The most common question I get asked is what to do with a horse that won’t gait. The term easy gaited horses can be a misnomer, as some horses do not make it easy at all, and others will never offer a step of anything other than the perfect gait. If it were as simple as having a horse read a manual, this article would not be necessary. Unfortunately horses can’t read, and even if they could they have their own ideas on what to do to keep us riders on our toes. Some take an act of congress to achieve any gait other than a hard pace or a jarring trot. It depends on several factors, and takes troubleshooting of sorts to determine what the issue is. The important thing to remember is: it happens sometimes, it just does.
When posting my controversial article about trotting the gaited horse, one person even went so far as to say they would trash the papers and sell the horse if it took a step of trot, which would be a waste. Here’s the thing – nearly all gaited horses are multi-gaited. This means they have the potential to offer every single range of gait that the different breeds are known for, including non-gaited horses. There are several things that can affect the gait – conformation, breed, training, saddle, bridle, and rider position.
Conformation can affect how the horse gaits. For instance, a short, upright shoulder and pasterns will make the gait stride shorter. A long, sloping shoulder and pasterns may make the horse have a longer, more sweeping stride. The angle of the hindquarter can either make the horse stride further under or take shorter strides behind. The horse’s breed will have different ideal conformation, which will make them lean towards one style or the other, having them more likely to runwalk versus saddle rack. However, this is not a one hundred percent guarantee, as other factors outside of this can affect how they gait.
First and foremost is saddle fit. Like wearing shoes that are too big or too small – if the horse is focusing on an ill fitting saddle they will not be able to properly perform a gait. Too wide a saddle is just as bad as too narrow. The most important is scapular clearance; allowing the shoulder blades to clear the saddle without pinching. Experienced saddle fitters can help with this. I have found that it’s not necessarily whether the saddle is gaited or not, more that the saddle just has to fit. Gaited trees can work but my preferred saddle for training and trail riding is a dressage saddle.
If the saddle is determined to fit, next look at teeth and bitting. Another common question is what bit to use, and the answer is: it depends. These factors depend on a few things such as the horse’s mouth shape: do they have a low palette or a large tongue? It also can vary based on whether they go well in a snaffle or a curb. If the horse in constantly fussing with the bit, they will not be able to focus on the gait and may toss their heads, which will alter movement. A competent equine dentist should be used yearly or at their recommendation. Teeth constantly grow and erupt as the horse gets older. If not filed down, they can create sharp points that when the bit has pressure applied, will draw the soft flesh of the cheek into the point and will create pain. When these are removed, the pain will be removed as well.
The bit itself can vary. Walk into any tack store and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the choices involved. Single joint, double joint, straight bar, roller; there are different length and style shanks and weights of the bit itself. If the horse does not work well in one bit, it can be a good idea to try another style and see if it works. The best rule of thumb is the least amount of bit possible. Sure, a horse might go in a mouthpiece with a chainsaw mouthpiece and 12” shanks without killing the rider, but should it? The horse won’t have much tongue left by the end of it.
Around the farm, everything goes in a French link snaffle or a myler shanked bit. I’ve tried most of the fads over the years and I have an entire tack box filled with different style bits. The French link snaffle and the myler have become my go-to bits, as my mare has a very low palette and small mouth, which creates a nutcracker effect in the roof of her mouth when a single joint bit is used. She much prefers an oval lozenge in the middle and won’t mouth or duck behind the bit with it. The Myler has a similar style with less give – it has a shank to help collect a little further with just the tiniest communication between my hands and the horse’s mouth, which is perfect to show.
Another common bit is the wonder bit, which can offer a ton of different mouthpieces, but the most common one is a single joint. The bit is set on large rings with a shank off of it. This bit operates on the idea that as the shank has pressure applied, it moves the mouthpiece up the ring and applies pressure to the mouth and the poll. This will ask the horse to drop its head and put its nose in. I have showed many a horse in this bit successfully, and like most bits it is the rider’s hands as much as the bit itself. It wasn’t until I found Rain absolutely despised them that I changed over to the Myler. That doesn’t mean it is a bad bit – just that it didn’t work for that particular horse.
The most cost effective way to try multiple bits is to buy used. It is important make sure to clean them properly before use. If the bit doesn’t work, it’s easy to sell it on without losing a ton of money, or put it in reserve to try for another horse. Remember that horses are not machines as well. While frustrating, sometimes a horse will love a bit one day and hate a bit the next. It can depend on how their mouth is feeling that day – for instance a young horse will have changes frequently as teeth erupt and caps (baby teeth) fall out. Sometimes it can be an extremely frustrating venture.
If the horse is accepting the bit and not avoiding it, the next thing to look at is how the horse engages when working. The rider cannot sit like a bump on a log unless the horse is so well gaited it could do it in his sleep. Jolene, my chestnut mare was just like that. At one point I actually tried to teach her to trot and with her head in her chest and the reins slack on the buckle, she only gaited. I know the concept of training a horse to trot seems the opposite what the norm is, but I have done it before (see Trotting the Gaited Horse for more information). This mare was not one of those horses, which was completely fine.
The thing to keep in mind is how the horse is working and using its body. Frame and headset are things that people commonly use to describe how a horse holds its head, but it is so much more than that. The horse, just like a trotting horse, needs to be using its back end to push up to the bridle, which will in turn help them have the right headset.
If the horse has its head up and neck and back hollow, they will likely pace or step pace, as there is no engagement in the back end due to the hollowness of the back. The rider needs to ask the horse to move forward without going faster by holding their hands to steady the head and use the legs to ask them to step underneath themselves. They are too tight otherwise and it will make the body move laterally, creating that pace or stepped pace.
A horse with their head too far down between their knees will likely trot or do a broken trot. This is because the nuchal ligament in the neck cannot be activated with the head that low. This creates the motion to trot, or if the ligament is somewhat activated, the broken trot or fox trot. In a broken trot, the diagonal pairs will step down a few moments apart. It can be just as smooth as a saddle rack. If the horse is destined for the show ring, however, it is not acceptable for the Rocky Mountain breed shows.
The ideal headset will vary some between the breeds, so we will look at the Trail Pleasure Mountain Horse in this instance. Show Pleasure will have a higher headset and higher step, but the vast majority of people want a Trail Pleasure horse. The head should be well above the withers, with nose on the vertical or slightly above. Behind the vertical means the horse is avoiding the bit and may be more likely to bobble in the gait. The reins should not be too tight, but the rider should be able to feel the mouth. If the reins are too loose and the horse does not gait automatically, the horse will likely break into a pace or trot.
So, the horse has a fitting saddle, doesn’t mess with the bit… and still doesn’t gait. Don’t give up! Now it’s all about how to engage the hindquarters. There are several exercises that work to help the horse use its back end. One is rollbacks. No, I’m not talking about lowering prices at Wal-Mart – this involves gaiting, stopping the horse at a fence or wall, and then asking them to move into the wall and turn the other direction and gait off again. This is something used frequently in reining horses and reined cow horses, but we will use the exercise at a much slower pace. It’s not about trying to get the horse to take off out of the rollback – instead it is about having the horse learning to move weight onto its hind end to turn around or else it will hit its nose on the wall. The horse should stop right next to the wall, not far away from it or it can be lazy and turn on the forehand. Don’t allow the horse to get panicked and try and take off – this will defeat the purpose of the exercise. They need to move slowly out of the rollback and then go out into a gait. Any time the horse breaks into a pace or trot, rollback the other way. The rider should feel the horse move more on its back end and create a better, smoother gait.
If that doesn’t work, try finding a sweet spot in the gait. If the horse goes too fast or too slow, they may be more likely to not gait right. Each horse has a different sweet spot, so it is up to the rider to figure out what speed works best. Start at a walk and ask the horse to move up to the gait without letting them break into a trot or pace, and gradually add speed to see if the horse will start gaiting. Find the fastest speed they can work without breaking into a separate gait. If they break into a different gait then slow back down and see if that will bring them back. It’s not about taking the horse around at breakneck speeds – it’s all about what is comfortable for them and you.
If the horse drops its head and tries to trot, the rider can attempt a few things to get its head up. One is to bring both hands out to the side in a straight line to ask the head to lift. Another can be to lift one hand straight up, like pulling a carrot out of a hole. It should add enough tension that the horse feels it and brings the head up, but not so hard that the horse has its mouth ripped to pieces. This should lift the head and with leg pressure from the rider, help them move from a broken trot to a saddle rack.
Conversely, if the horse is stargazing with their head too high, the rider can lower their hands to the saddle and ask the horse to drop their head. Either problem could be due to the bit – make sure that is not too much bit or the wrong mouthpiece for the horse to use. By setting the rider’s hands on the horse’s neck or the base of the saddle, the horse will only pull against itself, not the rider who may miss the right point to release or hold on. When the horse drops the nose down, the slack will go into the reins and provide a release automatically if the hands are set on the neck.
Once the horse starts to gait properly, the rider should sit and allow the horse to gait properly without continual interference. If the horse gaits well on a stretch, allow them to walk to reward the horse for doing the right thing. If the horse stops gaiting and hollows out or trots, try one of the above techniques – either rollback, pick the head up or ask it to drop depending on what the horse does. If the horse starts gaiting again, allow him to gait without interfering. It can be a slow but rewarding process.
If none of these things work? Sell the horse and buy another. Just kidding, of course. There are other ways to help the horse, but it is all on an individual basis, one that videos need to be seen to identify what the horse and rider is doing. I am more than happy to help, just message me or send me an email and be ready to provide video – there is not much I can do by just telling me the horse won’t gait.
By ensuring the saddle fits, the horse is happy with the bit and the teeth are done, the rider is eliminating any possible discomfort that will keep the horse from gaiting properly. Then it is up to the rider to use a few of the above techniques – rollbacks, asking them to lift or drop the head, and the horse should start to gait properly. If not, having a gaited trainer or rider can also help the horse achieve that perfect, smooth gait. It’s all a matter of time and trial and error. Then, it is time to enjoy!