Gaited Training

Why Doesn’t My Horse Gait!?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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Gaited Training, Videos

Pacing to Gaiting Smoothly: How to Use Poles

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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Gaited Training

A Tale of Two Horses

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.

First Horse

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.

Observations:

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.

Fixes:

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.

Conclusions:
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.

Second Horse

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.

Observations:

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.

Fixes:
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.

Conclusions:
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.