Can a Saddlebred Travel With Its Head Low?

A recurring theme that comes up among the various saddlebred Facebook groups is the idea of saddlebred conformation, particularly how it relates to the breed’s head carriage and gait mechanics. This discussion typically ends in a very interesting comment chain, landing somewhere between a friendly debate and a knock-down-drag-out verbal war zone. It’s kind of interesting to watch, actually, like some sort of strange, social experiment playing out between riding disciplines.

Can a saddlebred travel comfortably with its head and neck forward in a neutral, open position?

Yes. Yes. 100% yes. Every horse alive with the ability to stretch its neck down to graze is also capable of physically demonstrating an open throatlatch while ridden. If you know of one that can’t, you may need to further investigate as to why. Even the top horses worked in the most intense of frames (“headsets” if you will) can and should be allowed loose-rein breaks between exercises. This is the fundamental component of strength training: reps and rests… but I am getting off-topic here.

Can a saddlebred move “out” with a more forward, fluid leg motion rather than an expressive up-and-down gait?

Can a saddlebred stretch down in the bridle with its entire neck in a lower position while still retaining forward motion?

The answers to these are a little bit more complicated than that.

Claiming that a saddlebred can’t or shouldn’t travel in a longer (“lower”) or more open frame is an entirely false statement and a severe disservice to the breed’s known adaptability and versatility. To me, this statement is a bit of a cop-out and a blatant admittance of a lack of education on how the equine body works, regardless of breed. Now that I’ve gotten that very aggressive statement out of the way, I’ll also be the first to admit that retraining a very saddle seat saddlebred to not only accept the longer frame in all three gaits but also to use the rest of his body in a way that is more productive for the sport horse disciplines has been a whole other challenge entirely.

Let me explain my logic.

Let’s talk about the differences between these two images of Nautica and me:

I want to place a special focus on three key points: shoeing, training, and lifestyle. While Nautica’s body position and gait mechanics are the most obvious differences between these two images, they would not be quite so dramatic without these three key points of change in his life.

Point 1—Shoeing

Nautica 1.0 was shod for an entirely different purpose than Nautica 2.0. Original Nautica was shod for motion. While our saddle seat farrier did take into account Nautica’s specific hoof conformational needs (e.g. high-low syndrome) the end goal for Original Nautica was a high-motion, show-quality trot. I will say with 100% confidence that as far as shoeing was concerned, Nautica was never believed to be in pain or immediate harm from saddle seat shoeing methods specifically. That being said, the actual correction of his underlying conditions did take a back seat to the treatment of his symptoms along with making his motion more show-ring ideal.

“New Nautica” is shod for the correction of his congenital defects and for long-term soundness. Dressage-sound is a very different standard than saddle-seat-sound and there was definitely a transition period involved in moving Nautica over to his new shoeing setup. Since making the switch, Nautica’s farrier has corrected Nautica’s high-low syndrome (low heel with negative palmar angle LF/grade 1 club RF) completely eliminating his need for wedges and pads. She also opened up his contracted heels. Nautica is still considered a “special needs” shoeing job, but he is as sound, even, and close to normal as he can possibly be.

Motion is not rewarded in dressage in the same way that it is in saddle seat. Nautica will always have a more busy, “knee-ier” way of going than a non-saddlebred, however, his motion is now noticeably less up-and-down and is instead more forward. Do I want him to travel completely flat? No! I own a saddlebred because I love the breed. I know what I signed up for. Nautica’s natural knee motion is just fine for me and for the “amateur’s dressage horse” job he does. Never in a USDF show have we been penalized for knee motion specifically.

Does Nautica still have the extravagant motion seen in our first photo? Not even close. That is because his saddle seat motion was heavily influenced by shoeing methods, hoof length, and how he was ridden (primarily his head carriage.) Point blank. End of story. Sorry, guys, that “above level” trot was maybe 20% saddlebred conformation at best, so that argument is out.

Point 2—Training

Original Nautica’s training program featured short bursts of high-intensity workouts focused on producing maximum animation instead of ground-cover. This effect is achieved primarily by raising the horse’s head and by association, the horse’s shoulder. Saddle seat is all about achieving the closest possible result to a set ideal (i.e. the ideal image of a saddlebred horse in the desired class or division.) Saddle seat horses all compete together in what is called a “rail class” and the one most like the ideal conformation, mechanics, and temperament wins.

Contrastingly, New Nautica’s training program focuses on concepts such as rhythm, suppleness, and strength. “Feel” comes before outward appearances and ideally, the horse’s head carriage is a secondary characteristic of proper body alignment, not the main focus of the training itself. I know this all sounds very “kumbaya”, and yes, you are right, dressage people are crazy but, for the most part, the methods are all research-based to improve the rideability and long-term soundness of the horse. In dressage shows, horses are judged individually on “tests” based on a scoring system appropriate for their level of training. Placings are important but scores take precedent. Dressage is all about you and your horse being better—more rhythmic, more supple—than you were yesterday. It is truly a competition against oneself.

By shifting my goals for Nautica from furiously trying to outshine our competition to focusing instead on the slow but inevitable gains that come with 20-meter circles and lateral work, Nautica and I now have virtually zero communication errors that result in meltdowns. Don’t get me wrong, the training is still hard and, at times, uncomfortable but we both seem to approach this stress with a different mindset. For example, going back to my original point, the “stretching trot” (trotting in a lower, open frame) while still difficult for Nautica, is now met with more willingness and try as he is both physically and mentally prepared for the challenge. Three years ago, I would’ve been met with considerably more resistance as Nautica’s saddle seat program focused mostly on improving his natural saddle seat qualities (i.e. higher head, more motion.) He had never been asked to stretch down in the bridle primarily because it was difficult and unnecessary for the show ring. Now, Nautica takes my stretching cue with only a bit of hesitance, bobbing up and down as he tests his core strength and comfort level. Stretching is not natural to him but each ride, he can hold the position for a few seconds longer than the last. In a way, dressage is like horsey-pilates.

Point 3—Lifestyle

Nautica 1.0 did not get turnout. What is now such a huge horse care deal-breaker for me was at the time a “normal” concept that I simply accepted. Show horses don’t get to go outside! What will happen to them? A horse’s biological need to move around is as ingrained and essential to them as their need for food, water, and shelter. This has been scientifically proven through numerous studies. If your horse’s shoes are the determining factor for whether or not they can go outside, do you not believe there could possibly be a flaw in your method? The same goes for body clipping, sleek “show coats”, sweats, and tail-altering devices. If this paragraph seems particularly attacking toward a certain discipline(s) (I’m not just targeting one), that is because it kind of is.

Permanent confinement to a 12’×12′ space with only one or two hours of structured time out per day is wrong, no matter how you try to spin it. I understand that certain considerations warrant such keeping of horses (e.g. stall rest, inclement weather, short-term stabling, etc.) but if this lifestyle is simply established for the aesthetics of the horse and/or safety from injuring itself due to cosmetic equipment, it is wrong, plain and simple.

Nautica 2.0 now gets anywhere from 8-12 hours of turnout daily. He goes outside. He gets dirty. He plays with other horses (sometimes playing a little harder than I would like to know about!) Nautica gets time allotted in his daily schedule to just be in nature and be a horse. When he comes in for his one to two hours of “people time” each day, he is much more focused and ready to handle whatever new concepts are thrown his way.

Regular turnout, like the shoes, took a transition period, too, as Nautica was a longtime stalled horse before changing barns. Now, Nautica looks forward to his turnout time and he is noticeably and measurably healthier and happier because of it. For most horse owners, this is a natural and mundane part of responsible horse ownership. I also understand that turnout can be a luxury that many high-performance horses in high-performance barns don’t get to enjoy (Dressage is also a big culprit!) As for me, my high-performance dressage horse goes outside. As does his Grand Prix pasture mate.

Now, let’s talk about the constants between these two images:

The horse. The rider. That is about it.

Despite these constants, the Nauticas in the two images could not be more physically or mentally different. Restarting or retraining a horse for an entirely different sport is difficult and you are bound to meet resistance and setbacks all the time. That doesn’t mean the horse simply can’t do it. Did it take time, sweat, and tears to get to where we are now? Yes, absolutely. Oh my God, undoing this horse’s old habits just about did me in and I couldn’t have done it without some serious instruction from my coach. I will be the first to admit, a saddle seat convert is a huge project that goes above and beyond simply taking a saddlebred sport horse prospect from scratch. It is not for everybody but is it worth it to see my horse enjoying and benefiting from his new lifestyle and discipline? 100% yes. It also helps to see him so successful, too. (#winning!)

I want to add a couple of disclaimers to this post. I’ll start by stating that not every saddlebred in a saddle seat program is treated unfairly. Quite the opposite. Many, many programs treat their horses with the utmost quality of care and meet all of their horses’ basic biological needs with flying colors. Nautica’s original barn provided him with quality care to the best of their ability for many years.

I will also add that not every saddlebred will make the transition to a sport horse discipline in quite the same way as experienced by me and my horse, nor should every saddlebred. The beauty of the saddlebred breed is that they are so talented and adaptable in so many different ways. With disciplines ranging from dressage to eventing to competitive trail, and more, there is a place for every saddlebred and rider team. The point of this blog post was to simply post my findings and opinions as an amateur dressage rider with my saddlebred convert and to also put an emphasis on the false nature of certain statements claiming that conformation has anything to do with whether or not a horse can travel with its head up, down, or sideways (Just wait until you hear about lateral work!)

Lastly, if your saddlebred is happy and healthy in a saddle seat training program and you are happy with your horse’s care, progress, and results, then continue on rocking that show ring! There is nothing wrong with sticking with the discipline you love. No single horse cares if it will ever learn a “stretching trot” or half pass or pirouette, or if it will jump a meter plus, or rack the fastest in the show ring, so do what you want to do with your horse. If you find you are not happy, then do your research and advocate for your horse’s care.


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