Developing the Extended Gaits with Cindy Ishoy

The medium and extended gaits represent a fifth of all the movements on the Third Level test, where extended walk, trot and canter are first introduced.

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By: Karen Robinson |

Taken collectively, the medium and extended gaits represent a fifth of all the movements on the Third Level test, where extended walk, trot and canter are first introduced. Their importance doesn’t diminish through the levels above that; the Grand Prix Special test contains four extended trots (three within the first ten movements), compared with most other movements, which appear only once or twice.

While some horses have more natural ability than others, Cindy Ishoy believes it is training, rather than talent, that matters most in developing the extended gaits. ‘The most important thing to be said in regard to the extended gaits is that dressage is systematic, gymnastic training,’ she says. ‘There is no magic formula to improving either the collected or extended gaits other than that.’ Transitions play a central role in the development of the horse’s gaits, and the exercises that Cindy uses – whether she is schooling the extended walk, trot or canter – all incorporate frequent transitions. Extended gaits, like all exercises in dressage from shoulderin to pirouettes, also serve a greater purpose within the six steps of the training scale (rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection). ‘The goal is to make the horse stronger and able to carry more weight on his hind end,’ says Cindy. ‘All the gymnastic work you do leading up to wonderful extended gaits works together to produce the maximum controlled impulsion which is expressed in an extended trot or extended canter.’

Beware of Imitations

“My mentor, Willi Schultheiss, taught me that you should be able to take a photograph of a horse in extended trot and line up a pencil or ruler with the angle of the cannon of the hind leg that is in the air. You should then be able to slide the pencil forward to the opposite front cannon and see that the angle is equal, or very close to equal. Some horses show great expression in the front legs without truly being connected from behind, and while that is not true extension, they often receive accolades. When the horse shows the same activity in the hind and front legs, it illustrates that he is truly carrying himself on his hindquarters, with the energy flowing from back to front without surging onto the shoulders and bit. There are, of course, varying degrees of extension, just as there are varying degrees of collection. A grand prix horse should be able to go from piaffe to extended trot and back to piaffe seamlessly, or from a highly collected canter to extended canter, and back to the highly collected canter that precedes a canter pirouette. The ability to go from extreme collection to extreme extension and back to collection with no apparent effort is the ultimate expression of balance in the horse’s training and gymnastic development.

While conformation certainly counts when I am assessing a potential dressage horse, I have not found any hard and fast correlation between conformation and ability for extended gaits. I’ve seen horses overtrack (when the hind foot steps beyond the hoofprint of the front foot) that shouldn’t be able to, and other horses with theoretically perfect conformation that could not overtrack. Quality of the basic gaits is what I look for in a potential dressage horse, but I don’t seek overly-extravagant movement in a young prospect. The trot has to show a good rhythm, which is the most important quality I look for in that gait. You can develop the expression in the trot; it’s the gait that can be most improved. There are exceptions to every rule, but generally I have found that a three- or four-year-old horse with a good natural walk will also have a good canter. When you take a horse with good natural gaits and correctly use systematic, gymnastic training, the extended gaits will develop along with the collection.

All the exercises described here should be ridden equally in both directions. Riding a horse more on his weak side will only result in a crooked horse and crooked rider.

Extended Walk – keep it simple

Through Second Level, horses are asked to show free walk, which is on a loose rein. In the extended walk, however, the horse must remain on a light contact. He should show some overtracking and a very clear four-beat rhythm. The neck should be stretched forward from the wither, and the rider will have lengthened the reins slightly without losing contact. The walk should appear active, but relaxed – not quick and running onto the shoulders, but not too slow in the rhythm, either. Be careful not to over-school; the more you school it, the greater the likelihood you will interfere with the quality of the walk. I will use a bit of shoulder fore positioning in the walk, but I don’t do leg yields and half-passes. In my experience, riders tend to ride these movements backwards when they do them at the walk, and the horse can quickly get behind the leg.

A very good exercise for developing the extended walk is to use short diagonals. I prefer shorter lines in training the extended walk, rather than the long diagonal, which is a long way to sustain a good rhythm. Horses tend to get fast on the long diagonal. Coming from a working or collected walk, I will ride a short diagonal and encourage the horse to both stretch forward over his back and into the contact, while asking for a more ground-covering walk. When I reach the end of the short diagonal, I will ride a ten-meter circle in collected walk, then another short diagonal in extended walk. What improves the extended walk is actually the transitions from collected to extended, and back to collected. When the rider comes back from extended to collected walk, it is important not to think of pulling back, but of driving forward into a resisting contact.

The walk is one of the only times a rider will use the legs alternately to drive the horse, but this should not lead to any side-to-side movement in the rider’s position. Both seat bones should stay together, with the shoulders straight and contact in both reins. The left leg should be used at the moment that the horse’s left hind foot is just leaving the ground, when the driving aid can have the most influence. A driving leg used when the foot is either on the ground or already fully in the arc of the stride can have little influence. Everything else in the rider’s position is equal and straight, with a correctly timed nudge with one leg and then the other to encourage the horse to step more underneath his body with the hind leg, creating a longer (not higher) arc.

Another walk exercise I use, particularly with a horse that doesn’t have the best natural walk, is a serpentine of four or five loops that goes between the quarter lines. This is not a twisting or wiggling line, but rather straight lines joined to each other with turns that allow the rider to supple the horse into the direction of the turn. You don’t want the horse to have extreme bend in the turns, because the goal in the straight lines is to have the horse stretch forward into both reins – if you ask for too much bend, the horse is always being moved from side to side with no opportunity to straighten and stretch into both reins equally. Take both reins into the direction of the turn so that the shoulder remains square and straight. The horse is asked to extend on the straight lines, then he is balanced and suppled in the turn, and asked to again stretch and step more forward on the next straight line. This is an excellent strengthening, suppling and balancing exercise, which helps the horse find his own balance in the extended walk.

Extended trot – training with purpose

Early in his training, the horse is first asked only for a lengthened stride, where the neck lengthens slightly and there is more impulsion from behind. The trot should maintain the same rhythm and not quicken, although the practical reality is that many horses will show a slight increase in tempo, especially those that don’t have a big natural trot. In the medium trot, the horse should keep his weight more on the hindquarters and remain balanced as he overtracks and has a somewhat longer moment of suspension in the stride. The nose should remain slightly in front of the vertical, with the poll the highest point. In the extended trot, the horse shows maximum overtracking according to his ability, in a light contact. There can be slightly more contact in extended trot because there is so much more energy from behind, but the horse should not lean, hang on the reins or drop from the wither or back. The more highly trained the horse is, the lighter the contact should be in the extended gaits.

If you were to watch the great masters, such as Schultheiss or Harry Boldt, training their horses, you would rarely see them ride a full diagonal or long side in extended trot. It’s hard on the legs, the hind end and the hocks, and it has no real gymnastic value. The horse that is just learning to extend will also not be able to keep his balance over that long line, with the result that he will start to run onto the shoulders and forehand; and that serves no purpose, either. I use frequent transitions between collected and medium or extended trot, so that the work is always strengthening, gymnasticizing and reinforcing the use of the halfhalt to keep the horse using, and staying balanced over, his hind end.

An exercise I often use for developing the extended trot is to alternate between shoulder-in and medium trot. I ride out of the corner in shoulder-in for 10-15 meters, then I slowly straighten and push the horse into medium trot. After some strides in medium trot, I then collect back into shoulder-in before the corner. As the horse becomes stronger and more trained, several transitions between shoulder-in and medium trot can be fit into a single long side. The purpose of shoulder-in here is two-fold: it is a balancing movement, so it helps maintain or recover balance after the medium trot; it is also a lateral movement with flexion, so the rider is using the exercise, rather than strength, to bring the horse back.

The rider’s aids for medium or extended trot should be even on both sides – legs, back and hands. Riders who struggle to sit the extended trot often clamp with their legs, instead of letting their hips and lower back absorb the movement. I will sometimes put a bucking strap on the saddle and have the rider hook each baby finger into the strap. It takes only a very small amount of help to free the rider from clamping so that she can find her balance and follow the horse’s movement.

Another exercise is to ride a short distance in extended trot, followed immediately by an eight- or 10-meter circle, then another short extended trot. This exercise can be ridden on the long side, quarter lines or diagonals, though I often use the centre line so that I can circle either left or right. The circle makes the horse come back and rebalance on his hind end. As the horse becomes more highly trained, the transition can eventually go from passage to extended trot to passage. The passage encourages a longer moment of suspension, and (correctly used) it can improve the quality of the extended trot.

If the horse becomes unlevel or breaks into canter, don’t pull him back right away. The mistake is a result of the horse going beyond the limits of his balance and strength. It’s necessary to push horses out of their comfort zones in order for them to progress. You have to find their limits sometimes, but you must not punish them when they lose their balance. Horses don’t like being out of balance, but they can’t find it for themselves if the rider is constantly nagging with the aids or pulling them back. You have to allow a horse to make a mistake in order to correct it. Don’t punish, repeat. And always support a negative with a positive. After the horse has made a mistake, but then offers what is asked for, walk, give him a pat and a break. And remember always to ride from back to front, and be sympathetic and smart when you correct mistakes.

Extended canter – controlled explosion

Just as with the lengthened stride in trot, lengthened stride in canter should show an increase in the stride and slight lengthening of the neck, without quickening of the tempo. The medium canter will show a longer moment of suspension, and the extended canter should appear almost to climb into the air at the beginning of the stride before going forward to cover the maximum amount of ground. The canter should always maintain a three-beat rhythm, whether it’s highly collected or fully extended.

One of my favourite exercises for developing the medium and extended canter is to use a 20-meter circle. I ask the horse for five to six strides of strong working canter on the circle, then five to six strides of collected canter, before asking again for a strong working canter. I will do the exercise for long enough that the horse is working hard, because the goal is not only to develop the extended canter, but also to develop the necessary strength in the hind end for collection. I like to use the circle because it makes the inside leg work harder, and it discourages the rider from pulling straight back in the downward transition. At the moment the rider collects the horse, the inside leg should drive to the outside rein, which resists only as much as necessary to get the response. The rider must remain straight on both seat bones and in the shoulders. The more equal on both sides you are as a rider, the better your horse will go.

Another exercise is to ask for a medium canter from the beginning of the long side, then ride a 20, 15 or 10-meter circle at the halfway point. The size of the circle is dependent on the horse’s level of training. The circle makes the horse collect without encouraging the rider to use a strong backward rein aid to achieve it. I will sometimes use the diagonal for this exercise with a horse that is advanced enough to do a 10-meter circle; I begin the diagonal in extended canter, ride a 10-meter circle, then continue the diagonal in extended canter. The exercise encourages the horse to take a more impressive, uphill canter stride. I always maintain a slight shoulder-in position as I come back to the collected canter. As the horse becomes stronger, I will add more than one circle on a single long line.

The day when you feel a balance between your back, leg and hands, the horse is reaching for maximum extension, and with just a small aid you can bring him back to a collected walk or passage, you know you have succeeded in your gymnastic training. It is an incredible feeling to be in an extended canter, and by sitting a little deeper, go into a beautifully rhythmic collected canter and then pirouette. When you can do that, you have achieved harmony with your horse.”


When she was just 18 years old, Cindy Ishoy was a member of the gold medal Pan Am Games team in Cali, Colombia, and went on to place fourth individually. A year later she was a member of her first Canadian Olympic team in Munich. Cindy remains the highest-ever placed Canadian at the World Cup Dressage Final, after finishing second in 1988 with her legendary horse Dynasty. She and Dynasty also placed fourth individually and led Canada to a team bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Her most recent top horse is Proton, on which she competed at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and the World Cup Final in 2006. Proton competed at the 2010 World Equestrian Games with Cindy’s longtime pupil, Victoria Winter. A popular clinician, Cindy travels frequently throughout North America. She and her husband Neil are based at Black’s Equine Centre near Hamilton, ON.