The animals were all colors and sizes, and they made a pretty picture, but one thing troubled me. Some of the riders seemed unaware that their horses weren’t progressing in a running walk or a foxtrot or an amble, four-beat gaits that cover ground efficiently and smoothly, pure pleasure for the rider.
Instead, many of the riders sat on their horses rather than riding them (there’s a difference), with loose, dangling reins hooked to snaffle bits. Their mounts’ noses stuck out in front of them, pointing down the trail, and the passengers’ bodies swayed from side to side.
The legs of each horse moved together in parallel on the left side, then on the right. The horses were pacing. I wondered if their riders knew that their mounts were capable of far more comfortable, more surefooted four-beat gaits.
Among horses gifted with extra “gears” in their transmissions, the pace is an anomaly. Present among virtually all gaited animals, and probably necessary genetically to make the shift from the diagonal to the lateral, it’s still not a gait we prefer to ride in pure form.
A two-beat gait, the pace is opposite of the trot. In the trot, two diagonal feet — right front/left hind — hit the ground simultaneously, then the left front/right hind. In the pace, both feet on one side hit the ground simultaneously followed by the two on the opposite side.
Both gaits tend to be rough in varying degrees, and both normally include a moment of suspension in which the horse is out of contact with the trail, not good for surefootedness.
For hundreds of years, when horseback travel was a necessity, horses with the ability to travel in fast, four-beat gaits that replaced the trot were treasured.
Now that trail riding is the No. 1 horse use in America, such animals are again sought. But often careless riders, sometimes influenced by clinicians who may never venture into the backcountry and who are little concerned with gaits or gaitedness, waste the potential of their animals to travel in those sweet gaits for which they were originally bred.
Most gaited horses are multigaited. Training them from the very beginning to select the gaits you prefer is helpful and also builds the muscles required for a running walk, foxtrot, or other smooth, fast, four-beat gait.
But pacing is easy for some horses, and they’ll tend to prefer it if allowed. (The excessively trotty horse is a problem, as well, but that’s a different story.) First, we need to identify the problem.
Is he Pacing?
If your horse is pacing, it’s unlikely you’re completely happy with him. Your body tends to rock side-to-side. And, if he’s performing a hard pace, you’re likely jarred with each step. You won’t hear four separate footfalls, just two. There will be little if any nod to his head.
Observe your pacey horse on video, or ask a friend to ride your horse for you. You’ll see that on one side, your horse’s legs move exactly in parallel. Unless he’s slowed to a walk, his legs on one side will never draw close to each other — they’ll stay widely spaced the entire time and move in lock step.
Many horses, though, break the pace slightly by letting a hind foot touch down a split-second before the front one on the same side. You won’t hear four evenly spaced hoofbeats, as with the running walk, but something like ta-ta….ta-ta. This gait is the stepping pace, and if the gap between the rear/front footfalls is slightly longer, the amble.
This can be a very smooth gait. If you’re pleased with it, there’s nothing wrong with making it your primary trail gait. Often slowing your horse slightly with rein pressure, while urging him forward with leg pressure, will result in a bigger gap between footfalls on the same side; a smoother gait results. And that gets us to remedies for the pacey problem.
Curing the inveterate pacer can be technical and difficult. It helps to look at situations in which horses leaning toward the extreme lateral end of the gait spectrum are most likely to fall into a pace.
In my experience, marginal horses will pace when they’re young; when they’re tired; when they’re physically out of shape; when they’re being ridden in a lazy disengaged fashion (with no collection); when they’re proceeding downhill; and, when they’re being ridden on a hard surface, such as a gravel road.
Here are five common pace corrections.
• Impulsion/collection. Impulsion, tempered by collection, has been the answer to a host of problems since Xenophon penned his treatise, The Art of Horsemanship, 2,500 years ago,
No, I don’t advocate the extreme measures often used in the gaited-show world, severe bits with harsh impulsion into them, nor do I approve of the use of heavy shoes, pads, and chains to get the required result.
That said, your horse must move forward willingly and freely, and if he doesn’t, ground work in the round pen may be in order. Then, a little collection, enough to tuck his nose in just a bit, can help round his back and develop the muscles necessary for a good running walk or foxtrot.
No harsh bits are necessary, but don’t be wedded to the snaffle. It’s a very useful training bit, but since it can pinch, it’s not inherently more “humane” than a mild curb.
When I use a snaffle, I remember that it’s designed to exert pressure with just one rein at time, the other giving slack. Once I’m quite sure my young horse won’t require a one-rein stop, I switch to a grazing bit or other mild curb.
If you observe horses pacing on the trail, you’ll note that their noses are almost always sticking out forward, and the rider’s reins are usually completely loose. These horses are hollow-backed, without collection.
• Circles/cavalettis/ground poles. It’s hard for a horse to pace in a tight circle. His outside legs actually must travel farther than his inside ones, so sometimes, small circle work will tend to break up the pace. Similarly, longeing, and later, riding over cavalettis or ground poles can encourage your horse to use his feet individually. Spacing must be determined with experimentation on the longe line, and will vary with the size of your horse and the length of steps he takes.
• Soft surfaces. An old-timer’s trick for breaking the pace was riding a colt in a plowed field. Pacey horses always seem worse on hard surfaces (trotty horses often gait better on them). Any soft surface, such as mud, snow, sand, or deep grass, causes your horse to reach forward with each foot individually.
True, training him on such a surface may not make him walk better when you return to that hard, gravel road. However, extended flat-walking on a soft surface can help build the muscles necessary for a running walk or foxtrot.
If your horse ends up in better shape for these desirable gaits, he’ll do them willingly and be less inclined to pace.
• Uphill work. Few horses hard-pace while going uphill. The angle of ascent changes the timing of their footfalls, and they seem eager to amble or flat-walk when you head up a trail. Hills, like a soft surface, are wonderful conditioners, so a trail that features frequent ascents is helpful.
The problem for training purposes, of course, is that you also must ride down! On descent, go slowly both for safety and for gaiting purposes. A pacey horse is likely to be even more uncomfortable when going downhill, so keep him in a slow, ordinary walk.
• Limiting speed. One of the worst things you can do to a young gaited horse is to take him on a gaited-horse trail ride led by speed demons who want to prove how fast their horses can walk or foxtrot.
An immature horse, not fully muscled and conditioned, is almost sure to break gait, either to a pace or a trot, when trying to keep up with such a group. Gait work is best done alone (if you feel safe) or with a compatible rider on a similar horse. Your companion should understand your purpose and be willing to speed up or slow down, as necessary.
If impulsion is a problem, following another horse often perks up yours just a tad. One gelding I ride, Partner, hits a better running walk when following his buddy, Redstar. When Partner gets a bit lazy, I ask my wife, Emily, to lead on.
With young animals in training, I believe nothing is better than extending walking: the slow, regular walk and the head-nodding flat walk.
Don’t let your horse shift to the pace (or the trot) when you speed up; instead, bring him down to the “top end” of his regular walk, and hold him there. Mile after mile of this will improve his gait.
The speed at which your horse will stay in a consistent, evenly timed four-beat walk will gradually increase. Eventually, the regular walk will become a flat-walk, and that, in turn, will become a running-walk or foxtrot, but be patient.
One important tip: Watch your horse’s ears. His head should be nodding — not necessarily deeply, but it shouldn’t be flat or only swinging side-to-side. With a shift to either a pace or trot, head nod tends to disappear. With any four-beat gait, including the slow walk (and this is true in nongaited breeds), some head nod normally exists.
Genetics Still Best
Lastly, I don’t mean to imply that problems with the pace are a given. Many of us who breed gaited animals pride ourselves in naturalness of gait. Look for such an emphasis when purchasing a Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Fox Trotter, or any gaited horse.
Certain show traditions that rely on devices and severe training to achieve the desirable show-ring gait have been detrimental to our goal of breeding horses that need little if any refinement of gait during training.
We pride ourselves in producing foals that hit head-nodding running walks their very first day of life, and canter and perform flying lead changes in the paddock just for the joy of it.
When, just after birth, foals show the same gaits you’ll want under saddle several years later, you know the gaits are genetically natural. No sophisticated training will be necessary to bring them out.
Require your gaited horse to fulfill his genetic potential by carrying you in a fast, four-beat gait that pleases you. To do less is to sell him short.
See you on the trail! TTR
Dan Aadland raises mountain-bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are In Trace of TR; The Best of All Seasons; The Complete Trail Horse; and 101 Trail Riding Tips. In Trace of TR recently