Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gaits Part 4: Knee action in dressage

Disclaimer: I'm babbling on and on in this series, and I hope I don't come across as a know-it-all. I'm just a lil'ole lower level amateur. Still, I do a lot of reading, I watch a ton of dressage videos, and I try to sponge up everything experts say at breed shows, horse shows, and inspections. I don't think I'm saying anything blatantly inaccurate, and I try to quote sources where I remember them. Thanks for your interest!

If you look at Gifted in 1991, Rembrandt in 1988, and Ahlerich in 1984, none of them have particularly extravagant knee action. In fact by today's standards their gaits are a little quiet. I think Gestion Bonfire was the first horse I remember with that remarkable knee/hock action, and although some attribute knee action to rollkur, I think it is more that the Dutch seem to breed horses that have that round action.

How much is too much?
Well, most of the references to knee action in the dressage world indicate it's *desirable. So I was surprised to find an online discussion of Friesians being marked down for too much knee action. I don't think that judges mark down the knee action per se, but if it interferes with their ability to perform the movements -- like extensions -- they might be marked down. When knees are up, the reach might be limited, I think.

There's more evidence that knee action isn't always a wonderful thing...

  • Jane Savoie was quoted as saying that when knees are up, the neck tends to be short. To get a longer stride you have to "let the neck out."
  • Knee action tends to be more pronounced with an upright shoulder and a choppy gait.
  • The showy front end may draw attention away from a lackluster hind end.
  • Anti-rollkur folks say that there is research showing that rollkur tends to produce more knee action.
Most of the knee action I've seen at the higher levels of dressage is very pleasant to watch. I just hope that horses who are doing correct work aren't overlooked because their gaits aren't fancy.

*Exception: Totilas and rollkur debate, where some folks maintain it's artificial.


  1. When it starts to look unnatural or lose the "softness" then I start to wonder. I do know one very knowledgeable international trainer who shudders at how Totilas goes. And the short neck is part of it.

    My problem is that I have always been taught to get my horses to stretch first. This makes it a bit harder to get the more compressed, collected frame later, I admit. So, in a sense, it's the hard way to get to the upper levels.

    I know another international level trainer who puts all the young horses in tight side reins to start off, never letting them carry themselves in any way but a more upper level frame. Don't know how that effects the muscles, etc. over time, but it surely does make the horses easier to ride.

  2. ugh. saddleseat. ugh. pads. ugh. weighted shoes. ugh. the rest of the questionable training methods.

    my grandfather bred saddlebreds in the 50s and 60s, had west coast champions.... he created that action by working the horses in deep straw on a lunge line. I hope he didn't do other things, but since I wasn't there, I don't know.

    hard to bring front end up AND out in one motion... Then again, what makes a truly good passage????

  3. Cavate: I'm a LL eventer, not a PSG rider. This is just my opinion.
    I didn't like the Granat's trot at all. Rembrandt has a nice trot IMO, he's actually pushing from his hind end, and extending. (I don't like his walk at all though...) I found it interesting how far in front of the vertical Granat was. And I loved those commentators! I quite liked Ahlerich. But not his piaffe. His extended trot was true, and also pushing well from behind. Notice his over tracking I feel like over tracking isn't looked at enough. For me, it's an easy way to discern if a horse is really pushing with his hind legs. I can remember watching a video of one of Anky's winning rides, and the horse was not tracking up at all in the extended trot. I was really surprised, and felt like I wanted to read the judges card to see where all her marks were coming from.
    I rode Arabian Park horses before I got into dressage, and I wish those all front end, no hind end working trots would stay in the saddleseat ring. It looks so manufactured to me now.
    Personally, I don't like Friesians in dressage, I know, I know, throw me off this blog. But to me, in dressage, knee action comes from collection and carrying more weight on the hind end, not just natural / conformational high knees, with no true drive from behind. (not all dressage Friesians, so do it properly, but I think most I see don't) Horses who tend to naturally step higher with their knees often have longer cannon bones than you might think desirable (we bred for that in Arabs). I used to know more about high stepping conformations and shoulder angles, but I've lost that knowledge.

    I apologise for the really really long comment, but this is a topic I've given a lot of thought to.
    Thanks for letting me rant.

  4. I was just at the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, and realized that it's not just dressage; it seems like every class, both English and western, is looking for exaggerated knees, necks, sometimes hurt to watch.

  5. But this is what is happening to horses now, being bred for that look of movement. We are wowed by that amazing movement, but what is happening to the horse? Years ago, my ex and I had a Basenji. In the Basenji show world, you could see how the dogs were bred for that exaggerated goose step, getting away from their more natural movement. Humans just can't leave well enough alone. Is from a matter of function or function a matter of form?

  6. Agree with Jean's comment about "softness".
    Lexie makes an interesting point about Friesians - but until the recent move to a more sport type dressage horse, they were also great carriage horses where that action was an asset. It's actually a testament to their versatility and trainability. Each breed brings its characteristics to the the discipline and we are all entitled to our preferences within the discipline. Otherwise there wouldn't be such variety and wouldn't be so much to discuss. :-)

  7. I adore watching my perchie mare in the field being a little "hitchy" or high kneed. I do like the look of a little more animated horse, but the problem is when we start to breed to have an extremely exaggerated knee action and then only look at that. Then in comes all the training aids to give the trainer the edge and, well, we all know the slippery slope.
    As Kitty Bo said, we can leave well enough alone.

  8. I like to see good training and a positive attitude before anything else; before gaits, or talent even. Ideally, I'd like that to be rewarded most highly in competition. I also worry that extravagant movement can possibly indicate incorrect or even unkind training; or at the very least is rewarded more highly than a plain moving, but well executed test.

    But like you I'm an adult ammy. And I think that has a lot to do with our opinion. Our horses are "cheap" compared to Olympic mounts. And more importantly they are our friends and pets; so we like to see happy horses performing, even at the top levels of sport.

  9. I enjoy the ongoing discussion! It is fun to see what insightful information you will offer on the subject next.

    Klimke and Ahlerich.

    I feel nothing but awe, excitement and inspiration as I watch them! Ahlerich does not have an over-sized muscle group on his body. All four legs move with equal liveliness and beauty throughout the test. Okay, so the second piaffe was just a hair less stellar than the first...Great! Ahlerich is from planet Earth! If you watch closely, Klimke gives the rein numerous times throughout the test, even during the flying changes. Klimke fades into the background as his horse performs; he is so quiet in his own self-carriage. His seat is so light that he even floats over his horse at times and Ahlerich softly rises to meet him.
    A classical pair winning gold. Wonderful.


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