The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words, yet so many involved in Dressage want to deny what the pictures tell us. The
most common complaint is that a photo is “just a moment in time” – yet, without the “moments in time” that Eadweard Muybridge gave us, we would not know the actual sequence of the footfalls in a horse’s stride. How can it be that those “moments” were valuable, but those we see today are not? The truth is, they are just as valuable – they just might not always be agreeable with our perception. Just as with Muybridge’s discoveries in locomotion, today’s photos capture moments that are missed by our naked eye.
I have long used photos to study the principles my instructors taught me. I find them very valuable for studying equine anatomy and biomechanics used correctly, and incorrectly. Photos, especially of rides I have seen in person, help me evaluate whether the things I noticed were real, and notice subtle things I missed that I then learn to look for. In short, they help educate my eye.
So, the reactions to “bad” photos of famous riders has been very puzzling to me. Those photos provide the opportunity to reflect on what is actually happening, and should help us discuss when things are not right. Instead, the direction has become one of changing the narrative to fit the visual. The most interesting example was in Horse & Hound, intended to help you take better photos of Dressage. A worthy topic, and certainly containing some helpful tips. But, what struck me was reinvention of equine biomechanics to explain the anomalies seen in photos of famous pairs. In fact, the author was so careful as to add the following disclaimer at the end:
“These images are used for illustration purposes only and no criticism of the horses themselves or their way of going is intended”
I could certainly understand that concern, had there actually been anything in the article that could count in any way as a criticism. In fact, the article could easily have been done without the use of famous horses. Instead, the author actually used photos of the famous to illustrate completely faulty ideas of movement. Since I have been wanting to have fun with photos for a while, this seemed the perfect place to start!
This is probably the simplest gait the horse has, in terms of illustrating and understanding. The legs move in diagonal pairs, with a period of suspension in between, creating a ‘two-beat’ gait (if your definition is counting footfalls … I’ve found some who actually debate that the suspension is a beat, but that is not the typical understanding).
Of the trot, the author of the photography article had this to say:
“The front leg and the hindleg in the air should ideally match in a good trot picture. There are some exceptions to this rule, however, as some horses’ trot mechanics make taking this sort of picture of them almost impossible.”
Interesting. So horses have different “mechanics” to their trot? I had always heard that this constituted a different gait – amble, shuffle, rack, pace … all “exceptions” on trot “mechanics” – yet none of them are acceptable in Dressage. If you look at the Muybridge trot sequence, you will see the ‘ideal’ the author is referring to – that is, the forearm of the front leg is always parallel to the cannon of the opposite hind leg. This is a natural trot, and it is a clear indication of a clean two beats.
So, what was this mechanical difference the author was referring to? It has become a rather common sight, and can be seen in
the photos to the right – the hind leg significantly trails the path taken by the opposing front leg. The suspended front and hind legs will not land in one clear beat, as the front leg is much further in its arc than the opposite hind.
The only mechanical issue here is that of a hollow, tight back and disengaged hind quarters. These horses are both innately talented, and show a lot of freedom in front – but what they are showing behind is counter to every ideal of Dressage. In the case of the chestnut, the left hind is actually dragging the ground. This is MUCH more than a “moment in time” issue.
The lack of thrust and activity behind will result in the forelegs of these horses dropping backward before they hit the ground – there just isn’t enough support from behind to complete a full stride in the direction the toe is pointed. The result is a goose-step style extension, where little ground is actually covered.
Compare the images above to this one of a horse of the same type, doing a natural extended trot. Note that he also has the parallels seen in the Muybridge photos. He has an apparent slight loss of pure two beats, as the hind leg is about to land before the partnered front leg – but compare that to the photos above, where the hind leg has barely started it’s track forward, while the front leg is at full extension. If the hindquarters are supposed to be the ‘engine’ of a Dressage horse, how can one justify that it is lagging behind the forehand in what should be the most powerful and active trots in Dressage?
Even in the most extreme extension possible – that of a Standardbred racing horse – notice just how close the parallels (front leg forearm and opposing hind leg cannon) are maintained. Of course this Standardbred is moving to the fullest physical extent possible in the trot, while in Dressage we work to have our horses maintain a more contained balance. However, it shows that even with the extremely likely risk of the hind leg running into the foreleg, and the extreme reach of the opposite foreleg, equine biomechanics still tends toward maintaining that parallel.
So, what should a correct extended trot look like in a Dressage horse? Let’s start with a definition, borrowed from the German National Equestrian Federation:
“… there must be a marked accumulation of implusion, more ‘bounce’ and maximum ground cover, all emanating from engaged hindquarters. In coordination with the increased lengthening of stride there must be a marked lengthening of frame (allowing the nose to stretch a little forward/downwards while maintaining a contact). The hind feet should reach far beyond the imprints of the forefeet.”
The point of a “marked lengthening of frame” seems to be in dispute with some, particularly those who skew very classical (as in pre-20th century) in their focus. Think of this definition as you view the next photos.
Here are a few examples of good extensions – none ‘perfect’, and all very different types of horses, yet all showing the pairs of legs in parallel. The one exception is the Lippizan, whose lifting pair are slightly off parallel – likely a combination of shoulder mobility and speed of the foreleg off the ground (the latter being a quality of collection).
Just for a simple comparison (and to decrease your need to scroll too far back and forth), here is another example of the different “mechanics” that we are discussing.
Aside from comparing the legs in this photo to those just above, look for other qualities that may provide clues to the cause of this biomechanical dysfunction. Pay particular attention to the neck, shoulders, and sternum. Although the haunches are the ‘engine’, the effect of correctly engaged haunches should be seen in the lifting of the sternum, shoulders, and base of the neck. Does the lower horse give the same sense of lift as the three above it? Does the weight ‘feel’ balanced between the load on the landed front leg, and the load on the landed hind leg? Does it give the same feel of covering ground with power that the three above do?
I’ve used the extended trot because it is the most extreme case of what the Horse & Hound author seemed to think was different horses “mechanics”. But the lack of parallel legs is visible today in the collected trot as well. Just compare these two photos.
To be completely fair, this is not just a ‘then vs. now’ or ‘old vs. new’ problem. I found a number of older photos that showed the biomechanical defect, and a few new ones that did not. However, there were far more correct examples in the older photos, and far fewer in the newer ones (and none of the top international competitors). This illustrates two things – that this dysfunction, caused by training, is a growing trend; and, that it is being rewarded by the judges, which will further instill it in the sport.
There are many training methods, and I will be the first to say that different paths can lead to good result. However, when you go against the natural biomechanics of the horse, you greatly increase the risk of injury to them. When I was showing, Dressage horses were the ones our veterinary school would remark on when they came in – so rare was injury or dysfunction to a Dressage horse. Now Dressage horses make up the majority of non-racing patients – sometimes even surpassing the racehorses in injuries seen. Veterinarians can now rattle off the maladies that afflict Dressage horses, where there was no such list before.
When you have industry insiders defining dysfunctional biomechanics as just different “mechanics” specific to that horse, there seems little hope that anyone will recognize the damaging effect of interfering with the horse’s normal biomechanics. Don’t be taken in by the rhetoric. Photos may be a ‘moment in time’ – but they reflect more than just that. Look critically at the mechanics you see in a photo. Does it reflect what is natural to a horse’s movement? Is it more beautiful than the photos of horses unburdened? If not, try to figure out why. If you want to confirm whether it’s an anomaly for that horse and rider combination, find a video of them. I’ll wager that any dysfunction you see in the photo will be reflected in the movement.
Be good to your horses!