Buying A Gaited Horse

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
What to look for in a gaited horse…

Question: Hello Julie,

I am looking at buying a Tennessee Walker. With my current horse, I am finding it a challenge to post. I’m 48 years old. I purchased your DVDs and they were helpful, but I’m just not really comfortable with posting and like the idea of a smooth ride on a gaited horse. I have heard you don’t have to post with a gaited horse, do you think I would be happier with a gaited horse? Anything I should consider? Any help would be appreciated.
Regina

Answer: Dear Regina,

The popularity of gaited horses has drastically increased lately. There seems to be a correlation of interest along with the age of the largest recreational riding market: the Baby Boomers. At 51 years old, I am at the very bottom of this generation and beginning to feel the normal aches and pains of growing older. Thankfully, I am also benefiting from the wisdom and experience that comes with the territory and I wouldn’t trade that for a younger body (as long as there’s a plentiful supply of CosaminASU)!

Naturally as we age, we experience the back aches and joint pain that comes with the territory and the appeal of a gaited horse is that he is often smoother than a regular horse and his movements have little suspension (which occurs when all four of the horse’s feet come off the ground at the same time, like in the trot and canter); that’s why you don’t have to post. Also, many people are getting into riding for the first time at this age, or coming back to riding after several decades or more and the gaited horse can be easier to ride because the gaits may be smoother and the horses are often narrower, which also increases comfort for the rider.

Gaited horses come in all shapes, sizes and colors and there are a variety of breeds with varying abilities and temperaments. The Tennessee Walker, Missouri Foxtrotter and Saddlebred are perhaps the most well known gaited breeds, but with the increased popularity of the “novelty” breeds today, we have many other gaited breeds to choose from such as Peruvian Paso, Paso Fino, Mountain Horses (Kentucky and Rocky Mountain), Icelandics, Mangalarga Marchador, and others. Each breed is distinct for its size, temperament and purpose, so it is worthwhile investigating your various options to see what the best fit is for you.

Some things to consider: First, just like naturally gaited horses, some are smooth gaited and some are not; there is not a guarantee that all gaited horses are smooth. I have ridden gaited horses that are just as rough as a regular horse and I have ridden regular horses that are as easy as the smoothest gaited horse. But in general, gaited horses will be smoother.

Also, just because a horse is bred to be gaited doesn’t mean that he is “set” in his gaits; it does not come automatically to all gaited horses. To some horses it is more natural than others and some will need professional training to get the horse to gait steadily and correctly. Sometimes the horse has to be supported by the rider to maintain his gait and that requires a certain level of skill, knowledge and effort on the part of the rider. It is best to find a horse that is naturally set in his gaits and will maintain them without the aid of the rider or need help from a trainer.

It can be a challenge to find a mature, well-trained gaited mount. I have searched for gaited horses for my horse sales program, knowing that many of my clientele would prefer a gaited horse. Since my promise is to have only mature, safe and reliable horses that are great for trail and arena, and for any level of rider, I’ve noticed that because of their size and popularity it can be difficult to find one that meets all my criteria. That said, I recently had a gaited horse in my program that was a jewel to ride. He was smooth and well trained, very experienced and fun to ride around the ranch. There are great horses like that out there—just be sure to test ride a few so you know the difference and can feel a great smooth and reliable ride. I prefer horses that are mature, well-trained and have ‘been there and done that.’ Regardless of whether it’s a gaited horse or not, I’d hate to see you make the mistake of buying a young green horse.

If your interests lie entirely in going down the trail or even endurance, it is hard to beat a gaited horse that is set in his gaits, well-trained and well-tempered. My preference would be either a Foxtrotter or a Mountain Horse. I like their size and temperament a lot. Also, there is a line of Tennessee Walkers that have been bred in Wyoming exclusively for trail (no show blood lines). I have worked with a few of these horses and they are awesome.

A side note on posting…. Posting can be one of the most challenging things to learn in riding, but once you get it, posting is really easy. Remember you have to use the motion of the horse to push you up and out of the saddle—like you are bouncing your bottom on a trampoline. Once you get the movement and the rhythm, it should be fairly effortless.

If you are interested in gaited horses, I would recommend a clinician named Elizabeth Graves http://www.lizgraves.com. She is a renowned expert on all gaited breeds and her approach is very holistic and humane; if you have a chance to see her at a clinic or an expo, you’ll be glad you did. It is by no means unique to the gaited breeds, but there are many gaited trainers that employ harsh ”old-school” techniques to get the gaited movements that became popular in the show ring.
Good luck in your search and I hope you find your dream horse!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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Private Lessons with Julie Goodnight CD: http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/shop/baprivatelessonscd.html
Ride with Confidence: http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/shop/baridewithconfidence.html

Why Should You Post At All?

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Ask Julie Goodnight: Why Should You Post at All?

Question: Last month I asked about whether all riders should know how to post on the correct diagonal. Now it seems the question has changed to “should Western riders know how to post at all?” Can you help refine our riding group’s ongoing debate?
Sharon

Answer: Sharon, In every horsemanship clinic I teach, I start the mounted session by assessing all the riders in terms of their control, their riding position and skill and their authority over the horse. To do this, I put them through some regulated paces that involve changes of gaits and changes of direction. During this process I am watching the riders and their horses to try and figure out what are the most pressing things that need improvement and that will guide what I have each individual rider work on. As I make this assessment, I always ask for regular trot, slow trot, sitting trot and posting trot, specifically to see how much ability the rider has.

To me, it makes no difference whatsoever whether you ride English or Western; if you are riding the long trot you should be able to post and posting is a very fundamental skill. If your horse is so incredibly smooth gaited that you can comfortably sit the extended trot, then you are very lucky and probably a very good rider. But I ask for everyone to post the trot at some point to see if someone doesn’t know how to do it or uses poor technique (posting off the stirrup instead of off the thigh). Before the end of the day, they will learn how to post because it is an important skill for a rider and it would be silly to think that Western riders don’t need this skill.

Think about it, if you had 20 miles of fence line to ride today, would you do it at the sitting trot? When you need to cover ground on a horse over long distances, the long trot is the most efficient gait to ride and posting is easiest for both you and your horse. Besides, posting is a fundamental skill and a building block for more advanced skills—you wouldn’t want to leave a block out of your foundation.

So why don’t Western riders post in competition? Well, if you are showing at the long trot it is probably in some sort of pleasure class and if you are being judged on how easy and pleasurable your horse is to ride, you want to make him look smooth. If you are being judged on how great a rider you are, then sitting the long trot shows a lot of skill. In some cases posting in a Western competition is prohibited by the rules or dictated by the class procedures. In other cases, like versatility ranch horse competitions, you are allowed to post but in doing so, it may appear to the judge that your horse is so ungodly rough gaited that you couldn’t possibly sit the trot.

Anywhere you go where there are Western riders, you’ll see the riders posting– it is a pretty basic skill. Though they may not do it during an actual competition, it is a skill they need and use regularly. If you have the pleasure of riding a gaited horse that does not trot, you don’t really need to post and in fact may not be able to do it correctly on gaited horse since correct posting involves using the lift in the horse’s back as he goes into suspension in the trot. Riding a gaited horse can give a false reading on how skilled a rider is; they are definitely easier to ride (if they are well trained and well gaited). If the rider has never developed the skill to ride the natural trot or canter (the gaits with suspension) she/he may not have adequate skill to ride in difficult situations or even ride a naturally gaited horse; she may not have developed a strong leg position, adequate balance and the strength to hold on when the going gets rough.

I doubt you would find any accomplished riders anywhere, in any discipline, that do not know how to post. All riders should know how to sit the trot, post the trot and ride the standing trot and they each have their particular challenges. Learning to post seems tricky at first—it’s one of those skills that you think you’ll never figure out and then once you do, you can’t believe how easy it is. To me, it seems easier for people to learn the posting trot than the sitting trot (unless they are on an incredibly smooth horse).

Enjoy the ride,

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Sitting The Trot

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Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Please Help me Sit the Trot!

Dear Julie,
My horse is a Friesian/Warmblood cross. Even though he moves beautifully, he has a big trot and he’s not exactly smooth. I am hoping to show him in Dressage— at the higher levels—and I won’t be able to post the trot. How can I learn to sit the trot smoothly instead of bouncing all over the saddle and jarring my back?

Bounce A Lot

Dear Bounce A Lot,
I think sitting a trot can be one of the most difficult skills to master in horseback riding. The fact that you’re riding a big moving horse with rough gaits at a strong pace—which dressage requires—makes the challenge even more daunting. Like any athletic skill, if you get your technique right and develop strong muscle memory, you’ll get it! As your horse moves up the training levels and begins to work in a more rounded frame, his gaits will smooth out some. However, you’ll have to be able to sit the trot to get him there.

The trot is a gait of suspension. That means all four of the horse’s feet come off the ground at the same time. His back lifts and drops with each beat of the stride. Your goal is to move your body exactly with the horse’s movement— lifting and dropping to absorb the motion in his back without losing contact with the saddle. You’re not trying to sit down on the horse to burden his back. Instead, your goal is to move in rhythm with him, like a dance partner.

To start practicing for a perfect sitting trot, you’ll need to have soft and open joints that act as shock absorbers. You’ll also need to use your abdominal muscles to lift and drop your pelvis in time with the lift in your horse’s back. Riding a big horse with a strong trot, you’ll need excellent coordination and well-toned core muscles.

First, check your position. To be in balance and rhythm with the horse at any gait, you need to have your skeletal system aligned—ear-shoulder-hip-heel in a straight line—and have all of your joints soft and relaxed. Your joints are shock absorbers, especially your hips, knees and ankles. Tense muscles lead to locked joints—which is the number one cause of bouncing on the horse. Check that you have a balanced position and that all of your muscles and joints are soft and relaxed. Balance and rhythm in the saddle are covered in volume one in my DVD series Goodnight’s Principles of Riding.

Next, you’ll need to develop muscles and coordination that will allow you to move your hips in perfect timing with the movement in your horse’s back at the sitting trot. This will require you to isolate your abdominal muscles and master the pelvic tilt—which is why Pilates has become such a popular exercise routine for equestrians. Fine movements in Pilates help you isolate and control your pelvic movements.

In the sitting trot, your hips move both vertically (up and down) and laterally (side to side). Your horse’s back also moves in these directions as he trots. When he pushes off with his right hind, the right side of his back muscles contract and you feel a lift in your right hip; the next stride you’ll feel your left hip lift. At the same time, both hips will lift up and drop down in a vertical motion. You do not create this motion, the horse does, but you’ll have to use your muscle memory to follow the motion with your hips.

Here are some visual aids to help you sit the trot. First, think of sitting on a trampoline or exercise ball and bouncing your bottom up and down, without actually lifting up off the surface. To generate that motion from your seat, you’ll use your abdominal muscles, a pelvic tilt and the spring in the tramp to create the up and down motion. Bouncing your bottom on a trampoline or exercise ball is very similar to how you sit the trot and move vertically with the horse. You’ll be like a ballerina who pre-jumps in a lift so it’s easier on her partner to lift her up over his head. When you can move in rhythm with the horse, you can control the horse’s rhythm with your seat—a skill you’ll need to excel in for dressage (or any discipline for that matter).

Another useful image for sitting the trot is to imagine you’re pedaling a bicycle backwards as you trot. This helps you coordinate the lateral and vertical motion that your hips make at the sitting trot. You can try the exercise while sitting in a chair with both feet on the ground. Pedal with your hips—not your feet— and you’ll feel the vertical and lateral movement that’s similar to trot. This and 23 more exercises to improve your riding are on volume 3 in my riding series, called “Perfect Practice.”

Without question, it’s easier to learn the sitting trot on a smaller, smoother horse at slower speeds. The faster and bigger the trot, the harder it’s to sit. Many riders have had success practicing and conditioning on an exercise ball that emulates the horse. Make sure you use a high-grade ball strong enough to use as a desk chair, 55-75 cm.

In my riding videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volumes 1-5, position, balance and the rhythm of all the gaits are addressed, as well as many other topics to improve your riding. It helps to have visual guidance as you learn to perfect your riding. You can order DVDs and exercise balls online at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

Good luck with your riding and with a little work, you can easily become the rider your horse deserves! Keep up with your lessons and be sure to visit my website for help on your riding skills.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Issues From The Saddle: How Much Does Conformation Have To Do With Movement

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi,

I have a 5 year old QH gelding that is tall and not very muscular. He has a long back and legs and I wonder if that is why I am having trouble getting him into a nice slow jog. He goes Hunt well, but I’d like to slow him down for western and trail classes.
My question is; how much does his conformation have to do with his movement? He is also “strung out” at the canter and seems to have a hard time collecting. I don’t think he will ever “lope”! I raised and trained him myself and he is quiet and willing, a great horse. I ride him in a simple snaffle, and he responds very well to aids.

Thanks for any advice!
Joanne

Answer: Joanne,

Conformation has everything to do with movement and performance. Horses that are long-backed especially have difficulty bringing their hocks up underneath them and elevating their backs, which is required for collection. I believe you can improve a horse that is not athletically inclined, but you cannot make him into something he is not. To improve him, I would work on conditioning him in a round pen, at liberty, in a bitting device that encourages self-carriage. The type of bitting device I use is called an ‘elbow pull,’ or the Goodnight Bitting System. In time (months), with better conditioning, be can improve his self-carriage and collection, maybe by 15%, but his conformation will always be a limitation.

Again, you cannot put a round peg into a square hole, and not all horses are successful at slow Western gaits. You can make any horse trot slowly, but the ones that are good at it are naturals; the ones that are not good at it present a constant fight and easily become resentful. It may be that your horse is better suited as an English horse, for which long and lanky are more desirable traits.

JG

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