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How To Ride Your Gaited Horse
Part I
© Beverly Whittington 2003

When learning how to ride the gaited equine, you will find many styles and variances between the different breeds and different instructors. Even amongst professional riders styles will vary widely and you will see variation in position and technique. It is also a blessing and a curse that gaited horses are “easier” to ride than trotting horses. Almost anyone can get on and ride a gaited horse. The “lack of bounce” enables poor balance and even worse equitation to go unpunished, at least for a period of time. Many new riders who begin their riding career upon a gaited horse do not progress very far in their riding skills because the gaited horse is generally so smooth and easy to ride.  Frequently, they don't see the need for improvement. This leads to MANY sloppy riders within the gaited ranks. So what is a person new to gaited breeds to do? There are no short cuts. Having worked with people for many years with gaited horses, I know many will have the tendency to "cut to the chase". If they are looking to have their horse perform a running walk for example, just skip to the part of this article that addresses that gait. Well, if you do not use and apply the rest of the information already addressed here, the other stuff will not work very well or at all. 

The Problem

Part of the problem in the gaited community is that the gaited equine is often purchased JUST BECAUSE it is easier to ride. Many times the owner/rider has no desire to work as hard as it takes to achieve good equitation and effective communication with their horse. They just want to RIDE! Often this leads to the attitude that it is just not necessary to make any improvements or adjustments in their riding styles, as the horse DOES cooperate in many instances. To become a good rider it does take much effort and often involves taking riding lessons from a competent instructor. But this isn't much fun, is it? Whether you spend one hour a week or many hours a day in the saddle, you can make one adjustment at a time to become an effective rider whose influence on the horses carriage and gait are positive. YES it would be better to devote yourself to hours under a good instructor, but often these are not readily found. If you ride, you can improve. There is an old saying; when we stop learning we are dead already, regardless how many years till we enter the grave. It is my goal in this series of articles to give you some simple tools to improve your riding skills. You can learn and apply them as you ride and you WILL see improvement, or you can go along as you are and not progress in your skills. The decision is yours, but remember it WILL affect your horse!

What is Important

There are many factors that contribute to a skilled rider of gaited horses. You have to begin at the beginning, what is the MAIN factor that can cause the MOST problems and eliminate that problem first. The importance of balance may not seem obvious at first, but in fact, it is critical.  Poor balance can and will interfere with the horse's ability to perform it's gait properly. When considering the riding position for gaited horses keep in mind that; what is important is that your balance (or lack of balance) does not interfere with the horse's ability to gait. If you are in balance, but balanced say FORWARD, that would be a negative influence, and not being in balance would be as well, such as if you are tipped off to the side. There are many positional variations that are acceptable. A good riders position is not static, rather the ideal position is what you should always return to when you are happy with your horse's way of going. However it is sometimes desirable to change the way you sit to affect the horse. An effective rider remains in tune with the horse, adjusting seat and balance to enable the horse to perform its optimum gait. It is sometime imperative that you change the way you are sitting; BECAUSE of the NEGATIVE affect your current seat is having on the horse's gait. 

For a horse to maintain a steady, smooth gait it is important that you stay in balance with your horse, with your weight over the strongest part of his back. Before you can really begin to make adjustments, it is important that you are able to be responsible for your own balance, and weight. This is critical to be able to ride at the point of balance for the horse/rider combination. 

The first basic rule in riding any horse was established by Xenophon as the ideal seat, you have probably heard the “shoulder, hip and heals in line”? Although some riders may think that achieving a balance seat is too much work,  if you are going to ride a gaited horse it is presumed that you wish the horse to GAIT! A forward seat can cause the horse to move to the trot in compensation and the chair seat or a rider leaning back can cause ventroflextion of the horses back but often this results in the vertebrae of the spine to impinging on one another, leading to a sore back and/or neurological problems. 

Effective Riding style of the Gaited Horse

In order to remain upright both horses and humans maintain a center of gravity, which has to be within our base of support. If you lift one leg when standing, you have to lean to the other side compensate for gravitational force. Horse have to do the same, they shift their weight at each step to remain in balance. When you add the weight of a rider into the equation, the horse must compensate as the center of gravity of the rider/horse combination comes into play with his every movement. When the rider is off-balance, the gaited horse will often compensate by changing his timing or footfall pattern, misgaiting. Commonly the horse will lateralize, becoming pacey, but it can also cause the horse to move toward the trot if the shift of weight is forward and intrusive or disturbing to the horse.
According to Kinetics, when the horse is in motion the center of mass comes into play. The center of mass acts in opposition to any force of acceleration or deceleration; the center of mass is not active if there is no changing of speed.

I would liken it to hiking. You could carry a backpack that weighed up to 1/4 your body weight without complaint on a 1-2 hour hike, or more if you were in condition. Of course you would have balanced that backpack and distributed the weight were it was the easiest and most comfortable for you to carry. The point of the article was to try and get the same concept across to the riding public. The rider who is off balance and carries their weight high in their torso is like a poorly balanced backpack, which is moving. As a hiker, it would not take long for you to leave that fool backpack at home... Our horses are much more forgiving, they allow us to saddle and ride them regardless of how much of an unbalanced, shifting load we represent.

OK so how to begin? 

Lets begin with the anatomy of the human pelvis, for it is within the structure of the pelvis and midsection that you can achieve stability and balance in riding. What? No “Arms here” and “Legs there” Drill? Hold on to your hats, we are going to get there!
Adult Male Pelvis
Adult Female Pelvis
These views are with the "rider" facing you.

The pelvis is defined as: A bony, basin-shaped structure that supports the organs of the lower abdomen. It receives the weight of the upper body and distributes it to the legs; it also forms the base for numerous muscle attachments. In the human pelvis there are two large hip bones, each consisting of three fused bones, the illium, ischium, and pubis. The hip bones form a ring around a central cavity. The fused terminal segments of the spine, known as the sacrum and coccyx, connect the hip bones at the back of the central cavity; a fibrous band connects them at the front. In women the pelvis is wider and has a larger capacity than in men, a condition that reflects the child-bearing function in women.
Obviously there are differences in the male and female pelvis that will affect the rider. For now it is just important that you have a basic idea of what your pelvis looks like. Both have a central cavity. I want you to concentrate and find this point in your own body. Next shut your eyes and visualize placing a crystal ball in the center of that cavity. Little by little shift all the weight of your torso to the crystal ball. As your weight begins to fill the ball, it becomes denser and denser, becoming a “Lead Ball”. 
Now that you have created and filled this "crystal ball", you have found your "center". Your center is the location you can use to achieve good balance and effective use of your weight when riding. Practice keeping the feeling of maintaining weight in this location when you are performing any daily task. Once you have the "feel" for it, mount your horse and displace all the weight from your body, that you can, to your center. You should notice a couple of things.
  1. You are much more stable on the horse, regardless of any other equitation problems that you have.
  2. When astride a horse, your "Center" is only a few inches above the point that your butt meets the saddle.
Give this some consideration. You have just displaced the majority of your weight to a LOW point of gravity, thus ensuring more stability! You can study physics, to understand this is a highly desirable situation, or you can think of the "weebles". Do you remember the toy the Weebles? "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down." Weebles were a toy, rounded and weighted on the bottom. You could knock them around, and they automatically righted themselves. Of course Weebles did not have legs on each side of a horse. With your center in place and the bulk of your weight therefore only inches from the saddle you, with a much higher likelihood than the Weebles, WILL NOT FALL DOWN. 
While staying on is no doubt a benefit when riding any horse, this lower point of gravity will be a great benefit to your gaited equine. A horse has to be able to continue to gait while balancing the rider. A low point of gravity, and therefore balance in the rider, enables the gaited horse to perform better. This is the center of your balance, weight, energy and control.

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It is a good idea to "get the hang" of these exercise OFF the horse, but it is important that you practice ON the horse once you have a good idea how to proceed! 

Once you have your weight lowered, you need to learn to balance the weight to allow further stability and to begin the process of becoming a rider who is responsible for their weight on a horse.
This point of view of the pelvis is as if you were lying on your back, face up, viewed from the "bottom". On each side of the tailbone are protrusions referred to as the "seat bones" in equitation vernacular. You can find these “seat bones” by sitting on a hard surfaced chair. Sit with both knees straight out in front of you, even with your hips. Sit up straight, do not slouch, and place your left hand in the small of your back.  You should notice that your back “dips” forward. Keeping your hand there, tighten the muscles of your stomach and align your spine to fill that dip in your back. Maintaining this position with your back, place your right hand under your buttocks where you can almost cover the entire right side of the part of your seat that makes contact with the chair. Now “tuck your butt” you should be able to feel the bones in your seat move forward.
What you want to do is imagine you have placed a ring around your lead ball and attached stabilizers to the three points shown. The ball should be stabilized with equal weight on all three points. Practice keeping your center and "shifting" the weight to each point. You should feel your pelvis shift and a noticeable redistribution of your weight. 
This is something that you can use as an aide to keep the ventroflexed horse in gait. By slightly tipping the pelvis while bracing the lower back, you can encourage some ventroflextion, and still stay in balance with the horse. You can do this while STILL maintaining the shoulder, hip and heel alignment, thus not placing undue strain on the vertebrae of the spine in the horse who requires a ventroflexed back to properly perform his gait. 
Other Articles of interest.
The Seat and getting the horse on the bit.

Achieving Response, Gait and Confidence through Relaxation

Rider Affect on the Horses Movement

MAKING CONTACT How to use a bit 


Exercises at the Walk

Conditioning a Horse to Gait

Equitation for Gaited Horses

Exercises for Increased Flexibility in Gaited Horses

The Seat and getting the horse on the bit.


Each individual horse will be a different quality of gait. There are those who gait regardless of the ineptness of their rider. There are those who will loose gait unless their rider is in that perfect "sweet spot". Then there is the multitude in-between. The major problem is that continued poor balance and poor equitation can eventually spoil the gait of even the most solid gaited equine. Thankfully the reverse is also true, good balance and equitation can improve and/or help maintain solid gait. It is your horse, in which part of the equation do you want his experience to fall?

Part I Part II Part III
Part IV Part V Part VI The Flat Walk
Part VII The Fox Trot Part VIII The Rack


To Be Continued...

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