Maintaining gait in your gaited horse
With all horses, the gaits are about sequence and rhythm. What is special about our wonderful smooth gaited horses, is that they are able to perform a four beat gait at higher speeds than the walk. When we talk about which gait, we are describing the sequence, as well as length and height of each foot. Learning the rhythm, sound and feel of each gait will help you to perform that gait well.
I will tell you about some of the adjustments you can make in your horse's way of going to help you achieve what you are looking for in his gait. But first, you must have a strong foundation of skills laid down as your table to work upon. These skills are about the most basic principles in any discipline, the aids. Seat, leg, hands and voice. A horse must respect, or respond very easily to, each aid. We use the aids to build skills, through adding pressure until the horse responds correctly, then release to let him know he did what you wanted.
Some of these essential skills include...
1. Maintaining consistency in steering
The horse won't turn from his current path unless you ask him to. His nose remains positioned in front of his chest when you put it there. No rubber-necking as you ride!
2. Maintaining a consistency of speed
When you put him at a certain speed, he will stay there until you ask for a change. To help you keep him at a specific rhythm, count out loud to yourself at first with each front foot. Start with a strong walk, and keep him at that exact rhythm for lengthening periods of time.
3. A soft and supple mouth
When pressure (not pulling) is applied to the bit, he does not pull against it, or toss his head. HE moves his nose to lessen the pressure. Left, right, or in. This is achieved through increased pressure on the bit until the horse responds correctly, then release. When you shorten your reins, he brings in his nose and maintains light contact on your hands.
4. Poll down cue
Holding contact in both reins, apply increased pressure to just one rein. When he lowers his poll, release and feed him more rein. He will learn to reach into the bit.
5. Leg yields
The horse moves away from the leg that applies pressure. Again, pressure (light at first, then using a spur if necessary) until he moves over, then release when he gets it. ALWAYS ask lightly first.
6. Seat cues
When you ask your horse to stop, you squeeze with your seat and tip your pelvis back (try to touch the back of your belt to the cantle). When you ask a horse to go faster, squeeze with your calves and also squeeze with your seat pushing forward with your hips. Again, release the moment he gets it right. Not sooner. Not after he responds, not when gets to his destination. During the response.
These are the cues that you will use to tell your horse what you want. You will find that it takes more time for YOU to perform them with consistency than it is of your horse! Remember, practice is the mother of skill.
As you work on your horse's skills, always start at a slow moving speed until it is mastered. Then go move to the next speed. Start each skill at a stop, then a slow walk, then a faster walk, etc. The faster the speed, the harder each skill is to master.
Maintaining a horse's smooth four-beat gait is mostly about Collection and Drive. Ask him to keep his nose in to an angle that is just above the vertical. When you're ready to move off, without leaning forward, and without loosing your reins, ask him to go forward. Keep your hands low, at about the height of the withers.
In the Running Walk, you want to achieve a more rounded collection. Ask for the poll down, reaching low to the ground and walking long. Do this for several hours total. Then when he does this well, slowly shorten your reins, still keeping the poll just about at wither height. Work the walk for several weeks. Teach him to bend his ribcage by practicing leg yields, bending deep into corners. Don't allow him to hang on the bit. Practice lateral and vertical flexion (give the bit) very often to keep him soft as you work. Then as you pick up speed, drive with the legs, making sure he respects your aids.
The Rack is a slightly hollower gait, so it is not necessary to round him as much as with the Running Walk. A horse will hold his head a little higher in the rack. Keep his reins short, ask him to go. Keep your hands just a bit above the height of his withers. If a horse is pacey, he is too hollow. Use the exercises above to collect him more and round him more. Supple the ribcage, mouth, and neck. Then add strong drive.
For any gaited horse, lots of backing helps immensely. GOOD backing with a low poll and moving easily off of the rear end. Back them straight.
Another key to letting a horse know what you want from him, is to always make him uncomfortable when he does things the wrong way, comfortable when he gets it right. Or if you're struggling to get what you want, make him comfortable when he shows even a small amount of improvement. Let's say he's bouncy. You can put him in a medium or slow gait, and try to elicit a change. You can do half-halts while squeezing with your calves, or bump his mouth lightly and rhythmically while urging him forward, or kick him rhythmically while holding him back from speeding up. Keep up the pressure until he becomes less bouncy,. then, again, release all pressure. If it's not working, increase your aids. When you say, "Ah- hah! I like that!", that's when you stop bugging him and just let him continue to do it. You can also reward him by allowing him to stop and rest. Then do it again, find improvement, and give him a rest. You will find that positive reinforcement will teach a horse much better than negative.
If you are showing, you can learn through your local association about how to maintain and improve the gaits for your specific breed. If you are a trail rider, most of you aren't so concerned as to WHICH gait your horse performs, but as to how smoothly he goes, and what gives you a "happy butt"! You want comfort for both you and your horse. Once you learn what it is you want, you can play with different techniques to create collection and drive, and reward correct behavior. Over the miles of riding, you can transform your horse into a ideally smooth and rhythmic mount.
Learning basics of Dressage teaches us a lot about how a good horse should carry himself. So if you don't have a gaited trainer near you, I recommend lessons in this discipline.
A great trainer once told me, you don't try to train for gait. You train the gaited horse just like any other, asking him to carry himself like any good horse should go. He should be well balanced, collected, respectful of the aids, and propelling himself forward in supple frame. Once you have that, the gait will come all on its own.