Relaxation, Softness & Engagement in the Naturally Gaited Horse
By Jennifer Klitzke
Wowzers, was she ever a hot tamale! After five months of Minnesota winter off, this was Lady’s second ride of the Spring.
Lady is my friend’s naturally gaited fox trotting horse. She is ridden barefoot and in a snaffle bridle. In this riding session, we focused on relaxation (of mind and body), softness in the jaw, and engagement (stepping deeper under the body).
With a little persistence, gentleness, and encouragement, Lady settled into some rather nice fox trotting that was relaxed, soft, and balanced, with good rhythm and engagement.
Video: Relaxation, Softness & Engagement in the Naturally Gaited Horse
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Do you have a gaited horse that has a bouncy trot instead of an easy gait?
Meet Lady. She’s a Walking horse cross my friend has encouraged me to ride the last two summers. When I first began to work with Lady, she had two distinct gaits: a dog walk and a hard bouncy trot, so I began to increase the speed of her dog walk in order to develop a flat walk. Then I increased her tempo just before she broke into a trot so that I could bring out a naturally smooth fox walk and fox trot.
Over the last year Lady has developed four distinct easy gaits: a medium walk, a flat walk, a fox walk, and a fox trot. While her gaits aren’t fancy, nothing beats Lady on the trail. She’s bold, smooth, and extremely efficient in her gaits. She can ride for a couple hours without breaking a sweat. While my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana can hardly keep up without breaking into a canter!
Lady’s Easy Gaits
The medium walk is a even four-beat gait and the horse’s head and neck nod with each step. All horses, whether they gait or trot, can perform the medium walk. Ideally the horse’s hind hoof print should meet or overstep the front hoof print.
The free walk is also an even four beat gait where I allow the horse freedom to reach down and out with its head and neck and take maximum ground covering steps. I use the free walk as a great stretching exercise to begin and end every ride and several times within a riding session as a reward to the horse. An active balanced free walk is a great way to start the flat walk.
The flat walk is an even four beat gait where the horse’s head and neck nod with each step of the hind legs. Ideally the horse’s hind hoof prints should overstep the front hoof prints. Lady is naturally short strided, and we are working to increase her depth of stride through developing an active free walk on a long rein. The flat walk feels even smoother than the medium walk and free walk.
The fox walk which is a smooth, uneven four beat gait with a 1-2–3-4 timing. The horse’s legs on one side will lift up and set down independently. The front leg and its diagonal hind leg will move forward together, but the front hoof will meet the ground before the hind hoof.
The fox trot is my favorite of Lady’s gaits. Like the fox walk, it is a diagonal easy gait where the diagonal pairs of legs lift off the ground and move forward together, but the front hoof sets down before the hind hoof. In motion, the fox trot gait sounds like “ka-chunck, ka-chunck,” because the hind foot fall occurs moments after the fore footfall. The horse’s head and neck also nod with the motion of the hind legs. The fox trot feels like a gentle rocking forward and backward in the saddle. It is comfortable and fun.
Now that Lady is set in her easy gaits, I’ll start dabbling with canter. In the meantime, I continue to ask her to increase speed in her fox trot just before she breaks into a hard trot, and I allow her to move actively forward in a free walk to increase her depth of stride as she further develops her flat walk.
So if you have a gaited horse with a hard trot, don’t be discouraged, with a little patience and consistent training, you might find out that you have a handful of easy gaits ready to be discovered!
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!