Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dressage vs. hunter movement

Any of you had to explain the difference between hunter and dressage movement to friends, spouses, or relatives? It's not easy, in part because non-horse people have short attention spans when it comes to such subtlety. Well, I pulled these videos for my husband and thought I'd share them.


Dressage Movement (Hotline, dressage stallion)

Hunter Movement (Successful hunter, Crown Point)

Here is the rationale behind hunter movement preferences from Wikipedia's article on show hunters:

"The show hunter has long and low movement, meaning the horse should have a long, sweeping stride that covers maximum ground per minimum effort. There is not much flexion of the horse's joints as it moves; ideally the majority of the movement occurs from the horse's shoulder and hip. The action of the field hunter is efficient: the horse does not waste energy bending its legs any more than it has to. This relates back to the hunt field, where the horse had to work for several hours on end, often galloping, and inefficient movement would tire the horse more quickly.

The show hunter moves smoothly and freely, pointing its toes as it floats over the ground. It should not have excessive knee action, nor should its strides be short and choppy, both of which would make its movement less efficient. The horse should be forward, so it could jump if needed, but no faster than necessary.

The horse must always be in a balanced frame. This, too, relates back to the hunt field, where a horse had to be balanced in order to cope with the changing terrain, sometimes sudden change of direction, and surprising fences. The frame of the show hunter differs from that of dressage horses, eventers, and show jumpers, as it travels in a long and low frame, with its head moderately extended. Its frame is more "stretched out" than horses competing in dressage, eventing, or show jumping, but the horse should not be on its forehand. The riders of show hunters often ride on a slightly looser rein than seen elsewhere to facilitate this type of movement, and the horse carries its head just in front of the vertical.

Although the horse is in a long and low frame, it should still be able to collect its stride when asked. The horse must also be proficient at lengthening its canter stride while still maintaining its tempo and rhythm.

The walk of the show hunter is free and ground-covering; the trot should be balanced and flowing. The canter should be moderately collected. The horse should have a long galloping stride (12 feet is the expected length), but it should still be balanced and rhythmic."

Ask Laura Phelps from Today's Horse:

"In terms of movement, we want to see a horse that does not have a lot of knee and hock action or a lot of suspension as you would see with a good dressage horse. They should move in a way that I call "sweep-and-reach", also known as being "a daisy cutter". Basically, the horse just picks up their feet enough to clear the ground and sweeps their legs smoothly forward with nice length of stride at the trot and then sets the feet down again. Canter is the same thing; pick up the feet enough to clear the ground and stride forward without a lot of knee and hock action or big, round scope canter strides. The gaits are flatter, smooth and very efficient, with nice reach at the trot. A horse being shown in hunter-under-saddle is more a "type" of horse then a pleasure class horse is."

"That Hunter Movement" thread in the COTH forums

Conformation: Hunter or Jumper? from Canada Horse Magazine


Well, I can find few articles specifically on dressage movement, but there are many articles on what makes a dressage prospect. These articles cover more than just the movement of the animal. I suspect a wide range of "styles" of movers are acceptable within dressage. Some dressage enthusiasts like knee action,some don't, and some maintain that the flamboyant movers sacrifice purity of gaits. However, these arguments are more matters of personal opinion than universal truths. From my own research on what makes a dressage prospect, here are some desirables for the dressage mover...
  • An active hind leg. Hocks should articulate/bend to create energy from behind.
  • Ability to lower the hindquarters and "sit down." Carrying power behind will enable collection.
  • Uphill balance. Similar, or even the same, as above. The more naturally a horse is built uphill, the better he or she will be able to perform.
  • Freedom of the shoulder. The ability to lift the front end and extend the front legs via the shoulder will influence the quality of movement. A neck that ties in high on the shoulder would facilitate this.
  • Expressiveness. Not sure I can offer a good definition of this, except to say that some horses seem to dance while others don't. When I posted to COTH asking what the term expressiveness refers to, the answer I got from most responders was Blue Hors Matine! We've all seen that video, right? I'm guessing epressiveness is a combination of knee/hock action, and other qualities. All other things being equal, a horse that shows expressive movement would probably place over a horse with more pedestrian movement, esp. at the upper levels.
  • Using the whole body. Dressage seems to want horses that move use their whole body as opposed to moving the legs only in a scissor-like fashion.

  • Strength. Rhythm. Cadence. Elasticity. Suppleness. I'm hoping most readers know what these things are. If not, there are other articles that go into it extensively. Here's a nice visual of a young horse that I feel brings it all to the table.

One question in my mind is, how mutually exclusive are these different types? Can one horse succeed in both dressage and hunters? I suspect the answer is yes, although certain attributes might be dealbreakers, especially for the competitive hunter world. In hunters, knee action would compromise the success of an otherwise talented individual. Dressage is probably a bit more forgiving--so long as the horse shows talent for collection and extended gaits, a variety of movement types would be acceptable. Those are my thoughts. What do others think?

What to look for in the dressage prospect from Equisearch


  1. Thank you so much for that post! Sigh. I've been working an OTTB for a couple years now (he's now 5). It took that long to show him a variety of things, and get him past the "I don't watch where my feet go so I'll fall on my face" stage. I tell ya, I had my doubts about his abilities.
    He's very obviously and english type horse, and I ride basic english, but I think he's capable of more. However, the question is what?
    During our rides, I've had both types of movement, so I know he's capable of such. It's bringing it when I want it, lol, and getting rid of the racehorse mentality. The first schooling show was typical, he saw all the horses geared up and went bananas. As we continued to other shows, he has finally settled down about it.
    I recently started taking lessons at a big name stable 30 miles away and we are working hard on our trouble spots.
    But your post answered a lot of my questions about him, and the videos were icing on the cake. Thanks so much!!!

  2. Great examples, they are indeed husband friendly and i will pass them along to my fiancee (who gleefully refers to dressage movement as "walking funny"... *smacks head*)

    The word that immediately comes to mind when watching a good dressage horse is "presence". I think that more than anything else sums it up. Hunters, to me, are effective and efficient, as that is essentially their purpose (well OK, at least it was when people actually hunted.) Dressage horses, on the other hand, are "the whole package". They are movement and fluidity encompassed in physical form, as opposed to simply being efficient like the hunters.

  3. Great descriptions! Ironically, I have a horse that is a great "dressage mover" but who excels in the hunt field (no brain for collected work). He has a ton of suspension and presence.

    From my perspective, all horses can benefit from schooling the movements of dressage and, at least at the lower levels, accuracy and submission in the tests will allow poor movers to still place (I had one of those and he did quite well up through 1t level). However, when you get to the upper levels, you really need an excellent moving horse to be competitive. The standard today much favors the warmblood which is why you see so few TBs competing at PSG and higher. Of course, your previous post did show that there are exceptions to that rule.

  4. Very interesting. As a Brit who came to Canada in my forties, I went to the Royal and was totally bemused by the so called "Hunter" classes. I have been a working hunter judge in England and these nose on the ground daisy cutters would not have managed half an hour at a real hunt before falling over or tiring. The description of field hunter says:
    "The action of the field hunter is efficient: the horse does not waste energy bending its legs any more than it has to. This relates back to the hunt field, where the horse had to work for several hours on end, often galloping, and inefficient movement would tire the horse more quickly."
    If you look at any active hunting horse in England, Ireland or Wales they are 'up' in their action and the ones with the higher knee and stifle action are the ones that skim over the land with ease. The long, low horses make heavy weather of rugged terrain, mud and fences!

    1. It'sinteresting you would say that, Faith. I have two thoroughbreds who are very different movers. When has big dressage-y movements and the other one has ideal daisy cutting hunter movement. When I take them on trail rides it seems that the horse that is better suited for dressage is a little bit more sure-footed and I think it is because he picks up his feet higher!


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