There are two definitions to the word surefooted, each of which contributes to a superior riding horse. The first is confidence, not prone to errors in judgment or action. Owners of Icelandic Horses, Mountain Horses, Tennessee Walking Horses, Mangalarga Marchadors, Gaited Morgans, and Missouri Fox Trotters, among others, comment regularly on their horses' tendency to instinctively choose the best path. The other meaning, not likely to stumble, a result of that good judgment, requires the physical ability to carry it out.
You might be surprised to know how many factors affect your gaiteds horse's surefootedness and just exactly what you can do to preserve it.
By Virtue of Gait
Back when gaited horses were first being selectively bred, the advantage of a smooth ride was instantly evident. But breeders in regions with, shall we say, challenging terrain - the volcanic interior of Iceland, the rugged Appalachian Mountains, or the swamps and slopes of South America - noticed something else those extra gaits afforded.
A horse with a range of gaits negotiated hazardous footing more easily and effectively than one with limited "gears." Having an extra foot or two on the ground not only improved the gait's smoothness, it also provided more stability. In short, horses bred for saddle gaits have the added advantage of being born to a legacy of surefootedness.
Of course, as always, where a little is good, way too much isn't better. Lee Ziegler, the late noted gaited-horse clinician and author of Easy Gaited Horses, offered this caveat: "Avoid extremes," she warned. "Extreme overstride (running walk comes to mind) can make a horse less surefooted, extreme reach in front (long, but very low step) also can lead to stumbling."
Sadly, what often wins in the show ring can literally lead to your downfall on the trail. "A really long-strided and 'loose hocked' ex-Big Lick horse is going to have a lot more trouble negotiating up, and especially down, hills in rough terrain, than a more moderately endowed individual who has maybe a foot or so over stride," Ziegler explained. "Likewise, a very fast moving largo horse with tons of reach is also going to have more trouble in rough ground than a moderately slower horse with shorter stride."
For most gaited horses, anything more than rare missteps to occasional stumbling should be taken as a signal that something is wrong, physically or mentally. After all, your horse wants to keep on his feet. Falling down is one of his worst fears. In his 57 million year evolutionary memory, hitting the ground is synonymous with being eaten.
So what does it take for your horse to be surefooted, even in treacherous terrain? Here's a rundown.
• A calm, observant mind. Your horse's mind directs his foot placement. If he's anxious or distracted, he's likely to forget what's happening at the end of his legs. A horse that fights his rider is also likely to misstep, especially a young, green horse unfamiliar with trails and other horses. But a mentally focused horse will watch his footing intently when the going gets rough, nose nearly to the ground, if necessary.
• Soundness and condition. These attributes are especially important while crossing demanding terrain.
• Balanced conformation. A surefooted horse has straight, sturdy legs of sufficient bone, and tough, well-shaped hooves. His soles are concave, and his frogs are fleshy and healthy. He'll have a medium to short, strong back and a medium to slightly narrow chest to balance his load while controlling footfalls. Good bone structure is the framework over which all muscle and condition is built, and a horse can only excel within the limits of that framework.
• Good vision. Your horse's vision guides his steps. "Good eyesight is a must," explains high-country rider and Tennessee Walking Horse breeder William J. Erickson. "A horse with vision problems can easily misjudge where he places his feet. Floaters or other eye problems can cause a horse to ignore things he should see or react to things that aren't even there."