These days, dressage horses are selected and purposely bred for their paces, and the better their natural paces, the higher the price tag.
However, if your budget doesn’t stretch to buying the ready-made article (and it’s not cheap), there are ways to increase what nature has given your own horse.
Read this guide to find out how to school your horse to give his paces more expression and maximize your horse’s full potential.
What indicates quality paces?
When assessing a horse’s paces, we want to see the following qualities:
1. The correct rhythm and sequence of footfalls
The walk should be four-beat and the correct sequence of footfalls is;
- outside hind
- outside fore
- inside hind
- inside fore
The trot should be two-beat with the horse’s legs moving in diagonal pairs with a moment of suspension between them.
The canter should be three-beat and the correct sequence of footfalls is;
- outside hind
- diagonal pair of the inside hind and the outside fore
- inside fore (leading canter leg)
- moment of suspension
The tempo (speed of the rhythm) of all the paces should be brisk, but not hurried, and should remain consistent.
2. A clear moment of suspension
Within the trot and the canter, there should be a clear moment of suspension where all four of the horse’s feet are off the ground.
The clarity of this moment is what helps to determine the quality of the pace.
3. Engagement and power
The horse should have vigorously bending hind legs that actively step underneath his body to propel himself both forwards and upwards.
4. Full body and mental suppleness
The horse should be both mentally and physically loose showing no signs of stress or tension and giving the impression of full-body mobility.
Prerequsites to improving your horse’s paces
1. Connection and throughness
For the horse’s paces to become more elastic and cadenced, you first need your horse connected and working from his hindlegs, through his back and seeking an elastic contact.
Essentially, you need to have achieved the first three of the dressage Scales of Training, which are rhythm, suppleness, and contact.
- The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm
- The Scales of Training: Scale 2 – Suppleness
- The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact
- How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”
2. Understanding of the half-halt
The half-halt is used to help balance the horse, increase his engagement, and to further connect his hindquarters through his back to the contact.
Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt
Exercises to help improve your horse’s paces
Once you have the above prerequisites in place, you can then go about improving your horse’s paces through the use of circles, transitions, lateral work, and allowing your horse to stretch on a long rein.
Exercise 1 – Circles
Circles are an exceptionally useful training tool and are fundamental to your horse’s progression.
When ridden correctly, circles will help to improve your horse’s paces by:
- Improving the horse’s suppleness
- Helping to strengthen the horse’s hindquarters
- Encouraging the horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath (engagement)
- Improving the overall balance
- Helping to control the tempo (speed of the rhythm) of the pace.
Circles can be ridden in all the basic paces and can therefore provide you with a variety of additional training movements such as transitions on a circle, changing the rein out of a circle, spirals, etc.
Exercise 2 – Upward and downward transitions
Upward transitions are great for generating more energy and getting your horse in front of your leg. They also help to encourage your horse to use his hindlegs to push himself forwards and upwards. When the horse works in this way, he will automatically create more spring and elasticity in the steps.
Correctly ridden downward transitions help bring your horse’s hind legs more underneath his body, encouraging the horse to load more weight onto his hindquarters. That lifts the horse’s shoulders, helping to make the paces freer and lighter.
You can ride;
- simple transitions (such as walk-trot, trot-canter, canter-trot),
- transitions that skip a pace (such as halt-trot, walk-canter),
- transitons between the paces (such as working trot to medium trot, extended canter to collected canter),
- and transitions on a circle to help further increase throughness and engagement.
- How to Progress With Transitions
- How to “Connect” Your Horse Through the Use of Transitions
- How to Ride Transitions “On and Back” Within the Paces
Exercise 3 – Lateral work
Lateral work is very useful for helping to develop more engagement, lighten the horse’s forehand, and increase the freedom and elasticity of the paces.
All lateral exercises, when ridden correctly, will offer the above benefits, however, one of the best lateral exercises for this is arguably the shoulder-in.
Shoulder-in can be used to develop freedom of the horse’s shoulders, as well as help to establish a secure connection and throughness. Shoulder-in also helps to engage the horse’s inside hind leg, creating a more uphill balance and more elastic, lighter paces.
You can ride the shoulder-in on a straight line, around a circle, across the diagonal line, and in all three paces, depending on how advanced your horse is.
- How to Ride Shoulder-Fore
- How to Ride Shoulder-In
- How to Ride Shoulder-in on a Circle
- How to Ride Counter Shoulder-In
- How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)
Exercise 4 – Allow the horse to stretch on a long rein
Between the circles, transitions, and lateral exercises, you should give your horse the opportunity to stretch on a long rein. This will help to improve the horse’s thoroughness, connection, engagement, strength, and overall body suppleness.
It’s also an enjoyable exercise for the horse and can, therefore, be used as a reward between the more challenging work as well as preventing tiring muscles, ligaments, and joints, which can come from asking your horse to work in the same frame for an extended amount of time.
The aim is to allow the horse to stretch through his entire topline, freeing the shoulder and loosening any tension in the back.
Keeping the horse working forward with plenty of activity and in a good rhythm, allow the horse to gradually take the rein forward whilst following the bit. To do this, you’re going to allow the reins to slowly slip through your fingers.
You must maintain the contact, though; don’t give the rein away.
Once the horse gets the idea and starts to stretch down the reins, you can allow him more freedom and ask for even more stretching.
As long as you keep a light rein contact, maintain the rhythm, activity, and connection, that’s mission accomplished!
Related Read: How to Encourage Your Horse to Stretch on a Long Rein
One last note: Rising trot or sitting trot?
When you’re working on improving the elasticity and looseness of your horse’s trot, it can be helpful to ride in rising trot. That’s especially true of young and inexperienced horses that don’t yet have the muscle and strength to carry the weight of a rider in the sitting trot.
Sitting on the horse’s back in trot when he hasn’t yet got the ability to keep his back raised can cause the horse’s back muscles to tighten and hollow away from you, destroying the quality of the paces and disturbing the rhythm.
In contrast, the rising trot enables the horse to relax his back, allowing the big muscles of the topline to swing and lift as the horse stretches forward to seek the bit. When all that happens, the horse’s strides become more elevated.
…if you have a more advanced horse that is able to keep his back raised and working through without any tension or stiffness, AND you are able to sit to the trot and follow the horse’s movement without hindering him, then you may find sitting trot helpful.
This is because by sitting to the trot you will be able to use your seat fully to create more engagement and upward spring to the horse’s paces.
To do this, ride the trot with a feeling of being able to ‘lift’ your horse with a more vertical swing of your pelvis, without gripping with your legs. But remember that with more suspension/cadence/expression, there will be more time in the stride with all four feet off the ground (moment of suspension) so the trot will feel slower, but it should not be any less energetic.
Some horses are purposely bread to have elevated and floating paces, but you can improve even the most ordinary of paces through correct, systematic training.
Before you can enhance your horse’s paces, you need to have him connected and working through his back from behind to seek a consistent, elastic contact with an understanding of the half-halt. Once that’s established, you can use circle, transitions, and lateral work, with frequent stretching, to help build the lightness, expression, and elasticity of the horse’s strides.