Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Dear Julie,
I just got back into horses a year and a half ago at age 47; I’ll be 49 this year. I am building my confidence in slowly; I’m a cautious rider. Especially with my newish horse, Chief, a Fox Trotter, who turned into a different horse after he was delivered to me. Spooky, spooky, spooky. However he has come a long way in the 9 months I have owned him. I was ready to sell him or send him back to his previous owners in the first month or so that I had him but since then I have fallen head over heels for him and he trusts me more and more.
Time will tell. Not only do I have to work with the spooking, but I learned that the special gait that he does is called pacing; apparently he doesn’t Fox Trot under saddle. Every gaited horse owner/trainer that I’ve talked to has advised me to retrain him to gait anything other than the pacing. With his conformation, Chief might learn to do a Fox Trot, running walk or even a rack. In the meantime I walk him. It can be a bit boring. If I speed him up, he immediately goes into a stepping pace. I’ll have to work him over poles when the weather and my outdoor riding ring become more welcoming. If I don’t succeed at this then I guess I’ll just live with the pacing. I learned after I bought him that gaited horses are complicated!”
Answer: Dear Marilyn,
You pose two very good questions—about establishing a relationship with a new horse and about dealing with the pace in a Fox Trotter. The former is a question that I get frequently and it usually starts with, “My horse was fine when I tried him out but once I got him home, I started having all sorts of problems. He was represented to me as a well trained horse buy doesn’t seem like it now.”
This is an all-too-common scenario and there are many factors contributing to the horse becoming seemingly “untrained.” It may have to do simply with the horse changing environments. Horses are easily desensitized to the “stuff” in their environment; but when they change homes, everything is new, foreign and scary to them. This is why a horse that has been “hauled” a lot (traveled to and had to work in many new and different places) is more reliable than one that has been ridden the same amount but only in one place.
A new horse behaving poorly can also be a reflection of the rider. The horse may have been used to a very structured and authoritative rider and if his new rider is passive and unclear, the horse may become confused and insecure. If a rider’s cues are drastically different than what the horse is used to, the horse may become confused and/or agitated; same could be said of the bit. It may also be that the horse was being worked heavily before and so was in a more disciplined routine or the horse may have been getting less nutrition and is getting too much at his new location. Many others factors could cause the unraveling of a horse’s training, or a combination of factors; it is not necessarily that the horse was misrepresented to the rider, although that is certainly a possibility too.
When you get a new horse, it may take time for him to adjust to his new environment and great care should be taken to make sure your new relationship starts off on the right foot, with you in an authoritative leadership position. A bad experience when he is first getting started in his new life and building a new relationship with a human, can lead to a quick downward spiral in his behavior. When you are starting out with a new horse, it is a good time to practice ground work to gain his respect, confidence and focus before you start riding hard. The training progression outlined in my Lead Line Leadership video serves this purpose very well.
Once you buy a horse and before you bring him home, try to get as many rides on him as you can in his familiar setting (so you know what is “normal” for him) and try to glean as much information from the sellers as you can about the horse and his training. If you can take some lessons from the seller or a familiar trainer, do it. This way, you are already started on building your new relationship before the horse changes environments.
As for your concern about your horse’s pacing, you have discovered the true dilemma behind gaited horses. Not all of them gait well and some require special training or assistance from the rider in order to maintain a proper gait. It is extremely common for fox trotters to pace instead of fox trot; probably more pace than fox trot. Although there are natural fox trotters, most require special training by a rider skilled enough to hold him in the right gait.
The pace is a two-beat lateral gait, meaning that the legs hit the ground in lateral pairs. Unlike the trot (which is a two beat diagonal gait) there is no suspension in the pace so it can be smoother to ride than the trot (although it can become quite rough at higher speeds). The fox trot is a four beat diagonal gait and is the desired gait for that breed, but other breeds highly value the pace and train it into the horse (Standardbreds and Icelandics to name two).
You did not mention how old your horse is and how much training/riding he has had. A horse is said to be “set in his gaits” when he will reliably take and maintain the desired gait easily. It is much easier to “set” a horse when he is younger and just starting off in his riding career. The more he has habitually paced when being ridden, the harder it would be to train him out of it.
To set a horse in his gaits is complicated requires a high level of skill from the rider, as well as time to groove in the horse’ habitual response and muscle memory. The rider must be able to collect the horse and get him to elevate his shoulders and use his hindquarters more effectively. The rider must also be able to discern between different gaits and rhythms easily so that timely corrections can be made when the horse is in the wrong gait and so that a release is given when the horse gaits properly.
Your choices are to try and develop the skill you need to train the horse yourself, to take the horse to a reputable trainer whose specialty is gaited horses or to live with the pace. I have known people that have set their horses themselves, so it is in the realm of possibilities but will take time, patience and determination. Taking the horse to a trainer for a few months will be expensive and the outcome uncertain depending on your horse’s age and natural ability (the same applies if you try to train him yourself). It may help to consult a gaited horse trainer to see how difficult a proposition this is and/or to get some guidance in retraining this horse yourself.
Of course, living with the pace is not so bad, especially if you can keep your horse slow enough that it feels pretty smooth. In the overall scheme of things, this may be less important than other characteristics (like not spooking) and it seems like you have developed an affinity for this horse.
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