On the trail, you should be prepared to walk, trot, and canter (or lope) so you know how to ask for and control each gait. While the walk and trot will be your primary “go-to” gaits, be confident and in charge no matter what the speed.
“The walk is your primary trail gait when you’re on a trail ride, especially in unfamiliar terrain and tumultuous footing,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
“To cover long distances, the posting trot is the best way to ride. You may canter on some flat, well-groomed trails. Even if you only walk along the trail, learn to control the faster gaits in case your horse spooks and bolts.”
Here, Goodnight teaches you how to stay in control at each gait. You’ll learn how to cue your horse to travel at the speed you dictate, no matter how fast or slow you choose to travel.
Before you ask your horse to walk, make sure you’re balanced in the saddle. Check that your saddle’s horn (or top of the swell, if you ride in an endurance-type saddle) is aligned with the middle of your horse’s neck and back.
Then make sure your stirrups are even and that your weight is equally balanced from side-to-side. Sit up straight with your heels aligned with your hips. You may be comfortable riding with your legs forward, but you’ll enhance your horse’s comfort if you’re balanced at all gaits as he carries you over the trails.
When it comes to walking speed, there are two kinds of horses: those with too much whoa and those with too much go. “If your horse walks like he’s going to his own funeral, speed him up,” Goodnight says. “On the other hand, if he’s ready to go all the time, prancing and jigging, learn how to slow him down.
“Either way, if your horse isn’t going at the speed you dictate, he’s being disobedient. Set the speed, and take charge.” Here’s how to moderate your horse’s walking speed.
Too much whoa: You can’t make a slow-and-steady Quarter Horse keep up with, say, a Tennessee Walking Horse that walks faster than he trots. That’s an unrealistic expectation. However, if you’re not keeping up with horses that should match your horse’s speed, evaluate your cues.
“Horses are clever,” Goodnight says. “If you point a lazy horse in a direction he doesn’t want to go, he’ll walk slower and slower until he’s almost halting between every step.”
That’s the horse that can train you to “pedal” — that is, constantly re-cue for the gait you’re already riding. He continually threatens to stop while the rider continually cues him to go. It’s a workout for the rider, and it’s a disobedient, manipulative act on behalf of the horse.
“That’s not a healthy relationship,” notes Goodnight. “Your horse threatens disobedience, and you enable him by constantly re-cueing.”
An obedient horse goes at the speed you dictate until another cue is provided. If you’ve already asked for the walk, your horse should keep walking without prompting and rate his speed with the other horses.
If your horse slows down, give him a verbal admonishment or a tap with the bight of your reins or a crop. Often, one admonishment and a reminder to “straighten up” are all it takes for a trained horse to move out and know that you’re in charge.
“One firm correction is much kinder to your horse than constantly nagging him by kicking and cueing after each stride,” says Goodnight.
To increase walking speed, increase the rhythm in your seat and legs, reach forward with your rein hand, and drive your horse forward.
When you’ve reached the desired pace, your horse should maintain that speed without prompting. It’s up to you as the leader to decide on and cue for the optimal speed.
If your horse slows down on his own despite these measures, admonish him; avoid simply cueing him to move forward again.
Too much go: If your horse walks too fast and tends to step into the trot on his own accord, that’s also an act of disobedience.
“I see riders who just start to ride the trot if the horse chooses the gait on his own,” Goodnight says. “As soon as you start to ride the trot, you’ve told your horse his actions are acceptable.”
If your horse speeds up without a cue, immediately and abruptly correct him, and slow him down to the speed you’ve dictated. Without hurting his mouth, take hold of the reins hard, sit back, and verbally admonish him with a “whoa.”
Your horse should only trot when you ask for the gait — not because the other horses you’re riding with pick up speed. If he speeds into the trot without your approval and cue, immediately correct him (as outlined earlier), and start over.
You can choose to ride the trot by sitting, posting, or standing with your weight in the stirrups, lifting your seat slightly out of the saddle.
A slow, sitting jog trot isn’t useful on the trail, as it’s hard on your horse’s back. It also isn’t a gait that helps you cover ground efficiently. If you’re trotting on the trail, you’re probably trying to get somewhere!
The posting and standing trots are the most comfortable for you and your horse. As you post or stand, you’re balanced over his center of gravity, which allows him to move easily beneath you.
Posting isn’t just for English riders — all riders should know how to post. Posting is the best way to ride the long trot, the extended, ground-covering version of the trotting gait.
Posting is a forward and backward motion, using the lift created in your horse’s back when he trots. It’s the same motion you use to start to get up out of a chair.
Note the way you move up and out of a chair (without using your arms), then sit down immediately. First you rock forward, then back to sit down. That’s the same motion you’ll need in the saddle, but your horse’s movement will help lift you.
As you post, don’t push off the stirrups; the motion comes from rocking your pelvis forward and rising from your thighs. If your horse has a rough trot, stand up slightly to lift weight off your seat bones while keeping your joints and muscles relaxed.
Before you ask your horse to walk, make sure you’re balanced in the saddle. Even up your stirrups, and balance your weight equally from side-to-side.
Posting the trot is comfortable for both you and your horse. Posting is a forward and backward motion, using the lift created in your horse’s back when he trots. It’s the same motion you use to start to get up out of a chair.
The standing trot is commonly seen on endurance rides. It helps you move easily, and it’s a great balance test.
Cue the Canter
Cantering will cover ground quickly, but a horse can trot greater distances than canter. Of course, you can’t and shouldn’t canter on rocky or steep trails.
“Here in the Rocky Mountains, I can’t imagine cantering on some of our trails,” Goodnight says. “It’s too rocky and steep.”
That said, Goodnight recommends that all riders know how to sit and control the canter — even if it isn’t a gait you would usually use on the trail.
“Any horse is capable of spooking and bolting on a ride,” Goodnight points out. “If you’re riding in an uncontrolled environment, you should have the ability to ride every gait — in case you ever need to control a horse that gallops away when spooked.”
Cantering can be safe and fun if the trail is level and well-groomed or over a flat, low-cut meadow. But check out the footing and conditions before you ask for the canter.
If you canter with your trail group, establish “start cantering” and “stop cantering” hand signals to give everyone notice of the gait transition and to keep the group together.
Always ride to the level of the least skilled rider in your group. If you’re going to canter, make sure the whole group agrees. All the horses will want to canter if one begins, so make sure everyone is ready and willing.
Never canter down a hill. Cantering downhill makes it too difficult for a horse to control his balance with a rider aboard. Always canter away from the barn. Your horse likely won’t want to move too quickly as he heads away from home, so you can more easily control his speed.
Also, if your cantering horse knows he’s headed for home and becomes spooked, he’ll tend to increase speed and become difficult to control. Plus, cantering home can make him barn sour.
For more training tips from Julie Goodnight, and to access her online video library, go tohttp://tv.juliegoodnight.com.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from HorseBooks Etc.com.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.