The Middle Path: Why Gaits Matter

Let’s say you like to jump and so does your Arabian. Let’s say you do endurance on an Appaloosa. Let’s say you have an expensive, impeccably bred performance horse and you actually use him for the very thing he was bred to do. Or let’s say you trail ride your rescue horse. It’s all the same.

So, let’s say you have a horse who you love. He’s kind and tries hard. And you always want to do your best. A foundation of dressage would be a real blessing.

Relax. I’m not suggesting that you crank a noseband and then pull on his face; you won’t find that written in dressage literature anywhere, even in the small print. You don’t have to wear ridiculous white breeches but a helmet would be nice. Just asking that you look past the worst manifestations (after complaining to the ruling boards at least as much as your friends on Facebook) and consider the training fundamentals as a way to help your horse and support his longevity.

Your horse’s gaits matter. When I was a fresh baby dressage queen, I hated hearing that. I didn’t have spectacularly athletic horses. I didn’t want to talk about gaits because watching my horses run at liberty in the pasture, I knew they were not impossibly beautiful to anyone but me. I knew how world-class horses moved and mine, well, humble versions at best.

It was obvious to me that I loved the horses I had. I knew we were never going to be in the Olympics but being reminded of our less-than-elite movement made me sulky and defensive. I was missing the point of considering my horse’s gaits.

Let’s all start at the exact same place. Horses are born with gaits. They are wobbly at first. Sometimes they go more upward than forward, sometimes they fall on their faces. In a few days, they find a rhythm moving next to their mothers and not long after that, they have the joy of running circles around their mothers.

In the perfect world, young horses play in pastures until they are four years old or longer, with short stints of learning ground manners and trailer loading before they are started under saddle. They have uneven growth spurts, developing muscles, and search to find balance in their own bodies. Horses live in the moment; they feel the world as it relates to their bodies, so this foundation of balance is very important to their confidence. (Here is where riders committed to their “ordinary” horses should start to think about gaits.)

Hard news: Horses were never designed to be ridden. Humans asked them to be beasts of burden, and most agree to do it. Horses are social animals; perhaps they are drawn/adapt positively to relationship. At some point, we begin to take the question of their balance for granted but the horse never does. That shows visibly in their gaits.

This is all further complicated by breed, age, and riding disciplines designed by humans. So yes, draft horses can gallop quickly but still couldn’t win the Kentucky Derby. Piaffe and passage are advanced dressage movements but any horse can do an untrained, un-cued, and stressed out version of these movements when they get excited; we call it jigging.

So, what is good movement for a horse? Making a study of biomechanics is a good start. As usual, there is no shortage of opinion and science, and then even more opinion. After that our own eyes trick us, people seem to define words differently, and then make things up to suit themselves anyway.

Riding behind the vertical is wrong according to rules and science, but it’s common and horses suffer for it. Other riders ride with long reins, thinking it’s kind but end up over-correcting and causing more balance trouble than they know.

Start here: All horses should be relaxed and forward in their gaits. Most importantly, neither of those may be lost or substituted for the other. They must be balanced with each other.

Horses should be covering ground freely, with an energetic impulsion and supple fluidity. The physical reason is balance. It’s your horse’s comfortable place and going too slow is challenging. Think wobbly bicycle. Think walking on a tightrope. We need to consider the emotional result as well. A horse lacking forward movement falls into a loss of confidence or enough mental confusion to make movement lose rhythm and balance.

Equally important is relaxation. It’s a peaceful mind, free of the crippling effects of resistance and tension. Physically, the most obvious sign is always a horse’s poll. There is a natural movement in the head that is the result of the spine’s movement at any gait and if that joint is hindered or stopped, there is tension in his body. Think of wearing a neck brace. Think of running forward with lockjaw. The emotional result of tension is fear and doubt. Again, a loss of confidence.

Some horses rebel and act out as a release of tension and even sadder, some shut down and fall into despair. Yes, some horses get depressed. Your horse’s gaits matter because his movement defines his balance and his physical expression is akin to his mental health. His mind cannot be separated from his body; it’s only humans that do that.

Here we are again, naming what’s wrong. It’s the easiest thing in the world to complain and name-call. If you want to know about your horse’s real gait– the movement you must aspire to in the saddle– watch him at play in the pasture. That is the true definition of liberty. It isn’t forced unnatural movement, delivered with tense, pinned ears. Liberty is not cued with whips.

Pasture gaits include long strides at the walk, with push and swing and rhythmic stride. Think old school Saturday Night Fever. Then it’s a trot that’s effortless and light and fluid. Think of the glide of perpetual motion, think bird on the wing. Most enlightening, it’s a canter that’s all power and snap and lift. It’s more air than dirt. Think freedom. Think true liberty.

The challenge of riding should always be to allow natural movement in a horse. We should never interfere or be an encumbrance to their gaits. The more balanced and rhythmic a horse’s gaits are, the happier he is mentally and emotionally. It’s our job to figure out how to ride that way.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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24 thoughts on “The Middle Path: Why Gaits Matter

  1. Dianne Swayne

    I love this post. This is possibly the thing I struggle most with. I am an older woman, just riding for pleasure, nothing more. I’ve never had lessons or trained in any discipline as I came into the horse world late in life. Living far out in a rural area there aren’t any clinics or riding instructors nearby. Occasionally I “feel” my horse float beneath me and know I’ve hit a beautiful connection where he’s happy and balanced and so am I. Your words today inspire me to actively search for that balance and demand it of myself, for my horse.

  2. Carole

    Long reins and balance? Guilty. I would love to hear more. Maybe you can work that in to a future blog?

  3. JKS

    So, this is a real question, because now i’m really wondering about this- some horses, when at liberty, move in a way that’s very much fine for them in the pasture, but would be really, REALLY bad for them under saddle. My horse, specifically, moves in a very head-high way, quite often. His strides are loose and fluid at liberty, but under saddle, I can’t let him go around all hollow backed, though he’d probably like to (at least, until it started to hurt, and then it’s too late). SO, as long as I’ve had him, I’ve been guiding him toward a new (better?) way to go, and he’s starting to mimic that at liberty now also since i think he’s discovered that it feels better…but is that ok? I mean, if he’s hollow that’s not good- but that was his default state for a long, long time.

    I assume that, like everything, there’s a balance. In the end, I think all good horse people are trying to make their horses be the best they can be, and for us that means ensuring he’s relatively pain free in his elder years by correcting the balance and positional issues that cause him to carry himself weirdly. But, in your opinion, is it ok to help him find a better way, when that’s not what comes naturally to him?

    1. I have a horse who isn’t round by nature, not all breeds have that conformation, so yes, we do the best we can, hope for pain free and I agree, they can learn, if it’s done slowly, that stretching feels good. I love your comment JKS, thank you.

  4. Clearly hit the target again Anna! The gaits are everything in my job and you explained the reason why better than I ever could. So I must share this, knowing we have a
    greater common goal as riders.

  5. “Your horse’s gaits matter because his movement defines his balance and his physical expression is akin to his mental health. His mind cannot be separated from his body; it’s only humans that do that.”

    In my experience, humans do not generally do very well with separating mind from body either. They are meant to work together, and when we do not honor that, it does have consequences.

  6. Continuing on JKS’s question and thoughts, I know from experience that good training/riding can make an “average” mover move more beautifully not only under saddle, but at liberty. From a physiological standpoint, a naturally flat or hollow mover that learns to lift its back and belly and push from behind gains some protection from injury and breakdown over the long term. Of course, this is the ideal; even with the best of intentions, methods, and personal ability, we can hurt as much or more than we help these magnificent animals. I am much more aware and intentional since attending a seminar and riding in a demonstration by Jec Ballou; I learned so much more about doing things that strengthen and support an anatomy that, as you point out, is NOT designed to be ridden.

    1. I agree that imperfect natural gaits can be helped. It’s a huge part of the lessons I teach. But no place for gimmicks or training aids that force. The practice of correct dressage does help hollow movers or horses with other conformation issues. It’s the miracle of this discipline for horses who aren’t “perfect” dressage horses, but in truth benefit the most. Thanks, Michelle.

  7. eremophila

    This brings to mind the image of a horse I saw transform from a rather “ugly” animal to a beautiful graceful creature in just a few days with the same rider but under the tutelage of a great dressage trainer. All things ARE possible! Wish I could witness the same transformations I’m sure occur during your clinics.

    1. Huge transformations don’t happen every clinic, but the process begins and it’s beautiful to see the spark of change some folks find. It has more to do with the horse/rider pair being willing… that is the exciting part, thanks for commenting.

  8. Yes. Yes. Yes. *This* is why I choose to pursue dressage (albeit at the lowest of all possible levels–but at least I’m trying). Thank you. This essay should help me explain it to others.

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