Your search for your next trail horse opens the door to endless possibilities. As you begin, pay particular attention to the horse's gaits. How your new horse feels as you ride him - as well as his natural energy level and physique - will either enhance or detract from your enjoyment and comfort level. Clearly defining the feel you want will help you find the right fit for your preferences.
Here, we'll first briefly discuss gaits. Then we'll help you identify the horse that's right for you, especially if you're thinking of going from a "nongaited" horse that performs the walk, trot, and lope/canter to a smooth-gaited one that performs a wider variety of gaits, or vice versa.
Next, we'll give you tips to sharpen your equitation skills so that you can better adjust to a new mount's change in feel, plus valuable selection and saddle tips. Along the way, we'll share personal accounts from two happy owners - one who owns a hero of a Quarter Horse and one who treasures her two gaited horses.
Blur the Lines
First, understand that there's not a clear line between breeds with non-trotting, smooth gaits, and breeds known for three primary gaits: the walk, trot, and lope/canter.
For one thing, certain breeds possess characteristics associated with both gaited and nongaited horses. For instance, the Appaloosa Horse is widely known for its nongaited traits, but some also perform the Indian Shuffle. This smooth, rolling gait is characteristic of the foundation Appaloosa used centuries ago by Native Americans.
Conversely, the American Saddlebred is often considered a five-gaited breed, but some only perform the walk, trot, and canter. (For more information, see "Big and Bold," Breed Showcase, May '09.)
Variations within a breed can blur the lines even more. Some gaited horses have trouble maintaining their smooth gait(s), and some nongaited horses are incredibly smooth, even at the trot. "Every breed has both its champions and individuals that don't move as smoothly," notes Certified Horsemanship Association instructor Julie Dillon.
As you shop for your next trail horse, look beyond the breed, and judge each horse individually. Are you comfortable with the horse's particular gaits? Ride a number of horses to find the best match for you.
Narrow the Field
Before you start your search for a new trail mount, keep in mind these general guidelines relating to gait and breed.
Fit your physique. Choose a horse that fits your physique. If you're tall, you might prefer a 15-hand-plus horse with a bigger barrel, such as the Rocky Mountain Horse. If you're on the short side, you might benefit from a shorter horse, such as the Mustang, Paso Fino, or Icelandic, that you can mount unaided on the trail. Be sure that your new horse can carry the weight of you, your tack, and your gear for long periods of time.
Consider your physical condition. If you suffer from joint and/or back pain, look for a smooth ride that doesn't exacerbate your condition. After many years in the saddle, some trail riders benefit from switching to smooth-gaited horses for a comfortable, long-lasting ride.
"Baby boomers want to enjoy, laugh, and ride all day, and dance all night," says Dillon. "The gaited breeds can offer that." However, note that some nongaited horses have incredibly smooth strides at the trot and lope, making it easy to sit these gaits.
Consider your trail-riding goals. Do you prefer to cover a lot of ground when you trail ride, or, would you rather mosey along on a quiet ride? Typically, a gaited horse's movement requires less energy than the three basic gaits, allowing you to travel faster and longer. The Arabian, too, typically has remarkable endurance and lightness. Horses bred for working stock are generally good-minded, deliberate, and versatile.
Consider trail pace. You've most likely heard about the controversy of whether nongaited horses can "keep up" with gaited horses. While it's likely that maintaining the speed of a running walk or a racking step will require more energy for the nongaited horse, the walk, trot, and lope/canter can be developed into strong, forward-moving gaits.
Go Back to Basics
If you're considering a change from riding gaited horses to nongaited horses, or vice versa, it's back to horsemanship basics. According to Dillon and expert horse trainer Russell Terry, the fundamentals of riding both types require the same equestrian skills: balance, quietness, and intelligence. These are the elements that will help you to maintain a centered seat.
Start with lessons. Find a certified instructor and a horse that represents his gait well. "An older horse is a great first choice," says Dillon. She explains that you need to internalize body memory of the new gaits. A body memory is the knowledge and experience that allows you to recognize a gait. Understand what the proper footfall and cadence feel like before you try to ask for and ride that gait on the trail.
If you're going gaited, the new sensation of a gaited horse may feel strange or too fast at first, says Terry. "[Riders who are used to trotting] might be intimidated," he notes. "They might feel like they don't have as much control."
To adjust, sharpen your basic equitation skills. "Keep a straight line between your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel," Terry advises. As you maintain a good riding position, he notes, stay relaxed, try not to interfere with your horse's stride, and let him move into his best gaits.
If you're going from a gaited horse to a nongaited one, you might find mastering the trot challenging. Again, start with basic flatwork to build your leg muscles and develop a centered seat. Learn how to both post and sit the trot.
Learn diagonals at the trot and leads at the lope/canter. (The diagonal is the point at which you rise relative to the horse's leg movement; leads refer to which foreleg catches the horse's balance after the point of suspension). Even on the trail, you'll need to change your diagonal and your horse's leads to ensure his balance and comfort.
Select for Success
You've taken lessons, done your research, earned your skills as a new gaited or nongaited rider. As you head out on your search for a new trail mount, follow these selection tips:
Try different gaits. If you're trying out gaited horses for the first time, experiment to see which gait feels best to you. Dillon compares the diagonal movement of the Missouri Fox Trotter to a rumba and the lateral gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse to a waltz. If you're looking for an energetic-yet-collected gait, the pistons-and-engine step of the Racking Horse may be for you. Or, perhaps your idea of an enjoyable trail ride includes floating along on the back of an Icelandic Horse.
Look for pastern angle. Certain conformational traits give nongaited horses a smoother gait. For example, the pastern angle should be between 45 and 52 degrees with the ground. The higher the angle, the bouncier a horse will be. The smaller the angle, the more the horse's leg absorbs shock. However, a pastern that slopes lower than a 45 degree angle with the ground is more likely to cause tendon injury, and can be considered a conformation fault.
Watch the horse under saddle. Ask the owner to ride your potential horse so you can evaluate his movement from the ground. (If you're new to gaited or nongaited horses, bring along someone experienced with your new breed, if possible.) Observe the gaits the owner is able to achieve, and the horse's balance at each gait.
Hop aboard. Hop on, and evaluate whether the horse's gaits are right for you. Ride in the arena first, and ask the owner for help in getting a desired gait, if needed. Compare the horse's movement with what you've learned in your lessons.
Ride on trail. Ride your potential horse on the trails to see if he's able to stretch out his stride at the walk, trot, and lope. Be picky - if covering ground is important to you, look for an energetic, athletic horse with a "go forward" inclination.
Fit a Saddle
After you've bought your new horse, evaluate saddle fit. Each horse's back is uniquely conformed. Ask a person who has experience with your horse's breed to help you decide whether a new saddle is necessary. You may also want to ask the former owner if he or she will sell you a saddle that fits the horse well.
Note that many traditional Western saddles are built with a stock-horse's conformation in mind; stock breeds typically have short backs and deep sloping shoulders that help to keep a saddle in place. A gaited horse's point of balance is farther back, so the saddle applies pressure to different areas. To obtain an optimal gait, the horse's scapula and haunches must be able to stretch out comfortably.
Therefore, while it might be fairly easy to find a saddle that fits your new nongaited horse, it might take some trial and error to fit your new gaited horse. Find a saddle that fits well, doesn't chafe his back, and allows him to move freely.