After the last video where I talked about how low I get the horses to drop their heads, there were a lot of questions. In this video, I talk about what the horses should look like when they are gaiting and why we ask for the head to be so low. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below!
Myth 1: Gaited horses just gait on their own.
This is true and not true. Gaited horses do have the ability to gait; that part is natural. However, they are not born just gaiting smoothly. Many gaited horses pace, trot, or do something in between that is not as smooth as we would want. To get that perfectly even, smooth gaits takes time and training.
Myth 2: You need a shanked bit or a “gaited horse bit” to get them to gait.
I have trained numerous gaited horses, all different breeds, to gait with a plain snaffle or with just a hackamore. The key is to train them to gait, not play at forcing them into a particular head set.
Myth 3: Gaited horses need their noses tucked in or “collected” to gait.
Once a horse learns the correct way to gait (meaning the correct footfall), many of them like their head level with their withers and their nose slightly out. They travel with a long, level gait that is super comfortable because the horse is relaxed. Horses do not need the reins held tightly once they have learned to gait naturally on a loose rein.
Myth 4: You need to know the name your horse’s gait.
Names do not mean anything to the horse or your backside if it is not smooth! You should focus on getting a gait that is smooth and easy to sit, at both a slow speed and a medium speed. Many of the breeds do the exact same gait, but they call them different names. Use your judgment and decide what your priority is.
Myth 5: You can never canter your gaited horse.
I am asked this one a lot. I always make sure the gaited horses I work with are comfortable cantering a little. However, I never ask for the canter from the gait, always from the walk. Gaited horses should be able to gait quickly without breaking to the canter. If we are always asking for the canter from the gait, they will not learn to gait quickly, but will rather break to the canter.
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
This is the most common question I get.
“If my horse is bred to gait, why does he pace/trot!?”
I like to think of a sports analogy. There are those few people out there who excel at sports. They do well at whatever sport they try. Then there are most people, who are like me. They aren’t very good at any sport without lots of practice, and I mean attentive practice. Without that good practice with advice and help along the way, I would never get better.
Gaited horses are the same way. A very few never need the training, but the rest need someone to train their mind and body into a good gait.
There are several specific reasons horses don’t gait well:
- Breeding – many of the gaited breeds have now been bred more toward a show ring type of gait and this is usually not smooth and very often towards the pace.
- Conformation – some horses are just not built to gait as easily as others. This doe not mean your horse will never gait, but that it will just take more work.
- Saddle fit – this is not the first thing I look at, but it probably is attributing to the problem if you have been working on the gait and it isn’t coming.
- Training – Your horse has never been trained/taught that the gait is the movement that you want. This is the most common reason.
These are reasons why your horse doesn’t gait well, not excuses to get another horse. All the gaited horses that have the conformation to gait can gait. How much training they need depends on each horse. Some horses get it very quickly and make the trainer look really good! Some horses need a lot of muscle re-conditioning. Many gaited horses have been allowed to stay bumpy and this trains their muscles to stay in that bumpy gait.
Gaited horses need to be encouraged into a smooth, correct gait and then they need their gaiting muscles built up over time. The more you let your horse be bumpy, the more they will build the wrong muscle.
So now you know that what your horse most likely lacks is training, but along with that I want to encourage you to keep a positive attitude. As you begin working with your gaited horse, you will most likely get discouraged and your horse will get discouraged too. Praise your horse when he makes progress, even if that progress is very small.
Focus on the good things that you have done and are doing and remember to enjoy the journey.
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I use ground poles to help break up a pacey horse’s lateral gait. Pacey means the two legs on one side swing forward together or nearly together. Many gaited horses tend to the pacey or lateral type of gaits. This is often caused by tense horses, but even relaxed horses can be pacey. Once we get a horse to relax, the next thing I do is use poles to change a lateral gait to more of an even 4 beat gait.
So what do I use for a pole? I used to use PVC pipes, but those ended up being too light and too small. I now try to use wooden fence posts if possible. The bigger around the better. But, if all you have is smaller poles, just use those! Maybe you can find a big log or something you can use.
How many poles do I use? I almost always start with 1 or 2 and rarely do I go more than two. Only a couple times do I use 4 poles. Usually, if I have to use 4 poles, I only use them for a few days and only with a horse that is extremely pacey and low headed. I would recommend that you start with 1 pole and begin the pole work once you have gotten the other prerequisites down (I discuss this in my first dvd). See how your horse does with 1 pole. If there is no change, try 2 poles or a higher pole, such as a log, fence post, or cavaletti.
How far apart do I space them if I use more than 1 pole? It depends on the horse. In many ways, this isn’t a science. The goal is to get the horse to change the pattern of his footfalls. For many horses, this just means getting them to have to move their feet differently to avoid stepping on the poles. For taller horses, use poles that are farther apart. I used to space poles out only 3-4 feet apart, but now I recommend starting with poles 8-10 feet apart.
How long are my sessions of pole work? It depends on the horse’s progress, but most are less than 30 minutes of actual pole work and many are less than 20 minutes. Some end up being only 5 minutes long if the horse makes progress after struggling for a while. You know your horse and you don’t want him to get frustrated. This is very easy to do, even for me. Take time to break up the pole work with relaxation training, backing up, standing still, and whatever other things your horse knows how to do.
You can put them in different parts of your work space. You can try placing them on different inclines, taking your horse uphill over them, then downhill over them, to see what helps your horse the best.
If you find a spot or direction that seems to help your horse gait better, then go over that spot as much as you can early on. Later on, we want to ask in lots of different place, but initially, we want to make it as easy for the horse as we can.
Remember that you need to have the prerequisites done before you work on the poles. Your horse MUST be able to give you vertical flexion (bringing the nose toward the chest) with light pressure and MUST be able to drop his head and relax.
When you first start training your horse with the ground poles, make sure walk over them the first few times, or more if he is afraid of them. As you progress through your training, continue taking time to walk over them rather than gait over them every time. You do not have to gait every time your horse goes over the poles. You would rather wait until he is relaxed and ready, then ask him to go forward.
Using poles is not the magic button that will make your horse gait, but it is my favorite tool to use with pacey horses to break up the pace and get a smooth gait. Some horses will become smoother in a day and some will take 3-4 weeks to really start gaiting. Every horse is different and it is your job to figure out what helps your horse the most.
These instructions are to be used in conjunction with my gaited training DVDS.
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Yesterday, I went and worked with two different Missouri Fox Trotters. I worked with each horse for about 1 hour. It was a mix of me working with the horse and then giving a lesson for the riders.
Both horses are normally ridden in plain snaffles, with their owners preferring to keep it that way. Both owners were frustrated with their horses not gaiting. So gaiting was the focus of both sessions.
The first horse, a gelding, was a typical MFT. He had a fairly level head and neck. He was a very nice horse who listened well in the arena. His rider said that when he gaits slowly, it stays smooth, but when you speed him up, he trots. I observed that he actually was not gaiting correctly when slow, he was just doing a cross between walking fast and trotting, which may sound like it is correct for a fox trotter, but it isn’t smooth and degrades to a very bumpy trot when sped up.
I got on and worked on getting a nice relaxed walk. I worked on his vertical flexion for the most part. Once he understood that, I was able to get him to stretch down and round up with very light pressure. I made sure he stayed at a nice, relaxed, round walk before asking for anything faster. After about 30 minutes of this work, I was able to ride him around the arena on a loose rein, where he stayed very relaxed and fairly round.
Then I would ask him to gait. I did this by clucking, squeezing just a bit with my calves, and then tapping him smartly on the rump with the whip. If he went into a nice gait, I would praise him and quickly, but gently, slow him down. Then I would let him relax in the walk. Most of the time it was not a nice gait so I would slow him down right away and I would not ask for more speed until he was relaxed in the walk.
The gelding gaited the best when his head was very low and he was round. Twice, when that happened, I felt him lift his back and engage the hind end, and then he gave me a beautiful gait for a few steps. I made sure to praise him a lot after those moments.
1. Rather than give to the bit, the gelding would rather push against it and lift his nose, especially at any speed faster than a walk.
2. He didn’t gait so much as stay between a walk and trot, which would fall apart with any amount of speed.
3. Was often behind he leg, not wanting to go forward eagerly on cue.
4. Wasn’t really relaxed in the walk, therefore couldn’t relax in gait and would break to trot.
1. Get him soft in the bridle vertically.
2. Get him stretching down and out, then, later, rounding up.
3. Use endosticks to make sure he responded well to light leg pressure.
4. Get him really relaxed, soft, and round at the walk.
5. Once he was round on a loose rein at the walk, speed him up quickly to gait.
1. The Gelding gaited the best when his head was low and he was round on a loose rein. He had some brilliant moments of gait then. He would lift his back and carry himself very nicely.
The second horse was a very nice MFT mare. She was very pretty, fine boned girl with a calm disposition. Her head and neck are set higher than first horse’s. Her owner said that she just wants to go into a bumpy trot and does not give a nice gait. Her owner has only owned her for a week, but would like to make sure they get off to a nice start. I observed that, yes, this mare would go into a very bumpy trot.
I got on and began the same as with the gelding, I taught her to bring her nose in with light rein pressure. She figured that out rather quickly, but she didn’t want to lower her head or stretch down. So I tried something different. I would ask her to break at the poll; once she did, I would hold steady pressure on the reins and squeeze with my legs to get a little more forward energy. Sometimes I had to reminder her to move off my legs with taps of the endostick.
This really did help her to stretch down and relax. She didn’t open up as much as the first horse, but she really started to relax. She was constantly licking her lips, yawning, and her ears got a lot more relaxed.
Once I got her this relaxed, I tried gaiting her. I could feel that when I would first get her going, she could do one or two steps of gait, but then would break to the trot. I worked to get her doing a nice, long, relaxed walk before asking her to gait. When she was doing a long walk before I asked her to gait, she would go straight to a trot. I tried again, same thing happened.
So, what I was doing for the mare wasn’t working, though it had worked on the gelding. I needed to try something else. I got her to relax in the walk again, then I asked her to shorten the walk and I “collected” her up just a bit. I jiggled the reins and took very light contact then asked her to gait. This got me much better results. At one point she gaited quite a ways.
1. The mare also refused to give to the bit at first and really liked to push the base of her neck down.
2. She was unfocused on her rider, and, while not spooky, was not very calm.
3. She didn’t want to go forward readily off the leg.
4. Seemed unable to relax and lower her head at the walk
5. She didn’t gait at all, but would just trot.
1. Get her flexing vertically with light pressure on the reins.
2. Get her to lower her head and relax and therefore focus on the rider.
3. Ride with endostick to make her move off leg pressure.
4. Once her nose was vertical, hold steady pressure on the reins while squeezing (or bumping) with the legs to get her to stretch down.
5. Trial and error of where her head and neck needed to be to get a few steps of gait rather than trot.
1. Though she was a fox trotter, same as the gelding, she needed a different frame before she was able to gait. Rather than long, low, and loose, she needed to have a more upright frame.
2. When the lesson first started, she was very pushed down in her neck. By the end, she was carrying herself a lot better.
In the end, both owners were very happy with the progress that had been made. They both had things to work on that would help their horses gait better. Both horses were much more relaxed and focused at the end of the lessons.
Both horses were ridden in snaffle bits and were able to gait a little on a looser rein.
Both horses were a lot more intuned to the rider. I was able to slow and stop both horses by breathing deeply and exhaling softly.
What more can any one ask?
Note: When I asked the horses to gait, I didn’t let them mosey on into it; I used the whip smartly to get the horses to gait NOW. If you let the horses go faster and faster up to a gait, usually they will fall back on old habits and it won’t be smooth. If I asked them to gait and it felt like it wasn’t the right rhythm, then I slowed them right back down to a walk. I hope this gives you some good ideas for working with gaited horses.