By Jennifer Klitzke
“I bought a gaited horse, why isn’t it gaiting?”
Does this sound familiar? Many people, like me, buy a gaited horse and are perplexed that it doesn’t come out of the box gaiting. While the easy gaits are hard-wired into a gaited horse’s genes, it takes miles of correct and consistent training to develop a four-beat, head-nodding, ear flapping flat walk, and many miles more to build the running walk and canter. A special bit or gaited saddle won’t make them gait either. But an ill-fitting saddle can hinder a gaited horse to gait.
Some people invest hundreds and even thousands of dollars in professional training to make their horse gait. While professional training is a great investment, it still pays to learn how to ride in the manner the horse was trained. That way the rider and horse will communicate with the same language that the trainer taught the horse. And that takes time for the rider to develop—especially if dressage is the method of choice.
In 2007 I bought my first gaited horse, Gift of Freedom (Makana). She was just turning three years old with 20 rides on her. Me, I had over twenty years experience riding and training hard-trotting horses dressage-style, so gaits like the flat walk, running walk, and rack were completely foreign to me. All I knew is that I wanted a smooth horse to ride.
I wanted smooth and I got smooth—only discerning which smooth gait Makana was performing with each step took some time to develop a feel for. In the beginning of her flat walk training it was common for her to take a couple steps of flat walk, a few of step pace and a few steps of rack. Then we’d slow down enough to untangle her legs and started again.
So, how do you develop the feel for the easy gait of choice from the saddle and how do you get your gaited horse to become consistent in it? Here’s what I did:
1. Study good books and videos. There are lots of resources out there. The following books and videos have been helpful to me: The late Lee Ziegler wrote a terrific book, “Easy-Gaited Horses” that is very descriptive in how the gaits sound and feel. Gary Lane and Anita Howe’s DVD “From the Trail to the Rail,” the late Brenda Imus’s DVD “Gaits from God”, and Ivy Schexnayder’s “A Smooth Gait Naturally” are wonderful and affordable DVDs that show correct gaits in regular and slow motion with tips on how to achieve them for yourself. Clinton Anderson’s DVD series “Gaited Horsemanship” helped me in Makana’s early training as a three year old.
2. Get good coaching from gaited dressage and gaited horsemanship instructors. I’ve been fortunately to get great coaching from people like Jennie Jackson, Jennifer Bauer, and Larry Whitesell who travel to my state each year. Jennie Jackson’s gaited dressage coaching has helped me establish connection and forwardness to improve my horse’s flat walk, while Jennifer Bauer and Larry Whitesell have helped me learn a natural and humane training philosophy which is based on classical French dressage.
3. Record your riding. I like to capture a ride a week on video which helps me see what I feel from the saddle. I set my video camera on a tripod to capture glimpses of my ride while making comments about how the ride feels so that when I watch it I can see if what I feel matches what I see. (I’ve uploaded a few of my videos on the Naturally Gaited You Tube channel.)
4. Enter your gaited horse at schooling dressage shows. This is my favorite way to get feedback from a professional eye on where I’m at in regards to rhythm, relaxation, harmony, balance, connection, engagement, gaits, rider position and effective use of aids.
When I learn of a schooling dressage show in my area, I contact the show manager and ask if I can ride my gaited horse using a NWHA or FOSH test. Then I mail the tests in with my entry form. The judge will write comments the score sheet of areas that went well and areas that need improvement. This helps me know what to work on when I get home. I find this feedback priceless.
Over the years Makana and I have progressed from Intro, Training and First levels of dressage. Now we are working on Second level movements to refine the quality of our running walk and collected canter.
At the 20-plus schooling dressage shows I have ridden at, I am far outnumbered by the trotting horses. Intrigued people always ask, “What kind of horse is that? She looks so SMOOTH to ride.” And I always say, “Yes, the sitting trot was hard on my grandma body and I didn’t want to give up dressage. I just wanted SMOOTH. That’s why I bought a gaited horse.”
So if your gaited horse hasn’t been gaiting lately, now you have a few new ideas to try and reclaim your SMOOTH!
Video: A Collection of Naturally Smooth Gaits