Brenda with Moriah and Gilly camping
Written by the late Brenda Imus
I trust many of you have perceived that our primary goal in this endeavor is to equip people for working with their gaited horses in an effective and humane manner, and to encourage you to have a good time with this process. As I've become increasingly involved with the gaited horse world there have been many factors that contributed to the creation of this program, and to the expansion of my work in this field. I have been deeply, deeply gratifited to note the evolution in gaited horsemanship, and to know I have had some small role in that.
To learn how I got started on this amazing journey. . .
One of the first facts I learned as I researched the various gaited breeds for the book HEAVENLY GAITSduring 1992-1994 is that the culture of most gaited breeds is rife with horse abuse, both intentional and inadvertent. Gaited horses of all types throughout history up until the present have suffered at the hands of trainers trying to paste a certain type of unnatural saddle gait onto them–usually, but not exclusively, for the sake of the show ring. Some breeds were encouraged to move with exaggerated length or height of stride while others had their gait ludicrously shortened.
Many were cranked into tortuous bits. Burning chemicals and chains have been applied to their pasterns, ginger stuck in their anus’, heavy weights and high pads nailed to their feet, firecrackers exploded under their bellies, and fetters linked from leg to leg. Their tails have been broken or surgically altered, their feet trimmed excessively long or short-often too long and too short on a single hoof or from fore to hind. Horses have been imprisoned in small indoor stalls for years at a time, and then when allowed out were forced to walk on ball bearings, nails, and other painful devices pressed into the tender soles of their feet. All of this barely touches on the various cruelly creative methods of abuse that have been routinely inflicted on horses of all kinds, but most especially for the ‘benefit’ of enhancing the action of gaited show horses.
It was easy right from the start to recognize these practices as abusive and publicly condemn them–many wonderful people have been fighting the good fight against these forms of abuse for decades, and I heartily applaud their efforts. Frankly, I believe that as long as there are show horses, there will be show horse abuse. It’s inherent to the territory. (That is not to say all people who show horses are abusive–but there will always be those who will set artificial standards and/or go to any lengths to win. I also am not suggesting that conscientious horse people not show their sound, well gaited horses–God forbid! Who then would publicly uphold appropriate standards?)
As I became more personally involved with the various types of gaited horses, I discovered there is a more subtle brand of abuse practiced regularly even by people of good intent. People like myself. OK, even by myself. This abuse is inflicted on our accommodating, sweet natured equines in the most casual manner, while they carry our weight in discomfort or outright pain over many miles, usually with stoic tolerance. This isn’t just because they have a natural inclination toward docility–it’s also because they’ve learned to expect punishment if they complain. After all, a horse can’t turn his head back toward his rider and say, "Hey, my back is sore, my neck is cramping up, and my loins and hocks are killing me. Do something!" The only way they can express themselves is through action, or the lack thereof. When they act up in an attempt to communicate or avoid pain, we tend to attribute their behavior to bad manners, and ‘fix’ the problem by disciplining them for it. Who taught me all this? Horses, mostly.
One early example: I rode a 16.2hh Tennessee Walking Horse gelding for several years. I didn’t intend to ride him for that long. Though I loved his beauty and quirky personality, I never considered him a very safe or trustworthy mount, which placed me in a dilemma. I couldn’t very well sell such a powerful and unpredictable horse to some other unsuspecting rider, yet at his best he was a phenomenal horse. I was determined to figure out what caused his problems and retrain him before passing him on. This gelding had no shortage of problems: unexpectedly rearing, whirling, bolting, bucking, shying–you name it, and he was likely to do it. I tried to correct him using every method I could find or dream up, including changing to a newly introduced gaited horse saddle. To my chagrin, his issues became worse. Though the saddle apparently fit, his behavior worsened.
To make this long story short, the problem wasn’t just saddle fit, it was lack of saddle flexibility that made this horse miserable and difficult to ride. His long strides required freedom through the back and loins, and any saddle with a rigid tree simply didn’t permit that much flexibility, which resulted in soreness. Since I’m a rider who insists on strong forward impulsion in good form, he couldn’t take mincing little steps or stiffen up to help alleviate his discomfort. Unlike most other horses, this strong willed guy didn’t tune out or resign himself to pain, but went to increasingly stronger measures to communicate his unhappiness. This forced me into pinpointing the problem and finding a solution, which ultimately turned out to be a good thing for both of us (since I miraculously survived). He was saved an ignoble fate, and I learned a valuable lesson that became part of the foundation of the work I do.
I learned this problem wasn’t exclusive to that particular horse. Because of my books, I gained a reputation for being the ‘go to’ person for gaited horse problems. As I did my best to help people who came to me, it became increasingly evident that many of their horses shared similar problems. Invited further and further afield, I was regularly confronted with animals who simply could not make substantial progress until they were made more comfortable in both bit and saddle. I was amazed, once I became sensitive to the issue, at how many horses were in distress. Most of my riders rode stock saddles. These not only do not allow flexibility through the back, but the trees are designed for a much different type of animal, which dramatically affects the fit. (Imagine going on a long hike with a heavy backpack wearing ill-fitting wooden shoes.) Some rode english saddles, with too forward a seat for gaited equitation (the back pack is sitting in the wrong spot). Still others rode in ‘trooper saddles,’ many of which might well be renamed ‘torture saddles.’
Saddles weren’t the only problem. We also came across the usual gamut of traditional gaited horse bits. Regardless of the breed tradition, I discovered that the most commonly used bit was bound to be the most severe. People who tried to get away from these often were riding in stock horse type bits they had been assured were mild, but which in fact were holding their horse’s jaws in a virtual nutcracker grip (Tom Thumbs being one such offender). A few people–bless their hearts!–resorted to simple little snaffles or curbs, or to hackamores or bitless bridles of one sort or another. While these offered a higher degree of comfort for the horse, they didn’t enhance the horse’s ability to perform a smooth saddle gait in good form.
Ah yes. . .good form. Herein lay another great challenge. Traditionally (there’s that word again), it’s been an accepted gaited horse trainers’ concept that horses can’t gait when ridden in a collected frame. Poppycock! I’ve worked with every kind of gaited horse you can imagine, and never found a single one who couldn’t learn to gait well with an appropriate degree of collection. By collection, I’m not suggesting that a horse should be able to perform a piaffe or any other high level dressage movement in gait. A horse that is properly collected, or engaged, is simply one that possesses well balanced movement with impulsion generated from the hindquarters being transmitted through its entire body to the bridle, and thence to the rider’s hand.
What is true is that it is easier and faster to produce a smooth saddle gait by encouraging the horse to hollow out its back and move with its head up in the air, or stiffened into a false headset. In such a form it is easy for the rider to throw the horse slightly off balance so that the timing of a two beat gait becomes unsynchronized–voila! You now have a 4-beat gait. What’s more, the horse doesn’t have to condition and use his entire body correctly in order to perform his gait in this manner, so results are attained in a relatively short time with very little real sweat. A professional trainer’s dream.
This method, however, is based on riding in very bad form–and bad form is bad form, regardless of the animal. You can’t break fundamental concepts of physiology and not pay a price for doing so. Can a person who performs repetitious lifting for a living expect to do so in bad form and get away with it indefinitely? No–sooner or later such a person’s body will break down. The same is true of horses. Riding any kind of horse in bad form results in physical problems over the long run–most commonly problems along the spinal column, hocks, and/or stifles. It is not therefore coincidental that gaited horses have a reputation for suffering from unsoundness in these areas.
Common gait training methods, while expedient for us and easier for (not on) horses, have been abusive to their bodies. I am distressed whenever I learn of yet another gaited horse trainer or clinician who is still passing on these fallacious training concepts as acceptable practice, to which I can only say, "Shame on you!" Our horses are not exempt from the standard conventions of good horsemanship just because they perform intermediate saddle gaits.
OK. So my assistants and I start carrying several different types of saddles, saddle pads, and bits to clinics. Most of the time we’re able to find some combination of tack that alleviates the horse’s distress so we can start gait work, but it’s a real hit and miss project. It’s finally dawning on me that even the best of these saddles are not working well for the majority of these horses. I’m also realizing that what is needed is simple, and obvious: a saddle that evenly distributes the rider’s weight, that is designed to fit a gaited animal’s unique conformation, and that permits flexibility across the loins and back.
I had one problem that took some time to figure out. I knew that saddles already on the market with flexible tree bars sometimes collapsed on the horse's back, under the rider's weight. A solution arose in the form of a type of "suspension bridge" running across one tree bar, and strategically attached to the other side. This modification required some other slight modifications - all leading to a true, state of the art new saddle.
Some saddles we tried did give an acceptable fit, but design and positioning hindered the horse's movement. With the right kind of saddle pad I knew we’d be able to save some horses some misery - and their owners a lot of money. This was before I realized that the features that were lacking in most saddles could not simply be accommodated without compromising the horse, and that in the end, buying a truly functional, well-fitted saddle was the best way for a horse owner to save money in the long run.
I now understood exactly what kind of bits worked best. All I needed to do was hunt around to find bits that would fill the bill. With tens of thousands of equestrian products on the market, this should be simple, yes?
No. Not simple. I scoured horse expos, tack shops and trade shows, collected every equestrian catalog known to man, and bought more products to try out than anyone ought to purchase in a lifetime. I tried products on my horses and those of my friends’ and acquaintances, and then toted the most promising of the lot to clinics where we could test them on a wide variety of animals. I found only a very few items that help to produce the comfortable, fluid gait action that is always my goal. In most cases, I’ve had to go to the drawing board and design tack that meets my criterion for ‘humane, and effective.’
In spite of my best efforts–and though it didn’t seem like a very tall order–I never found an existing brand or type of saddle that worked well on a majority of gaited horses. While one or two saddles did come close in fit for many horses, they lacked the prerequisite flexibility, or the suspension to accommodate that flexibility, that is so important.
Representatives from more than one saddle company wanted to work with me. Unfortunately, they weren’t interested in designing a saddle for the gaited horse, and then marketing that saddle. They wanted me to endorse saddles built to fit stock horses to my gaited horse clientele. Problem was, I already knew these saddles didn’t work. No one wanted to first design and build an appropriate gaited horse saddle before offering it to the gaited horse market. I wish more of these folks were as serious about the comfort of the horse as they are about the size of their bottom line. I did sign on to work with one saddle company for a season. . .but problems with that saddle concept became apparent over time, so I drew back from this well-meaning company as well.
After studying saddle design, fit and action for so long, I realized the only way I would get a gaited horse saddle to work the way I knew it should would be to design one myself. So that’s what I’ve done. I contacted a highly reputable saddle tree maker, and found a local young Amish saddle maker who is nothing short of fabulous. He built some early prototypes for me with the special tree and materials I provided. Together we've worked at improving the design until it met–and in some ways exceeded–all of my criterion for a gaited horse saddle.
To meet the needs of even more horses, I started producing the Imus 4-Beat saddle on both a standard and a wide flexible tree. This was no small feat for a true "on a shoestring" new business!
These are the kinds of products I've created, and intend to create more of in the future. Though my product line will grow, it will always consist of items that have been thoroughly tested and approved on a wide variety of horses, and that meets my approval.
Please understand one thing: I am not in the business of selling saddles and tack. Rather, I feel I've been given the gift of seeing, and understanding, horses. With that comes the responsibility - calling, if you will - of sharing what I have been given, for helping to improve relationship and communication between horses, and their riders.
Our mom Brenda Imus passed away in March of 2013. She was and continues to be our inspiration. We would have never endeavored to do this had it not been for our unwaivering belief in her philosophies and the products she developed to fix some of the 'unfixables'. She was and is amazing and I wish all of you reading this would have had a chance to meet her if you hadn't already. She's still with us and teaching us♥
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