Back in the Dark Ages of American dressage, circa mid 1960s, the term Working Trot didn’t exist. The judges wanted to see (approximately) the same thing as now, but it was called Ordinary Trot—not as sophisticated in frame or balance as Collected Trot, not as ground covering and scopey as Extended Trot. The problem with the term was that many riders who were new to the sport didn’t read the fine print. They saw the word “ordinary,” looked at their hunter or pleasure horse or trail horse shuffling along, and said to themselves, “His trot is about as ordinary as it gets. This sport is for me!” They were naturally disappointed when the judge gave their performance his thumbs down.
These days we all know what a real Working Trot entails, but it’s important to remember that not all WTs are created equal. To be Marginal/Sufficient (a score of 5) or to be Satisfactory (a score of 6), the horse must have a pretty clear and correct rhythm plus a degree of energy, suppleness, and acceptance. All those things needn’t be perfect or the score would be a 10. You know how many of those get handed out! Meantime there are plenty of rewards available from 7 to 9.
Speaking of scores, it’s important to remember that dressage judges evaluate horses on an absolute scale. We don’t say “That’s pretty good given his physical limitation or despite the fact he raced till he was 12.” Nor do we downgrade a more talented horse “because he’s capable of so much more than he’s showing.” Loving owners may look at things that way and we may think such thoughts in our own hearts, but that’s not how we judge.
Consequently we may be speaking of two distinctly different things if we say “That’s a good Working Trot” as opposed to “That’s a trot where this horse is REALLY WORKING!” One horse due to his innate abilities may achieve the former long before he really works. A lesser talent may be required to far extend his abilities just to become adequate. If you hadn’t yet noticed, in the words of Jimmy Carter: “Life isn’t fair.”
An interesting paradox in training: at times to get a particular horse honestly working and coming through may require him to exert himself into something almost like a Medium gait. Once that connection is established, it can be maintained as the tempo or length of stride is backed down to a normal range, ultimately even to a passage. Another mystery to contemplate!
To get back to the original question, “How important is tracking up?” that answer has changed over time. In the aforementioned Dark Ages, judges practically had to carry a ruler in their bag. The Rule Book specified, for instance, that a horse performing Collected Trot had to track short of his prints regardless of whether his natural Working Trot had an 8 inch over track or none at all. The requirement for the horse to at least cover his prints in WT was right in the rules. It’s a slightly deceptive stipulation because a horse with little shoulder freedom or reach in front has a much easier time stepping up to his prints than a better mover. All that said, though it is no longer in the book, for me tracking up is a reasonable minimal expectation for almost any horse. A lot of other qualities must be present too, but most who aren’t being asked to track up usually can, and if they’re not, they probably aren’t being asked very hard to WORK!
On the topic of the trot you present in the show ring, one S judge advised a friend showing the FEI Test for the four-year-olds, “Do Medium the whole time and call it
Working! Let the judge just imagine how spectacular his Medium might be. In this test you don’t have to display it.” I understand that sentiment, and I could endorse it in small measure, but if meant literally that’s a bit over the top in my book.