

– Trots, hurries

– Irregularity

– Sequence of beats incorrect                    

– “Lateral” gait

– Insufficient collection

– Irregular contact

– Insufficient overtracking (medium and extended walk)

– The horse’s neckline does not extend to follow the rider’s hand.


– Irregularity

In the collected and working trot:

– Passagé trot

– Insufficient impulsion

In medium and extended trot:

– Horse stiff, without change in the attitude of the neckline and frame

– Irregular action of front legs, gesture that starts from the knee and not from the shoulders

– Disunited or broken trot (canter with front legs and trot with hind legs or vice versa)

– Loss of balance (on forehand)


– Four-beat canter (consequence of lack of impulsion)                           

– Disunited canter                                                                                        


– Any hesitation, abrupt action, loss of balance or rhythm, or alteration of contact.


– Lack of immobility

– Tendency to move backwards                          


– Dissociation of diagonal two-step

– Rushes

– Drags feet

– Crosses itself

– On forehand, too deep in front

– Wide rear legs

– Resistance

                                              Turn and half turn/Serpentines 5 boucles/6 boucles


My teacher and mentor George Theodorescu used to say that if the execution of a dressage test was good, then the seat must have been good as well.

To this already clear exposition, I would like to add some considerations:

– I did not find it advisable – as other authors have done – to provide photographs that exalt the “correct seat,” because that can be a source of misunderstandings and generate the conviction that, ultimately, it is a question of examining a “static” situation, while in reality it is the “dynamic” phase of the seat that is more important to consider;

– a rider seated perfectly in the saddle or a very elegant rider do not necessarily get excellent scores just for this;

In fact, what is more important is the “method of communication” with the horse.

To a good judge, the elegance of the combination is less important if the horse does not move properly;

– the basis of the judge’s evaluation, for each exercise, lies principally in the recognition of the basic requirements explained in the chapter “Essential elements in the training of a horse and the judgment of a dressage class” and not exclusively in the precision of the execution of the figures. Precision certainly allows for further very improving one’s score, but it is clear that a horse that moves superbly with a correct attitude will always have an advantage over a horse that is not well-trained, even if the latter is absolutely precise in the execution of the class.

There are some basic concepts in dressage that are expressed well in the German language, but are difficult to translate or entail ambiguity in the exact understanding of the real meaning of the terms.

These are:

– (Kadenz) (Cadence)

– (Durchlassigkeit) (translated in this book as “horse in aids”)

– Schwung (dressage impulsion)

With the aim of preserving the flow of the text and avoiding sterile disputes on “linguistic complications,” I prefer to clarify in this chapter the exact meaning of these three basic concepts and their implications in the context of the training and judging of a dressage horse.

Therefore, each time we come across one of these terms in the text, it will be necessary to refer to the concepts expressed here.


The cadence is the expression of the particular harmony that a horse shows when it moves with well-pronounced (trot and canter) regularity, impulsion and balance. The rhythm that a horse maintains in all of its gaits is an integral part of the cadence. The cadence must be maintained in all of the different exercises and in the variations of each gait.

The concept of cadence (in dressage) is one of the principal sources of misunderstandings in dressage, probably due to the fact that the term “cadence” is often used in the terminology of the Italian equestrian world in contexts – such as jumping, obstacles, and 3 days events – that are different from the context of dressage where “cadenza” is the translation of “KADENZ” in German or “CADENCE” in English.

Therefore, there are three “ingredients” of the dressage cadence: regularity, impulsion and balance, that preludes to the concept of collection, which in turn implies the lowering of the haunches and great lightness of the forehand.

To be clear, a young horse whose gaits (trot and canter in the case in question being cadence not applicable to walk) are characterized by absolute regularity and great impulsion, is very unlikely to show a “dressage cadence,” that will become visible only when those qualities are completed, through adequate training, with the lowering of the haunches and the consequent lightening of the forehand as the primary effect of a proper collection.

General Albrecht gives an exemplary description of the concept of dressage cadence: “The trot or canter will show cadence only if the horse is in perfect balance; the rather prolonged suspension period that gives the observer the impression of great projection upwards depends on the stability of the balance that in dressage is perfected with collection, characterized by lowering the horse’s haunches.”


Of the three basic concepts discussed here, this is certainly the one that lends itself the most to distortions in translation and thus proper understanding. In the past the term “submission” was often used, that in my view put too much emphasis on the factor of “complete obedience,” neglecting the most significant part of the concept, that is, the way the horse reacts to the aids.

In fact, a literal translation from German helps better understand the meaning inherent in the term, that is “a state of letting pass” that includes the rider’s aids, the energy, the fluidity of movement, and when adequately developed, the dressage impulsion (schwung).

As concerns the aids, it is necessary to clarify that in this concept it is implicit that the “horse in aids” lets the propulsive aids pass through the hind legs back in the rider’s hands. Furthermore, there must be a prompt response to the requests for lateral movement, or the “weight” aids (seat). It is obvious that a prompt and willing response to those requests can only come from a horse that is decontracted (see the relevant chapter) without tension or physical and moral resistance, and that works in cooperation with the rider (“HAPPY ATHLETE”), who in turn, must be sensitive and diligent.


To better clarify the scope of this term, it is necessary to recall that a race horse will certainly show great impulsion, but that this is very different from the concept treated here. Sometimes we say that some people seem to have “springs under their feet”; well, the concept underlie the meaning of “schwung.” More specifically, this term describes a containment (impulsion in submission as it tends to be defined) and a redirecting of energy that allows the forward movement deriving from the horse’s body as a whole and that is expressed, visually, in lifting from the ground against the rules of the force of gravity for a few fractions of a second in every beat of the trot or stride of the canter. A horse whose training proceeds correctly will show that dressage impulsion will increase as the result of a growing and pronounced engagement of its hind legs and a correct use of the back.

                        DRESAGE ARENA                                                  DRESSAGE ARENA

For Chapter 1 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 2 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 3 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 4 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 5 CLICK HERE

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