Is Your Horse's Manner of Gaiting Destroying His Body?

A while ago I was talking with a fellow who owns a gaited horse breeding and showing facility. He was telling me about a recent clinic that had been held there.

"By the end of the day we had every one of those horses gaiting," he said proudly. As we discussed this further, I realized that the primary objective of the clinic had been to get horses bitted in such a way, and then driven into those bits in such a way, that the horses all would be gaiting. This man was no doubt exceptionally well intentioned. Nevertheless, I winced inside as I imagined the all-too-common picture of these horses rushing around with their backs hollowed out, their noses either exaggeratedly tucked in, or pointed skyward, and their hocks all strung out behind..
More recently a woman at one of my clinics simply could not understand why I kept asking her to slow her horse down whenever she pushed him into gait. She believed that he was the epitome of what a gaited horse ought to be: smooth, fast, and (in her estimation) quite flashy looking. That was not what I was seeing. I was observing an animal whose back muscles were deteriorating from inappropriate tack and riding. He was stiff and over-flexed at the poll in resistance to his rider’s hands, which were connected to a tortuous bit that she absolutely swore by. I also was seeing an animal who would be a physical wreck by the time he reached his early teens unless his rider experienced a change of heart. Guaranteed. 
Another rider at a Gaits of Gold clinic had a horse whose front feet were so long that he was displaying significant lameness through the shoulders. She and her farrier had determined that the poor boy wouldn’t gait unless he was ‘properly’ trimmed and shod. She was convinced that the stilted front action contributed to the gait.
Extreme, you say?  Unfortunately, these types of problems, as well as a score of others, are very much the rule rather than the exception when it comes to gaited horses. Even some very prominent gaited horse trainers are now teaching that gaited horses should not be ridden in a collected frame. One such article in a magazine that is supposedly devoted to naturally gaited horses illustrated the proper way to ride a running walk with a photo of a ‘Big Lick’ horse. I have to believe these people simply haven’t taken time to discover that gaited horses not only can, but should, be ridden with an appropriate type and degree of collection–which is to say, energy or impulsion generated from the haunches that is transmitted up through the back, neck, and poll, and collected through the bridle. It is this proper generation and subsequent collection of energy that ensures the gait, as well as long-term soundness.
Note that I said proper collection. We’re not talking about the kind of collection that is obtained by highly trained dressage horses, here. Nor am I referring to the false collection obtained when the rider pushes the horse too severely into the bit, before its body has been conditioned to soften, round out and flex. Quite the contrary. What we are striving for is an animal that will produce a consistently fast, loose, swinging walk with plenty of impulsion from the back end. As the horse gains strength, consistency and speed at that walk, the rider begins to request more speed, and increased collection through the reins. Gradually–without the horse ever losing the overall swinging action natural to the four-beat walk–he is ridden strongly up into the bridle. Yes, strongly! A gaited horse needs to work off the bit. 
However, this degree of collection should not be attempted until the horse is well fit for saddle and bit, and is conditioned to give his entire body to his rider’s hand (you can watch my gaited horse saddle fitting and equitation video and also watch my bitting demo here . It’s not enough just to crank the horse into the bit–to do so is to invite pain, stiffness and eventual unsoundness. When the rider takes up on the reins while still requesting vigorous forward motion, there must be subtle but extraordinarily important corresponding actions throughout the horse’s body: haunches lowering, back rounding up, flexion through the neck and poll.
This sounds much more difficult than it actually is. The most important thing a rider of any kind of gaited horse can do is ride their horse at a fast, consistent and swinging walk. What I mean by swinging is that there is action through the loins, back, and neck. In fact, the head should never lose the head and neck action produced by an active walk. The second that happens–even if it seems as though the horse has kicked things up a notch right into a smooth saddle gait–you can be certain your mount has stiffened up his entire body. And why not? Once the horse has been ridden near his fastest walk speed (what I call the ‘breaking point,’) it’s much easier for him to stiffen up and churn his legs than it is to engage his entire body in the very real work of producing a faster walk in good form. Like people, horses tend to be lazy–especially when not well conditioned to a job. 
Quite honestly, these problems are usually more the rider’s failing than the horse’s. Maintaining an active walk at the breaking point can be very challenging until both horse and rider have become habituated to the practice. Because this is such hard work, it should not be attempted for longer than 10-15 minute stretches until the animal is well conditioned. Break up this work with circles, serpentines, and uncollected walking on a loose rein–but do not permit your horse to indulge in a slow, dragging walk at any time. He needs always to work off his back end. 
I’ve been accused of teaching only the running walk using this riding technique. Not true. This method of gait training will work to develop your horse’s very best innate gait regardless of what that gait may be. This is because all saddle gaits are a variation of the walk. As the animal gains condition and speed at the walk, the timing will tend to change in accord with his natural conformation and ability. When the work is done properly, it’s nearly impossible to tell when the horse has ‘shifted gears’ from fast walk to his best natural gait. (The Spanish say that a horse with such smooth gait transitions has ‘good thread.’) One of our clinic riders demonstrated this before a large group of auditors recently. It’s fair to say that everyone was amazed when it was pointed out that her fast walking horse had actually slipped into a remarkably smooth, correct fox trot. Once people have the opportunity to observe horses performing their gaits correctly, they realize that anything less is just a poor imitation of what gaited riding should be. Even fairly average looking horses are beautiful when moving with animation and good form. This particular rider received a wide round of applause–which is not uncommon! 
Beauty, however, is not the main objective of riding in good form. A stiff, undeveloped horse being improperly trained and ridden will likely suffer a number of physical as well as temperamental breakdowns. There may be soreness through the mouth, tongue, jaw, shoulders, poll, neck, back, loins, gaskin, stifle and hocks. This is NO exaggeration. He may be carrying an inordinate amount of weight on the forehand, his muscles will be undeveloped and/or developed improperly, connective tissue and joints will be inordinately strained. This is particularly true of hock and stifle joints. Not surprisingly, these latter problems are the most commonly reported unsoundness conditions among gaited horses in general. You might compare it to a worker who has lifted heavy weights all day for years on end, but never learned to do it properly: eventual physical breakdown is nearly inevitable.
The damage to such a horse’s psyche is equally bad. A very well known clinician once told me that the worst clinic he ever conducted was one he had promoted for gaited horse owners. "The horses were all ill mannered and disrespectful," he said. "They were exploding all over the place. It must be something in the breeding." I informed him that he had probably been working in an arena full of horses who had been coping with pain and discomfort most of their lives. How would he expect such animals to behave? I think it is a testament to our horses that so many of them do manage to remain kind, respectful, and docile, even under the very worst of circumstances. 
On the other hand, a gaited horse who is correctly ridden is strengthening connective tissue and generating correct muscle development. He’s learning to use his legs as a proper base of support under his and the rider’s weight. His joints are not being unduly stressed, and he is not in pain. Because he’s comfortable and able to carry weight easily, he enjoys a pleasant frame of mind. He is likely to remain sound well into his twenties.

Now doesn’t all that make you want to take your horse out for a nice, active walk?

Brenda Imus