As dressage and/or classical riding has grown in acceptance and popularity among all disciplines I have had several requests to work with gaited horses of varying breeds. Gaited riding is not my forte but I do love working with horses of all sorts and decided to undertake this new challenge. After attending several gaited riding clinics by well-renowned “natural” gaited trainers as well as engaging in some intense study regarding all the alternate gaits that man has created to ease their comfort while on horseback my journey led me back to the basics of correct movement defined by equus caballus whereby I have reached many conclusions – not the least of which is that a horse is a horse…of course!
During the evaluation process of the gaited creatures that have passed my way I quickly learned to assess their gaits based on the standard gaits of most horses – walk, trot and canter. The difference between these standard gaits and those of the gaited world comes down to timing of the footfalls – microseconds make or break the quality of these flat, fast, no bouncing gaits which opens up the (unpleasant) possibility of distortion of the gaits occurring rather often.
I have also noted that many of these stylized equines have what appears to be an inherit weakness in the hindquarters. The hind feet stay grounded longer between the protraction phase (the point at which the hind leg is most extended) and retraction phase (the limb is traveling up and forward) than those horses that naturally trot. With this grounding comes a great deal of torsion of the hocks – a troubling indicator of wear and tear to come. This timing is the complete opposite of when we ask the horse to carry and hold more weight on the hind limbs if we are asking for collection in walk, trot and canter.
Accompanying this extended grounding of the hind feet at an unnatural time for the average three-gaited horse is a rotary action of the shoulders and forelegs. Since the exchange of footfalls happens when the horse pushes forward instead of when the horse lifts up this throws the weight onto the forelegs and the horse has no choice but to quickly roll them and the shoulders out of the way. This then in turn creates a great deal of bracing in the neck.
So the challenge for me has been to create an exercise program that addresses the above concerns but still preserves the extra gaits in which these horses are bred to excel.
The lateral exercises, shoulder-in, haunches-in and half-pass create better flexion and strength in all of the joints of the hindquarters. If these exercises are done at the walk and with regard to individual need they will not interfere whatsoever with the supplemental gaits and will in fact help the horse to develop more strength through the haunches and the back. I also like the addition of a lateral position prior to each transition. This helps to allow the horse to travel into the next gait in balance, which in turn can create more relaxation in the neck – tension in the neck is common in all horses but I have seen it all the more exaggerated in the gaited animals. Whether the gaits at which your horse should perform require a convex topline (as for a running walk) or concave topline (as for a rack) a relaxed neck at the withers will help with a smoother transition and less scrambling forward. This will help prevent distortions, which, as an example, will create a pace instead of a running walk or rack.
In conclusion – good riding, regardless of discipline, requires that the human half of the equation address and form the horse correctly first as a horse and then as a mount. Lateral exercises have been around for centuries and with some modern-day science thrown in, to confirm or dispute past ideas, we can all do better for our horses than even just a few years ago. Sadly many gaited riders still engage in unethical practices and even those that abhor blatantly abusive training methods, such as soaring and throwing fire-crackers, find nothing wrong with stacked pads and heavy shoes – all of which do nothing but jazz up the ride in order to awe a human audience – this benefits no one; most particularly the mutely suffering horse that gives so much and deserves so much more.