From Naturally Gaited by Jennifer Klitzke
Have you ever heard anyone say, “Never trot a gaited horse, because trot will ruin their easy gait?”
Who ever coined this myth maybe didn’t know there is a BIG difference between letting a gaited horse choose to trot off in a hollow fashion versus teaching a gaited horse to trot on cue in a quality way of going .The former is letting the horse train the rider. The latter is the rider training the horse.
Trotting the gaited horse isn’t for everybody and every horse, but if you ask me, teaching a gaited horse how to trot (or soft trot) on cue and in the right posture, has many benefits that can actually improve the quality of their easy gait. Trotting with back to front connection and engagement develops the top line muscles, rhythm, balance, forwardness, breaks up pace, and results in a deeper stride reaching under the body.
When my friend brought her trail horse, Lady, to my place, she had two gears: a dog walk and a hollow hard trot. My friend wanted to know if Lady had an easy gait in her, because she was told that Lady was a gaited horse.
I’ve ridden Lady on and off the last three summers. My strategy has been to speed up her walk just before she breaks into a hard trot in order to develop a smooth, easy gait on cue. It isn’t that showy, but it is smooth, and nothing beats Lady on the trail in her easy gait! It’s fun to ride, and we see a lot of the forest in a short amount of time.
Then last Fall, I began to ride Lady with more contact using a mild snaffle bit. Previous to this she had always been ridden trail style on a loose rein.
In July 2016, I entered Lady in her first dressage show—a North American Western Dressage (NAWD) Virtual Show which was open to gaited horses. I was thrilled that the show didn’t require that Lady be registered in order to enter. We rode NAWD Intro 2 which includes walk, freewalk, and substituting jog trot with gait. Lady was the only gaited horse competing against trotting horses and placed 5th of 9 horses with a score of 60.357%. For her first go at it, I was tickled!
The judge provided wonderful feedback. She said that overall Lady seemed tense in the bridle and lacking engagement. She pointed out a section in the test where Lady was moving well in relaxation and engagement and to shoot for more of that. This was very helpful feedback!
You see, for the last three summers, I’ve focused on developing a SMOOTH gait, not so much on producing engagement or connection.
So now that Lady has established smooth, I studied the video, took the judge’s feedback, and began to work on engagement and a soft connection with relaxation.
Lady’s response wasn’t rainbows and unicorns. She resisted the engagement by rushing off in shorter steps and then she blasted off into a hard, hollow trot.
Then I had an idea. Back in my trotting horse days, I spent many miles trotting in a rounded working frame on a 20-meter circle to develop the top line muscles, rhythm, balance, and engagement.
So that became my strategy for Lady any time she resisted engagement and connection with a soft contact in the easy gait. I asked for a quality TROT on cue.
Huh!? I know what you’re thinking: Why would I trot a gaited horse that I just broke from hard trotting?!
Let me explain. There is a big difference between Lady choosing to blast off in a hollow hard trot and me teaching her a quality trot on cue.
Lady’s hard trot was stiff in the jaw and back. Her under neck was bulging, and she ran away with me. Her hard trot was an evasion to get out of working in the easy gait. Left unchecked, this is an example of the horse training me, the rider.
Teaching Lady a quality trot on cue has many benefits. When riding her with a relaxed jaw, connection from back to front produces engagement, rhythm, balance, and strengthens the top line muscles. This type of trot produces depth of stride which improves the quality of her easy gait. It is an example of the rider training the horse.
Then after a few circles of quality trot on cue, I’d cue for the easy gait, and I am amazed how much better the easy gait has improved after a few circles of trot.
It didn’t take Lady long to prefer the engaged easy gait over the quality trot. My strategy was to ask for an engaged easy gait first, and if her response was resistance, then I cued for the quality trot. After a few training sessions, our trotting on cue became less and less to none at all, because she offered the engaged easy gait on cue without resistance.
In September 2016, I entered Lady in her second NAWD Virtual Dressage Show. Not only had Lady’s easy gait improved with engagement, but she placed second of 11 horses in NAWD Intro 2 with a score of 64.821%, and she was the only gaited horse!
Video: Gaited Horse NAWD Intro 2
Trotting the gaited horse isn’t for everyone or every horse. It has helped Lady and I establish more engagement in the easy gait and now that she is working in a quality engaged easy gait, with connection, rhythm and balance, we haven’t had to resort to the trot on cue.
Who ever coined the myth, never trot a gaited horse, because trot will ruin their easy gait, maybe didn’t know the difference between letting the gaited horse evade by trotting hollow at will and training the gaited horse to trot on cue in a quality way of going that brings about rhythm, relaxation, balance, and forwardness to develop engagement, a soft connection, a deeper stride beneath the body, and breaking up pace.
That’s where years of dressage lessons on trotting horses have paid off for me. I never imagined that I would be trotting a gaited horse. I got into the gaited thing for a SMOOTH ride, but in the end, that’s where we are now, because I discovered that Lady prefers an engaged smooth easy gait over an engaged trot any day. That makes us both happy!
Video: Benefits of trotting the gaited horse on cue