One of the most common problems presented to me at a clinic or expo demonstration is that of a gaited horse that has little or no ‘whoa.’ There’s a good reason for this, and a simple solution.
The reason gaited horse have a common habit of rushing or barging is that they have actually been trained to do so. Traditionally it has been thought, and taught, that the only way to establish a good, fast gait is by asking the horse to move out at speed, and then throwing the animal off balance via weight shifts, raising its head, and see-sawing on the reins. Indeed, this technique will encourage the young animal to move all four legs out of synchrony, resulting in a fast, smooth gait. To some trainers’ way of thinking, an added benefit of this method is that horses as young as 18 months can be started at gait work, and it’s not uncommon for two-year-olds to be run through auctions gaiting at very fast speeds. The faster the young animal gaits (rushes), the higher the bidding is likely to go.
There are some serious pitfalls to this method of gait training. First, it requires the horse to move in a stiff, heads-up, hollow backed frame. Secondly, to stop such an animal generally requires harsh bitting, which creates a resistant attitude in the horse. Last but not least, the horse is never taught to think its way through a situation, but simply responds to the rider’s weight and aids by stiffening up and rushing forward. This rushing is reinforced by the pain caused in its body by the saddle and/or bit, as the ‘fight or flight’ instinct kicks in. While it’s certainly not logical to try to run away from pain caused by tack that is firmly strapped in place. . .a horse in pain isn’t thinking logically, but instinctually. I suppose that to the degree the response is instinctual, you might call such a gait ‘natural.’ It is certainly not safe, comfortable or functional for the poor horse!
As time goes on, the habit of rushing become firmly ingrained. A person riding such a horse usually resorts to stronger and stronger bits to bring the animal under some sort of control. The problem with this thinking is that, in order for a horse to stiffen up and resist the rider, and rush, the animal must have something to resist against. When a rider uses a harsh bit, the horse will naturally stiffen up against it to try to avoid the bit action that causes pain. When the horse stiffens and resists, the rider pulls back harder on the reins, causing the horse more pain and giving it something firm to resist against. . .and so on and so forth. Trying to gain control of a rushing horse via means of harsher bitting and stronger pulling is an exercise in futility, and creates an ongoing circle of frustration for both horse and rider. (for more on this please watch our gaited horse saddle fitting and equitation video and my bitting demonstration video).
Another common element in this scenario is that the horse in pain feels compromised and unable to care for itself, and naturally reverts to the instinctual reaction of looking to the herd–virtually any other horse within close proximity–for safety and security. The horse literally cannot bear to feel it’s being left behind by other horses on a ride, and will become frantic when it is separated from its most recent buddy.
The solution to this syndrome is simple, though it may at first seem counter-intuitive to the rider: use a milder, more tactful bit, and let go of the reins. When I first suggest this to our clients, the inevitable response is, "You gotta be kidding! If I go to a mild bit and don’t hang on to the reins real tight, this horse is gonna kill me!" Let me assure you: we haven’t lost a customer (yet. :>). In fact, we’ve found that without exception, when the rider eliminates pain, and gives the horse nothing to resist against, the animal inevitably softens up and learns to listen and respond appropriately to the rider’s aids in a remarkably short period of time. These magnificent creatures are incredibly forgiving, and most of them want to please us. . .we only need offer them the chance to do so.
The first order of business is to be safe whenever working out a problem with your horse. I suggest working in an arena, round pen, safe pasture or corral for the first lesson or two. Start by making sure your horse has a well fitted saddle and pad system that offers plenty of flexibility through the back. (Yes, back pain can and does contribute to pain and subsequent rushing, and a gaited horse must be permitted a great deal of flexibility through the back to perform the gait comfortably and functionally.) Then bit your horse in the Imus Comfort Gait Bit. (Follow link for more information. Don’t think you can use a snaffle or hackamore or other ‘humane’ tack and get the same results, as you won’t. The design of our bit assures your horse’s comfort, as well as your control. It will allow you to do the lateral flexion exercises we outline here to best effect in a very short period of time, as well as encourage him to drop his head and bend softly in response to your rein aid. These are all imperative lessons that you want your horse to learn.
Once you’re properly tacked up in a safe place, mount your horse. Ask him to move forward (chances are you won’t have to ask very hard!). Relax your seat, lengthen your legs, and let your horse move forward with no contact on the reins. Yes–your horse will rush. When he starts to pick up speed, use the rein to ask for a slower speed, and the instant your horse slows the slightest amount in response to the rein, give him his head once again. Yes, he will rush again. . .and again, you’ll need to use the rein only for slowing things down. Reward him with his head the second he responds.
This will be a discipline for you as a rider, as your instinctive response no doubt has been and is to grab those reins and pull back hard. Now your only job is to stay on top of the horse, as relaxed as possible, working with a soft give and take on the reins.
Sooner than you expect, your horse is going to slow things down to where you’ll be able to begin to teach him appropriate rein aids. You want to teach him how to drop his head and bend through his neck and body in response to the rein. A horse that is soft and supple through the body is quieter minded, and more attuned and able to respond to his rider’s aids.
Working off a long, low leading (direct) rein, begin to ask him for long turns, first in one direction and then in the other. Be sure that when you pull on one rein, you release pressure on the other so you’re not inadvertently sending conflicting signals and once again giving the horse something to resist against. Your inside rein should be brought back to your knee. . .keep it nice and low, with a straight line from your hand to the horse’s mouth. Firmly press your inside leg against the horse’s side at the girth, and bring the outside leg back to gently keep the hindquarters from swinging out. You want the horse’s entire body to bend and soften.
After the horse begins to drop his head and bend softly in response to the reins, you can shorten your reins to begin describing smaller circles and figure eights. This will encourage even more softening and bending. Ten or fifteen minutes of this work is all you should plan to do, as you’re asking for more athletic movement through the horse’s whole body than what is required by the rushing horse. You don’t want to tire, bore or frustrate the animal, but finish the lesson while you’re both feeling encouraged and refreshed.
Repeat these lessons in an open area once the horse is responding well. Shortly thereafter you may take it out on the trail. For the first ride or two I recommend riding with no more than one other horse and rider. You can ask your companion to play the leap frog game with your horse, to help get it used to going in a nice, soft responsive frame even when out on the trail with other horses who go ahead of it. You do this by asking the other rider to ride their horse far enough ahead of yours that your horse gets a bit worked up. Use the give and take technique on the reins to hold it back–but not for long. As soon as your horse gets charged up, move him toward the other horse, but do not permit him to stop once he’s caught up with it. Instead, pass the other animal and take it a ways out front. If the other horse gets worked up, so much the better–you can use this game to retrain both animals. Leap frog down the trail, extending the distance between the two horses each time. Before long you’ll be able to ride your horse either in front or in back of the other horse with ease, as he stops getting upset over the separations. A useful variation on this, especially when headed toward home, is to leap frog the lead horse backward, away from home, hold it until it gets excited, then leap the other horse back, etc.
Once your horse is working well this way with one horse, if you can introduce another one or two to the game, so much the better. After just a couple of rides you’ll have a horse that is–as one recent clinic participant described her previously barging gelding–"soft as butter."