Staying In Gear
Pro Robin Frid teaches you how to use feel and communication to keep your horse from breaking gait.
Does your horse tend to break gait? Does he drop from a lope to a trot, or from a job to a walk on his own, without having asked for the transition? If so, you know how frustrating and irritating it can be – not to mention how it can dash your chances in the show pen.
I’m going to explain why your horse is doing this, plus detail the communication and feel you need to establish to keep your horse’s attention and anticipate his next move. Then I’ll explain how to ride on straight lines and through circles and turns to nix this bad habit for good.
Why Does He Do That?
Typically, a horse breaks his gait because of a breakdown in communication on the rider’s part. your responsibility is to “ride every stride,” monitoring your horse’s movement by feel and prviding sneeded feedback so he can continue to work at his best.
While horses are amazingly willing creatures, they’re also lazy-in other words, they’re not going to do more more than they have to. So if you give your horse a way to escape work, he’ll take it. And the most common escape route riders give is not using their legs or seat effectively to communicate “go forward” to their horses. (More on this in a moment).
There are, however, other circumstances that could be causing your horse to break gait. If he’s out of shape, he may simply not have the stamina to jog for five or 10 minutes at a time. To move forward, a horse must lift and use his back muscles, which requires a degree of athleticism. If your horse isn’t adequately conditioned, it may take time for him to strengthen his muscles to use himself properly and maintain his gait.
Or if your horse has recently experienced an injury, he may have trouble holding a jog or lope without experiencing pain. If there’s any chance pain may be involved, arrange for a veterinary exam to rule out any possible underlying physical issues.
Keeping The Connection
For optimum communication between you and your horse, you must be connected to him through both your seat and lower leg at all times. How you sit will affect how your legs are positioned, so we’ll start there.
Your seat. Sit in the center (deepest part) of your saddle, balanced on your pelvis, with your legs hanging naturally down. Typically, riders make one of tow mistakes. Some “sit on their pockets” too far back in the saddle, behind the horse’s motion. in this “La-Z-Boy recliner position,” as I call it, your legs will naturally move too far forward and away from your horse’s sides, making consistent communication impossible.
The other mistake is rolling too far forward on your pelvis, so that you lose the connection of your seat bones to your horse’s spine and are riding ahead of your horse’s motion. Your legs will then be too far back, and/or you may tend to grip with your legs for balance, which destroys your ability to use leg cues subtly and effectively.
Your legs. Let them hang down and wrap lightly around your horse, so that you maintain a light feel of his sides with your lower leg and ankle. Don’t push against your horse’s sides with your ankles; just keep a light connection above your spurs, if you wear them (you don’t want to inadvertently tap your horse with your spurs).
I can’t tell you how often I see riders trying to jog or lope with any leg connection at all with their horse. less-experienced or less-confident riders often lock their legs higher up, gripping through their knees and thighs. They may think they’re “using their legs,” but in fact they’re just creating stiffness and making a feeling connection through their lower leg impossible. Your knees and thighs should be relaxed-not open, but not gripping, because gripping prevents communication and feel.
Feel is what enables you to keep just the right amount of connection through your seat and legs. It also helps you interpret your horse’s intentions so you can anticipate when he’s about to do something you don’t want-in this case, to break gait. Feel is difficult to describe and can be acquired only through practice and experience.
To develop your feel, consciously notice the feedback you’re getting from you horse through every stride. Notice the degree of his impulsion, the steadiness of his rhythm, the quality of his movement. Pay attention to what it feels like just before he breaks gait, and learn to counter him by increasing the pressure at your ankles in time to keep him from slowing. Use trial and error over multiple riding sessions to develop a clear feel of your’ horse’s sensitivity and reaction time, to know how best to apply your cues to keep him moving forward.
Less-experienced riders ten to ride from sight rather than feel. They look down at their horses to see how they’re doing or if they’re going to make a mistake. Don’t fall into this habit! Instead, keep looking straight ahead and literally feel every step you horse takes, adjusting your cues as need be to keep him moving correctly.
Putting It Together
Here’s how to use connection and feel to maintain your horse’s gait and keep him from breaking on a straight line or through turns or on circles.
On a straight line. After warming your horse up, ride him straight down the long side of your arena at a steady, rhythmic jog. Keeping a feeling connection through your seat and your lower leg to keep his back lifted and his energy moving forward. Remember, your horse must lift and use his back muscles to stride ahead in a balanced way. Hs balance point is directly behind his withers – this is where he must lift from and hold to continue moving forward.
So, keeping the connection with your lower leg and ankles, think about helping him pick up that back. If your legs are in the position I described earlier, this will be possible just by increasing pressure at the ankles – or bumping or applying your spurs as need be. Be sure your legs haven’t slipped too far back, however, or you’ll be asking for the lift at the wrong place on his barrel, too far back from his center of balance.
Using your feel (no looking!), also work to keep him “square” – that is, straight and balanced between your legs and reins. Often, when a horse breaks gait, he “escapes” forward motion by shifting his weight to the right or left. You can prevent this by keeping him square and using feel plus connection through your seat and ankles to keep him moving straight forward.
If he does break gait despite your efforts, notice the direction in which his energy escaped to enable him to slow down. If it was to the left, then square him up again by using pressure from your left ankle, asking him to lift and move his rib cage back to the center, and resume the jog. (Simply reverse these cues if he escapes to the right.)
Through turns and on circles. Your horse must work harder to maintain forward motion when turning, so it’s especially important that you keep a feeling leg contact on circles and through turns.
Let’s say that you’re traveling to the left, and as you go through a corner, you feel your horse begin to drop his (left) shoulder, but you don’t catch it in time and he breaks to a walk. Assess how much he dropped to the left and, using a corresponding amount of pressure with your left ankle, pick him up that same amount (using only minimal pressure with your right rein) and ask him to jog again.
As your approach the next turn, anticipate that your horse will be tempted to once again drop his inside shoulder and break gait. This time, foil his plans by maintaining a strong inside contact with your left ankle and making sure you’re sitting square in your saddle – don’t lean to the inside.
Use these same techniques – feel, support, anticipate, correct as need be – to keep your horse moving forward rhythmically on a circle.
At a lope. If your horse tend to break gait at the lope, practice the same exercises in the same way at that gait. Typically, when a horse breaks from the lope, he’ll fall into a rough, running trot. When that happens, regain control by bringing your back to a cadenced jog and balancing him.
Make sure he’s square between your reins and legs, and ask for the lope again, maintaining contact with your ankles. Then, based on which way he escaped when he broke, be prepared to provide more support on that side to prevent it from happening again.
Keep at it. you won’t be able to correct this behavior in one day. It may take a week or more of consistent practice for your hour horse to give up this annoying habit.
And if you’re struggling to develop feel and find exactly the amount of connection your horse needs to keep moving forward, don’t despair. This is a trial-and-error process, and that’s OK. Just keep working to identify the amount of pressure your horse requires to lift his back and stay connected to you, and remember to feel your horse’s body as opposed to watching it.
Horse & Rider
by Robin Frid with Alana Harrison
Photos by Alana Harrison