Four Beat Canters & Lopes

     There is a great deal of discussion among western riders & judges about what a lope should look (and sound) like. The primary split is between those who favor the four beat lope, which became common in the last half century, and those that consider it an abomination. I’m going to complicate that by looking at cases where the canter also becomes four beats, most commonly in dressage and in saddleseat. In all disciplines, the number of beats can be the easiest criteria to look at, but it does not denote quality or lack thereof on its own. A more detailed understanding of the mechanics can benefit both riders and judges, and help us articulate and achieve a variety of goals.

First, let’s take a look at some official definitions:

AQHA Rulebook:

   SHW330.3 The lope is an easy, rhythmical three-beat gait. Horses moving to the left should lope on the left lead. Horses moving to the right should lope on the right lead. Horses traveling at a four-beat gait are not considered to be performing at a proper lope. The horse should lope with a natural stride and appear relaxed and smooth. It should be ridden at a speed that is a natural way of going. The head should be carried at an angle which is natural and suitable to the horse’s conformation at all gaits. (pg. 114)

USEF Rulebook, Morgan Division:

  • Canter: Smooth, collected and straight on both leads.
  • Lope: Smooth, slow, straight and a three beat cadence. 
  • Extended Lope: A lengthening of stride while maintaining a smooth, straight, three beat cadence.
  • Extended Canter: The extended canter should be ground covering, free moving and smooth. The extended canter should show a definite lengthening of stride, while still being controlled and mannerly. Extreme speed SHALL be penalized. 
  • Hand Gallop: Long, free ground covering stride under control. Not a fast collected canter, but a true lengthening of stride, correct and straight on both leads. Extreme speed penalized. (pg. 943)

     Note: number of beats is only specified for lope. Within the chart for “major and minor” faults in the Morgan Western Pleasure division (pg. 951), number of beats is not listed. Thus, it is up to the discretion of the judge whether it should be considered a major or minor fault. The Arabian Western Pleasure division does specify “not performing a three beat lope” as a major fault (pg. 345). The Arabian division, in general, has stricter and more cut & dry rules. The Morgan Park Saddle section uses “proper cadence” as one of its criteria, but never mentions number of beats (pg. 944). 

USEF Rulebook, Dressage Division:

  1. The canter is a three-beat gait where, in canter to the right, for example, the footfall is as follows: left hind, left diagonal (simultaneously left fore and right hind), right fore, followed by a moment of suspension with all four feet in the air before the next stride begins.
  1. The following canters are recognized: Working canter, lengthening of strides, Collected canter, Medium canter and Extended canter. 
  2. Working canter. This is a pace between the collected and the medium canter, in which a horse’s training is not yet developed enough and ready for collected movements. The horse shows natural balance while remaining “on the bit”, and goes forward with even, light and active strides and good hock action. The expression “good hock action” underlines the importance of an impulsion originating from the activity of the hindquarters. 
  3. Lengthening of strides. In some tests, “lengthening of strides” is required. This is a variation between the working and medium canter in which a horse’s training is not developed enough for medium canter. 
  4. Collected canter. The horse, remaining “on the bit”, moves forward with the neck raised and arched. The hocks, being well-engaged, maintain an energetic impulsion, enabling the shoulders to move with greater mobility thus demonstrating self carriage and an uphill tendency. The horse’s strides are shorter than in the other canters, without losing elasticity and cadence. 
  5. Medium canter. This is a pace between the working and the extended canter. Without hurrying, the horse goes forward with clearly lengthened strides and impulsion from the hindquarters. The rider allows the horse to carry the head a little more in front of the vertical than in the collected and working canter, and at the same time allows the horse, to lower the head and neck slightly. The strides should be balanced and unconstrained. 
  6. Extended canter. The horse covers as much ground as possible. Without hurrying, the strides are lengthened to the utmost. The horse remains calm, light and straight as a result of great impulsion from the hindquarters. The rider allows the horse to lengthen the frame with a controlled poll and to gain ground. The whole movement should be well-balanced and the transition to collected canter should be smoothly executed by taking more weight on the hindquarters.

(pg 474-475)

     In all of these very different competitions, a four-beat canter or lope is considered a flaw. So what is the difference between them? Are good canters and lopes always three-beat? Problematically, no. 

     The most visible, and visibly problematic, of the four-beat canters and lopes are in Western divisions, especially among stock horse breeds. AQHA specified four-beat lopes as a flaw after USEF did, and there is still some disagreement among judges in all breeds about if it is a flaw and how severe a flaw it is. There are related discussions on headcarriage, as often an extreme four-beat lope also has a very down hill appearance, with the horse leaning on the forehand and the head carried below the chest. This sort of movement that is very recognizable, and while it does cause the horse to cover a minimum of ground (i.e., go slow), it is clearly detrimental to the horse. I won’t show examples here, but if you search youtube for “western pleasure” you will find a range of examples. While seeing the break of the footfalls can sometimes be difficult without slow-motion, horses that move in this way have a noticeable hitch in their stride as they move forward using their backs and forelegs rather than their hips and hindlegs.

     The second place where this type of gait is very noticeable and not uncommon is in saddleseat. It is not, however, talked about as a number of beats issue. It is most often talked about as a shoeing issue, as the heavy shoes and action devices can often cause the same hitching four-beat gait as western pleasure riders can achieve by backing the horse out of the bridle. In saddleseat, this gait is hugely animated, and when achieved more by equipment than by training and conditioning it can appear very strange and un-horselike. This is, of course, exemplified most by the “big lick” walking horses, but can be seen in varying degrees anywhere a collected, animated canter is desire: park classes, most other saddleseat classes, and yes, even in dressage.

     But wait, didn’t I say that a four-beat canter or lope isn’t always bad? I did. The reason lopes often devolve into four-beat eyesores is because we humans, as rider, trainers, and judges, get stuck on the idea of “slow.” We forget that the lope is actually a type of collection, and requires building up the horse’s strength, stamina, and coordination. The reason saddleseat and even dressage fall prone to a similar four-beat gait, with the horse laboring more from its front end than its hind, is the same. It is a lack of conditioning. That lack can be temporary, a moment in the horse’s progression, or it can become chronic if we are not aware of the issue. The problem, however, is not actually in the number of beats.

Ridinger
1770 representation.
Also this article is well worth reading.
valegro
This pirouette is lovely, balanced, strong– and four beat.
Poles1
Or how about this jumper over poles. Still four beat, but I would not call this a flaw.
saddleseat
Neither I nor the judge placed this leggy Morgan first, but she does show how the park canter can be four beat without causing an inversion of the back.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     These are all cases of four-beat canters that are ‘correct;’ meaning, they maintain the soundness of the horse and its balance to be able to move into a different gait or maneuver. They tend to go to four beats due the the degree of collection, with the hind of the diagonal pair landing before the fore, but the pair leaving the ground together. Now go back and look at those youtube videos. Look closely at the ones you didn’t like. Play with the pause button. Are any of those broken looking lopes three-beat? I’d bet a few of them are. Because of the focus on the number of beats, that issue is often fixed without addressing the underlying cause. Just as shoes aren’t necessarily the issue in saddleseat (plenty of keg-shod horses also move in a disunited fashion), not all three-beat lopes are good and not all four-beat lopes are bad: it is a question of carriage, not beats. The canter, or even the lope, moves fast. So we have to learn to see fast, or take advantage of the technology we have that lets us see it more slowly, in more detail, and play it over and over again. We need to look at the quality of the movement, rather than the quantifiable numbers of how they move. No matter the discipline, we need to look at the whole picture.

   I should also footnote this post with two other cases of (non-gaiting) fourbeat, being the true gallop (which is by definition four beats) and the break or jump, the little-discussed transition ‘gait’ see in racehorses, barrelhorses, ropers, and others who accelerate suddenly.

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Horse Protection Act

   I was initially dismayed to hear about the widespread opposition to the ‘strengthening’ of the HPA. This includes the American Morgan Horse Association, which in the articles I have found issued a statement of blanket opposition. I can only hope that the actual letter was more nuanced (does anybody have a copy?). I do have some faith in the AMHA, and I thought I should read the proposed changes before making a judgement. I dug up the proposed changes with some trepidation. Within the last decade, the AMHA has severely relaxed their shoeing rules.* But, they have also made strides in enforcing their own rules (which are generally much stricter than the HPA) at shows.

   I can see many good reasons why the AMHA would oppose these changes. I still hope they do (or already have) lay out plainly why they oppose these regulations, because that is important for coming up with better alternatives. But here are some of the issues I see:

   First is the call for “Horse Protection Inspector (HPIs)” to inspect horses. For the AMHA, and even the ASHA (Saddlebred), these inspectors would mean an additional cost for a redundant office. Rated shows already have inspectors for USEF, which again has stricter regulations than the HPA. Tennessee Walking Horse shows are not regulated by USEF, which is why these outside inspectors have been deemed necessary. Currently the HPA specifies Walkers, Racking Horses, “and related breeds” as being required to give notice 30 days before the show, and supply records to APHIS within 72 hours. Who is considered a related breed? I expect there is also some concern as to the availability of these HPIs, considering other staff shortages within the USDA. This concern would be heightened by the proposal that these inspectors be required at all “Tennessee Walking Horse, Racking Horse, or related breed class or event at any horse show or exhibition” of any size. In effect, any show of any size, rated or not, that wanted to have saddleseat classes could be required to have two licensed inspectors on site. This is regardless of whether or not they had other inspectors, because HPIs must be “outside the industry.” This is despite that fact that the proposed changes also state that only vets or vet techs can serve as HPIs- and vets are, assuredly, part of the industry.

   Other issues:

   Shippers (including commercial) would be required to have the address of the horse’s regular farrier. While I appreciate the desire to be able to be able to penalize farriers who perform illegal shoeings, most farriers don’t have a business address. You are asking them to make their home address public. And, not every horse that is being moved may have a regular shoer. What if they’ve been recently sold (the provision includes auctions)? These are minor issues, but it would be just as easy to require the information of the owner in the case that a horse be found in violation of the HPA.

   The use throughout of the phrase “or can reasonably be expected.” This grey area is, I think, meant to allow conscientious trainers some leeway, but it is in fact the root of how the previous inspection setup could fail. Inspectors didn’t need to lie to allow soreing to continue, because the inspections had a large element of subjectivity.

   The prohibition of pads (while still listing allowed hoof packing materials). I’ve had more than one horse who needed a pad or pads to remain sound, either to support a congenital abnormality (such as club foot) or protect a sensitive sole (not many Morgans for this, but I’m sure many Arabs).

   In all, the HPA is long, contradictory (prohibits all action devices in one area, but only those that might cause irritation in another, etc.), and puts a great deal of pressure on trainers and exhibitors who already follow stricter regulations while leaving loopholes that allow for abuse.

  There is no simple solution. I do think many breeds would benefit from being brought under USEF, though I understand the resistance to the cost involved. The prior iteration of the HPA lead to splintering of Walking Horse groups, as some folks took a stand and others tried to find ways around regulations. I’m not sure these proposed changes would be any more successful. I also think that education is a stronger, and more lasting, force than regulation. 

*I was discussing this with another exhibitor. I find the long feet and weighted shoes being allowed in hunter and western classes now to be problematic. But, AMHA has not changed the maximum hoof length or weight in total, but rather allowed their maximums in more divisions. As the other exhibitor pointed out, the same horses are just now allowed to cross enter. As I am a fan of Morgans “doing it all,” I can’t be upset with horses crossing divisions. With turnbuckles and stacks already illegal, as well as action devices on show grounds, the rule changes of the last decade don’t significantly impact the horse.  I do choose to support shows that pick judges who more strictly adhere to the criteria of each division, rather than picking the ‘flashiest’ horse regardless of the class. This, to me, also includes penalizing park horses who are out of control or have the lopsided, jerky action associated with shortcuts.

UPDATE: It looks like AMHAs official statement was sent via email (that’s what I get for letting my membership lapse). Their main issues with the amendments seem to be the APHIS inspectors and the banning of all pads.

UPDATE Jan 13, 2017: A much-modified (and, I believe, improved) version has passed.

Because New York was once New Amsterdam

trot
My wonderful girlfriend got me my own, mine-to-keep (and not stay at the barn), copy of Jeanne Mellin’s Morgan Horse Handbook. I haven’t had access to this treasure for some seven years, and that was before I became an “official” “historian” (whatever that means). It did not lose its shine. Although I had been enthralled with her history (particularly the Dutch theory of Figure’s origins, having noted the similarities between Morgan and Friesian skulls and legs the first day I met a Morgan), I had been more focused on her exacting and uncompromising descriptions of conformation, correct movement, and proper handling.

     Her standards were precise, with detailed descriptions, invaluable illustrations, and firm ethics that are sometimes hard to see at horse shows (in any breed or discipline!), as good trainers are often quiet and the questionable ones are often the loudest. But, back to the history! The True Briton (Thoroughbred) theory of Figure’s (Justin Morgan, the Horse) parentage, I believe, gained traction because of it’s inclusion in Joseph Battell’s 1894 Morgan Horse Register. However, even Battell presents the idea as hearsay. Re-reading Mellin’s book gave me enough information to do some further digging, and I found this (see page 12) from 1879. I highly recommend Morgan history enthusiasts read the whole article (it is delightfully and entertainingly written!), but here are some key points: Justin Morgan (the owner, not the horse) did have True Briton at his farm for two seasons, and his nearby cousin for one. However, all three seasons were several years prior to Figure’s conception. The article then sets out that “Young Bulrock,” a Dutch horse (presumed from the Hudson colonies), who stood at Church’s farm the year before Figure’s birth, and being the only nearby Dutch stud advertised, must logically be the sire of the sport colt whom Justin Morgan himself referred to as a Dutch horse. I’m not ready to write Young Bulrock on that pedigree, but I find it much more plausible than True Briton.

“If the Justin Morgan’s pedigree be corrected in the third vol. of the Trotting Register*, it may be hoped that the parroting second-hand stock journals will, some time in the far future, cease to inform the everlasting enquiring correspondent that ‘Justin Morgan was sired by True Briton, dam a Wildair mare.'” Wallace’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to Domesticated Animal Nature, Volume 5 (1879), pg 14

Sadly, the far future has not yet come.

*in the days before the foundation of the Morgan Horse Club, and indeed here before Battell’s landmark Register, many horses of Morgan breeding were registered as Trotters.

The Morgan Horse Club

     Sometimes you come a cross a gem while looking for something entirely different. Yesterday was one of those days for me. The “Harness Horse Gossip” column from the January 2nd 1907 Chicago Tribune contained this little tidbit:

Breeders Talk Heavy Harness
     The American Association of Trotting Horse breeders, which organization has already assumed a truly national character, and is recognized, by reason of the extent and character of its membership, as an important factor in all matters pertaining to the breeding and racing of harness horses, has decided to appoint a special committee to work actively on matters Interesting to those breeding a type of horse for heavy harness work.
     This committee will be composed of Mtr. George Romiel, of the department of animal Industry, Washington, D. C., as chairman; A. T. Cole, Chicago, Gen, J. B. Castleman, Louisville, Ky., Joseph Battell of Middlebury, i’t., and II. K. Devereux of Cleveland. The idea Is to the development and advancement of our native horses In a line heretofore given over without opposition to animals of foreign birth, and that a great deal or good will be accomplished is not a matter of doubt.

     Although Battell had published volume one of his Morgan Horse Register in 1894, the Morgan Horse Club was not founded until 1909– two years after the formation of this committee. One of the reasons that many early Morgans were registered with other breeds is simply because America’s oldest breed was willing to compete in any and all rings, and did not enforce a separate registry. Saddlebreds began to be registered in 1891 and trotters (and later pacers) who could meet the “standard” for a mile in 1876.

The Origins of America’s Original Horse

        While there were horses in the Americas well before Figure (The Justin Morgan Horse), and even earlier ‘breeds’ developed in what is now the United States (the Narraganset Pacer comes to mind), Figure’s timely birth along the his astounding versatility, and the all-important ability to pass on his traits, are what allowed the Morgan Horse to become the first truly American (as in U.S.) breed. This stud ad was recently posted by The Morgan Horse Museum. The ad is by Justin Morgan himself, when Figure was about five years old.
       There are two things I’d like to point out about this ad. This first is the fee- $1, for a “single leap,” no guaranteeWhile figureadthis seems like a ridiculously tiny fee to us, “full-blooded” (i.e. Thoroughbred) stallions of the time often stood for only $5, and only imported champions were likely to command more than $25. Figure was of course not full blooded, but rather an unregistered and unregisterable “sport,” and at this point still rather young. So with only a couple of seasons of accomplishments, a scant handful of foals on the ground (with possibly none ready to be ridden), and his “strength, beauty, and activity,” he merits a full dollar fee and being stood in two towns in the same season (a common practice for quality studs).

        The second, and related, item is the complete and utter lack of pedigree information. While most stud ads contained at least sire and damsire, Justin Morgan is silent. Given the currently accepted theory that his sire was the stolen True Briton, and his dam a mare by Diamond (great grandson of Cade, via Wildair), this lack is startling.* I have long favored the Dutch theory, most famously supported by the late great Jeanne Mellin, and this ad’s peculiar silence further suggests that Figure was not largely thoroughbred.**

*See the Morgan Horse Register, Vol 1. Notably, True Briton and Wildair were both owned by Col. James De Lancey.

**His current “official” pedigree is 3/4 early Thoroughbred (more like today anglo-Arabs, or even Akhal-Tekes) and 1/8 Arabian, though there is some question as to wether his damsire Diamond was in fact full blooded. Even if Diamond was only half Thoroughbred himself, that would still make Figure 5/8 Thoroughbred and 1/8 Arabian: in effect, 3/4 Anglo-Arabian!