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.
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
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
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
Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Please Help me Sit the Trot!
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