Mining for Gold: Discover Your Horse's Best Natural Gait

I’m often asked if my books or video contain information about training a Missouri Fox Trotter, Tennessee Walking Horse, or other specific breed of gaited horse. My answer to this is usually qualified, because my definition of gait training has more to do with the horse’s inherent tendencies than with whatever breed association the horse may be registered with.

It’s certainly true that a horse registered with a particular gaited breed registry might be expected to naturally perform an intermediate gait (one between a trot and a pace). What most riders don’t seem to appreciate, however, is the fact that every horse is built (conformation) and wired (nervous system) differently–and this will have a greater bearing on the horse’s natural gait tendencies than any information gleaned from registration papers. While a registered racking horse may very well do a good–or at least passable–rack, it may very well be more able to comfortably perform a stepping pace or fox trot.

We’re dealing with complex genetic issues. Contrary to the opinion of some folks, you can’t simply say: “Breed a good running walk to a good running walk horse, and you’ll always get a good running walk horse.” That’s like assuming that if a great female basketball player marries a great male basketball player, all their offspring will be outstanding basketball players. Sounds good in theory, “but it just ain’t so!” The likelihood of their children being good at basketball is greatly increased over the average–but there’s always a chance that a soccer or football player–or music lover!–will crop up in the bunch

This issue gets even murkier when we consider the genetics of various gaited horses, since the gene pool of almost every breed contains a mixture of good and less desirable gait tendencies. An obvious example is the preponderance of pace blood in the Tennessee Walking Horse gene pool–but this is by no means a unique circumstance among the breeds as a whole. As long as there is a multitude of people getting involved in a breed for a variety of reasons, we’ll have great diversity among individual horses of the same breed. This diversity within a breed needs to be appreciated and celebrated, rather than denied or covered up.

I recently watched a video where a couple of fellows were showing people how to get their Tennessee Walking Horses to perform a running walk. All of the horses they used for demonstration purposes were registered TWH’s, but it was apparent that several animals didn’t perform the gait comfortably or naturally. All of them, however, did perform a comfortable intermediate gait. One horse did a fantastic natural rack, another tended to fox trot, etc. But though the gaits were comfortable, and might have been made even more so with simple riding techniques, the stated goal of the video was to get those horses to do a running walk.

Some of the horses never did a running walk at all. Nevertheless, the narrator claimed at various points in the tape that the horse was ‘getting it.’ All of the horses had their feet trimmed and shod ‘just so’ to help them ‘change their timing’ or ‘mix up their gait’ so they’d be more likely to run walk. These changes were so severe in a few instances that you could actually see how sore and stiff the horses were from being unnaturally trimmed front to back, or asked to carry so-called ‘lite shod’ or ‘plantation’ shoes–some that weighed as much as two pounds each, others with exaggerated heel caulks or straight-across toes. In one case a very nice fox-trot type mare actually squealed in discomfort. The narrator admitted this was the case, but then laughingly assured us that she would soon ‘get used’ to traveling in this new manner. Poor thing probably did, since she had no choice.

It should never be necessary to change a horse’s way of going so dramatically that it makes them physically sore to train. This is abuse. It is also self-defeating since the horse will either break down early from being forced to perform this way consistently, or will immediately revert back to a comfortable gait once the trimming, shoeing and bitting return to normal. This is why so many people buy horses that do a ‘wonderful, natural’ gait, and then the animal ‘loses’ that gait a couple of months after they bring it home. If this has happened to you, then you need to find out what your horse can do naturally, and go from there. It won’t help to try to get it to perform the way it did at first–that may never happen. It is Far better to work to improve what you’ve got, based on reasonable expectations.

So it is very important that the buyer of a gaited horse learn to recognize the various intermediate gaits. Remember? Lateral: Pace/stepping pace. Intermediate: rack/running walk. Diagonal: fox trot/trot. By becoming educated you can be sure to make an informed decision, and purchase a horse that naturally executes the breed’s preferred gait if that’s what is really important to you. You won’t be guilty of making your horse increasingly uncomfortable in order to make it perform to a certain breed standard that is artificial to your horse, but will be able to recognize your particular horse’s strengths, and work with reasonable goals and expectations.

If the show ring isn’t your thing, but you’ll be content with a reasonably smooth horse regardless of its preferred gait–then you’re almost assured of success from the start.

Here’s to 'striking gold!'

Brenda Imus