When You're Not Hot to Trot: How to Work with Trotty Horses
It can sometimes be more of a challenge to 'smooth out' the gaits of a gaited horse with a strong trot tendency than it is to work with a pacier animal. There are a few reasons why this is so. First of all, gaitedness is essentially based on the animal's ability to perform a laterally based gait. In other words, there must somewhere be the innate 'blood,' or genetic ability, to break from the strictly diagonally based trot to something more lateral. In the horse population as a whole, trotting blood is much more prevalent than pacing blood. It is also true that 'a trot breeds stronger than a pace.' If you breed a trotter and a pacer together, the resulting offspring will tend more toward trot than pace. Even young horses thus bred who demonstrate an intermediate gait early on tend to drift more toward the trot as weanlings and yearlings, becoming strongly confirmed to that gait before ever seeing a saddle.
Now, therefore, you own a horse that wants to trot, trot, trot. You know this animal has some gaited blood, and should be able to do a good saddle gait. How do you bring it out?
The first thing to do with such a horse is encourage it to relax. Don't ask it to gait at speed. A horse that is stressed will tighten up and do whatever gait is currently the easiest. So for at least one full week (sometimes much longer), simply ride the horse at various speeds at the walk while asking it to bend and give to your legs and hand. Soft and supple-as usual-are the operative words here.
Once the horse has relaxed its mind and body, and learned to trust that you aren't going to push it beyond its ability, begin to ask for more speed. Since downhill inclines encourage more lateral action, try to work the horse at slightly more speed while riding down gentle inclines. Be careful not to overdo this! You might find yourself taking a bad tumble if the horse stumbles at speed on a steep hill. If the horse breaks to a straight trot (you'll know!) bring it back to a walk. When riding uphill, never ask for more than a strong walk-or perhaps an easy, relaxed canter, if your horse is mature. Do not allow the horse to trot.
Heavier riders increase the tendency toward lateral action, so don't hesitate to use a heavy saddle, or allow a heavy rider to put some time on the horse. Weight, in this case, is a good thing! (We knew that had to be true somewhere in this world, didn't we?)
These practices alone may help you obtain an acceptable intermediate gait-most likely it will be the diagonally oriented fox trot. If that happens, then simply keep working the horse as you have been, gradually asking the horse for more speed at gait, for slightly increasing lengths of time. Remember, however, that you're asking the horse to use its body in an entirely new way, and don't expect too much, too fast. If you make the horse sore, it will be less able and willing to cooperate with future efforts.
If these simple devices don't produce an acceptable gait, then you're going to have to introduce your horse to lateral work. This teaches your horse to give you independent control of his fore and back ends. Once that kind of control is established from the saddle, when two diagonal sets of legs are working together in a hard trot, you can use your riding aids to literally 'bump' them out of synchrony. Voila'! Intermediate gait.
Lateral work trains the horse to become increasingly responsive to the rider's hand, seat and leg aids. While this work requires diligence, it needn't be complicated. The payoff is in vastly improved overall horsemanship abilities, as well as in a greatly improved riding horse. I encourage all riders to learn some of these basic techniques, and teach them to their mounts. It is literally the difference between being a mere passenger who knows only how to stay up on top of a horse and make it do some general riding chores, and a true rider who enjoys a working partnership with the animal.
Start this work by teaching your horse, from the ground, to give to pressure. You can actually begin this work even with a very young foal-but horses of any age are capable of learning these exercises. Stand at the horse's side, holding the reins (or lead rope) and use your hand or a riding crop (gently!) to push the gaited horse's haunches away from you, while keeping its front feet in place. If necessary, you can help the horse get the message by standing with its front end 'trapped' in a corner, but with room for the back end to swing around. Once he knows what you want, work him in an open area. Practice this until the horse knows exactly what's expected-it may take several short sessions. Now (assuming your gaited horse is at least green broke) repeat the lesson from the saddle.
Next, teach the horse to keep it's hind feet in place, while moving its front feet away from you when you give a slight push at the shoulder. Initially you might need to place the horse's haunches in the corner, with room for the front end to swing around, to help it understand your request. Again, once he's cooperating with you while you're on the ground, teach him how it translates under saddle.
As with all work, keep the sessions to about 15 minutes. Be excessive with praise when the horse does what you want. If you or the horse gets excited or grows impatient, move on to something easier and more fun. An excited, nervous or impatient horse is not one that's in a learning frame of mind.
Here's to a happy, comfortable horse-and a happy, comfortable rider!