For the past couple of years there has been a growing controversy in the gaited horse world regarding the right way to train and ride a gaited horse. In one camp are trainers who insist that gaited horses can’t be trained to gait in a collected frame. These people believe the horse will lose its gait if it is not permitted to go with either an introverted–or at best, level–topline. In the other camp are a few who believe that gaited horses not only can, but should, be taught how to travel in a well-balanced, collected frame. I take the second view.
Collection involves riding with impulsion from the horse’s loins which travels through its ‘transmission’ system (back/shoulders/neck/poll), to the bridle–where it is ‘collected into,’ and controlled by, the rider’s hand. A horse that is ridden in true collection has good engagement of its hocks and loins, has a slight lifting through its back, is relaxed and rounded through the neck and poll, and carries itself and the rider in a well balanced form.
This is the ideal way to train all riding horses, though it is certainly not feasible to ride all horses in this frame at all times. A horse cannot be truly collected, for example, when it is being ridden at a fast speed: galloping, fast trotting, or fast gaiting. In these situations, the horse needs to be able to extend its body; of course it’s physically impossible to extend and collect at the same time. I don’t advocate riding with collection at all times–it’s good practice to regularly allow a horse to stretch out and relax. It’s also not reasonable to expect most riders to attain a high degree of collection in their everyday riding mounts–nor should that be the goal. Horses that are too rigidly collected on the rein tend to be stiff and uncomfortable.
It is both reasonable and feasible, however, to teach our horses to travel with a moderate degree of true collection. Doing so helps make them light and responsive to our aids. Even more importantly, it properly develops and strengthens their muscles, and encourages them to carry weight over a strong, well-balanced foundation. This prevents soundness problems that typically occur as a result of any part of the horse’s body carrying an inordinate percentage of the horse/rider weight load at certain weak points in their stride. For example, a horse doing a straight pace is not going to pick up its hind foot until it is stretched out far behind its body, resulting in that leg carrying too much weight for too long a period during each stride. Over time the structure is vulnerable to breakdown.
Let’s discuss what factors likely led to the view that gaited horses can’t be collected and perform a true intermediate gait. First of all this is simply the ‘traditional’ training view. Like any kind of truism it is passed down as fact from generation to generation, with few people stopping to consider whether it is actually the best way to train a horse, or to seriously explore alternative views and methods.
Secondly, it’s easy to throw an unbalanced horse slightly more out of balance and therefore out of 2-beat synchrony, into a rudimentary 4-beat gait. I’ve done this a number of times, just to get a young horse in the habit of moving its legs in a more complex 4-beat rhythm. However, once they’ve learned this basic lesson ("See, you can do this. . ."), it’s necessary to take them back a square or two, and start teaching them how to do the 4-beat gait with correct rhythm and in good form.
Understandably, this last point is where many trainers balk: it can take one or two full seasons to teach a horse to gait in correct form. While this is certainly better for the horse, the gait alone can be developed faster without painstakingly developing the horse’s overall structure and balance–"push with the seat, pull with the hands, and keep those legs churning." If everyone realized that merely riding their naturally gaited horse for several months in good form, with impulsion, at increasing speeds of the walk, with an increasing degree of collection, was actually the best way to get it well trained to gait. . .well, it might not bode well for professional gaited horse trainers.
In all fairness, though, there’s another reason why it may seem impossible to get a horse to gait well in a good, collected frame: a poor fitting and/or rigid treed saddle. I’ve written many times about how a gaited horse needs to be able to move the muscles all along its topline in order to gait properly. With a gaited horse, the action isn’t up and down (as with the trot), or back and forth (as with the pace). Rather, the energy from the legs is ideally transferred up through, and absorbed by, the muscles of the loins, back, shoulders, and neck. This unique action requires a tremendous degree of freedom through those areas–freedom that is prohibited by saddles with rigid trees (you can watch my saddle fitting videos here). The weight of the rider on a rigid treed saddle has the effect of a tight splint, literally severing the action of the energy from the loins so that it cannot be properly transmitted through the back and shoulders. I have seen far too many gaited horses with backs so deteriorated that there is no suppleness–very little life–left in them. The back muscles on such an animal are like cardboard. Sadly, this is considered normal.
One thing that virtually all gaited horse trainers do agree on is that the horse must work with impulsion from the hindquarters, and also be gathered up in the bridle. Now think about this for a minute, if you will: if the horse is being stimulated to move with strong impulsion from behind, and then has that energy restricted in front, its body is literally being pushed into a shortened, or condensed, frame. Imagine a straight, stiff, but springy piece of metal wire. If you hold one end in each hand, and push your hands toward one another, the center part of the metal raises, or lowers. It’s the same principle with the horse. Ideally the horse will be taught and conditioned to slightly raise its back in response to the rider’s aids. However, when that action causes discomfort or pain, then the horse’s natural response is to lower the back, to get those vulnerable muscles away from the discomfort caused by the weight of the rider sitting in the middle of that rigid saddle tree.
I believe a combination of these dynamics have caused even very well meaning trainers to come to the erroneous conclusion that gaited horses need to be ridden with a ventroflexed topline. They start by throwing the horse off balance to break up the synchrony of a two beat gait. When they push the horse with their seat and legs for impulsion, and take up on the reins for collection, the horse falls back into a trot or pace. This is because neither 2-beat gait requires much action through the muscles of the back, and therefore do not cause discomfort when the horse raises its back. However, when the trainer permits the horse to lower its back in response to the riding aids, it suddenly gets its 4-beat gait back. The natural conclusion: horses can’t gait in true, collected form.
I was fortunate not to have been exposed to this principle early on. I assumed that good horsemanship was good horsemanship (it is), and that it was my responsibility to encourage a horse to move in good form regardless of the gait. When horses I rode wouldn’t collect up or move properly, I was forced to analyze each situation carefully to try and discern what the problem might be. How many times in those early years I wished to have an experienced gaited horse trainer nearby to tell me what to do! How glad I now am that no such person was available! I had to learn through the process of careful observation and analysis, combined with trial and error (and no small measure of God’s grace). What I discovered is that in order to gait in proper form, most gaited horses require saddles that permit freedom of action through the muscles of the back, and well designed bits that encourage them to willingly give the energy being transmitted through their body, into their rider’s hand. Ah, joy!
I wish you many happy and smooth trails!