We all know that there are three recognized gaits in dressage: the four-beat walk, the two-beat trot and the three-beat canter. But dressage also recognizes "types" of gaits: medium, free, collected and extended walk; and working, medium, collected and extended trot and canter. Whether you're training or showing your horse or simply watching a class at a dressage show, understanding the difference and knowing what you're actually seeing can sometimes be a challenge.
And that's too bad, because the quality of gaits is so important in our sport that Gaits is the first Collective Mark on every dressage test. There is an emphasis on "freedom," which is manifested by the reach and scope of your horse's limbs, and "regularity." This involves his ability to maintain an even rhythm—the recurring sequence and timing of his footfalls at a suitable and consistent tempo.
What We'll Do
In this article, I'll explain the differences between the types of gaits, and when and why, in the course of your horse's training and competing, they appear.
I'll also demonstrate the types of gaits in photos, so you can contrast, compare and, I hope, sharpen your eye. As you do, please note: The difference between an extended and collected gait isn't merely about the length of a horse's steps. I always tell my students, "Don't only follow your horse with a ruler and measure the distance between his footprints. The lengthening or shortening of his step is important, but only as it relates to his overall outline, the elevation of his steps, the raising of his forehand and neck relative to the lowering of his croup and even the lengthening or shortening of his neck."
Another point to remember is that dressage training is a slow, logical, step-by-step progression. It builds the strength, muscle, balance, animation, activity and cadence (the sum of rhythm plus impulsion, which is expressed by an energetic lifting of the feet from the ground and gives any gait an extra quality).
The test levels at which the different types of gaits appear mirror the "building blocks" of the Training Scale: rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection. (In fact, the tests are sometimes referred to as a "blueprint" for your training.) I'm sure that if you pushed your green 4-year-old, you probably could get a nice extended canter, no problem! But when you got to the severe down transition, he wouldn't be physically strong or balanced enough to carry it off.
That's why, at Introductory Level, you simply want to show that your horse can be ridden on a light but steady contact (or allowed complete freedom to lower and stretch out his head and neck in the free walk).
At Training Level you want to additionally confirm that his muscles are supple and loose and that he moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit.
At First Level, he has additionally developed thrust (pushing power) and achieved a degree of balance and throughness (the state in which your aids/influence go freely through all parts of him, from back to front and front to back).
At Second Level, he accepts more weight on his hindquarters, has an uphill tendency and stays reliably on the bit. He does this with a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage.
At Third Level he shows increased engagement with rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of the bit, throughness, balance, impulsion, straightness and collection.
At Fourth Level and above, he has a high degree of suppleness, impulsion and throughness, plus a clear uphill balance and lightness. He remains reliably on the bit. His movements are straight, energetic and cadenced, and his transitions are precise and smooth.
Now, how do these requirements determine when and where the various types of gaits appear? Keep them in mind as you read on.