As I travel around the country teaching clinics, I often see people trying to make gaited horses gait way before they’re ready. Instead of giving the horse a proper foundation, they try to artificially reproduce this type of engagement by using their leg to push the horse into a bridle (or some other piece of intimidating equipment that keeps him from running off). Not surprisingly, problems usually crop up for these horses.
If you have gaited horses, it’s worth the time to build a good foundation. Understanding and following these basic tips can go a long way to eventually achieving effortless, natural gaits.
1. Focus and relax. This allows the horse’s joints and muscles to become more flexible. When he becomes softer and more supple, he can obtain the deeper engagement necessary for proper gait. This engaged frame, with the back raised, allows the horse to transfer his center of gravity from the forehand to the area beneath the rider, and ultimately obtain selfcarriage. When we educate the horse classically, removing all tension and braces throughout his body, the energy traveling from the haunches can flow forward. He then finds forward impulsion less of an effort. This controlled forward impulsion is what generates gait.
2. Educate your horse to the bridle and understand he only wants to know one thing: “What do I need to do to keep your hands out of my mouth?” When he learns that the answer is in how he responds with his feet, he will do what you want very generously. If you are pulling on the reins as you say “whoa”, he has no chance. Some riders pull the head to the right to get the horse to turn; if he doesn’t, they pull more. When you pull the head around, the horse is out of balance, and it is hard for his feet to take the body the right way. Your horse needs to know that if you use the bridle, you’re talking to his feet and not his face.
3. Don’t pull on the face for gait. This forces the horse into a false frame – neck up but back dropped, and the hind legs working behind the balance. Most gaited horses can gait this way, but the horse creates defenses such as pacing, rushing the bridle, and becoming herd sour. We need to cure the cause and not just fix the symptoms. The real problem is that the horse’s body is full of tension and braces because he does not understand the bridle, or the rider does not know how to use it. By increasing suppleness and strength, we remove tension and stiffness.
4. Remember that the head and neck are key to the horse’s balance system. When you force the neck up before teaching the horse to redistribute his weight, you jeopardize his balance. Developing the muscles to redistribute the weight is important. A young horse doesn’t have the muscles to carry a rider in a collected frame. A horse always pulled out of balance by the bridle becomes anxious or worried and is not safe to ride.
5. Use the bridle as a preparatory cue; it is not what turns or stops the horse. You should do no more than close your fingers on the rein to let him know you want to turn. He turns because he follows your seat and shoulders. Just close your right hand, turn your shoulders so the horse will turn his, then ride forward so the hind legs drive the front feet through the turn. By closing your fingers on the rein to signal the horse, he will gather himself into a frame to turn right.
Many riders just pull to turn, which surprises the horse and causes him to turn out of balance because he doesn’t have a chance to prepare himself. Others wait until they are at the spot where they want to stop to say “whoa” as they pull on the mouth. The horse has no chance to reposition his weight and feet, so it takes him several strides to stop. You don’t wait until you are right at a stop sign before braking your car, so it is not fair to expect a thousand-pound animal to stop in one or two strides without warning.
6. Work on your riding. The number one problem gaited horses have is that riders spend most of their time working on their horse instead of their riding. Horses that have the genetics to gait would do so if the rider would not interfere so much. If we pull on him, lean in turns, or sit unbalanced, the horse spends all his time rebalancing. When working on circles and reverses, spend more time working on your riding, and your horse will get better at turning.
7. Remember left and right equals balance. We all agree that whatever we teach our horse on the right side, we have to teach on the left. Yet many believe they can teach collection by holding both reins and driving with both legs. Like everything else, collection has to be taught one side at a time. There are many lateral exercises that can teach a horse to step under with his inside hind leg when you put your leg on: turn on the forehand, leg yield, shoulder in, etc. When you work right side, then left side, the horse learns from your leg cue to step under with the hind leg.
8. Watch your leg position. It is very common to see riders hold their lower leg off the horse or ride with their feet way forward. It is the lower leg that takes the horse’s hind legs to the bridle. If the rider holds his leg off or gigs the horse to drive him, then he becomes reactive to the leg instead of collecting. If the lower leg is held off, the muscles of the rider’s inner thigh are tightened, encouraging the back to drop, just as squeezing the seat muscles cause the horse to hollow. Putting the lower leg on encourages the horse to lift his belly, which raises his back and brings the hind legs forward. By sitting on your pockets with your feet in front of you, your pelvis cannot move with the horse and this restricts his movement and flow of energy. Anything that restricts forward impulsion is going to make it tougher for a horse to gait. Genetics does make a difference. Some horses will gait easier or sooner than others. Breeders have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the breed by keeping the gait, disposition and breed standard in mind and not being sidetracked by the latest fad in the show ring.
Remember, gait happens over a period of time of muscling and readjusting balance; it doesn’t just show up all at once. If you have a horse that finds it difficult to gait, take the time to do it right. Get help, but beware of those who want to fix your horse mechanically. You will just trade one problem for two.
A final piece of advice: before you get too worried about gait, get a good basic handle on your equine partner, promoting understanding and confidence. You’ll eventually achieve your goals with your gaited horses, and it will make your journey that much sweeter.
Larry Whitesell has been training gaited horses for over 25 years. After being very successful in the show ring, he spent time learning classical training. Larry now trains all gaited horses to gait by teaching them to engage the hind legs and collect using no gimmicks or tricks, just sound training methods that most anyone can do if they are willing to make the effort. www.whitesellgaitedhorsemanship.com