You probably read the title to this post and thought, “whaaaaaaat?” Now you’re expecting to see some crazy YouTube video of a dog doing handstands or back flips. I’m sure those things exist but unfortunately no, it’s not about super flexy dogs with the core strength of a mammoth. We’re talking about a different kind of gymnastics, one for which I do not know the origin of the name. All I know is that horse trainers use gymnastics to train their young horses how to jump properly or to help older horses relearn how to balance. For horses, gymnastics improves balance, technique, confidence, and fitness. This is a concept I’ve long, loooong thought I would apply to show dogs but I haven’t actually tried it yet. I’m hoping this post will gather my thoughts enough to put them into action!
If we’re not putting our dog on the balance beam or expecting a floor routine to music, what are we doing? We’re using ground poles and cavalletti (very low jumps) to teach him about extension, collection, balance, and rhythm. These poles will be placed at various (planned) distances on a straight line, a corner, or a diagonal.
Rhythm & Clean Strides
At first we’re just working on rhythm by putting the poles one stride length apart, maybe 5 poles in a row on a straightaway. In horses even this will lead to a few chips and stumbles, and dogs will probably do exactly the same thing. A lazy horse will go through the poles on a wing and a prayer, just throwing his feet down whenever and hoping for the best. This, of course, is bad! He hates it and would forevermore avoid the poles, only you don’t let him. You make him practice until, EUREKA, he lifts up his damn feet and pays attention to the ground he’s trotting on. Now he not only has rhythm but also a cleaner stride and more awareness.
It’s hard to describe collection to a non-horse person, so here’s a photo of Tina Konyot and Calecto V doing a canter pirouette (pivot in a circle on one hoof while cantering):
A horse is able to do this because collection draws all the power into the hind end. It’s almost as though the hind end is a giant pulley while the shoulders and poll are small pulleys: the big pulley drives the small pulleys and they’re all connected through the back. Obviously this level of collection isn’t really necessary for dogs, but nonetheless you always want a dog to move with reach and drive. Drive isn’t possible without power in the hind end!
Placing the poles a little closer together will shorten the stride and help move the center of gravity towards the rear. The poles should be placed to create a short, smooth stride but not so close that they cause a choppy stride. Using very low jumps will also force the center of gravity rearward as the dog sits back in preparation of the jump.
Here’s a photo demonstrating extension. This is Moorlands Totilas and Edward Gal performing the extended trot:
Extension is simply the forward release of the energy you were collecting in the hind end. It still requires collection so as to keep the powerhouse engaged, but rather than recycling the energy through the pulley system or releasing it upward in movements like the piaffe, you release it forward. This generates a lot of explosive but controlled power!
With a dog you can’t really harness the forward motion the way a rider can a horse, but extension is vital for the reach portion of “reach and drive”. By placing the poles a little farther apart than a normal stride you can encourage the dog to lengthen his stride and really reach forward.
Up next…Setting up Gymnastics