Smooth-gaited horses are tops on the trail, offering a comfortable, surefooted ride. And with a variety of gaited breeds, there’s literally a horse for every rider.
Clinicians specializing in gaited horses strive to help you get the most out of your gaited trail horse.
Here, we have a roundtable chat with six top gaited-horse clinicians: Jennifer Bauer; Rick Brighton; Elizabeth Graves; Anita Howe; Marcie Morey; and Larry Whitesell.
Read on for a rundown of each clinician’s training program, plus each one’s take on the biggest gaited-horse myths; biggest mistake owners make; best advice for trail riders, and more.
Meet the Clinicians
Jennifer Bauer, Gaited Horsemanship. Jennifer Bauer is an internationally known gaited-horse clinician who conducts clinics around the United States and Canada. Bauer apprenticed with Larry Whitesell (see below) for five years before launching her own training business in 2006. She has a degree in Animal Science Equine Business from the University of Wisconsin. She’s based in Baxter, Tennessee. For more information, check out: Lungeing The Gaited Horse (three-DVD set); Riding The Gaited Horse (3-DVD set). Contact: (931) 267-6723; [email protected] horsemanship.com; www.gaitedhorseman ship.com.
Rick Brighton, Rick Brighton Horsemanship. Rick Brighton is a certified resistance-free horsemanship clinician, trainer, and instructor with more than 20 years experience with gaited horses of all breeds. He has trained and shown at regional and world levels, and is an examiner for the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association. He promotes sound, naturally gaited horses. He trains out of Brighton Ridge Farm LLC, in Renton, Washington. For more information, check out: Horsemanship for Gait with Rick Brighton (DVD). Contact: (425) 226-6943; [email protected]; www.brightonridge.com.
Elizabeth Graves, Gathering of Gaits. Elizabeth Graves comes by her passion naturally, as her mother was a trainer and her grandfather trained horses for the United States Cavalry. Although she’s conducted more than 450 gaited horse clinics throughout the U.S. and Canada, she’s not strictly a gaited-horse trainer; she’s trained and shown both gaited and nongaited breeds since 1965 and has more than 30 years’ experience as a multi-licensed breed judge. Her full-time training, show, breeding, and sales facility is based in Spring Valley, Minnesota. For more information, check out: Gathering of Gaits (DVD); Gaited Horse Structure as it Relates to Gait (DVD); A Bit About Bits (DVD). Contact: (507) 346-2422; [email protected]; www.lizgraves.org.
Anita Howe, Natural Gait. Anita Howe’s Natural Gait training program, based on natural and classical horsemanship methods, stays true to its name. Howe believes an authentic gait comes from balance, posture, and impulsion, not shoes or devices. A trainer and clinician with a reputation for producing “soft,” happy horses with correct movement, she enjoys teaching riders about gait biomechanics, which she believes is a powerful tool to help the horse achieve his natural gait potential. She’s based in Napoleon, Missouri. For more information, check out: Freedom to Gait; The Running Walk & Intermediate Gait (DVD). Contact: (816) 686-7748; [email protected] walk.com; www.anitahowe.com.
Marcie Morey: Marcie Moreygrew up riding gaited horses and has competed in all areas of the gaited world; she’s also trained and shown a variety of nongaited breeds. She believes in helping horses develop and improve their natural gait without relying on heavy shoes and severe bits. Respected for her ability with problem horses, Morey conducts evaluations, private consultations, lessons, and clinics. An expert in equine psychology and behavior, she’s widely known as “The Horse Listener.” She’s based in Eustis, Florida. Contact: (352) 308-6996; [email protected]; www.marciemorey.com.
Larry Whitesell, Whitesell Gaited Horsemanship. Larry Whitesell has trained gaited horses since 1980. He regularly holds clinics and expos around the country, teaching riders how to ride with lightness and improve their horse’s gait without devices. He’s convinced that trueness of movement is closely tied to relaxation. He’s found that when the horse is relaxed, the rider can teach a correct response instead of “persuading” the horse with equipment. He’s based in Baxter, Tennessee. For more information, check out: Gaited Horsemanship (3-DVD set). Contact: (931) 858-0658; [email protected] gaitedhorsemanship.com; www.whitesellgaitedhorsemanship.com.
Q. How would you describe your training program?
Jennifer Bauer: I use classical dressage methods to train the gaited horse. It really helps the horse find his own body and balance, so then it’s easier for him to gait. The horse is a mirror-image of the rider. As we give the rider more knowledge, that mirror gets clearer. As the rider gets more tools and builds more confidence, the horse follows by gaining more confidence. Every exercise I perform comes back to the basic ideas of balance, rhythm, and timing with confidence.
Rick Brighton: I believe if you make it easy on the horse and rider, you’ll get more done.
I custom-fit each training session and lesson to the individual horse and rider, with a focus on safety and using a quiet, gentle approach. I help riders improve their communication, feel, and timing so they can be respectful to their horse, and build trust and confidence in both horse and rider.
Elizabeth Graves: The quote I use most to describe my program is “teaching horses and humans to learn peacefully and humanely.” That is my approach to everything. It’s all about the horse and for the horse as an individual. Each person and horse learns differently. I work as the “middleman” to help the person understand what the horse is saying, then teach the person how to teach clearly, so the horse understands what we want him to do. I love biomechanics and the locomotion of gaits, because how can you ask a horse to move if you don’t know how the body functions in its natural element?
Anita Howe: It’s release-based gait training. You offer your horse the reward and courtesy of release as you work with him in partnership. You train the horse to self-carry and balance himself to bring out the gait that has already been bred within him. Horses are amazingly willing to gift us with their authentic easy gaits if we have patience and persistence to ask them in a comfortable and consistent manner. I prefer to work with barefoot horses, because then shoeing isn’t an issue. If owners insist on shoes, I require that they weigh the same all around. I want to take all the gimmick out of training.
Marcie Morey: It’s a combination of natural horsemanship and classical dressage principles for a solid, quality foundation. I prefer not being put in the category of a typical gaited-horse trainer. Dressage is just basic foundation training you can use on any horse to teach him to soften, relax, and yield certain muscles groups or body parts. First and foremost, however, I consider the horse’s personality, emotions, fears. I think of it as peeling away layers of an onion to find out what’s really the source of the horse’s problem, his true colors. I am very in tune to the horse’s personality and have to ability to get to the bottom of issues, which is why they call me “The Horse Listener.” For example, you correct a fearful horse differently than you would correct a bold, dominant horse. I’m a behaviorist before I’m a trainer.
Larry Whitesell: I’ve studied with classical trainers, so my program is based on the philosophy and many of the techniques of classical dressage — but it’s practical, because most of the people I work with are trail riders and have using horses. We must train our horses not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.
Q. Whats the biggest gaited-horse myth?
Bauer: That gaited horses can’t canter. They can, but it just takes time to teach them how. Because of how they’re built, they don’t have a natural lift in their front end. They’re more forward moving, but when a rider yanks up the horse’s head, this hollows out the horse’s back and drops the chest.
Then the horse really has a hard time cantering. If you round a horse by using collection, it’s much easier for him to canter.
Brighton: That you can’t ride gaited and nongaited horses together, because gaited horses go too fast. A horse can walk and gait at different speeds. It’s more about the rider having control and regulating the horse’s speed at whatever gait you’re doing. We can all get along. The riding group doesn’t have to be made up of just one type of horse or the other!
Graves: There are a pile of them, but one that stands out is the myth that gaited horses can’t canter. Horses do it on their own out in the field, but riders get in their way. The person often over-rides the horse instead of guiding, supporting, and directing.
Howe: That you solve gait issues with shoeing. Shoeing is a Band-Aid; it’s not a solution. The gait is already bred within the horse; we just have to help him find that gait.
Morey: That you have to have a special bit and ride gaited horses differently from other horses. You do typically have to ride them with refinement, or “collect” them, so as to have a nice body frame to have an even, consistent gait. “Feel” on the part of the rider has to be developed. So, some training for the human is a good idea.
Whitesell: There are a lot of myths, but one is that the horse has to nod his head to gait. People often say, “If it’s not nodding, it’s not gaiting,” but that’s not true. A horse uses its head and neck for balance, so if you’re using speed to gait and he’s out of balance, he’s going to have more head nod. But if you put him in balance and teach a little collection, the head nod starts to go away, because he doesn’t need that for balance.
Q. What’s the most common mistake gaited-horse owners make, and what should they do instead?
Bauer: Hollowing the horse out by pulling the head up. This also causes behavioral issues, because it’s painful, as his back gets sore and his hind legs are way out behind him. Because it’s uncomfortable to carry a rider this way, he’ll seek comfort and that’s typically with the rider off his back!
Instead, be aware that there are two ways to get a horse to gait. Hollow him out, which is the wrong way, or get him rounded, which is the right way. If you work on rounding the horse instead of hollowing him, the gait will naturally come out.
Brighton: When you’re gaiting, there’s a balance on how the horse is in the bridle. A lot of times, if people are having a problem, they go to a more severe bit. I see way too many horses that have been put in a shanked bit, but that wasn’t the problem.
Instead, go back to the basics to build more foundation in the horse. Rather than overpowering the horse with a stronger bit, the goal is to get your horse light in the bridle and relaxed, so he’s following your feel and direction.
Graves: They just get on and drive them forward. What this does is create a lot of emotional and physical tension in the horse’s body, and you don’t get the true gait. In many cases, the horse goes right by the gait and ends up pacing instead.
Instead, ride from the top down, not from the bottom up. You want to shape the horse’s topline to make the legs move, whereas most people focus on making the legs move. They think from the bottom up and try things like weighted shoes to get gaits.
Howe: The “yank and spank” mentality. People want to “force, frame and fix” the horse and seek mechanics to solve whatever’s going wrong. This actually creates a lot more problems than it helps. I often have to start from ground zero and explain horse biomechanics to a rider so they can learn to feel the balance and impulsion of their horse.
Instead, use your aids productively: seat first, legs second, and hands last — and only if you need them. It’s a totally opposite mentality for many gaited-horse riders who are used to framing and directing their horse totally with the bit. The horse needs to find a level, neutral posture, and then achieve upper-level gaits and speed only as his conditioning allows.
Morey: Not getting help sooner. Not realizing how important relaxation is to having a quality gait, mental and physical. Without the former, you cannot have the latter. You can’t just cram the horse together and expect to have relaxation and therefore, quality. Period. The horse may do some form of a four-beat gait, but he won’t be relaxed throughout his whole body. Or, he may seem relaxed, but he won’t have an even, smooth gait. That’s where big bits can get in the way, because they create so much tension, especially in heavy hands. Bits aren’t as much the problem as the hands that are controlling them. Quality training, for the rider, is the better alternative. Instead, find a good trainer to help you learn to develop softness and relaxation in your horse. Get help and educate yourself. Develop proper feel. If you aren’t properly trained, how can you train your horse? Taking some basic, classical dressage lessons can help. But be careful that a nongaited trainer does not teach your horse to trot! Ideally, you want a trainer who understands gaited horses, but has some basic dressage background.
Whitesell: Riders are often in a rush to make horses gait and neglect basic foundation work. They use speed to get impulsion and try to get gait out of a horse that doesn’t have the muscle or balance to have the posture needed to produce gait. If the horse isn’t strong enough to hold the posture, you have to use speed. Many riders attempt to obtain gait by driving the horse forcefully into their hand. When you just drive the horse into your hand, you end up with behavioral issues, such as running through the bridle, being spooky and buddy sour. If you run the horse into fixed hands, he’s going to defend himself, and we call that a behavioral issue.
Instead, ride in lightness. Follow a good training process where you’re teaching the horse balance, forwardness, and lightness.
Q. What’s your best advice for trail riders who ride gaited horses?
Bauer: Work on how you give the aids to your horse instead of worrying about the gait. If you work on the aids, this leads to collection, and your horse will naturally gait.
Brighton: Learn to ride your horse, and be aware of his speed so you can regulate it. This way, you can ride with any breed of horse, gaited or not. It’s all about having fun, and enjoying the horses and the people.
Graves: Put an accelerator on your horse so you can transition up or down and you aren’t stuck in one gear. This means higher energy for more speed and softer, lowered energy for slower speeds. Teach your horse up and down transitions, so he has three variable speeds of each gait. This way, you know you can ride with anybody and any breed. Having three speeds in every gait is also a safety factor. You can speed up to get out of the way quickly, or rate your horse back if he’s getting “chargey” or strong.
Howe: Turn loose of the head! You need to let your horse balance himself for gaiting, and he needs to be able to look at the trail to negotiate any obstacles. It’s all about self-carriage and balance.
Morey: Make it about the horse, not the trail ride. Sometimes people are too much in a hurry to just get out there and ride without thinking about what the horse needs in that moment. Ninety-nine percent of the problems people have with trail riding are based on emotion in the horse and/or the human. Because of that, you get physical manifestations of issues showing up on your trail ride.
Whitesell: Put a good foundation on your horse, and his genes will tell him to gait.
Q. What would you say to those thinking of buying a gaited horse for trail riding?
Bauer: Explore all the breeds, and don’t be breed-specific. There are so many gaited breeds, and you want to match your personality with the horse. Be sure to try out the horse before you buy him.
Brighton: Make sure the horse is truly broke and matches your skill level.
Graves: A horse is not a toy or a four-wheeler. It’s a living, feeling emotional creature who’s dependent on us to live in our human world. You have to acclimate the horse to your environment, not “desensitize” him. Look for a horse that’s well-acclimated to the human environment in general. No matter what type of riding you do, your horse needs to be well acclimated to feel safe with you and whatever you’re asking him to do.
Howe: Don’t be fooled into thinking a horse has to be specially shod or held into a frame with a certain bit in order to gait. That may be true for horses that default to a pace, because they haven’t been allowed to develop their natural gaits. When you hold onto the horse’s mouth all the time, you interfere with his ability to self-carry. Many horses that are being “framed” by the bit are hollowed out in their posture and high-headed. They’ve never been taught to engage their core muscles and carry the rider properly.
Morey: A lot of people buy the wrong horse. They often find a horse for sale online that’s “pretty” or with a “satisfaction guarantee,” and buy the horse without knowing whether he matches their skill level or without even riding him first. Go try the horse first, and ride him more than once before you buy, if you can. If you buy him and he doesn’t work for you, then you have the responsibility to find him another home that fits him, and that’s not always easy or in his best interests.
Whitesell: Don’t buy the horse without riding him! If you’re a trail rider, make sure you go out on the trail. If you just ride in the arena, you won’t know if he’s barn-sour or buddy-sour or spooky. He could be one horse in the arena and a different horse out on the trail.
Use our handy directory of 21 smooth-gaited breed associations to find out more about each breed.
American Gaited Pony Registry
American Saddlebred Horse
(859) 259-2742; www.saddlebred.com
Gaited Morgan Horse Organization
(dba Morgan Single-Footing Horse Association)
Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association/Spotted Mountain Horse Association
(859) 225-5674; www.kmsha.com
Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association, Inc.
(417) 683-2468; www.mfthba.com
Montana Travler Horse Association
Mountain Pleasure Horse
National Spotted Saddle Horse
(615) 890-2864; www.nssha.com
National Walking Horse Association
(859) 252-6942; www.nwha.com
North American Peruvian Horse
Santa Rosa, Calif.
(707) 544-5807; www.napha.net
Paso Fino Horse Association
(859) 825-6000; www.pfha.org
Racking Horse Breeders’ Association of America
Rocky Mountain Horse Association
(859) 243-0260; www.rmhorse.com
Single-Footing Horse Owners’
& Breeders’ Association
Spotted Saddle Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association
(931) 684-7496; www.sshbea.org
Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association
Tennuvian Horse Registry
Spring Hill, Fla.
United States Icelandic Horse
(866) 292-0009; www.icelandics.org