When Good Gaits Deteriorateby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
It is not uncommon for less experienced riders to buy a horse that is already winning at higher levels of competition with the intention of showing it at a lower level. These riders admire the horse’s good gaits. They appreciate its smooth extension and collection in every gait or effortless quality of its slides and rollbacks. So they buy the horse expecting that it will carry them successfully to the next level in competition.
Once the horse is in their own barn, however, they are disappointed. The horse’s gaits don’t seem quite as good as they remembered. Its transitions no longer flow smoothly or its ability to rhythmically collect and extend seem to be gone.
The problem is that in any riding sport the horse is only half of the equation. The rider assumes, falsely, that the horse’s training and performance level will remain a constant while he or she works to improve skills. If a horse were a superior brand of golf club or tennis racket , that might be true. However, the horse’s athletic performance will always be enabled, enhanced or limited by the athletic skills of its human partner.
A rider must be able to influence the horse if the horse is to work at its highest level of training. Less experienced riders have not developed this ability yet. They lack the body control, the coordination of their aids or the understanding of how to time their aids correctly that are essential if they are to get the best from the horse. In order for an athletic horse to use its muscles correctly and stay fit enough to execute upper level maneuvers correctly, its rider must be able to keep the horse moving forward with impulsion and balance.
To turn in a winning performance, an athletic horse needs to feel free to move every joint and muscle as fully as it can. The rider must allow the horse to move forward freely to the extent its conformation and fitness enable it to do. This means the rider has to be relaxed, balanced over the horse’s center of gravity at all times, able to follow the horse’s motion at every gait, and able to correctly coordinate a full set of independent aids. In other words, the rider must have an independent seat.
Without an independent seat, rider error inevitably restricts the horse’s ability to move freely in some way and its gaits will deteriorate. Even riders with an independent seat may be intimidated by the powerful movement of a truly athletic horse’s gaits. The result is often that the rider winds up restricting the horse’s motion to what they are able to sit comfortably.
A rider may buy a young prospect for its good gaits only to find that once the horse is in training, those gaits deteriorate. Again, the problem usually occurs when the rider is unable to send the horse forward freely because he or she lacks that independent seat. If the rider is apprehensive about a young horse’s exuberant forward motion, she should avoid riding in open fields or large arenas until she is comfortable with the horse. Work in an arena whose size limits what the horse can do rather than limiting its forward motion with your aids.
Misunderstanding the sequence of skills the horse must master as it progresses up the training tree can also be a factor when gaits deteriorate. Many dressage riders become fixated on “getting the head down.” They crank the horse’s head down with the reins which restricts its ability to move forward from behind. Instead, the rider should strive to create energy that moves from the hind end forward into a softly accepting rein. A correct “frame” develops after free, forward gaits.
The goal of every rider should be to take the horse’s natural gaits and make them better. The rider who cannot completely relax on her horse or who interferes with her horse’s free, rhythmic, forward movement by gripping, grabbing or bouncing needs to develop a good seat if she wants her horse to have good gaits. Working on a longe line with a competent instructor is one of the best ways to do this. The rider should develop her seat on horses with smooth or minimal motion first. Then she can move up to horses with bigger motion to gain additional experience.
I do not believe that once good gaits have deteriorated, they will never come back. However, the horse needs to be ridden by someone who will allow that essential free, forward movement. To be a good athlete, it also needs to be ridden regularly in order to stay fit. Many amateur riders do not work their horses on a regular schedule so there is no way for their horse can work like a top athlete.
Buying a “made” horse may be a shortcut to success in the short term. Despite its less experienced rider, the horse may be able to maintain its training level if ridden regularly by a competent trainer. However, becoming a better rider is no different than becoming a better athlete of any sort. While athletes in every sport constantly look for equipment or dietary aids or new techniques that will give them a winning edge, the bottom line is that they cannot go far without consistently honing their basic skills and developing physical fitness. Buying a better set of clubs does not necessarily improve a golfer’s game. Buying the latest running shoe technology does not necessarily shave time off of a runner’s personal best effort. It is even truer that buying a horse with advanced training will not necessarily improve a rider’s skills or consistently put her in the ribbons at shows. There is no substitute for time in the saddle and hard work. Just keep riding.