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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