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how to ride your gaited horse

  • (Excerpted from The Gaited Horse Bible by Brenda Imus)

    Traditionally, gaited-horse riders have been taught to sit back toward the loins to encourage the gaits. This helped (according to the theories of the day) to free up the horse’s shoulders and lighten his front end, and thus encourage the gait. For this reason, photos of gaited horses often show people riding in very poor form: buttocks pushed against the cantle, shoulders slouched, toes pointed straight down, and hands either placed too far forward, or tucked up under their chest. (I call this the “turtle position”.) When riding this way, the rider’s weight is situated too far back, interfering with the wave-like action of the gaited horse’s back muscles.

    In contrast, there are riding instructors who insist the “correct” form of the seat is when a rider’s ears, spine, hip and heels are in perfect alignment, whether riding English or Western. While this might make sense for people who need their feet directly beneath them for posting the trot or standing in the stirrups over a jump, in my opinion—and experience—it is not the best profile for riding a gaited horse. This rigid position throws the rider’s weight and center of gravity forward, which is only required when the rider needs to compensate for being seated behind the horse’s true center of gravity. The majority of saddles on the market are designed to place the rider in the “correct” seat, with stirrup placement that virtually forces the rider’s leg into an unnatural position directly beneath her.


    Bareback Seat

    I have asked students who enjoy riding bareback to demonstrate various types of equitation without a saddle in order to better understand which riding position is best for riding gaited horses. Believe me, when a saddle is no longer there to help a rider balance, you can be sure she is seated in the ideal riding position—otherwise she’ll fall off!

    Consequently, it is apparent to me the best possible seat position is identical to the one taken by naturally talented bareback riders who position themselves immediately behind the withers, over the horse’s true center of gravity. Their legs tend to drift slightly forward and their upper body may—or may not—lean slightly back. What I’ve observed is that the upper body position largely depends on the individual’s center of gravity. A person with a long waist tends to position her upper body slightly behind her seat, while one with a short waist and upper body rides more vertically.

    Saddle Position

    The majority of saddles on the market are designed to be placed so the front edge of the saddle tree bars rest—or press—in the groove just behind either side of the withers at the top edge of the horse’s scapula (where horses often develop white hairs). This positioning places riders 3 to 4 inches further back than they would sit when riding bareback. It forces the bulk of their weight onto the horse’s back just in front of the Lumbrosacral area of the spine—the weakest point of the horse’s back. Weight placed here significantly interferes with the rolling, back-to-front motion of the gaited horse’s topline, causing the horse to flatten out and stiffen up when the motion meets the resistance of the rider’s weight on the rear portion of the saddle tree bars.

    When a rider is positioned more forward, in the natural bareback riding position, her weight does not interfere with the natural action of the topline, nor does it press into the most vulnerable point on the back. Positioned over the horse’s true center of gravity, the rider feels a good deal more “with” her horse’s motion, more secure, and able to respond promptly to the horse’s actions. She also won’t experience the feeling of a “camel walk” so severely—she is over the “hinge” part of the horse’s topline where there is the least amount of motion, as opposed to closer to where the action of the hind legs transfers up through to the loins and back.  (Some very long-strided horses with long backs have a very uncomfortable dog walk, which is called a “camel walk”. There’s an exaggerated rolling action through the horse’s back that be very hard on the rider’s hips and back.)

    When a saddle enables riders to position their leg in this more natural position, it relieves stress on hips, knees and ankles, thus promoting rider relaxation. As horses tend to “mirror” their riders, this leads to a more relaxed and responsive mount.

    For all these reasons, I highly recommend a riding seat identical to a bareback rider’s—that is, seated immediately behind the withers and shoulders, with the legs slightly forward, the feet level, and the upper body assuming a natural position on the rider’s individual structure.

    To watch the video explanation of the Imus 4-Beat® Tree CLICK HERE





    bareback riding equitation

    bareback riding position






  • A big topic of discussion is the best gaited horse saddle and tack for your gaited horse. Brenda Imus advocated for the sound training and riding techniques of the gaited horse. She developed a gaited saddle that has unique features that allows horses to move with complete freedom of movement, which is the cornerstone of developing an evenly timed 4-beat gait in good form. Gaited horses require an unusual degree of freedom of movement from back to front through their back, neck and poll. This presents a variety of challenges when fitting a gaited horse. In this saddle fitting video, Brenda Imus discusses gaited horse saddle fitting,  conformation, different types of saddle trees, and how equitation affects your horse's movement. Discusses features of the Imus 4-Beat Gaited ® Saddle. (22 minutes)



    gaited horse saddle fitting video

    1.  Don’t expect your young, or new, horse to gait very well right “out of the box.” Young horses need time–often a full season or two–to correctly develop the necessary coordination, muscles and neurological memory to be able to obtain and maintain a consistently good quality 4-beat gait. The same thing is true of a newly purchased horse. Many gaited horses have been rushed through training. This results in stiff, poorly gaited animals that need to be brought back to basic work under saddle. That’s your job. If you take the time to do it right, it will pay rich rewards for many years to come.
    2. Don’t neglect the basics. (Ground work, line driving, stopping, bending, etc.) A gaited horse is still a horse, and needs to know much more than how to cover ground in a fast, smooth manner. A horse that can gait super fast becomes downright dangerous if he gets so undisciplined that he won’t respond to your turn, slow down and halt aids equally as fast. Give your horse a few months’ of basic training before even thinking about the gait.
    3. Consistently ride your horse right up to–but not beyond–the point where he wants to break to trot, pace, or gait. I call this the ‘breaking point.’ As you practice this technique, make transitions between an active, swinging free walk and an increasingly collected fast walk. This is called walking your horse into gait, and is the single most important riding technique one can use. Over time your horse will be able to increase speed and his ability to flex and stretch, until one day his collected walk is so fast that he’s actually performing his best natural gait, in the best possible form. It’s really that simple, but does take time.
    4.  Make certain the saddle fits, not just when the horse is standing still, but also as it moves. When gaiting, each one of your horse’s legs needs to move independently of every other leg. This requires tremendous coordination and a high degree of suppleness through the body. The muscles of loins, back, and shoulders in particular need to be able to stretch and flex freely. Often a more flexible, well-fitted saddle can dramatically improve a horse that’s not gaiting properly. For more info on this subject, check out my Gaited Horse Saddle Fitting and Equitation Video Here.
    5. Learn the basic mechanics of how bits work (you can watch my video here) then choose one that is humane, effective, and fits your particular horse’s needs, like our 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit. Stay away from severe gaited horse bits. I also discourage the use of so-called ‘Tom Thumbs,’ or any other kind of bit that incorporates both a broken mouthpiece and a shank. These bits teach a horse to get up behind the bit to avoid the nutcracker effect of the broken mouthpiece compounded by the pressure of the shanks. Choose a curb bit that permits your horse to relax and enjoy the feel of your hands through the reins and bit.
    6. Learn & practice gaited horse equitation, as the way you balance yourself will greatly enhance, or hinder, the gait. The typical stock seat position, whereby the rider sits up on his/her crotch, generally places the rider too far forward to encourage gait. In essence, sit a gaited horse with your butt slightly tucked, shoulders open, elbows in, and feet slightly (and I do mean slightly) ahead of the vertical. Your toes should still not be pointing down, nor should they be pointed at the sky. Your foot should be almost level with the ground, with the toes pointing slightly up. Practice to see what works best with your horse, as they–and we–are all different.
    7. Work your horse at the walk, walk, and more walk. All of the intermediate saddle gaits are faster variations of the walk. Therefore, energetic walking helps develop all the necessary muscles needed for a four beat gait. It also helps to program your horse’s neurological memory to get him set, or established, in gait.
    8. About the trot and canter: Do not allow your horse to trot until the gait is well established. Simply check him back into the bridle slightly, and ride at the breaking point. A horse that is pacey may be encouraged to canter, as it helps teach him how to break up the extremely lateral action of the pace. A trotty horse, however, is likely to try to shortcut the very hard work of gaiting by leaping into a canter lead every time you ask for an upward transition. Therefore it is usually advisable not to canter such a horse until the gait is firmly established.
    9. Use deep going ground, and hills, to your advantage. Riding through sand, freshly plowed fields, etc., is a great way to teach the horse how to move with impulsion from the hindquarters. Hill work speeds up correct muscle development, as well as improves hindquarter impulsion. A pacey horse can be worked strongly uphill, as that encourages diagonal action. A trotty horse should be encouraged toward more speed when going downhill, as that encourages lateral action. (Always be careful not to speed up so much when going downhill that your horse loses its balance.)
    10. Don’t look for any ‘magic bullets.’ The only secret ingredient to developing a gaited horse is good basic horsemanship combined with many hours in the saddle. Too often riders run from one ‘horse guru’ to another looking for some magic formula that will cause their horse to suddenly become the magnificently gaited steed they envision. What usually happens is that the rider switches tack and alters riding techniques on a too-frequent basis. This causes confusion for the horse, and increasing frustration for the rider. Relax, enjoy the horse, practice these simple tips. . .and in due time, you’ll have the best gaited horse on the block!

    For more free gait training articles and videos please visit our Gait Training Library!



    Also from Brenda Imus:

    The Gaited Horse Bible:  Year-by-year basic training—from yielding in-hand to obtaining a correct flat walk under saddle—and advanced schooling—including flexion, collection, and lateral work to improve natural gaiting ability—is broken down into useful instruction that anyone can put into practice.