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Great Gaited-Horse Tips

Thinking about “going gaited”? First, read these get-started tips for maximum enjoyment and comfort on your riding adventures.

Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Considering buying a smooth-gaited horse for smooth, comfortable trail-riding adventures? Before you buy, use these tips to get started.

Fit your physique. Choose a horse that fits your physique. If you're tall, you might prefer a 15-plus-hand horse with a big barrel, such as the Rocky Mountain Horse. If you're on the short side, consider the smaller Paso Fino or Icelandic Horse. Be sure that you can mount unaided on the trail and that the horse can carry the weight of you, your tack, and your gear for long periods of time.

Consider your physical condition. If you suffer from joint and/or back pain, look for a smooth ride that doesn't exacerbate your condition. After many years in the saddle, some trail riders benefit from switching to smooth-gaited horses for a long, comfortable ride.

"Baby boomers want to enjoy, laugh, and ride all day, and dance all night," says Certified Horsemanship Association instructor Julie Dillon. "The gaited breeds can offer that."

Consider trail pace. If you're the only one you know who'll be owning a smooth-gaited horse, you may worry whether your friends on stock-type horses will be able to "keep up." It's true that such gaits as the running walk and racking step are swift and energetic. However, your trail partners can develop their horses' walk, trot, and lope/canter into strong, forward-moving gaits.

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Adjust your balance. The sensation of riding a smooth-gaited horse may feel strange or too fast at first, says trainer Russell Terry. "You might be intimidated and feel like you don't have as much control," he notes. Dillon explains that you need to internalize body memory of the new gaits. A body memory is the knowledge and experience that allows you to recognize a gait. Learn what the proper footfall and cadence feel like.

Find a certified riding instructor, and sharpen your equitation skills. "Keep a straight line between your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel," horse trainer Russell Terry advises. Stay relaxed, try not to interfere with your horse's stride, and let him move into his best gaits.

Try different gaits. Experiment to see which gait feels best to you. Dillon compares the diagonal movement of the Missouri Fox Trotter to a rumba and the lateral gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse to waltz. If you're looking for an energetic-yet-collected, gait, the pistons-and-engine step of the Racking Horse may be for you. Or, perhaps your idea of an enjoyable trail ride includes floating along on the back of an Icelandic Horse.

Photo by Andrea Barber

Evaluate movement. Ask the owner to ride your potential horse, so you can evaluate his movement from the ground. (Bring along someone experienced with your new breed.) Observe the gaits the owner is able to achieve and the horse's balance at each gait.

Hop aboard. Hop on, and evaluate whether the horse's gaits are right for you. Ride in the arena first. Ask the owner for help in getting a desired gait, if needed. Compare the horse's movement what you've learned in your lessons.

Ride on trail. Ride your potential horse on the trail to see if he's able to stretch out his stride. Be picky — if covering ground is important to you, look for an energetic, athletic horse with a "go forward" inclination.

Fit a saddle. After you've bought your new horse, evaluate saddle fit. Ask a person experienced with your horse's breed to help you decide whether a new saddle is necessary. You may also want to see if the horse's current saddle is available to purchase. To obtain an optimal gait, your horse's scapula and haunches must be able to stretch out comfortably. Find a saddle that fits well, doesn't chafe his back, and allows him to move freely.

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