Ten Tips for Finding and Keeping the Gait

  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!