Yesterday's Coffee Clutch, "Gaited Horses and Saddles, Bits, Shoes and Stuff" generated some lively discussion, and a few questions. We pretty much covered the fact that no special saddle, other than proper fit as with any horse, is needed. No special bit – in fact no bit is needed. No special shoes, in fact barefoot is best, for all horses really, but that could be a subject for another blog day again. You can read my thoughts on barefoot, in my earlier post "Why Barefoot?"
|Kessy Saturday and me headin' out for the trail|
I'll never forget the day I was riding along a beautiful "rails to trail" a number of years back, and a young woman rode toward us on a tall, stunning red and white paint. We stopped to chat, and as I'm wont to do, I looked the horse over as he danced and fidgeted beside us. I made note of the tight martingale, his shoes and high heels, his hollow back, thick inversion muscles and sad, worried eyes. The tack and saddle shined like a million bucks. Foam dripped from his mouth around, I don't know what kind of bit. She held tightly on the reins, her legs jammed forward, as they had been when she rode toward me. I asked her what breed her beauty was. With a smirk she replied, "He's a registered, non-gaiting Tennessee Walking Horse." She must have seen the question in my eyes because she promptly added, "He's a registered Tennessee Walking Horse who we can't make gait. He's been to several trainers, and just can't gait!"
I began to ask a question, but she cut me off. "Don't bother, I've heard it all. No-one's ever gonna make him gait." With that she jerked him right, and trotted away.
"Make him gait." I've never forgotten that, obviously as I'm writing about it all these years later. I've never forgotten the look of that beautiful horse she rode either. All the signs, stress and breakdowns of a fine horse people were trying to, "make gait." The over-collected, inverted, hollow backed look of a horse forced to gait, or try too, unnaturally.
Gaited horses will gait. They're born with it. All we need to do is get out of their way and let them. Simply sit your horse comfortably, in proper posture, as Sally Swift would say "in neutral," and allow your horse to walk on. After all, the flat walk and running walk are walks; they're just a little quicker.
The same muscles used to gait are the same muscles used to walk. Riding your horse for miles and miles and miles on the trail at a walk, will develop those muscles, and a longer and longer soft and powerful stride. It is important that as you ride these miles at a walk you allow your horse to relax, walk with their head down, off the forehand, and on a loose rein. You know, get out of their way.
About the trail miles as opposed to miles in the ring. Trail is much preferred over the ring, no matter the size, your horse is always preparing to turn, so are you. It's more difficult for her to, "walk on" and develop the stride in long continued muscle engagement. So really try for unending trail miles. Besides it's better birdwatching on the trail. And more interesting for your horse.
In not too much time you'll feel the stride begin to change; the hind end will become more powerful, and engaged, and softer (Also there are exercises you should consider to free up the hind end if your horse is short strided). She'll begin to achieve a bigger overstride. All without forcing, over collecting, and gimmicks. And damage to her biomechanics. It'll be completely natural, and make sense to your horse. During this time it's fine to mix in a few canters, even trot if she wants to from time to time. What we are doing is building confidence in her long gait and her proper body carriage. And we are staying out of her way while she does it. I would say during this phase look for at least 80% long, easy, but powerful walk.
When she tells you she's ready, find a nice long stretch of level trail, ask her to walk faster. Be gentle, and stay out of her way, but move her on and say, "Gait please." I use my right heel and a lot of kisses, and I say the command over and over each time I tap my heel. She'll speed up instantly, and might try for a trot or pace. Using just one rein tap her back, Very Gently, (never ask for collection) just short of the trot, at her fastest walk (Pacing is not good for a horse so don't do it). Then go right back to a loose rein and let her walk on a bit before asking again, congratulating her for the magnificent effort. Remember to smile.
Off and on, in safe level places along the trail ask for the "Gait please" – It'll come, just before the trot. If you did you're walking miles loyally and politely, she'll give you her flat-walk or gait in just a few tries, remember to praise her, and every stride in gait say, "Gait" so she learns the verbal request. At first she'll only hold her gait a few strides, and that's perfect. Keep helping her build those muscles. It takes a few months to build up the power to sustain it, but really, it's just this easy. She'll learn the verbal cue fast too.
Her head should be level, her stride soft and long, her head will bob a little, and you'll feel the glide. In time together you'll develop a variable speed running walk. Just stay out of her way, and enjoy the ride.
Gitty Up ~ Dutch