Does your gaited horse prefer to pace/step pace or trot, rather than perform his smooth gaits? First, note that he might be having trouble because he’s experiencing discomfort, which causes stiffness. Such discomfort can arise from poor-fitting tack, teeth problems, and/or improper trimming. Address these problems with your veterinarian and farrier before you begin this retraining regimen.
If your horse is healthy and comfortable, he might be disinclined to gait because a pace/step pace or trot is simply easier. Here, I’ll tell you how to retrain the pacing/step pacing horse, then I’ll address the trotting horse.
Retrain the Pace/Step Pace
Retraining your pacing/step pacing horse can be a challenge. While these lateral (same-side), shuffle-like gaits are murder on his body over the long term, they’re extremely easy to perform; in fact, almost hypnotic in their movement. He needs to quit this habit cold turkey. Don’t allow him to take one step of the pace/step pace. Do perform the following exercises.
Step 1. Determine the gait. If your horse is in a pace/step pace, his head will swing side to side, rather than up and down. He also might hold his head either very high or in an overtuck position, in a type of false collection. Plus, he might feel stiff as a plank. Have a friend videotape you while you ride. Then study the tape to see the precise characteristics your horse exhibits when he paces; that is his lateral sets of legs move in synchrony, or nearly so. While watching, connect his movements with what you felt in the saddle. Then mount up, and pay close attention to these indicators. Also, ask someone on the ground to inform you when your horse turns pacey.
Step 2. Perform half-halts. Ask for a working walk. When you feel your horse begin to slip into a pace, perform a half halt. This is essentially the same as the halt, except that the instant your horse responds to your rein and seat aids by hesitating (indicating a backward weight shift), you maintain rein contact, and ask him to move more actively forward with your seat and legs. A half-halt will rebalance his weight over his hindquarters, which lightens his front end. This simple exercise will do much to improve his gait.
Step 3. Work over ground poles. Even confirmed pacers find it difficult to pace over ground poles, and will instead perform a well-balanced, four-beat gait. Set 10-foot-long ground poles about 1½ times your horse’s body length (chest to buttock) apart – about 10 feet for an average-size horse. Ask for a working walk in a large oval (at least 80 feet in diameter). Push him to his “breaking point,” at which he’d typically pick up a pace. As you come into the poles, perform a half halt, then push him as fast as he can go over the poles. If he gets lazy and bangs his feet on the poles, give a short check on the bridle and say, “Quit!” If he continues to bang his feet, turn him directly back over the poles in the opposite direction. Go back and forth over the poles until he makes one clean round. Then praise him, immediately transition to a working walk (otherwise, he’ll be tempted to pace), and take him back out on the circle
Tip: If he can’t seem to clear the poles, adjust the distance between them; horses have naturally different length strides.
Step 4. Perform a serpentine pattern. Outfit your horse in a snaffle bit that permits independent, side-to-side action. Then work him in a serpentine pattern around the ground poles, using a long, low, leading rein. As you perform this exercise, he’ll likely look down to see where he’s placing his feet, resulting in a raised back and better balance. This, in turn, breaks up the two-beat pace, and helps to establish muscle memory for the desired gait. Perform this exercise 15 to 20 minutes a day for several days. This is generally sufficient to establish gait.
Step 5. Go on the trail. Encourage diagonal action by going up hills, and performing a working walk through deep sand, tall grass, and even snow.
Step 6. Work at the canter. Canter work helps teach your horse how to break up lateral gaits, as one set of diagonals has to work together, while the opposite set moves in opposition to one another. Start by going uphill. Canter him to the top, and then bring him down to a walk before his gait degrades into a pace. When cantering, maintain soft bit contact to help keep his weight balanced over his hindquarters. You’ll soon be able to ask for a few more canter steps on the level at the top of the hill.
Caveat: Your pacey horse might be canter challenged. If so, he may crossfire – that is, hit a front foot with a hind foot, which can result in injury, and even a nasty fall. If you feel him push you vigorously out of your seat with every canter stride, immediately bring him down to a walk.
The trot is a diagonal gait, in which the opposite set of legs moves in sync. To retrain your trotty horse, perform the earlier steps, excluding working over ground poles and working at the canter; ground-pole work increases diagonal action, and the canter can be hazardous to your trotty horse’s training. (See Step 4.) Also, add the following steps to your retraining regimen.
Step 1. Perform cone work. Perform fast work around cones to encourage flexibility and hindquarter impulsion; both will help your trotty horse move into a smooth gait.
Step 2. Push into the trot. From a working walk, push your trotty horse past his breaking point into a trot, then use strong half halts to help him rebalance his weight and break back down to fox trot or running walk. Half-halts teach him to maintain speed without trotting. He might initially become confused, but will quickly learn what you’re asking, as long as you’re consistent with your cues.
Step 3. Go down hills. On the trail, perform a strong working walk on slight downhill grades to help your trotty horse learn to gait more smoothly.
Step 4. Watch the canter. Don’t allow your trotty horse to canter until his gait is very well established. The canter requires less effort than gaiting, so he might learn to cheat by going into a canter when cued to gait. If you feel a canter stride, check him with your reins. Otherwise, he might develop a hybrid gait that’s difficult to break.
Brenda Imus presents at horse expos and private clinics throughout the US and Canada.