Horse Gaited When She Bought Him...Now He Paces
My horse was supposed to be naturally gaited when I bought him. We seemed to do OK for awhile, but now he breaks to (I think) a pace every time I ask him for speed. It's very bouncy, back and forth, and uncomfortable to ride. I can't understand what I've done wrong, and don't know how to fix him. My farrier doesn't know anything about shoeing gaited horses, so we wonder if that could be the problem. Anything you can suggest would be greatly appreciated.
Mary M., Baltimore MD
Your frustration is easy to understand: you bought a gaited horse so that you could be comfortable in the saddle, and now you're anything but comfortable. From a distance it's always impossible to exactly pin down what the specific problem might be. But based on similar problems we've encountered, I can make a few educated guesses, and offer related suggestions.
Your horse may have been originally trained using artificial methods and devices. This caused him to be able to gait all right for a time after you bought him. After a season of being ridden naturally, the 'quick fixes' wore off, and he reverted to being untrained for gait. You can't really blame gaited horse trainers for using these methods-correct gait training can take many months, and most owners are only willing to pay for 30, 60, or at most, 90 days of professional training. This is why it's important for gaited horse owners to learn how to ride/train for gait themselves, and let the professional trainers concentrate on teaching your green horse basic saddle skills.
Another likely scenario is that you simply haven't learned how to correctly ride your horse in a good frame for gait.
It could be your shoeing that's made a difference. However, any naturally gaited horse should be able to perform its gait with hoof angles that are in good relation to the foot's natural conformation. I discourage owners from trying exaggerated hoof angles, heavy shoes, etc., in the pursuit of natural gait. If you're confident that your farrier has a good grasp of basic sound trimming and shoeing concepts, then I'd look elsewhere for an answer. If you're not confident of this. . .then I'd look elsewhere for a farrier. If your farrier shoes in the traditional stock horse manner, for example (long toes, very short heels), this may cause some gait problems. I've seen horses with extremely long heels and toes. This usually causes them to travel in a short, prancy, 'tippy-toe' fashion. But aside from gait problems, you would also encounter long term soundness problems. This alone would be reason enough to look for another shoer.
There are a few trimming things that can be tried to help improve gait--but that's not where I'd start. Slightly altering the angle of the foot will not, by itself, result in much gait improvement. So let's skip that, for the time being, and work on more likely solutions.
I'm betting you need to ride your horse with a greater degree of collection. Gaited horses usually do need to be ridden in a more collected fashion-especially horses that tend to pace. You always want to encourage strong impulsion, or forward motion, with your seat and legs. Then you 'collect' the energy of that forward motion through the reins, so that the horse's body is properly rounded up through the back, neck, and poll (this also strengthens the abdominal muscles). This kind of riding, gaited or otherwise, is called riding the horse 'between the seat and hands.' In other words, his entire body is in your control.
If you're accustomed to riding on a loose rein, this may seem like a very harsh way to ride. However, properly executed, this style of riding is much better for your horse's body, in that it encourages the proper use of his muscles, and keeps his structure correctly balanced under the rider. Therefore, there's less stress on his joints and muscles. This type of riding style requires a bit that will be gentle, (NOT a traditional 'walking horse bit,') but that will also allow you to collect him up quite strongly. (also see our 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit information)
Don't try to suddenly teach a horse how to collect. To try to do so will be self defeating, as the horse will resist the unexpected pressures, become stiff and hollow-backed--and pace. Instead, encourage a long strided, natural swinging walk with little or no take on the reins. Then, over a period of weeks, continue to ask for the forward motion while shortening the reins a little bit more each time you ride. After a period of riding in a collected frame, allow the horse to stretch out and do an uncollected, swingy walk again. This is hard work for him. Eventually you will be pushing him forward, and then just as vigorously taking on the rein. (Over time it becomes less work for both of you. My horses usually get to the point where I ask them to collect up, and they will hold that frame on a relatively loose rein. Again, this takes time, and the amount of rein pressure each horse requires to maintain gait varies, horse by horse.)
If you ride english, make sure you're not in a forward position saddle. This eliminates most general purpose and hunt seat saddles. Some dressage, and most saddle seat, saddles work best. At this point, I can't personally vouch for any particular Australian style saddle. (I'm still learning, too!) If you ride western, avoid the typical stock seat 'hips over knees over ankles' position that is so common with most of us. Learn how to tuck your seat so that you're not riding on your crotch, but tucked up somewhat on your buttocks, with your pelvis thrust forward and your weight slightly leaned back in the saddle. This takes some getting used to, but is worth the effort, as it changes your center of gravity enough to allow scopier action in the shoulders, gives more freedom through the back, and increases impulsion from the rear. All these factors help the horse obtain the correct frame, and action, for an intermediate gait.
Do lots of vigourous walking, and don't be in a hurry to develop speed. That will come, with time and correct riding. If your horse can execute a correct canter, I would encourage you to ride him in a canter or lope from time to time. It helps develop impulsion, and breaks up the lateral action of the pace. (I do not recommend this for trottier horses.) However, be sure never to ask your horse for the canter by simply working him faster and faster, but cue for the canter from a standstill or a walk. If you don't know how to do this, then get some instruction. It helps if you start your canter work on a slight incline. If you consistently ask for the canter out of the trot, pace, or gait, then your horse will learn to shortcut the very difficult work of conditioning for the gait by jumping into a canter, instead.
Working him strongly up hills, and through sand, mud, snow, or other 'deep going,' will also prove beneficial. You're goal is to always prevent him from pacing, and encourage a strong, 4-beat gait. Every time you succeed in doing this, you're building up the correct muscles, as well as re-programming his neurological memory. If you're consistent, and patient, you will succeed in getting your horse firmly established in his best natural intermediate saddle gait.
Print this page, and read it over from time to time if you like. As long as there is nothing changed, you're welcome to share it with others.
I promise you, this work will not only be well rewarded in the form of a good gait, but you'll have fun
with your horse in the meantime!