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Master Each Gait
What can you do to speed up a slow-walking horse and slow down a horse that’s too fast at the trot? And should you ever canter on the trail? Follow top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight’s advice to master each gait and ensure that your horse is responsive and always travels at the speed you choose.
By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight — Photos by Heidi Melocco

You and your horse should be prepared to walk, trot and canter when you’re riding on the trail. While the walk and trot will be your primary “go-to” gaits, it’s important to know that you can feel confident and in charge no matter the speed.
“The walk is your primary trail gait when walking in unfamiliar terrain and tumultuous footing–and to cover long distances, the posting trot is the best way to ride,” Goodnight says. “You may canter on some flat and well-groomed trails and you want to know that you can control the faster gaits in case your horse does spook and bolt.”

Here, Goodnight provides tips to help you stay in control at each gait. She’ll help you understand how to
cue your horse to travel at the speed you dictate and to listen to your body cues no matter how fast you choose to travel.

If you’re helping young children learn to ride, Goodnight also shares teaching tips. She’ll help your young rider learn to walk and trot on command using patterns to help prepare for the upward transition to the trot.

Walk Out
Your horse is packing you around at this slow but most-used gait. Make sure that you are balanced in the saddle. Double check that your saddle’s horn is aligned with the middle of your horse’s neck and back and that your weight is equally balanced from side to side.

Make sure to sit up straight and avoid riding with your legs out in front of you. You may be comfortable at this gait, but you’ll make it easiest on your horse if you are balanced as he carries you over the trails.

When it comes to how fast your horse walks, there are two kinds of horses: those with too much whoa and those with too much go.

“If your horse walks like he’s going to his own funeral, you want to speed up,” Goodnight says. “If the horse is ready to go all the time and prances and is jiggy, you need to know how to slow him down. Either way, if your horse isn’t going at the speed you dictate, he’s being disobedient. You need to set the speed and take charge.”

Too Much Slow: Goodnight reminds you that you can’t make a slow and steady Quarter Horse keep up with a Tennessee Walking Horse that walks faster than he trots. That’s an unrealistic expectation.

However, if you are walking with other horses that should match your horse’s speed and only your horse is walking too slowly, it’s time to evaluate your cues and make sure that you’re in charge.

“Horses are clever,” Goodnight says. “If it’s a horse who already is on the lazy side and he’s pointed in a direction he doesn’t want to go, he will walk slower and slower until he’s almost halting between every step.”

That’s the horse that can train you to “pedal” or constantly re-cue for the gait you’re already riding. When a horse has trained the rider, he continually threatens to stop and the rider continually cues him to go. It’s a workout for the rider and it is a disobedient and manipulative act on behalf of the horse.

“That’s not a healthy relationship—he’s threatening disobedience and you’re enabling him by constantly re-cueing,” Goodnight says.”

An obedient horse goes at the speed you dictate when asked and until another cue is provided. If you have already asked for the walk, your horse should keep walking without prompting. If the horse slows down, it’s time for a verbal admonishment or a tap with the bight of your reins or a crop.

Often one admonishment and a reminder to “straighten up” is all it takes for a trained horse to move out and know that you are in charge.

“Keep in mind that one firm correction with the reins or a stick is much kinder to the horse than constantly nagging him by kicking and cueing after each stride.”

If you want to increase the speed of the walk, increase the rhythm in your seat and legs, reach forward and drive the horse forward. Once you have reached the pace you want, he should maintain that speed without prompting. It’s up to you as the leader to decide what the best and possible speed is. If he does slow down on his own, address that with admonishment instead of simply cueing him to move forward again.

Too Much Go: If your horse walks too fast and often steps into the trot on his own accord, that is also an act of disobedience.

“Many times, I see riders who just start to ride the trot if the horse chooses the gait on his own,” Goodnight says. “As soon as you start to ride the trot, you’ve told the horse that his actions are OK.”

If your horse speeds up without a cue, you must immediately and abruptly correct him and slow him down to the speed you have dictated. Take hold of the reins hard, sit back and verbally admonish your horse for breaking gait with a “whoa.”
Trot On

You can ride the trot sitting, posting or standing with weight in the stirrups. Most of the time on the trail, you’ll want to post or lift your seat slightly by transferring weight to the stirrups. A slow, sitting jog trot isn’t useful on the trail as it’s harder on your horse’s back and it isn’t the form of the gait that helps you cover ground quickly. If you’re trotting on the trail, you’re probably trying to get somewhere!

The posting and standing trots are the most comfortable for your horse. As you post or stand, you are balanced over your horse’s center of gravity and it allows your horse to move easily beneath you.
Posting is not just for English riders—all riders should know how to post. Posting is the best way to ride the long trot, the extended, ground-covering version of the trotting gait.

How should you post? Posting is a forward and backward motion, using the lift in your horse’s back. It’s the same motion you need to start to get up out of a chair. Notice what it takes to move up and out of a chair (without support from your arms) then sit down immediately. First you rock forward, then back to sit down once more. That’s the same motion you’ll need in the saddle.

Make sure not to post by pushing off the stirrups; the motion comes from rocking your pelvis forward and rise from your thighs, not from pushing off the stirrups.

If your horse has a rough trot, standing slightly to lift weight off yoru seat bones, while keeping your joints and muscles relaxed will be most comfortable for you, too. Standing the trot is commonly seen on endurance rides. It helps your move easily and it is a great test of your balance.
Trot Troubles: Your horse should only trot when you ask for the gait—not because the other horses you’re riding with are starting to trot. If your horse speeds into the trot without your approval and without a cue, immediately correct him and start over.

Canter and Whoa
Cantering will cover ground quickly, but a horse can trot greater distances than canter. Plus on some trails, cantering isn’t an option because of the steep or rocky terrain.

“Here in the Rocky Mountains, I can’t imagine cantering on some of our trails,” Goodnight says. “It’s too rocky and steep.”

That said, Goodnight recommends that all riders know how to sit and control the canter—even if it isn’t a gait you would usually use on the trail.

“Any horse is capable of spooking and bolting when you’re on a ride. If you’re riding in an uncontrolled environment, you should have the ability to ride every gait—in case you do need to control a horse who canters away when spooked.”
If your trail is level and well groomed or you know of a flat and low-cut meadow where cantering can be safe, it can be a fun choice to canter on your ride. Check out the footing and conditions before you ask for this gait.

If your group decides to canter, make sure to have an established signal so that all riders know when the group will start and stop the faster gait and that the groupd stays together. No single rider in the group should canter without approval from the entire group. All the horses will want to canter if one begins. If even one rider doesn’t want to canter, no one in the group should speed up to the faster gait. Always ride to the level of the least-skilled irder in your group.

Canter Concerns: Make sure not to canter down a hill and make sure not to canter back toward the barn. Cantering downhill makes it too difficult for a horse to control his balance with a rider aboard.
Cantering away from the barn can help control speed because a horse most likely won’t want to move quickly as he heads away from home. If a horse knows that he’s headed for home and becomes spooked, he can increase speed easily and make the gait too difficult to control.

Trot Transitions
When you’re teaching a young rider to cue the horse for a trot, make sure that your teaching is precise and the rider and horse learn to do the right thing. Here, we want to teach a young rider to trot for the first time. You’ll teach the trot by talking to the rider about the cue—what she’ll do when she asks for the trot. Then you’ll help the rider understand that the horse must keep the new gait until he’s asked to do something else. Finally, you’ll help her slow the horse down after a short trot.

Use cones or some visual marker to help the rider know where and when to cue for the trot then the walk. Set up two cones about 20 feet apart. With a halter and lead line under the horse’s bridle, the young rider will have control and you can lead the horse loosely to make sure all goes smoothly. You don’t want the young rider to stop the horse inadvertently by pulling back on the reins too soon.

Teach the Cue
First you reach forward with your hands and say “trot”…
Then you shift your weight forward…
Then bump with your legs…
At the Cone
When you reach the first cone, it’s time to apply the newly learned sequence.
Ride the Trot
Encourage the rider to keep her hands forward and her eyes forward so that she doesn’t inadvertently cue the horse to stop before the second cone.
End Cone
When you reach the end cone, sit back, relax and allow the horse to walk.
In this simple exercise with just two cones, you’ll teach three great skills: cueing, maintaining speed and the downward transition.