Thinking about buying a Tennessee Walking Horse for trail riding? Plain-shod Tennessee Walking Horses are sound, sane, and naturally smooth-gaited. This is the ultimate trail horse-both a comfortable mount and a willing, loving companion. But there are several key things you should know about the Tennessee Walking Horse before you seal the deal. Here, we give you expert answers to a few frequently asked questions. (For more, pick up the September-October '08 issue of The Trail Rider.)
Q. What are the Tennessee Walking Horse gaits like-how do they feel under saddle? Can you describe each gait precisely? How do they differ from, say, the Missouri Fox Trotter?
A. Walker gaits feel lovely--to me, anyway--but let me make it very clear that I'm talking about natural gaits, trail gaits, real gaits, not the man-made show gaits that are created with the help of heavy shoes, huge stacks of pads, or soring. When I say "Walker gaits," I mean the gaits they'll do as foals at their mother's sides or turned out in pasture or under saddle when they're comfortable and wearing ordinary tack.
Walkers are famous for their flatfoot walk, running walk, and canter, but they can and do offer other gaits--lots of them, in fact.
- The dog walk or trail walk (usually three to four miles per hour) is a slow, easy walk; there's not much action or speed so there's not much nodding, either. It's an even, level, four-beat gait, very soft and easy to sit--ideal if you'd like your horse to meander down the trail on a loose rein while you chat with your riding buddy.
The flatfoot walk is a faster, stronger, more energetic walk (usually four to seven miles per hour). It's still an even, level, four-beat gait, but it's more purposeful. You'll feel your horse's back move more, because the longer strides cause each hip to lift and drop with a little more emphasis. Because there's more effort and "reach" involved, you'll notice an increase in head-and-neck nodding.
- The running walk (usually eight to12 miles-per-hour) is a more powerful version of the flatfoot walk, featuring more push from behind and an increased overstride. (That is, at each stride, the hind foot oversteps the print of the forefoot on the same side). You'll feel your horse's hips dropping and lifting, and his back swinging; you'll see his head nodding.
The walks are all four-beat lateral gaits: The horse always has three feet on the ground and one in the air, so his body is always well-supported. (At a trot, the horse has two feet in the air and two on the ground; at a rack, he has three feet in the air and one on the ground, which is less stable and much more tiring for the horse.)
- The trot is a diagonal, two-beat gait with which you're already familiar: Tennesse Walking Horses that trot (not all of them do) generally have a strong, clear trot with a long, reaching stride.
- The pace is a gait that you wouldn't normally want to ride, but you should be able to recognize it. If you feel your horse's back rocking from side to side instead of from back to front, or if you feel yourself being tossed from side to side as the horse moves, your horse is probably pacing! It's a lateral gait (like the walk) but the front and hind leg on each side move together. Some riders find that pacing makes them feel seasick.
- The canter of a good Tennessee Walking Horse is a joy to ride. The term "rocking horse canter" describes it well: A smooth, rocking canter that feels as though the horse is cantering uphill. The canter should be ultracomfortable and easy to sit, even if you have bad knees or hips or a bad back. For the best natural canter, look for a strong, sound, horse with natural gaits. A good, natural canter will cover ground with ease; you shouldn't have any difficulty keeping up with other horses when you're cantering on the trail.
But wait--there's more! Your Walker may have some "extra" gaits for your trail-riding pleasure. In addition to the two-beat trot and pace, there are many four-beat gaits that don't involve much-if any-head-nodding.
Your Walker may have his "official" three gaits, plus any or all of these: Trot, pace, foxtrot, stepping pace, singlefoot, and rack. Some gaits have different names in different areas; the same gait might be called a "singlefoot," a "stepping pace," or a "saddle gait," depending on your location.
Q. I'm ready to buy a Tennessee Walking Horse. What should I look for?
A. At the gym, some of us prefer the treadmill and others prefer the elliptical trainer or the stair-stepper. Similarly, you might find that your sore knees (or hips, or back) are more comfortable when you ride another gaited breed, such as a Peruvian Paso or a Mangalarga Marchador. Here are four suggestions for successful horse-hunting.
Tennessee Walking Horse Links
1. Try as many different breeds and gaits as you can; learn what makes your body most comfortable. Some people enjoy trotting; others love a running walk or a foxtrot or a rack. If you have a bad back, a Walker might be ideal--or he might provide too much back movement for comfort. Find out what works best for you! You may surprise yourself, and find that a breed or gait you thought you'd enjoy is just "meh," but another breed or gait you'd never heard of before is "da bomb."
2. Even within a breed, individual horses can have different conformation and different movement. If you fall in love with the long smooth stride of one Walker, don't buy a different one, assuming that his movement will feel exactly the same. It may not! My old mare was tall and long-backed, with huge strides and a great deal of back movement; her half-sister was shorter and more compact with much less back movement. They were both very comfortable to ride, but they weren't the same.
3. Ride your trail horse prospects on the trail, not just in the arena or pasture. If possible, try them out on the same type of trails you'll ride on when you get home. The same horse may gait differently in the pasture than on the trail, and may also gait differently on a smooth, level trail than over rough, hilly, or uneven terrain.
4. Keep an open mind. Discard any notions of the "best" breed, size, or color. Buy the individual horse that goes best on your trails and makes your bad knees or bad back most comfortable. Buy the horse that makes you smile the most.
Q. If buy a Tennessee Walking Horse, will I still be able to ride with friends who own non-gaited breeds?
A. If you want a Walker and don't want to give up your trail rides with your friends who ride trotting horses, look for:
- A gaited horse that can gait easily and smoothly at the speed of a trotting horse. If your gaited horse is smooth but much slower than your friends' trotting horses, you may have to change gaits to stay with the group.
- A gaited horse that can and will trot when he's in the pasture. Even if you don't ever intend to trot him deliberately, a gaited horse with a natural trot is far less likely to become pacey. Pacing is uncomfortable and usually rough. You can't sit or post the gait, so your only option is to ride it in a half-seat (or two-point position--standing in the stirrups and leaning forward slightly), which can be tiring. If you're going gaited because you have physical problems, trotting is better than pacing, but a smooth gait that lets you keep up with your friends is best of all.
Q. Will I need any special tack for my Walker?
A. Just long reins--extra-long ones if you ride English--to accommodate your Walker's nodding and lovely long neck. Now go out and enjoy your horse!
Jessica Jahiel, PhD (www.jessicajahiel.com) is an internationally recognized clinician and lecturer, and an award-winning author of books on horses, riding, and training. Her e-mail newsletter (www.horse-sense.org) is a popular worldwide resource. Her latest book is The Horse Training Problem Solver: Your Questions Answered about Gaits, Ground Work, and Attitude, In the Arena and On the Trail (Storey Publishing).