By Lisa Bialy
Because there is so much misinformation out there about the smooth gaited horse breeds, I have collected and compiled a list of “myths” and “facts” with respect to the versatility of the gaited horse. Sadly, there are so many myths and I’m sure I did not cover every one of them! My facts are based on research and also from personal experience. Over the past 16 years, I have owned several gaited breeds, including Walking Horses, Peruvian Horses, Foxtrotters and Rocky Mountain Horses. I have worked with several excellent trainers (gaited and non-gaited), from dressage and eventing to Western Vaquero style. I have raised and trained several of my own Peruvian and Walking Horses, and have rehabbed rescues, including some ex-biglick Walking Horses. While I mostly trail ride, I enjoy doing about everything from parades to musical performances, obstacle and ranch work, some liberty work, dressage and endurance. I am passionate about learning everything I can about these awesome horses!
Okay, here we go!!
Myths or Facts
Smooth Gaits are Artificial: “The walk, the trot, and the canter are normal gaits for normal horses. Gaited horses bother me, because their smooth gaits are man-made and artificial. I’m into natural horsemanship, and I want my horse to enjoy our trail rides. I could never ride a horse that was forced to perform an artificial gait!”
You can safely enjoy gaited horses, natural horsemanship, and trail riding – these three things go together very well. The show ring and the trail are two very different places. Good trail gaits aren’t created by special tack or riding techniques; they’re bred into the horses and brought out by sensible, sympathetic training and proper body conditioning. Strength, balance, and flexibility are all necessary in order to have the smooth gait!
Gaited Horses are Hot Heads: “I want a quiet, gentle horse, not a high-headed crazy one. I can tell by looking at those heads in the air that gaited horses are nutcases.”
Actually, most gaited breeds are exceptionally gentle and sensible, very far from being nutcases. It’s true that many gaited breeds have a higher head set…as are some of the non-gaited breeds, such as Morgans and Saddlebreds. If you look at the silhouettes of horses standing in a pasture, you’ll notice differences in the way their necks are set on. Some breeds, such as Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, are less high-headed, with their necks appearing to come forward out of their backs. Other breeds, such as Walking Horses, Peruvian Horses, Paso Finos, and Rocky Mountain Horses, have necks that are set on higher and carried more upright. Some riders prefer one type; some prefer the other, but in no way does any horse’s natural silhouette identify it as a “nutcase.” Then you have the very misunderstood “brio” of the Peruvian Horse. Brio is not a crazy hotheaded horse, but is the heart and spirit that this breed contains in their genes. Some contain their brio more than others. My own mare can be cool as a cucumber on the trail, until I ask for some energy and she will transform into what seems to be a fire breathing dragon. She will give me the energy needed, but it is contained and no control is lost. I have sat on Peruvian Horses who felt like rockets ready to explode….growling under their breath and body quivering. This can be terrifying to someone who does not understand the true definition and feel of brio…or someone who has been on a seemingly quiet horse who suddenly went on a bucking frenzy for no apparent reason. What we like to say is, our Peruvian Horses wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they will give you 125%!!
You Need a Long-Shanked Bit: “I just bought my first gaited horse, and I’d like to take him out on the trail. However, I don’t have the right kind of bit. I know you have to use a long-shanked bit and keep the pressure on all the time to keep a gaited horse gaiting. Plus, it seems like the kind of riding you have to do would be way too much work on a long trail ride.”
A gaited horse does not need a special bit or heavy rein pressure in order to gait. As for pressure, that just makes the ride uncomfortable for you and your horse. Like any other horse breed, a gaited horse needs proper training (they are not born trained–a huge misconception). A gaited horse will gait in a snaffle, a side pull, a halter with lead rope, or bitless/reinless. They can and will work happily in all gaits on a slack rein. Gaited horses can be taught to neck-rein, which will make your trail rides that much easier. Constant bit pressure won’t help your horse’s natural gait. With any horse, gait depends partly on genetics, partly on conformation, partly on body conditioning, and partly on the horse’s comfort level. Watch your horse when he or she is turned out in the pasture, and you’ll discover that he can perform all of his gaits with no bridle at all.
You Need a “Gaited” Saddle: “My new Walking Horse seems to be okay with her tack, but we’re out on the trails for hours at a time practically every day. I worry about making her sore, because I’m using my sister’s old dressage saddle and I know I need a special saddle made for gaited horses.”
If your horse’s saddle allows him or her to move easily and comfortably, with even pressure from front to back of the saddle and no part of the saddle digging in at the wither or the tail end of the saddle, your saddle is fine. It doesn’t matter whether it is a good dressage saddle, an endurance saddle, an all-purpose saddle, or a trail saddle–if it fits your horse, you’re good to go. Special saddles “designed for gaited horses” are mostly marketing hype, and not about proper fit. Not all saddles are made to fit all horses (I find this with the Peruvian Horse breed…just because it is a traditional Peruvian Horse saddle, that does not mean it fits all Peruvian Horses!!) ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL!! Although the gaited saddles are designed to allow more shoulder movement, they do not all fit every gaited horse and are often too wide in the front, sitting down too close to the wither, sitting on top of or clinching along the spine. One issue I have seen so much of is the back of the saddle digging down into the horse’s spine, especially with the rider’s weight, and the horses having large bumps formed there on the spine. Nerves are impinged and cause pain and weakness down into the hips and back legs. Brutal!! There are other factors involved…the length of your horse’s back, the rock of the tree to match the curve of the back, the angles of the tree from front to back…
sadly too many people focus on just the gullet width and that is not accurate.
I had a wonderful chiropractor friend show me how to map the back of my horse using lengths of heavy gauge Romex wire, and I was amazed at the differing measurements from front to back, as well as the left and right sides not in perfect synch. No wonder we have grumpy horses who end up having shoulder, back, hip and legs issues!
Do your homework, work with a saddle fitter who understands back mapping, get good advice on tack selection and fitting (note that a well-made, well-fitting saddle won’t pinch or interfere with your horse’s shoulders), check and re-check the fit of your saddle, make sure to use a good saddle pad that allows full spine clearance and gives your horse that added support. Then, re-check more as your horse develops into a strong and fit athlete. You and your horse should have many happy years riding together!
The Saddle should Sit Mid-Back: “I’m having a hard time keeping my horse’s saddle in the middle of his back. After riding for about an hour, the saddle comes forward. He actually seems more comfortable when it’s closer to his withers, but I know gaited horses need to have their saddles way back in the middle of their backs.”
This is a bad habit born in the show ring; placing the saddle far back puts you in a position to strain your horse’s back. Gaited horses are just like other horses; they have the same skeletal structure and the same muscle groups. The spot where any horse is best able to carry a rider’s weight is just a hand or two behind the withers. If your saddle fits well, all you need to do is slide it back until you feel it settle into place, then look at it from the side to be sure that the deepest part of the saddle, the place where you sit, is the lowest part of the seat. If the deepest spot is near the cantle, the saddle is too far forward; if the deepest spot is just behind the pommel, the saddle is too far back.
At the same token, watch out for the other end of the spectrum. Do not put your saddle too far onto the shoulders/wither, as you will have a whole other set of problems to deal with.
Sit Like You are in a Recliner and Go!
NOOOOOO! Don’t do it! If you need to take some dressage lessons to make sure you are sitting balanced on your horse, it is money well spent! It’s better for you and it’s better for your horse! It is drilled into our heads growing up to stand up straight and don’t slouch, so why would you get on your horse and expect him or her to perform like a perfect athlete while you are slouching and creating unbalance and undue pressure?
With respect to the other extreme, do not sit in 1 or 2 point, and do not post when your horse is trying to find his or her smooth gait. While it can be tough trying to sit a hard pace, you will only be encouraging your horse to stay in that pace. Ask for a half halt, or use inside leg pressure to encourage your horse to come back down into the easy gait.
Gaited Horses need Special Trimming and Shoeing: “My farrier has always done a good job with my non-gaited horses. But I’ll need to get a new farrier for my new smooth-gaited horse. He needs special shoeing to help him gait.”
Whether your horse wears metal shoes, hoof boots, or goes barefoot, he needs the services of a good farrier or natural trimmer. The basics of trimming and shoeing are not breed-dependent. A good farrier/trimmer will look at an individual horse’s conformation, gaits, and movement, then trim and/or shoe the horse’s hooves according to the natural angles. Your farrier/trimmer will do his or her best to balance and align your horse’s hooves in a way that will promote natural gaits and optimal soundness, thus allowing your horse to stand and travel comfortably, smoothly, and in balance, keeping the correct angles according to the horse’s conformation. Your gaited horse should gait comfortably and easily whether he’s barefoot, steel-shod, or wearing hoof boots.
A smooth, natural gait can be preserved through good hoof care (and ruined by poor hoof care), but the sources of a horse’s natural gait are heredity, conformation, soundness and training–not shoeing. Experience with specific breeds can help a farrier/trimmer understand your horse’s gait and performance level. If your farrier/trimmer is not comfortable working with your gaited horse, find one who works with trail and endurance horses, not one whose specialty is “enhancing” gaits for the show ring.
Gaited Horses are not Surefooted: “I like the idea of a smooth-gaited horse, but not for trail riding. Those high-stepping horses just aren’t surefooted enough to be safe.”
This is a double myth. First, a good, well trained gaited horse will be a smooth-moving horse. Second, a good, well trained gaited horse will be very surefooted, and will handle even tough trails in style. Don’t buy into the notion that gaited horses are all eye-rolling, leg-flinging, high-stepping creatures. This is a learned behavior caused by fear and pain, associated with poor and cruel training. There are quite a few working ranches where gaited horses are raised and trained naturally, and spend their days stepping over logs, walking through water, and carrying their riders smoothly up and down hills, and over all kinds of terrain in all kinds of weather.
Purebred Trotting Horses do not Gait: “My Quarter Horse gelding does a sort of cross between a walk and a trot when we’re on the trail. It’s comfortable for both of us, so I just go ahead and let him do it. I don’t show, so it doesn’t really matter, but I guess his papers must be fake since he wouldn’t gait if he were a purebred Quarter Horse.”
Many members of “non-gaited” breeds, such as Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Appaloosas and Morgans can walk, trot, canter, and perform one or more smooth gaits. If your horse has an “extra gear” in the form of a comfortable smooth gait, relax and enjoy it! Don’t worry; your horse’s papers are probably his own.
Trotting Ruins Smooth Gaits: “Sometimes I’d like to trot my gaited horse on the trail. I’ve seen him trot in the pasture, so I know he can do it, but I’ve heard that if you let a gaited horse trot, it’ll ruin his smooth gaits.”
Trotting is a natural gait for most horses, and is good for their backs, helping to develop balance and muscle strength. Versatile gaited horses are quite capable of performing gaits that are not in their breed description. If your horse walks, trots, and canters in the pasture, there’s no reason he cannot walk, trot, and canter under saddle. Go ahead and trot your horse, encouraging him to use his belly muscles, lift and stretch his back, and reach forward and down with his head and neck. He may not get the chance to exercise these muscles in the same way when he’s gaiting, and it’s very good for him to do some cross-training.
Don’t worry about causing your horse to “lose” his special gaits, and don’t worry that he or she will begin offering a trot when you ask him for his running walk, foxtrot, or singlefoot. Relax, and trust the intelligence and versatility of your horse. To ensure that you get the gait you want when you want it, simply teach him or her a specific cue to go with each gait. That way, your horse will understand exactly what you are asking for at any given moment. For me personally, I have trained my Peruvian mare to trot and use the voice command with our speed change. She has a smooth, slower gait, but because of her conformation, she has struggled to hold the gait in a faster speed, rather wanting to canter. I finally stopped fighting her on this, and allowed her to do the fast trot to keep up with the other horses (it is closer to a singlefoot gait). If anything, this helps her to develop better muscle and she can now gait a bit faster, but she knows the “trot” command and will only do it when asked.
Many gaited horses can perform many gaits and do them all well; think of them as extra-special horses with extra gears. It’s perfectly possible for one horse to be able to perform a flatfoot walk, running walk, singlefoot, foxtrot, trot, and canter. Find out what your horse can do, and as long as he’s equally comfortable in all of his various gaits, encourage him to use the ones that are most suitable for your chosen activities.
Gaited Horses are not True Athletes: “Gaited horses are pretty to watch, but they’re just for shows and parades, they’re not useful for real work.”
Tell my Peruvian mare this!! She has the best work ethic of any horse I have ever had, and I don’t have to ask her twice for more impulsion. She is very surefooted, and has a strong survival drive–she watches where she puts each foot consistently and she will purposely keep a safe distance from a cliff or a hole in the ground. She will gladly gallop for a couple miles on a beautiful clean stretch and not tire, and will stop on a dime if there is something dangerous in her path. She loves to run barrels or poles, and will do any obstacle in our path. We have played horse soccer (not just pushing the ball around, but playing matches with other horse/rider teams), and has no problem running the ball down to the goal! Ranch work, moving cattle, heck yeah!! She will help pick out her cow, run it to the gate, and then hold the gate for the next cow. She loves to be in a parade even more than I do, and is happy to hold a flag while we do it. She is an athlete through and through!
Gaited horses can be spectacular to watch at shows and in parades, but those are only two of the many places where gaited horses excel. From ranch work to police work to handicapped-riding programs, there are hard-working gaited horses everywhere. They often do well in open competitions, and are increasingly popular for such activities as competitive trail riding and endurance riding. If you do a lot of trail riding, you’ve probably seen and admired gaited horses without even realizing that they were gaited.
Gaited Horses cannot do Dressage: They most certainly can! The only difference is that their smooth and easy gait is a 4-beat lateral movement, instead of a 2-beat diagonal trot.
The other myth that accompanies this is that a lot of gaited horse trainers believe that gaited horses should never be worked at their special gaits for lateral movements. Which would mean that you could only work your gaited horse on flexibility and strength at the walk. Some trainers honestly think that lateral movements will be detrimental to the quality of a horse’s gait. Not so. Now, I’m not talking about piaffe and passage and all of that…which some gaited horses can also do, by the way…the fino gait of the Paso Fino is technically a very accelerated piaffe where the legs move in a lateral sequence instead of diagonal.
Anyway. I’m talking about dressage as the art of training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility and balance. So why on earth should only trotting horses benefit from this? Since by definition dressage has the end goal of teaching the horse to use his body correctly with a rider on board, it will also create engagement and better quality of gaits, whether those gaits are the trot and canter or rack/tolt/paso/whatever. Dressage should come first before any other discipline: If your horse is balanced and using himself correctly on the flat, he will do the same over fences in the arena or cross country, he will be stronger as an endurance horse, he will be better prepared to do sliding stops as a reiner, he will be able to collect and extend more dramatically as a gaited horse being put through his paces.
Gaited Horses cannot go up and down Hills: What, are you kidding me? This is one I have personally been asked about with respect to the Peruvian Horse, and I have a hard time giving a serious answer. Considering my Peruvian mare has done extensive trail riding her whole life, in places like the Rocky Mountains, in high elevation with drastic elevation climbs, I say not only can they do it, but they should do it. Like with any other horse breed, hill work should be a gradual build up so they can develop and strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments, while expanding their lung capacity so they can handle the speed, length of ride, along with the elevation changes. AERC and NATRC have excellent information on the proper way to condition horses on the trails.
Gaited Horses cannot Jump: Another question I have been asked–or more like told, “gaited horses cannot jump”. I spent a couple years working with one of our Walking Horses who was labeled “the Walker who will never gait”. Our first dressage lesson had him doing a beautiful flat footed walk, and with several more lessons, he was able to develop his gait. Moving on to schooling him on the stadium jumps and cross-country course, he competed at a MSEA two-phase event (dressage, cross-country and pair pace). He placed in 5th for our division in the combined dressage and cross-country, and 1st place in division for the pair pace. This raised some eyebrows and eventually got me kicked out of the trainer’s program. I guess she didn’t want to be one of the pioneers pushing to allow gaited horses to compete! Because of this gelding’s success, I schooled all of my young Walkers and Peruvians in dressage and jumping, and found my young Peruvian mare to have quite the aptitude to jump. One of our favorite trailheads on the Front Range in Colorado had a 60+ cross-country jump course, and we often gaited or galloped through, taking on several of the jumps.
All that being said, I wouldn’t push my Peruvian Horse to compete in the sport of Eventing, but knowing she can jump just about anything gives me the comfort of knowing if we had to, we could. If you have ever gone trail riding in the Rocky Mountains, you know how fast a storm can be on top of you, and with trees coming down and branches breaking, sometimes jumping is the only way you can continue on the trail!
In Summary, all gaited horse breeds can do all disciplines. In fact, they can excel at anything you ask them to do! We are seeing gaited horses competing in the United States Eventing Association, something that until recently was forbidden. We have gaited horses participating in the World Equestrian Games. We have a rapidly growing number of gaited horses competing in the endurance world, even participating in the 100-mile Tevis. Working cattle ranches are seeing the value of using breeds such as Fox Trotters and Walking Horses while doing their daily work. Some gaited breeds are still smaller in population, and breeders/owners are hesitant to utilize their horses to their full extent. This is a huge reason why we strive to show the versatility of our horses. They are intelligent, strong and surefooted, and they will give you all of their heart!