The words “trotting” and “gaited horse” are hardly synonymous. In fact, most people choose a gaited horse specifically so they don’t have to post, and think people who choose to partake in that particular activity are crazy. Some say it ruins the gait and will make a horse unable to ever gait again. However, it’s quite the opposite and possible for a gaited horse to display a lovely trot, as well as compete and hold their own against non-gaited horses in the show ring!
The question generally asked is: why attempt to trot a gaited horse? And the answer is simple: why not? This article will not recount the myriad of ways trotting helps a gaited horse since, unlike the canter, the trot does not strengthen the same muscles that are used to gait. However, it can make the horse stronger overall and develop the topline so they can carry themselves more correctly at other gaits.
As always, there are caveats. If a horse has trouble distinguishing cues between the trot and the gait, or is having difficulty in maintaining gait for long periods of time; this may not be for that horse. There are some horses that will never trot a step in their life, and again this is not for that horse. There are some people that may shake their head reading this article, and that’s okay! This is not for that person. The point is to simply extrapolate why to train this particular gait and to help determine if a horse should add a fifth gait to its repertoire. In fact, there are several breeds that regularly perform all five gaits. The two most popular are the Saddlebred and the Icleandic Horse. The five-gaited Saddlebred is a sight to behold and easily switches between the gait and the trot. Most Icelandics offer both the trot and the tolt, or gait, and even do the flying pace as well!
First, examine the mechanics required to gait versus trot. Trotting and gaiting the same animal can be very confusing to the horse if the rider does not give clear aids, so it is vital to realize what is required to do each gait. In order to perform a saddle rack, the nuchal ligament must be in active use in the horse’s neck to allow the four beat footfall. The left back foot will land, then the left front, then the right back and the right front. If both feet on one side lift at the same time and set down at the same time, it is a pace. If the fore foot is only set down a half second after the back foot, it is a stepped pace. The true four beat saddle rack gait is best described as sounding like “ticka-ticka”. It is continuous and on pavement makes a melody that is really fun to listen to.
If the horse is tense, with neck inverted, nose in the air and the back hollowed out, the horse will inevitably pace. The horse does not necessarily need to be on the vertical as far as head placement goes, instead with nose out, but they should not be “star gazing”, or with nose skyward and head parallel to the ground. These can be damaging to the horse. Nor, should they go with nose buried to the chest or with neck below the withers, as this will lead to the trot or broken trot. The rider will stay put in the saddle or very gently feel a sway back and forth – any jarring and the horse is not in a proper gait and might be step-pacing or pacing.
In the trot, the horse is loose and balanced, allowing diagonal pairs of legs versus the lateral movement of the gait or pace. The trot is typically performed with a lower head and neck, and to be done properly the back must round and the hind end be engaged, allowing the hindquarters to push the horse instead of being stuck on the forehand, allowing the front end to drag the horse along. It is possible, but not correct, for the horse to trot with its head in the air and back hollow – this is not comfortable for horse or rider and can cause long-term damage.
Next, it is important to decide which cues to use to differentiate the two gaits. There have to be two distinct cues, as otherwise the horse will guess what they think is needed and it may be wrong. The cues that I found work best with Rain were hands up, contact with the mouth but not a death grip on the mouth, which helps bring her head up where it needs to be. There is consistent leg pressure at her barrel, asking her to move up into the bit and keep her body “together”, so to speak, allowing her to gait properly.
With the trot, it is the opposite. Hands go down closer to the withers, beginning with little to no rein pressure and then taking up contact to ask her to drop her head. It is more comfortable to post, and leg pressure is used mostly to ask her to keep from dropping her shoulder in the turns, generally one leg at a time. She will start rounding if asked properly and engaging her hindquarters.
If the horse will not trot, there are a myriad of different techniques to use. Ground poles can be helpful, spaced to encourage the trot. Sometimes circles help on a long rein, as it is more difficult to keep the gait with bend in the body. Asking the horse to drop their nose and relax is generally helpful as well. Please note it can be awkward when the horse tries different gaits to figure out what the rider wants; pacing, step pacing, and cantering can be some of the options they try. This is normal. Hills are also helpful on a loose rein, making sure to keep some contact so they do not charge up at a canter.
Keep in mind some horses will never trot except upon an act of congress. Jolene had a wonderful canter, but would gait even with her nose buried in her chest. While that is great if riding down the trail or showing in breed shows, it is not so much if the desire is to event, where a proper two beat trot is required in the determination of soundness and for dressage tests.
It is worth noting that it is not possible to “break” a gaited horse (meaning it will not gait again) by trotting or cantering it. Even now,when Rain gets tense or excited, she naturally breaks into a gait. In her last event, when competing cross-country she was so excited she gaited nearly the entire course. In fact, when she was first started under saddle as a three year old, it was nearly impossible to perform a gait. Exasperated, I finally relented and let her trot. Trying to certify her to breed was out of the question because she did not take a step of gait under saddle. It was not until two years later, when taking lessons from a qualified gaited trainer I realized that it was all in the cue to request the gait and slowly, she developed first a stepped pace, then finally a saddle rack. She was certified to breed and then had a show career. Frequently, people mention they are terrified to break the horse, but that is just not possible. All a rider needs to do is learn the proper cue and they can “fix” it and get the horse gaiting again.
Some people ask why not buy a trotting horse instead of fitting a square peg into a round hole. However, some are more an octagon – edges just need to be rounded slightly to fit into a different discipline. If a rider feels like adding another gear to the horse’s repertoire and are up to try it, know that it is possible for the vast majority of gaited horses to do. It’s certainly not hurt my mare, who still relaxes and gets back into that gait quietly and easily when we hit the trails. In fact, I’ve had so much success with her that I plan on doing precisely the same thing with Vegas when he’s started under saddle. If you are interested in keeping up with the adventures of the eventing Rocky, just keep reading this blog!