Coaching Gait – by Mel Frandsen

Michael Jordan and Karl Malone were not born, nor did they arrive at age 22, as the best basketball players I the world. They were born with potential to be, but needed work and lots of coaching. People have the ability to reason as to how to improve their abilities. Horses don’t have that ability, so we must be their coaches. The gait of any genetically gaited horse can really be enhanced with “coaching”.

I use the word “coaching” rather than “training” to differentiate “coaching” as with enhancing, from “training” as with inducing. An animal without genetics for gait cannot be trained to gait, unless various mechanical and manipulative means (some of which are very ugly) are employed. Obviously an animal with a trained or man made gait does not belong in a gaited horse breeding program. I should say that my experience with gaited horses is pretty much limited to the Morgan breed so my thoughts apply to the Morgan.

Some gaited breeds have been “fixing” gait in their breed for many, many generations. Ie., the Paso Fino and Peruvian Paso, Walking Horse, Fox Trotters, etc., to the extent their gait is very much predictable and quite consistent. The gait we find in our Morgans can vary quite a bit. It can vary from straight 4 beat, to stepping pace, to foxtrot and a dozen variations in between. Each little variation has it’s own rhythm, it’s own speed range, and it’s own comfort.

I think the Morgan Single Footing Horse will remain pretty much as it is now found, that is with many gaits within each genetically gaited horse. I am currently “breaking” as we call it here, six two year olds who are all sired by the same gaited stallion, they are all out of gaited mares who are half sisters, but really because of line breeding, they are generally closer than 3/4 identical blood. These six animals are each a little different in their gaiting tendencies. Each one will gait at halter and when running loose. I should add here that many well-gaited horses may not show gait at halter or in the pasture, or even under saddle until they’ve been ridden for some time, maybe up to a year, and have had the gait “coached” into them. It is probable that if they eventually gait, that they have a naturally fast walk that was apparent before the gait showed up. You will not get a well-gaited horse that doesn’t have a good fast walk.

The gait in a horse should be looked at as you would any other horse discipline. A western pleasure horse for instance, takes a great deal of work and training to perfect it’s way of going. It needs to learn how to canter slowly and evenly, although it always knew how to canter. It needs to learn to jog slowly and evenly, although it always knew how to trot, and so on. Likewise, a gaited horse needs to learn (and be coached) as to what gait-rhythm, and speeds you want from it. There are some things you can do to enhance the gait to give both the horse and rider a sense of accomplishment. If the youngster doesn’t show gait at the start, we can still go about the training routine of reining, bitting, walking, trotting, cantering, stopping, turning, backing, and getting used to people, things, trails, roads, etc., etc. We need to really concentrate on teaching it to walk, and walk faster and faster without breaking into a trot. When we really get the walk fixed, we need to keep pushing for speed to develop gait.

When pushing for walking speed or gait, we need the horse’s head up a little and slightly into the bit, as opposed to a low, relaxed head set with a sloppy loose reign. We need to work on keeping the hands and fingers “in touch” with the mouth through the feel of the reins. Each time the horse lifts up a front foot we should be able to feel it through the reins. As the front foot begins to lift, the head will begin to lift up; this is the instant we should pick up the head with the reins.

As the head lifts up it helps the front leg to propel forward; if we can help the horse lift up his head, it will help lengthen his stride. As the horse begins to lower it’s foot then lighten the rein to allow it’s foot to hit the ground as it’s head is nodding down. The head is nodding up and down with each step…As the one front foot touches the ground, the other front foot will begin to lift off, and the head will begin to lift up, or begin the nodding cycle again. Nodding helps the horse to take longer strides. Gait lovers like to see nod.

Now at the same time this is going on with our hands, we can be synchronizing the rocking motion of our seat with the stepping rhythm of the horse’s legs and feet, and the swinging of his body. This helps keep the horse in a 4 beat rhythm. While this is going on we need to be pushing the horse slightly into the bit with our legs. Now we are really controlling, or influencing the rhythm, stride and speed of the walk. We are increasing the length of stride by assisting the nod, we are in rhythm with our seat, and we are pushing the horse slightly into the bit at the same time. We are transmitting our 4 beat feeling to the horse. I’m going to call this coordination and feeling between horse and rider “syncopation”. If you have ever been “in sync” with your horse, you’ve experienced a great feeling, and you know what I mean. You will enjoy it, your horse will enjoy it, and you’ll both become one syncopated movement. A horse can get pretty sloppy and revert backwards if we let it, if we are just a passenger along for the ride.

Some horses, no matter how much of this coaching we do, will never gait. If we don’t get gait-we don’t get gait– but let’s never give up trying to improve the walk if nothing else. All of the things we’ve been doing to get the gait to show up will be used in coaching and improving the gait. There are probably 2 things we want to do to enhance the gait (1) develop and maintain an even 4 beat gait and (2) get as much speed as possible. The most absolutely even four beat gait is the easiest and most desirable ride. It is the gait we should breed for, and it is the gait we should coach for. As we said earlier, there are a whole multitude of little variations within the gait, many are indefinable, but can be felt and heard and recognized by the rider. Eldon Eadie has described 9 types of gait evolving from the genes of pace, trot, and speed. All gaited horses will have a combination of some of these genes. A strong speed or modifying gene is necessary to develop a good strong or fast gait. For our purposes, strong gait means a speedy gait and gait means 4 beat.

People often confuse pace with gait. Be careful breeding pacey to pacey, unless the speed genes are so strong as to overcome the pace. If your horse drifts toward pace, check it back to the most comfortable ride and hold it there. Don’t let the horse drift into a loose sloppy reined pace. A pacey horse will drift toward pace more on hard ground (concrete being the worst). Rough ground is best for squaring up and trotting is good. Going uphill is good. DON’T LET THE HORSE DEVELOP PACE OR DRIFT INTO IT. You may have trouble backing and cantering a pacey horse. You can’t change the genes, but you can really affect the way of going to make a better ride with a more square gait.

If your horse tends to drift towards trot when you push him for speed, you need to check him back to a good square 4 beat. Then proceed with the hands, seat, leg rhythm, to max his speed at the four beat. The same procedure we’ve talked about applies here; i.e., hands in touch with the mouth to assist the nod, use body and seat to accentuate the 4 beat rhythm, and crowd the horse slightly into the bit, again…no loose sloppy rein. Don’t allow the horse to jog or trot. A trotty horse usually will keep to an even 4 beat gait quite well on solid to hard ground, and will do well going down hill, but again you are there to coach him into an even 4 beat gait with as much speed as you can push him to.

A thought or two on cantering the gaited horse: Naturally we want our hors to be as versatile as possible. If we are doing ranch work, the horse needs to be able to canter at either lead, and needs to have a good flat walk to allow quick lateral movement. The horse can’t move sharply to the right at a canter or gallop unless it is on the right (hand) lead. If he is on the left lead when you turn right, he must be able to change to the right lead (flying change) as he turns. Same situation in reverse for a left turn. When at a walk, running walk, or single foot, the horse must be checked to a flat walk and take a short step to make a sharp turn to the right or left. When you are training your horse to rein and turn, do it from a flat unextended walk, or you’ll need a big arena to make the turn. Do most of your training without speed as far as reining is concerned. Many of the gaited horses will require more work for cantering than the non-gaited horses. I think a lot of gaited horses go through life without ever cantering from both leads. If you have a strong gaited horse, he will gait at a good speed right up to the canter. Just before he breaks into the canter, you will feel him leading with a right or left lead while still in gait. Horses, like humans, are either right or left handed or sided. Most humans are right handed and most horses that I’m acquainted with are left-sided. So as your strong gaited horse begins to break into a canter, he will be preparing to go into a left lead canter (if he is left handed), or vise versa. You need to work the horse both directions of the arena and develop both a right and left lead, i.e., clockwise help you coach him into a right lead and counter clockwise helps with the left lead.

I think I’m going to kill this whole thing with too much detail. Let me just reiterate once more what we can do to help with the gait.

1. Pick up the horse’s head with a light rein. Enhance the horse’s nod with slight uplift of the horse’s mouth as he strides forward with each front foot, release the pressure on the mouth as he places each foot on the ground and pick it up when the next foot is picked up. Your fingers will be flexing up and down with each front footstep
2. At the same time keep the horse slightly into the bit with your legs.
3. Your body rhythm (seat) should be in synch with your horse’s stride, in fact maybe just slightly ahead of his stride, to encourage him to speed up. Likewise, the nod assisting with your hands and fingers should also be slightly ahead of the horse’s stride to encourage more speed. If you and your horse are really syncopated, you are enjoying it and so is he.

Now you’re ready to sing the old cowboy song “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.” Part of the lyrics go like this. “He always sings raggedy music to his cattle as he swings back and forward in his saddle; on a horse, a pretty good horse, syncopated, gaited, and with such a fundameter to the roar of his repeater how they run.” sound like Ragtime Cowboy Joe had a gaited horse he was in synch with doesn’t it? I wonder if it was a Morgan. Speaking of music and song, here’s a thought…a canter is in 3 quarter time, the trot and pace are in 2 quarter time, and the walk, running walk, and single foot are in 4 quarter time and you…are the conductor!

Happy trails in 4/4 time!!