Perhaps you're ready to switch from a stock horse to a smooth-gaited mount. Or, you're already a gaited-horse owner and are thinking of adding a Tennessee Walking Horse to your stable. Plain-shod Walking Horses are sound, sane, smooth, and naturally 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 before you seal the deal. Here, we give you expert answers to 10 frequently asked questions. Read on to increase your Walking Horse savvy.
Q. Why should you make a Tennessee Walking Horse your next trail horse?
A. Tennessee Walking Horse breeders use such phrases as "smooth-gaited," "glide-ride," and even "Cadillac ride." If you've never had the unforgettable experience of sitting easy in the saddle and floating down the trail, you might just shake your head and laugh at what sounds like advertising hype. But it's all true.
Tennessee Walking Horses have naturally smooth, easy gaits. Lots of gaits. In the show ring, you'll see only the flatfoot walk, the running walk, and the canter. On the trail, you'll find that a Walking Horse has more gaits than a semi has gears. Dogwalk, amble, stepping pace, hard pace, trot, singlefoot, and rack are some of the extra trail gaits you may acquire with your new horse. Whatever the gait, the Walking Horse will perform it with a long, easy stride. Note that some gaited horses have short strides. If you've never been entirely comfortable on a short-striding animal, a Walking Horse might be ideal for you.
But there's more. The Walking Horse also offers soundness and endurance, plus intelligence, docility, and a strong orientation toward people. And all these qualities come in an eye-catching package.
Q. Sounds like a great trail horse. Who else knows this?
A. Actually, a lot of people. Natural-gaited Walking Horses were bred for a comfortable ride and a cooperative temperament, so the breed is greatly appreciated by riders who spend long hours in the saddle and need to cover a lot of ground.
Fans include competitive trail riders, ranchers, park rangers, mounted police and patrol units, and people who participate in handicapped riding programs, field trials, and mounted Search And Rescue (SAR).
Walking Horses are ideal for new riders, casual riders, and riders who just want to get on the trails and enjoy the scenery without getting sore. Even retired baby boomers with bad backs can go on trails without becoming sore by the end of the ride.
Q. What should I look for in Walking Horse conformation?
A. A sound, natural-gaited Walking Horse will have a substantial yet elegant, functional build. He's a good weight carrier, with long, sloping, free-moving shoulders and hips, a short, straight back, a short, deep coupling, and a slightly sloping croup. His legs will be clean and dry, with solid, sound hooves-many go barefoot. His hocks will typically angle forward a bit more than those of other breeds.
A typical Walking Horse will also have an attractive head, large eyes, recurved (inward turning) ear tips, and a thick, wavy mane and tail.
Black is beautiful, but the Walking Horse comes in a variety of colors, including chestnut, roan, palomino, champagne, and spotted. Whatever you choose, remember the old saying, "A good horse is never a bad color." A good horse is also never a bad size. A Walking Horse ranges from 14.3 hands high and 900 pounds, to 17 hands and 1,200 pounds.
Q. Where can I find a good Walking Horse for trail riding?
A. Start with Walking Horse breeders who raise naturally gaited horses specifically for trail riding and ranch use. Their horses are brought up outdoors, and grow up surefooted and familiar with rocks, hills, and trees. Look for breeders who are true to the original values that created the breed.
When you visit farms, look for horses that seem happy to be handled, groomed, tacked up, and ridden. Look for horses that work barefoot all or most of the time, and are plain-shod (meaning a simple keg shoe on a normal foot) on those occasions when they need shoes for traction or protection.
Also, ask other trail riders for suggestions and recommendations-and ask them to ask their friends. If you know someone who rides the kind of horse you dream of owning, call that person and ask where the horse came from. Most Walking Horse owners are delighted to talk about their horses, and happy to recommend the farms where their horses were bred. This research will help you compile a list of breeders who have raised horses that you know you like.
Q. What about a current or former show horse?
A. Avoid a "Big Lick" show horse, even if the seller insists that you can simply remove the shoes and create an instant trail horse. A Walking Horse bred for the show arena has likely suffered chemical soring of his sensitive foot tissues and pasterns to get the unnatural high-stepping gait that wins ribbons. This process can damage a horse's soundness and sanity.
Resist the temptation to "rescue" a former show horse no longer wanted by his owner. Retraining such a horse for trail is a long, complicated, often unsuccessful process. You can't just strip off a show horse's shoes, pads, and "action devices" to reveal a lovely natural gait-many show horses don't have true, natural gaits. So look for a horse that's naturally gaited-and enjoying his job.
Q. What other buying tips can you offer?
A. Try before you buy. Take each prospect for a test ride, and be sure to buy a horse already confirmed in the specific gaits that you want to ride. Walking Horses have a lot of natural gaits, and these differ from horse to horse. Some are natural pacers; some prefer to trot. Don't assume that any Walking Horse you buy is going to "gait" automatically just because he's registered. Several factors come into play in helping a horse perform his gaits to the best of his ability. These include proper hoof care and hoof balance, good-fitting tack, kind, competent training, and rider skill. Other gait influences include the horse's conformation, health, genetic predisposition, comfort zone, and preference. Find out which gaits the horse performs naturally, then enjoy and improve upon them.
Buy an individual, not a pedigree. Learn as much as you can about your individual horse before you buy him. If all horses moved or performed exactly like their sires, dams, or full siblings, betting on horse races would be easy, and we'd all be rich. Your best bet is an older, experienced horse that knows everything and can teach you. If you prefer a young horse and you feel strongly about bloodlines, learn to evaluate pedigrees in light of your needs and wants. A good trail horse doesn't necessarily need famous ancestors-he needs sound, smooth, naturally gaited ones. So evaluate that pedigree! If a prospect comes from a long line of natural movers, there's a good chance he'll have inherited those genes. But if the horses in his pedigree were all famous for having been "trained" to perform unnatural, exaggerated gaits, you have no way of knowing whether any of them were naturally gaited.
Q. Will my Walking Horse need special shoeing?
A. Your Walking Horse, like any other horse, will need regular attention from a good farrier. He'll need to have his hooves balanced and trimmed. Like any other horse, he may need simple, ordinary shoes on specific occasions for traction or protection. Otherwise, he may not need shoes at all. (For more information on trail-horse hoof care, see page 42.) A good farrier will trim the individual horse rather than tell you, for instance, "Walking Horses need these angles and this length of toe."
Q. Will my Walking Horse need any special tack?
A. Yes-but not in the way you might think. Your Walking Horse will not need a bit with long shanks, a bridle with a plastic browband, or a flat saddle. He will need normal tack for a normal horse, suitable for trails, and selected for comfort, quality, and fit. Here's what you can expect to buy, after you purchase a Walking Horse.
Bridle. Most Walking Horses will need a "horse size" or "full size" bridle, as they typically have slightly wider foreheads and slightly longer heads than most other gaited breeds. Make sure the browband is wide enough to fit your horse comfortably. Walking Horses also tend to have long necks, so buy long reins. (For English riding, that means 60 inches rather than 54 inches.)
Bit. First, have your veterinarian or a certified equine dentist check and treat any teeth problems that could painfully interfere with the bit. When you're ready to shop, buy an ordinary bit, not a "Walking Horse" model. Your new horse won't need a high-leverage, long-shanked mouthpiece. He can and should go down the trail in an easy bit, such as a simple mullen-mouth or French-link snaffle, or a short-shanked, medium-port grazing bit. (For more on bits, talk to a knowledgeable riding instructor or reputable trainer.) Or you could try riding without any bit at all. Many Walking Horses go very kindly in a Bitless Bridle (866/235-0938; www.bitlessbridle.com).
Saddle. You already know that it's essential for a saddle to fit your new horse comfortably. Walking Horses typically have wide backs. His shoulders are wide, long, sloping, and mobile. You'll probably need a saddle with a wide or extra-wide tree. It should sit well behind the shoulder, but not too far back. If you ride English, a wide, all-purpose or dressage saddle may be your best bet; if you ride Western, you'll need to look for a saddle with flaring bars that can accommodate the slope of the shoulders. You'll also need short, rounded skirts-long, square skirts are likely to interfere with your horse's hips, which will likely cause soreness. An endurance saddle with an extra-wide tree may be just the thing for your horse's comfort and your own. If nothing "off the rack" seems to fit, consider a custom or semi-custom model. Avoid saddles that put you into a "chair" seat, with your heels forward of your shoulders and hips.
Q. Will I be riding my Walking Horse any differently from other breeds?
A. Once you're in the saddle, you'll need to allow your Walking Horse to engage in his natural head-nodding motion, which is an essential part of his running walk. If you restrict his head-nodding, you'll not only frustrate your new horse, but you'll cause him to restrict or change his gait. If you ever have trouble with gaiting or cooperation, check to see whether you're inadvertently holding his head too tightly for him to gait properly.
It may take a few rides before you learn to relax your back and let your body go with the flow, especially if you're used to a shorter, less ground-covering stride and a bumpier gait. This is particularly true if your own back is sore and you're in the habit of tensing against your horse's movement. But once you relax and begin to enjoy your "Cadillac ride," your only problem will be the bugs in your teeth from riding all day with a big smile.
Q. Will I still be able to ride with friends who own non-gaited horses?
A. Actually, your biggest problem may be finding someone to ride with. If your friends ride Walking Horses or long-striding Thoroughbreds, all will be well. But if you go out on the trail with other riders whose horses have to trot or even canter to keep up with your horse's walk, your friends may not be happy with you.
There are several solutions to this problem. You can ride only with the friends who have horses with long, ground-covering strides, you can seek out people whose horses are like yours (and discover a whole new group of friends), or you can do both. If you always ride with the same friend, or with your spouse, consider buying two Walking Horses so that you can ride stirrup-to-stirrup, and chat as you go. TTR
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 Behavior Problem Solver: Your Questions Answered about how Horses Think, Learn, and React (Storey Publishing). Jessica bought her black Tennessee Walking Horse mare, Velvet, out of a field as an unbroken 3-year-old; this year, the mare celebrated her 30th birthday.
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