Improving movement – Part 1

I’ve just returned from the California Classic CDE, held at the Grupe’s lovely Shady Oaks facility. What a truly wonderful event.

As at every event, there were horses there who pull with the forehand or dragged their hind feet or simply lacked engagement. These faults are problems which we, as drivers, can FIX! I know I spent the start of my warm-up for dressage listening to the mare I was driving drag her right hind toe in the grass. By the time we entered the dressage arena she’d warmed out of it, but I know it’s a weakness requiring further work.

For those of us who take part in combined driving, the place we have the biggest chance of shaving points off our overall event score is in dressage, so everything we do to improve our test will reflect on our overall placing in that event. It’s always been my opinion there’s no point in continuing to compete with a movement problem which can be fixed, because a horse with movement issues is at a disadvantage when up against an accurately driven horse who moves correctly. Such is life. In improving our horse’s movement, we can somewhat level the playing field.

Here’s where I need to add a caveat. While a lot of movement problems can be fixed or improved, we can’t make a spectacular mover out of a horse with conformational faults which effect movement, nor can we proverbially make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. What we can do is make the most of the potential our horse has got.

Part 1 – recognizing movement problems

For some people, the hardest part of fixing movement is seeing what’s wrong with movement. There are really three things which are the biggies, and each can be spotted with a little careful observation.

  1. Pulling with the forehand
  2. Dragging the hind feet
  3. Failing to track up (hind feet don’t come up to front footprints)

You can actually spot these traits without actually watching the horse move, though the traits are also visible on the move.

A horse that pulls with the forehand has unmistakable front end musculature. There are four muscle development characteristics which identify this type of movement. Usually all four are present.

  1. There is no break between neck and shoulder. A horse that pushes from behind has a “shelf” in front of the scapula where the neck goes into the shoulder. The greater the definition of this shelf, the more the horse pushes from behind. A horse with no shelf usually (but not always – see note about reining horses) pulls with the forehand.
  2. There is no “dent” in the chest. When a horse pushes correctly from behind there are fans of muscles connecting the withers and the base of the neck which “lift” the base of the neck, creating a hollow or a dent in the chest below the base of the neck.
  3. The underside of the neck is thick and muscular and the windpipe can’t be defined due to the muscling around it. I have seen reining horses with a neck this muscular who also possess a dent in their chest and are awesome movers, so this characteristic alone is not proof. There is a distinction between a front end puller and an athletic horse with a muscular neck. A front end puller has a downward “bow” to the bottom side of his neck which is lacking in an athletic and muscular horse.
  4. When the horse’s speed increases, so does the tempo of the footfalls. A horse who pushes from behind usually maintains the same tempo and increases the length of the stride to go faster. It doesn’t sound like he’s going faster, but the ground goes by faster.

A horse dragging his hind feet will have a worn toe on the front of each hind foot. Another easy way to spot a toe dragger is to watch where they’ve been. In soft footing you can see the furrows left by the dragging toes. When you’re driving you can hear the swish of the toe dragging as the leg moves forward.

A horse failing to track up will leave hind footprints behind his front footprints when doing a working trot. The greater the lack of engagement, the farther the space between front footprints and hind ones. Because this horse doesn’t push from behind effectively, increase in speed will be accompanied by increase in tempo.

It is possible for a horse to both push the hindquarter AND pull with the forehand. Some of the best cow horses do this, as do race horses and some of the fastest hazard driving horses and ponies (the ones who can take those short quick routes). But they all have a common characteristic. All possess the declivity in their chest signifying the lifting of the base of the neck/ability to carry the forehand.

As with most other things in life, there’s no true black and white here, but many shades of gray. There are many levels of push from behind/pull from the front. Knowing where your horse falls on that scale gives you a place to start for improving movement. If you decide to undertake changing how your horse moves, I recommend taking pictures and/or video before you start so you have proof of how far you’ve come when you’re done. Without proof people may think you bought a different horse, because the horse will both look and move differently.