If you’re like a lot of people who love and ride horses, you have a favorite gait. Many find the walk the most comforting because it is the most comfortable. I’ve noticed many riders like to avoid long sessions at the trot, while more experienced people like to canter their horses.
There is no right or wrong gait as long as you and your horse agree on what direction he should be going in, where each foot should be placed, and what speed his hooves should be moving at. Remember, it’s his feet you’re riding.
An explanation of the horse’s footwork, and the keys to smooth transitions, will encourage you to try and feel each foot in every gait. Once a clear picture of the footfall pattern in each gait is established in your mind, the distinctly different feel of each movement registers in your body, and soon you’ll be comfortable at any gait.
1. Four beats to a walk
In the walk, the horse moves each leg separately in a four-beat stride. It happens like this: when the horse’s front leg leaves the ground, it is then followed by an opposite hind leg that reaches forward underneath the belly, creating a diagonal balance point. He then moves the other foreleg forward out of the way before a hind hoof on the same side of his body hits the ground. You might want to read these last two sentences over a time or two to fully understand the sequence. Better yet, get down on all fours and check it out for yourself.
The pattern of a horse’s footfall at the walk is easy to recognize once you understand the rhythm, or cadence, from the horse’s point of view. This gait is relaxing to the horse and the one he’ll use most of the time if left to choose. I call the walk a “catch-up” gait because the hind legs are continually catching up to a point on the ground that his front legs have just passed. To keep his balance at the walk the horse steadies himself twice in the middle of each stride by shifting his weight alternately onto each diagonal pair of legs.
2. Trot on an even cadence
What transforms the four-beat walk into the two-beat trot is the increased speed of the front feet “one-two” walking cadence and the snappier action of the rear legs. In effect, the back feet catch up to move in exact time with the opposite foreleg. This gives the trot the distinctive, crisp “one-two” rhythm, eliminating two of the walk’s four beats.
3. The rocking horse canter
As the horse slips up a gear from a fast trot, he trades the superior balance of the trot for extra speed and greater reach in the canter’s three-beat stride.
Circling to the right at the canter, a horse starts the stride with a push from his left hind leg and then will travel forward across his supporting, or weight-bearing, left diagonal pair of legs. He then rolls onto his right front or lead leg. At this point he draws the outside drive leg (left hind) up under himself to start the stride sequence again.
The opposite occurs in a circle to the left. His right hind leg will initiate the stride. He’ll find his balance and base of support in the right diagonal and roll onto his left, or leading, leg.
There is a vast difference between possessing some knowledge of horses and having the feel of a horse. Learning this in your groundwork is a prerequisite for good-quality mounted work, no matter what your riding type or purpose.
When your horse maneuvers well through feel on the halter rope, and you have learned to direct and support him in time with the front and hind feet as they leave the ground, then you have a foundation in place to develop a feel for your horse from the saddle.
Again, remember you are riding the horse’s feet; not the saddle, nor his back or mouth. A rider who is in tune doesn’t pull on the reins to stay in the saddle. Good riders get that way because they keep trying until they learn the feel of the horse with their whole body.
Strive for smooth transitions
A sign of partnership and harmony between horse and rider is smooth gait transitions – something we all should strive for. First, put all thoughts about collecting your horse aside for now. The easiest way to ask for a trot is from a fast walk. When your horse is comfortable with this, ask him to trot from a slow walk. In time he’ll be able to trot out straight from a standstill.
A smooth transition is especially important when moving from the trot to the canter. It’s very important not to hurry the horse when making this transition. At first, he’ll move more naturally and comfortably into the lope if you let him slip into it from a fast trot. Practice this numerous times before asking him to canter from a slow trot. When he’s comfortable with that, move him up to the lope from a fast walk. When he is able to canter comfortably without speeding up or slowing down unless you ask, then request a canter from a slow walk.
Eventually, you can ask for a canter after taking just one or two steps at the walk. In time, he’ll be ready to make a smooth transition into the canter from a standstill.
Remember to also make the transitions in reverse order. Take as much time as you need to get your horse to make smooth transitions – through feel – down from the canter to the trot, and from the trot to the walk. As you slow your horse from the trot, ask for and reward an energetic walk for a few strides before slowing down the walk and stopping.
You should not only recognize and understand the balance and rhythm of your horse’s entire body, but also feel it. When you have presented yourself in a way the horse understands, he will also feel you, and you will then be able to communicate through reciprocal feel. With patience and practice, you’ll both soon be comfortable at every gait.