If you’ve ever watched any high level equestrian competition, you’ve probably noticed how harmonious the horse and rider teams appear. You’ve probably also seen how the riders seem to know just when to ask their horse for that next movement. Most riders soon learn to push all the “buttons” on their horses to make them go forward, sidepass, trot, canter, and come down to a stop, but few ever learn to do this in time with their horse’s feet. Understanding where your equine partner’s feet are, gait patterns, and when to apply the next cue, can mean the difference between a so-so horse and one that seems to float through transitions.
If you want your horse to understand your cues better, and get a softer response, then you need to understand gait patterns and how your horse’s feet work.
is a two beat gait. When the horse trots, her two opposite feet move at the same time. When your horse’s right hind moves forward, the left front moves forward at the same time. Then the left hind and the right front move together and land together. Since the opposite feet move at the same time, they are often referred to as diagonals.
is a three beat gait. A right lead canter consists of the left hind leg driving, the right hind and left front landing, then the right front coming into contact with the ground. When all three beats have occurred it is generally called a canter stride; if you were asked to do three canter strides, your horse would move all four feet in the above manner three consecutive times.
is a four beat gait. If your horse starts with the left hind then the footfalls are left hind, right hind, left front, right front. If your horse starts off with the right hind, the following sequence would be left hind, right front, then left front.
is a two beat gait. It works the same as the trot, except your horse is moving backwards. In other words, two feet move at exactly the same time, but in reverse. While riding, do not let your horse try to walk backwards using a four beat gait. If your horse is trying to do this, it is because she is dragging her energy and her feet.
Timing is all
The only time you can truly influence your horse’s feet is when they move and are in the air. More importantly, you must influence them during the first part of the stride when the horse lifts her foot, and not as she sets it down. Each stride consists of a lift, an apex (top of the stride/footfall) and a return to the ground. Ideally, for the smoothest cues and transitions, you must influence your horse’s foot before it reaches the apex of the stride and starts down. Once your horse’s foot starts towards the ground it is difficult to change its direction.
You can now use this information to influence your horse’s movement in correct timing with her feet. Let’s use the walk as an example.
Walk this way
As your horse walks, you can influence the direction by moving either the hind end or the front end.
Let’s say you want to move the shoulders to the left. By using your right leg at the girth or just ahead of it, apply pressure just as your horse’s left front leg starts to leave the ground and she will want to move it forward and over to the left. If you wait until she has set the left front on the ground it will be more difficult for her, since the next foot to naturally move is her right hind, then her right front, then her left hind and finally her left front again.
Applying the cue as the other feet leave the ground will either be met with resistance or result in a different outcome. For instance, if you apply the same cue just as the right foot comes off the ground, you should influence your horse to cross her right foot in front of or over her left front. The left front will be slightly back as the right goes forward, allowing the right to cross in front of it; and remember that after the right front falls the next step is the left rear, which then pushes the left front forward again.
If you want to influence the hind end of your horse, then naturally you would cue her when the hind feet are moving. If you want the hind end to move to the right, then you need to use your left leg behind the girth and cue her just as the left hind leg lifts from the ground. This causes the left hind leg to step further under the horse and moves her to the right. Unlike the front, it is more difficult to time this with the other foot or in this case the right hind foot. This is because the barrel of the horse swings to the left to allow the right hind foot to move forward, and pushing against the barrel with your left leg as the right hind lifts off the ground will shorten the stride as much as it will cause the right hind to reach out to the right.
By understanding the footfall patterns of your horse, you can adjust your cues to be more in time with her feet. Whether you’re going at the walk, trot, canter or gallop, applying your cues at the right times will improve your horse’s responsiveness and smooth out her transitions.
Scot Hansen is a retired Mounted Police Officer who travels throughout the U.S. giving clinics and performing at many major horse expos. His experience in training police horses is reflected in his horsemanship and sensory training clinics. Scot created an award-winning DVD entitled Self Defense For Trail Riders that teaches women about safety while riding alone, and has been interviewed on RFD TV and Horse City TV. To see all his training DVDs and clinic schedule, visit www.horsethink.com.