Dealing With a Pokey Young Horse
Because I have to "push" him to get any forward momentum but then need to pull him back down once I get it because he breaks into a trot won't I be working against myself in instilling the gait in him? I have a really hard time getting this guy to collect as any contact with the bit seems to slow him too much or stop him all together. I am riding in a thick D snaffle, he is barefoot, and I've tried both a western saddle, english dressage saddle and a Steele saddle (though, the Steele seems to fit him better he works the same in all). Do you have any suggestions as I do not wish to ruin what gait is there???? How do you get a "pokey" horse up on the bit with forward momentum..., and keep him there?
Your horse's unwillingness to move forward with steady impulsion may be rooted in several different causes, or a combination of these. First of all, three years old is still very young. It may be that you're regularly expecting too much from him, resulting in a defeated, "I can't do this" overall attitude. While a horse may appear very mature at three, most of them are still in the middle of their growing up years. Just as we don't expect a 12 year old boy to do the work of a full grown man--regardless of how big and strong he may appear--likewise we should not expect a young horse to perform for as long, or as hard, as one fully mature.
At this stage I wouldn't expect more than an hour or so of work out of him at any given time, and limit gait work to 10 minute sessions. By 'gait work' I mean working him at his most active walk, right up to the point where he wants to break to another gait, but not beyond. He WILL break to another gait at this point, frequently at first, and then less often as you check him back out of the undesirable gait but then continue applying your aids to keep him moving forward. He'll learn you only want more speed, and not a change of gait. I call this the 'breaking walk,' and it is the single most useful gait exercise you can do with your horse. As he develops his neurological and physical abilities to maintain a faster and faster even 4-beat gait, with increasing degrees of collection, he will eventually simply 'slip' into his best, most natural saddle gait.
You say he's barefoot? What kind of terrain are you riding over? Could he simply be tender footed? Unless the riding is light, over easy terrain, most horses require shoes in order to be comfortable.
While your saddle(s) may seem to fit fine while the horse is at a standstill--and you may even get an even sweat pattern after working--it's possible that his natural gait requires more flexibility through the loins, back and shoulders than what he is being afforded. Since he jumps very quickly from a slow walk into a trot, that is what I would strongly suspect. The intermediate gaits, when performed correctly, require a great deal of flexion through the back. If the horse lacks an appropriate degree of flexibility, then his reaction is to stiffen up and jump from a walk into a pace, stepping pace, or trot, all of which require much less flexion. The best suggestion I can make in this instance is that you invest in a saddle with a good flexible tree (you can get the benefits with our Imus 4-Beat gaited saddle). If a new saddle is out of the question, or you simply want to see if increased flexibility makes an improvement before making a large investment, try a Supracor pad under the saddle that seems to fit the best. This pad alone often makes a world of difference.
The way you describe his action when bitted suggests he's overbitted. Some people believe this isn't possible with a simple snaffle, but it definitely is. Make sure the bit you use allows plenty of tongue relief, and is neither too thin, nor too fat in the mouthpiece. I would try working him in my 2nd Generation Imus Training Transition Snaffle until the problems you're experiencing have been resolved.
As to aids--these are frequently overdone or ill applied. If you've been used to using primarily your leg and foot to cue him forward, STOP. Horses learn to tune this out very early in their careers. Instead, lean back slightly and push hard with your seat bones, allowing the action to come down through your upper leg, while giving him (if necessary) a verbal cue. I have a formula that works very well: Ask, Ask, INSIST; Ask, Ask, INSIST; then INSIST, INSIST, INSIST. That is to say, don't ever allow the horse to work at a dragging, lagging walk, but always ask for good active forward action. First, ask for more impulsion with your seat. Then when he lags, immediately ask again with your seat, legs and heel. If (when) he slows down again, give him a good smart smack on his croup with a crop or the end of your rein. Don't just tap him, but give him a good noisy rap! Horses tune out 'tap, tap, tap' whether it's applied with the foot or another aid. You need to meet his resistance to move forward with slightly more insistence that he do as you ask.
Repeat the asking portion of this series twice, and then stop asking: instead, the instant he begins slowing down (anticipate this), give him the crop/rein aid. I happen to really like the rein, as it's always handy and before long all I need to is lift a rein and the horse gets the message and picks up a faster walk. (Plus, I tend to lose crops out on the trail, where I do much of my training work.) Often times a horse moves in a lazy fashion just because he CAN!
Many happy-and smooth-trails!