When you ask your horse to lengthen his strides, do you get the desired response? Does he make the effort to reach farther with his legs, covering more ground with every rhythmic stride? Or does he merely speed up in shorter, choppier, faster steps, or worse, ignore you?
If this is a troublesome area in your training, I’m here to help you out. I’ll teach you how to ask for and get longer strides at the walk, jog, and lope. Whether you ride largely for recreation or compete in show classes as well, you’ll add to your horse’s training foundation with this skill. It’ll allow you to control the amount of ground your horse covers, giving you the ability to rate him as he travels. He’ll learn to do more than just amble along, and will have cleaner, smoother gaits.
He’ll be responsive when you really need him to lengthen strides—for crossing a downed tree on a trail, let’s say, or for demonstrating ability to extend gaits in a Western pleasure class when a judge makes that call.
Here, I’ll show you good/poor examples of each gait. I’ll provide step-by-step instructions for getting longer strides at each gait. I’ll also offer advice and insights specific to Western pleasure competition.
At the Walk
To lengthen: Establish a relaxed, four-beat walk. Sit tall in your saddle, while relaxing your shoulders, and make the following cues. Bring your feet in slightly closer to your horse’s sides, and move your rein hand forward 1 to 2 inches. Showing tip: This movement should be very subtle, as you don’t want it be noticeable to the judges. By bringing your hand forward, you are “opening the door” and freeing up your horse’s legs for more forward movement. He’ll feel less restricted and thus have an easier time lengthening his stride.
Softly increase your seat rhythm in the saddle—it should be more of a forward push, than a side-to-side movement. Next, make a very slight in-and-out motion with your feet—fanning down in your stirrups and gently pressing against your horse’s sides with your heels. (Note: At the walk, it’s unlikely you’ll need to use spur pressure; instead, focus on using your heels and calves.)
You’ll be able to tell when your horse is lengthening his stride when you feel him reaching farther with his legs to cover more ground. His legs shouldn’t be moving faster—they should simply be reaching farther forward. Ideally, your horse should maintain a horizontal topline, with his nose pointed in the direction he’s traveling. He should look alert with his ears up, while still maintaining a relaxed cadence. It’s OK for him to flick his ears back and forth as he tunes in to your cues.
Showing tip: Judges consider the walk to be poor when a horse stops for a moment in mid-stride, hesitates, walks two steps, hesitates, and so on. This type of walk, though slow, is actually a two-beat gait instead of a four-beat gait and therefore incorrect. Also when exhibiting a poor walk, a horse often will allow his head to droop toward the ground, giving him a faulty topline.
At the Jog
To lengthen: Establish a medium two-beat jog. Subtly move your rein hand forward 1 to 2 inches, as you did at the walk. Encourage your horse to accelerate with your seat rhythm, using a subtle forward-and-back motion. You’ll feel a slight rocking motion in the saddle, and with practice, your body rhythm will sync with your horse’s movement, which will help you encourage your horse to extend his step at the jog.
Adjust your position so that your seat is slightly more forward in the saddle; however, don’t allow your upper body to tip forward. Continue sitting tall in your saddle. Add a bit more pressure with your calves than you did at the walk, and slightly nudge or tap your horse’s sides with your spurs. If your horse doesn’t extend his step after you’ve implemented the above cues, repeat them, perhaps adding a little more pressure with your legs and spurs until he understands the concept. (Note: You do not want your horse to surge forward into a fast, choppy trot, in which he’d actually be taking shorter steps. To prevent this, maintain a moderate degree of collection while implementing your extending cues.)
Showing tip: If you don’t demonstrate a true two-beat jog, you’ll be penalized. Within a false or impure jog, one foot drags along for a moment while its diagonal counterpart is lifted. In this case, none of the horse’s legs extend.
At the Lope
To lengthen: After establishing a cadenced rhythm at the lope while maintaining a degree of collection, subtly move your rein hand forward—slightly more than you did at the walk or the jog. Next, gradually add more leg pressure and maybe a medium tap with your spurs. Try to ride a bit more forward in your seat as another means of signaling your horse to lengthen, but also attempt to maintain the collection you had at the shorter-strided lope, as this will encourage your horse to lengthen his stride instead of going faster.
A horse lengthens his stride at the lope by pushing off his back lead leg. If your horse is loping on the left lead, for example, his right hind leg would be his “push” leg. Ideally, you want your horse to sit harder on that leg to help him lengthen his stride. To achieve this, sit back on your hipbones, as you would at a slower lope, and apply pressure with your outside leg. Once you feel your horse lengthen his stride, try to achieve a consistent rhythm by maintaining your position and continuing to apply slight pressure with your outside leg, if need be.
Repetition, reinforcement: If your horse doesn’t lengthen his stride after you’ve applied the cues I’ve outlined here, continue to practice, repeat the cues, and practice some more to reinforce what you’re asking of him. Before you cue your horse to lengthen, however, he must be moving forward properly (that is, with the correct number of footfalls at each gait) with consistency and cadence. Further, be sure to maintain a degree of collection when you add the leg or spur pressure that encourages your horse to lengthen his stride.
Steer, steer, steer: If you’ve been consistent with your lengthening cues, but your horse continues to move forward in a fast, choppy gait, do some basic steering exercises. Start at a walk and advance through the other gaits.
Achieve a cadenced, consistent walk, and cue your horse to lengthen his stride. Then, constantly steer him in different directions. Cross the arena on a diagonal, then turn the opposite way from which you started, make circles or half circles, cross the center of the ring—anything that will keep your horse guessing what’s coming next. These steering exercises will help your horse with collection because he must keep himself together when turning. If your horse breaks into an unbalanced, choppy gait, use your reins to slow him down and then gradually begin again.
Pole power: You can also use a pole as a training aid to encourage your horse to lengthen his stride. Place a ground pole in a large arena or an open area to provide your horse with plenty of space to maneuver. Position your horse so that he’s straight and square, about 15 to 20 feet from the pole. Establish a cadenced walk with collection, approaching the pole on a straight line, and allow your horse to walk over it. At this point, don’t worry about “asking” him to cross over; allow him to figure out his own foot placement. After repeating this multiple times, your horse will come realize that a short, inconsistent step won’t allow him to clear the pole without striking it.
Next, cue your horse to lengthen his stride at the walk as you approach the pole. As you advance, look at the ground 6 to 12 inches in front of the pole, as that’s where your horse’s foot will land before he reaches forward to cross the pole. Once that foot lands, look at the other side of the pole, and with your legs and seat, ask your horse to lengthen his step as he crosses the pole. He’ll learn that he must lengthen his step to successfully clear the pole, which will not only encourage him to lengthen his stride at the walk, but will also bolster his confidence at this new way of moving.
After your horse has mastered lengthening his stride over the pole at the walk, practice going over it at the jog and the lope, using the same cues as you did at the walk. Practice going over it in the opposite direction for variety and to make sure your horse is in tune with you traveling in both directions.
After you’ve mastered a single pole, incorporate two to three poles, spaced 24 inches apart. (Note: With only 24 inches between the poles, you’ll only practice the series at the walk and jog. Also, don’t include more than three or four poles, as this could hinder your horse’s confidence if he took too many missteps or even tripped.) When maneuvering through a series of poles, your horse will have to continue lengthening his step over each, which will help him establish a nice lengthening of stride when he’s going without the poles.
Lead changes: Executing lead changes is another helpful exercise to teach your horse to elongate his stride, as he must lengthen to achieve the change. Whether you’re asking for a lead change on a straight line or before you change directions, cue your horse to lengthen his stride, while you maintain collection. I recommend asking your horse to lengthen for at least 15 strides before asking him to change leads. This will also help you establish a consistent, cadenced lope. Make sure to practice lead changes in both directions to work both sides of your horse’s body.
Angie Cannizzaro, who specializes in training Western pleasure futurity horses, has won numerous world championship futurity titles, including the Little Futurity, the Tom Powers Futurity, the NSBA Futurity, and the Reichert Celebration. In 2012, she won the 2-year-old Masters Western Pleasure Futurity at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, her biggest win to date. She and her husband, Charles, own and operate CAC Show Horses in Purcell, Oklahoma.