Developing Impulsion in the Gaited Horse Part 1

The most common problem I discover when dealing with gaited horses is their lack of forward impulsion. This isn’t a horse problem so much as it is a challenge to the rider. If you want your horse to gait well, then the second thing you absolutely must do is teach it to actively move forward in a correct 4-beat walk with energy generated from the haunches.

I say this is the ‘second’ thing because. . .as most of you surely know by now. . .the first most important thing is to make sure your gaited horse’s saddle, pad and bit are well fitted for a full range of comfortable motion. Assuming this is the case, then there is absolutely no reason–nor excuse–for riding a lazy horse. While some folks will point their finger with exasperation at the animal and claim he/she simply will not move forward with energy and consistency, I have yet to find a well fitted horse who couldn’t be taught, usually in a matter of an hour or two, how to attain and maintain good forward action.

The secret here is persistence, and consistency, on the part of the rider. To begin teaching correct impulsion, ride your horse on the straight-away or on a large circle with minimal rein contact. It’s important not to take on the reins as we don’t want to send the animal conflicting cues of ‘stop’ and ‘go.’ He needs to be actively encouraged on without any restrictions of forward movement, to start.

To actively encourage the gaited horse into an energetic walk–which is where this work should always begin–first "ask" your horse to move by deepening your seat and pushing energetically into the saddle. Resist the urge to use your foot–most lazy horses have been poked and nudged so constantly by their rider’s boot that they’ve tuned it out altogether. Continually riding with your heels poked into your horse’s side also makes for very poor rider position in the saddle, which further inhibits the horse’s desire and ability to move forward.

Chances are your horse won’t respond much to your initial request, so you then heat things up a notch by repeating the request, only this time use your seat, upper leg, and a voice cue to ‘Walk!’ There’s a better than even chance that the horse will either ignore you altogether, or will pick up the pace for one or two strides, and then drop back down to a dragging walk. Please don’t get upset at the horse about this, since it was most likely you who taught the critter how to get away with such lazy behavior in the first place.

Instead of getting riled up, be prepared for the animal to behave this way–anticipate his action–and the instant there is another drop in speed give the horse a good pop with your riding crop, the ends of your reins, or use your (humane) riding spurs. When I say ‘a good pop,’ I mean a good pop. Many times riders simply substitute continual light poking with the foot with continual light tapping with a crop or the ends of their reins, with equally poor results. I’m not suggesting that you beat your horse, but do give enough of a smack to let him know you mean business–and to act as a future deterrent to lazy action. If you have trouble deciding on where the line between effectiveness ends and cruelty begins, take the crop or rein to your own leg several times. Hit yourself hard enough to cause some discomfort but no actual pain, and then use the same amount of reinforcement on your horse when needed.

On a couple of occasions I’ve helped clinic riders determine the appropriate level of firmness by using a riding crop on one of their legs. These people all agreed that it doesn’t actually hurt, but it does get their attention. I’m almost certainly the only horse clinician in the country who gets away with ‘horse whipping’ her clients–but as testament to the effectiveness of appropriate negative reinforcement, each one of these people immediately improved their horse/human communication skills!

Until the gaited horse is well conditioned to perform it’s own best 4-beat gait in good form, a correct 4-beat walk, with impulsion, is more difficult to maintain than a stiff, incorrect gait. Therefore, after the horse has picked up speed it’s likely he/she will initially stiffen up and break to trot, pace, or inappropriate gait. Use your rein to check the horse out of the wrong action, and your leg/riding aid to encourage continued active forward motion. At this point you must persistently insist on forward action. After you’ve asked twice, and insisted once. . .don’t drop back to merely ‘asking.’ Persistently use your crop or other aid to insist on continued active walking. The horse should be moving at a correct 4-beat walk as fast as possible without breaking to another gait. Every time the horse stiffens up and breaks from a loose, flowing walk, check him in the bridle and at the same time use your ("ask, Ask, INSIST") aids to demand continued active forward motion.

This maneuver will be tricky at first, and may take a session or two to perfect. Remember what it was like when you learned how to drive a standard shift car, and your timing on the gas and clutch had to be perfected? This exercise is very similar in that you are disengaging the incorrect gait, while at the same time engaging the horse’s drive train. Before long you and your horse will achieve correct synchrony, and he’ll know that when you ask for a more active walk, it doesn’t give him permission to stiffen up into an incorrect, lazy gait–and that he has no choice but to maintain active forward motion.

Plan to practice this active walking for a few days without any hindrance to forward action before moving on to the next stage of this exercise, which is capturing the energy of the horse’s forward motion through the bridle to help develop a correctly performed, smooth saddle gait.