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Monday, November 26, 2007

Western Pleasure Gait Analysis: Not What the Judges Ordered

A new study published in the journal Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology sheds some light on perhaps why I get so confused when I watch the western pleasure classes at the Quarter Horse Congress.

Our friend Molly Nicodemus PhD, formerly of the McPhail Center at Michigan State College of Veterinary Medicine and now at Mississippi State, and J.E. Booker of Auburn University analyzed a group of western pleasure horses at the jog and lope.

While the paper contains a lot of information, it requires a bit of reading between the lines. It tells you what a western pleasure horse (if the horses tested are typical) does but without comparing it to what other "normal" horses do.

For instance, the study determined that both the jog and lope are four-beat stepping gaits. (A stepping gait is one in which the horse has at least one foot on the ground at all times--think: walk, rack, running walk, fox trot, tolt, paso largo, etc.). The opposite of a stepping gait is a leaping gait, which contains an "aerial" phase when no limb is in contact with the ground--think: trot. piaffe, gallop.)

Gait analysis has shown pretty reliably that the trot is a two-beat leaping gait and the canter is a three-beat leaping gait.

In her book The Dynamic Horse, Dr. Hilary Clayton describes the western pleasure jog as a symmetrical two-beat stepping with a high degree of collection (what trainers call "being in the frame" and what makes it look, to the uneducated spectator, like the horses are trotting in place and will never get all the way around the arena.)

Does the new research mean that the jog and lope are variations of the walk?

The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), which also defines the jog as a "smooth, ground-covering two-beat diagonal gait", recently changed the judging standards for western pleasure classes: "The horse (in the jog) works from one pair of diagonals to the other pair. The jog should be square, balanced and with straight, forward movement of the feet. Horses walking with their back feet and trotting in the front are not considered performing the required gait."

Also from the AQHA: "The lope is an easy, rhythmical three-beat gait....Horses traveling at a four-beat gait are not considered to be performing at a proper lope."

The AQHA obviously believes that corrrectly-performing Western Pleasure horses are exhibiting aerial gaits; Molly Nicodemus' paper documents that the horses she tested are not in compliance with AQHA standards.

Here's a confusing sentence from the AQHA rulebook: "Lope with forward motion will become the only gait recognized as a lope." Can a horse lope without making forward motion? That's one for a gait analysis project...

Not too many years ago, Hilary Clayton's gait analysis showed that medal-winning FEI dressage horses were not performing movements as prescribed in the stone tablets of dressage judging standards. The canter pirouette, in particular, and the piaffe were found to be quite different than believed.

Maybe it is western pleasure's time to "move forward" and see their gaits with new eyes.

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Heidi Meyer said...

FINALLY someone is opening the eyes of AQHA to how "fake" their horses are made to move.
It is agonizing for me to see these amazing athletic animals held 1. with their head carriage below what I would call "safe" for forward travel 2. crawling forward with a motion that leads you to believe the front of the horse is not connected to the back and 3. proceeding so slowly, a one legged cow could outrun them! This I am sure is not how the original description of a true pleasure or equitation mount should move....freely forward with collection at a nice pace. They are horses, not robots.

Mo said...

I love Quarter Horses and really hope the AQHA does "move forward".

I try to show respect to each rider and the discipline they choose to show but it has gotten truly painful to watch the Pleasure Horse classes.

Julia Thompson said...

I agree completly. My horse is very natural moving, the way that you hear that judges are placing horses nowadays. If you go to a futurity show though the judges place the peanut-rollers instead. I am trying to get into higher shows without changing the natural part of my horse. Track my progress at !!

Fran Jurga said...

Julia, you have a great blog, thanks for your comment!

Kasino Kasanova said...

I just stumbled upon this article but have the benefit of looking back on it from the present. AQHA finally has made great strides at making judges reward horses that are going forward with a three beat lope. There are still many errors and some poor judging, but I definitely see an improvement over the last five years. Most of the winners have a pleasing, uphill lope with slow legs and a clear three beat gait.

The jog, I'm sorry to report, hasn't fared quite as well, with many great lopers still displaying what is commonly now called the "wogging" gait, with the hind legs being just a smidge out of cadence. I'd say it put the average judge in a predicament since most everyone IS wogging. He's either got to DQ the entire class or just place what is given to him.