Riding Gaited Horses
Riding Gaited Horses
Horses move differently in the soft gaits than they do in the trot. Consequently, many techniques for riding a trot inhibit the proper execution of the soft gaits. Generally, I see one of two extremes. Either the gaited horse goes into a trot because the rider emphasizes diagonal movement and suspension. Or the trotty horse paces because the rider emphasizes lateral movement. (Often riders of non-gaited horses do things that encourage a pace, but their horses trot anyway because they can do nothing else.)
In order to understand how techniques for riding trotting horses need to be modified for gaited horses, we must first understand how gaited horses move. Many traditional descriptions derived before high-speed photography, even some breed registries’ official definitions--like walking in front and trotting behind--are inaccurate oversimplifications.
UNDERSTANDING THE GAITS
What is a soft gait? In a practical sense, it is a gait about the same speed as the trot that is easy to sit because there is no jarring bounce. In a technical sense, it is an intermediate four-beat gait that lacks the suspension phase of the trot.
When you observe a soft gait, look for these elements. What is the rhythm of the footfalls? Is the gait diagonal, lateral, or even? Is the horse stepping or hopping from one foot to the other? How much overstride is there? It is my belief that the gaits, stepping pace, fox-trot, running walk, and rack, contain all the elements of the soft gaits. Understanding these gaits will give you the ability to analyze any soft gait.
Many people categorize soft gaits as either diagonal or lateral, based on unaided human observation. Does it look like the diagonal legs are moving together? Or does it look like the lateral legs are moving together? Because it is so much easier to see the legs on the side of the horse you are observing, every gait except the fox-trot tends to look lateral.
Others use the sequence of footfalls to classify a gait as diagonal or lateral. This is done by first deciding whether the gait is diagonal or lateral, then starting to count the footfall sequence with the foot that supports your conclusion. For example, you might say the fox-trot is a diagonal gait because it has a diagonal footfall sequence--right front, left hind, then left front, right hind. Or you might say the stepping pace is a lateral gait because it has a lateral footfall sequence--left hind, left front, then right hind, right front.
Actually all the soft gaits have the same sequence of footfalls. You can demonstrate this by writing the footfall sequence for several strides of each gait on separate strips of paper. Lay the strips of paper on a table and adjust them until the footfalls line up. The footfall sequence is a repeating cycle. It does not matter where in the cycle you start recording, the sequence remains the same.
I believe the designation of diagonal, lateral, or even should be based on the relative amount of time the diagonal or lateral feet are on the ground. This can be determined with film or video. Record the horse and play it back frame by frame, counting how many frames the horse is supported by diagonal or lateral feet. If the diagonal support phase is significantly longer, it is a diagonal gait. If the lateral support phase is significantly longer, it is a lateral gait. If they are about the same, it is an even gait.
Without film or video you can still tell if a gait is even or not by the sound of the footfalls. An even four-beat gait will have an even rhythm, 1--2--3--4. A diagonal or lateral four-beat gait will have an uneven rhythm, 1-2----3-4. Once you hear the uneven rhythm it is easy to see whether the gait is diagonal or lateral. Trying to determine if a gait is diagonal or lateral by observing the horse, when you hear an even four-beat rhythm, is like trying to find the long side of a square blanket.
While it is true that none of the soft gaits have a suspension phase, where all four feet are off the ground at the same time, suspension does have a role in a slightly different sense. When a horse is walking, it is stepping from one foot to the next. The foot being set down touches the ground before the foot being picked up leaves the ground. In the trot, the horse is hopping from one foot to the other. The foot leaving the ground is in the air before the foot being set down touches the ground. With gaited horses, think of the front feet and hind feet separately. When the horse is transferring his weight from one foot to the other, is he stepping or hopping? It is the transfer of weight by hopping from one foot to the other that is referred to as “suspension” in gaited horses.
The stepping pace, sometimes called the “amble” or “saddle”, is the most common soft gait. It is an uneven four-beat lateral gait with no suspension between the front or the hind feet and little or no overstride. While the lateral feet are moving almost together, the hind foot is leading the front foot slightly--it picks up first and sets down first. The horse goes through alternate phases of having two feet on the ground and three feet on the ground.
Starting at the end of the time the horse is being supported by the right lateral pair of feet, one stride of the gait is as follows:
The rider feels a slight side-to-side movement, and hears the uneven chucka-chucka beat. While some horses can perform the stepping pace in a collected manner, many times this gait is associated with a brace, or tension. These horses will generally have their head up, nose out, back hollow, and be stiff-sided.
The fox-trot is an uneven four-beat diagonal gait with no suspension between the front or the hind feet and little or no overstride. There is a distinct chucka-chucka sound of footfalls. While the diagonal feet are moving almost together, the front foot is leading the hind foot slightly.
Starting from the end of the time the horse is supported by the right hind/left front diagonal pair, one stride of the fox-trot is as follows:
The rider feels a quick front-to-back motion from the hips to just below the ribcage; the upper body is very still. It is interesting to note that a similar motion is felt in the upper body at a flat foot walk. When a horse is fox-trotting well, there is an observable rhythm that looks like a vertical ripple starting at the end of the tail and going all the way through the horse to his head. When the horse elevates his shoulder and breaks at the pole the gait improves. This gives the horse more reach and the ride is smoother. Even in this frame the horse's face is not vertical but the nose is slightly out.
When pushed for too much speed, the fox-trotting horse will develop suspension between the front feet and over-reach with the hind feet. This creates a rougher ride although it looks flashier and is what you generally see winning in the show ring. People who want this improper gait, refer to the true fox-trot as the “old-time” fox-trot. If a horse is pushed for even more speed he will have suspension between both the front and the rear feet.
The running walk is an even four-beat gait in which the feet are moving the same way they do in the walk but with much more reach and overstride. In extreme cases the over-reach can be three feet or more. The stride sequence is just like the stepping pace or the fox-trot except the length of time the horse is supported by lateral and diagonal feet is about the same.
The rider feels a lowering of the hind end as the horse positions himself to overstride, and the rider’s seat bones alternately move forward and back. This motion in the hind end is so pronounced observers can see the tail shaking from side to side, hence the colloquialism “swishy tail” referring to a horse that does a running walk. Although I have seen people get fox-trotting horses to do a running walk by raising their heads and hollowing their backs, good walking horses improve their gait with proper collection. Walking horses can be very smooth, ground covering horses.
The rack, sometimes called the “single-foot”, is an even four-beat gait with suspension between both the front and the hind feet. The feet move in the same pattern as the walk, but the horse hops from one foot to the other.
Beginning with the end of the time the horse is supported by the right lateral pair of feet, one stride of the rack is as follows:
As the horse begins to rack, the rider feels the horse elevate a little, especially the hind end. The best description I have heard of what the rack feels like is, “A whole lot of something going on underneath you but you are moving along smoothly.”
There is an observable rhythm in a horse that is racking. It is as if the horse is hinged just behind the withers and the head and hind end are vibrating up and down. This motion is particularly noticeable at the base of the tail. Racking is pretty hard on the horse, because he cannot rack without hollowing his back. I know of several horses who racked for years that now have joint and back problems
The soft gaits require less effort than the trot, just like it is easier for you to walk three miles in an hour than it is to jog three miles in an hour. Although we tend to associate certain gaits with particular breeds, individual gaited horses can do a variety of gaits. Allowing our horses to use different gaits on long trail rides gives them more stamina. Each gait uses a different combination of muscles, so one muscle group is not getting over used.
PACYNESS DUE TO A BRACE
As we try to influence our horse’s gait, the first thing we need to take into consideration is the gaited horse’s tendency to get pacy when he gets braced. In this case, pacyness is not the problem. It is a symptom. The problem is the internal resistance, or brace. Other symptoms of this brace, which are always there to some degree, are: resistance to lowering the head, lack of lateral flexion, difficulty backing, and a high-head-hollow-back frame when moving.
Any time something causes mental or physical anguish, the horse braces in self-preservation. When the horse is started before his back is strong enough to support the weight of the rider, he braces against the weight. If the saddle pinches, bridges, or causes pain in some other way, the horse will brace against that pain. When severe bits are used to achieve a mechanical result, the horse braces against the pressure. If the horse’s feet are out of balance, or the horse’s teeth need attention, the associated discomfort can cause a brace. If we push a horse to perform beyond its ability to understand what we are asking, the mental turmoil will cause a brace.
I once had the opportunity to talk to Dominique Barbier about gaited horses. He said he had helped some people with their gaited horses, and when he got them supple, strengthened their backs, and collected them, they quit gaiting. I believe what Dominique experienced was overcoming pacyness due to a brace in the horse. The horses trotted, because he rode in a way that promoted suspension and diagonal movement. If we understand how the rider affects the horse’s gait, we can influence the trotty horse toward the lateral, or the pacy horse toward the diagonal.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE RIDER
First, let’s consider diagonal and lateral movement in the rider. There are two exercises I like to use to help riders understand the feel of diagonal and lateral movement in their body. One exercise is walking. Observe how your arms move in relation to your legs when you walk. Do your arms move forward with your opposite leg (diagonal) or with the leg on the same side of your body (lateral)?
Once you become aware of how you are moving, purposely move the other way--diagonally if you were lateral, or laterally if you were diagonal. It may take some effort and concentration to do this, but you should practice until you can switch between diagonal and lateral movement easily. Think about the different feel of each movement. You will need to recognize, and switch between, them while riding.
The other exercise is done sitting on the edge of a chair. Imagine you are sitting on a clock face--twelve o’clock is in front of you, six o’clock behind you, three o’clock to your right, and nine o’clock to your left. Start by rolling your pelvis back to six o’clock. From that position, alternately roll to three o’clock and back to six o’clock, then to nine o’clock and back to six o’clock.
Notice how your shoulders move. If your left shoulder moves forward when you roll to three o’clock, and your right shoulder moves forward when you roll to nine o’clock, you are moving diagonally. If your right shoulder moves forward when you roll to three o’clock, and your left shoulder moves forward when you roll to nine o’clock, you are moving laterally. Once again, as in the walking exercise, practice changing between diagonal and lateral movement.
The next thing to consider is the balance of the rider. As a general rule, the more forward the rider’s balance the more diagonal movement is encouraged in the horse. The actual position a rider needs to be in will vary from horse to horse and may even change as an individual horse develops its gait. You should experiment with your position, feel its effect, and adjust your balance accordingly.
Finally, let’s consider the movement the horse creates in the rider. While each end of a gaited horse may appear to be very active and animated, the area of the back where the rider sits is quite still. There is less motion than the rolling a rider feels at the walk and none of the up-and-down motion of a trot. The more diagonal the gait, the more the rider feels a front-to-back movement. The more lateral the gait, the more the rider feels a side-to-side movement. The more over-reach there is, the more the rider feels a twisting motion--as each seat bone follows the reach independently. The pelvis does not follow a circular path; it makes more of a smilely face as the rider glides along.
Once you know the feel of each gait, and your horse has learned to follow your feel, you can ask for the gait you want simply by riding that gait. When you get your body into the balance, rhythm, and movement of a particular gait, your horse will follow you into that gait. If, however, the horse you are riding is not proficient at the gait you want, you can help it find that gait by adjusting what you are doing with your body. For example, if the horse is too diagonal, you might encourage lateral movement by bringing your balance back, moving laterally yourself, or emphasizing side-to-side movement by stepping from one stirrup to the other. Likewise, if the horse is too lateral, you might encourage diagonal movement by taking a more forward seat, moving diagonally yourself, or emphasizing the front-to-back motion.
As you modify the techniques you use for riding trotting horses for use with gaited horses, remember there is no suspension--up-and-down motion--in the soft gaits, and the gaited horse’s back is much more still than a trotting horse’s back. Also, consider whether that technique would encourage diagonal or lateral movement, and if the gait you are trying to achieve is a collected or non-collected gait. The main thing is to experiment and find the combination of variables that helps the individual horse you are riding perform the gait you desire.