The Art And Science of Teaching the Gaited Horse

Article published in the FOSH publication: The Sound Advocate in 2013.

In my opinion every rider should have a grasp of basic equine biomechanics before saddling our horses or attempting to work them in hand. The horse moves prerequisitely as a whole and for every one of our actions there is a reaction/response on the part of the horse that is determined by the bones, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and musculature of the horse. Understanding both the horse’s innate abilities as well as his limitations allow us to work within his comfort zone; helping him find relaxation, enjoyment, and suppleness.

I am not a veterinarian nor do I hold a degree in equine physiology, however as a life-long educator of horses I have learned that there are certain truths in our horsemanship that cannot be denied. Horses, as nature intended move fluidity, with suppleness, strength, and balance. They were not designed to be ridden however can be taught to carry us with the same grace if we follow some basic principles. In this article I will focus on the horse’s back and core and how that relates to the smooth gaited horse. Gait difficulty for the smooth gaited horse can usually be attributed to muscular tension, emotional tension, or to biomechanic misalignments. If we can eradicate those things in our horses they will find their gait naturally.

THE BACK

How the horse uses his back is fundamental to his overall physical strength, fitness, and ability to engage and carry the rider. The horse’s back is integral in both the transmission of energy from the hind end [the motor] to the front end, and in transmitting a variety of messages to and from the brain. When we have a good disposition of the back any movement we ask of the horse will be easier for him to achieve. Long, full, well vascularized muscles work effectively to perform movements fluidly. Tight short muscles cannot do the job they were intended for and the risk of tearing or doing microvascular damage becomes real.

The weight of the rider is carried by a series of muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the thoracic sling and undercarriage; this system is found underneath the horse connecting his head and neck to his rump and hind legs. The back muscles are supportive and work antagonistically with the carrying system. Another way of thinking of it is if muscles below the vertebral column engage then the muscles above the vertebral column release. In order for the system to function synergistically both need to be supple; as the sling engages, the back softens and relaxes while providing support.

An additional benefit of relaxation of the back and spinal column relates directly to nerve health and proprioception. The spinal cord, encased within the protective processes of the spine is the highway for nerves which transmit messages between the brain and all of the areas of the body. Proprioceptors; nerve cells which inform the brain about where the horse’s feet are, where he is in his space, what posture and what movement he is in, are found in all of the muscles and all of the joints of the horse’s body. If the back is relaxed it becomes better vascularized, and the nerves can transmit messages and proprioceptive information efficiently and accurately.

The horse has a cable-like ligament called the Nuchal ligament originating from the occipital joint/base of his skull and is connected to a series of ligaments anchored to the bones at his hind end. The Nuchal ligament has very limited ability to stretch and this in turn has a limiting factor in how much we can ask of the horse without doing damage/creating microtears in any of his structures. Due to the limited elasticity of the Nuchal ligament, in order for the horse to coil his hind end and step his legs under his core to elevate his front end without injury, he has to be able to lift the base of his neck and spine behind the withers. He has no option but to work within the parameters set by his powerful ligamentary system.

BASCULE

Bascule refers to the desirable disposition of the horse’s back: in bascule the horse stretches or telescopes his head and neck forward with his nose ahead of his ears. The base of his neck lifts, as does his back behind the withers and he is able to step underneath with his hind legs. Rounding the topline in this way helps the horse engage the carrying muscles of his undercarriage and works within the parameters of his ligamentary system. This position is elemental in teaching the horse to carry; both true collection and a fluid gait spring from developing the horse in this position.

VENTROFLEXION

The concept of ventroflexion is in direct contrast to bascule. A horse that is ridden in ventroflexion is easily identifiable; his head will be in a high position, he will have a bulging lower neck and the muscles at the top of his neck will be undeveloped. As there is no bony attachment between the forelimbs and the body of the horse, the energy from the hindquarters will drive the thorax downward and the horse will travel on his forehand. The back muscles of the horse will tighten, the spinal column will be compressed, and nerve signals become interrupted. This progression will have a bracing effect on the lumbo-sacral area and his pelvis will flatten, in turn arresting the ability of the hind legs get under his body to carry the rider and to collect. As the smooth flow of proprioceptive messages have been blocked he will have trouble moving his limbs with appropriate timing. This cluster of phenomena will create a more anxious horse further contributing to the loss of his natural gait. Due to the limitations of the Nuchal ligament when the horse’s back is in a downward position and his head is held high he will be physically unable to reach his legs underneath his body. This position will result in damage to the muscles/tendons/ligaments of the horse and I have found that the suspensory ligaments become especially vulnerable.

This ventroflexed position is not necessarily the fault of the rider; many smooth gaited horses will naturally fall into this position in response to the weight of the rider. We are responsible for teaching the horse how to carry the rider effectively considering his limitations.

HYPERFLEXION

Hyperflexion refers to the overbending of the horse either longitudinally; bringing his nose behind the vertical, or laterally; bringing his head too far to the side. These are both positions contrary to the limitations of the horse’s ligamentary system. Both of these positions tighten the back muscles and break the connection between the bridle and the horse’s feet. The horse will be forced on to his forehand and will lose his balance and his gait will be interrupted.

FOOTFALL

Footfall is critical to the horse’s gait and without good back mobility and relaxation, the timing of the horse’s footfall can be extremely difficult to adjust. In a horse that is inclined to ventroflex it is not fruitful to focus on training footfall; the trainer is better off working on basculing and softening the horse’s back and teaching him to carry. In most cases, footfall will normalize if the back is in an optimal position and is soft and relaxed.

ACHIEVING SOFTNESS

We now understand that in order for the horse to achieve a relaxed rhythmic gait his back must be both mobile and relaxed and in an elevated disposition. When I train any horse, whether he is gaited or not, I begin by teaching him to release the jaw, the poll, and the neck. I begin working the horse from the ground so he does not have to worry about holding and balancing weight while trying to learn new maneuvers. The lessons are thus easier for him to grasp and be successful with. It is also easier for me to teach him as I can position myself in different places on the ground to assist him. Throughout this process I use a plain snaffle bit and typically do not change bits down the road unless there is a specific need.

To begin, I stand at his head slightly off to the side with his neck slightly bent towards me. In this position I place my hands on the rings on either side of the bit. With my hand that is on the inside of the bend I direct the ring of the bit diagonally across under his jaw towards the opposite shoulder while I lift the outside bit ring upwards with my outside hand. Iindications that he has released his jaw are mouth opening, chewing, or licking. I make this request mindful that any harshness or hurry on my part will work directly against what I am trying to achieve. As soon as he shows me signs that he has released his jaw I immediately release pressure. In the early stages of teaching I might need to induce him with a little treat to compel him to release. With practice I will be able to elicit a release of his jaw from a simple vibration of the rein upwards towards the corner of his mouth.

Some horses will have difficulty with this exercise and I must be aware of any minute response towards relaxation. This exercise cannot be forced and the more we work on the horse’s terms the more successful we will be and the faster our results will come.

After the horse releases his jaw, his poll and neck will begin to relax. He will be inclined to stretch his head and neck downward; I encourage this movement by supporting him and helping guide his head as I want him to stay slightly bent to the side. I make sure that his ears stay level – if they don’t, it means his spine has twisted and the benefit of the exercise is lost. Think of softening and lengthening his neck inward and downward. This stretching in relaxation with a slight bend will begin to release the muscles over his topline. By releasing and lowering his neck to just below wither height the base of his neck will elevate as will the thoracic spine behind the withers. This lifting can be seen from the ground and will also be felt from the saddle. As with any teaching, I have to do this exercise on both sides. It is safe to assume that the horse will be unsymmetrical and stiffer on one side. I do not force the horse to release but instead we remain persistent and kind with my request until the horse finds what I am asking for. This lowering and softening will feel good to the horse and once I show him the way he will seek out this position on his own.

Next, in this position from the ground I begin to introduce movement. With a released topline bent to the inside I can begin to ask the horse to move his shoulders outward. After the he moves his shoulders outward I ask him to move his hind end away from me as well and direct his body on a circle. I continue to watch that his ears remain level as he flexes as this is an indication that the bend at the poll is correct. I also pay attention that his head and neck remain aligned with his shoulder, and that a consistent arc from his head to his haunch is maintained. I want the inside hind leg moving forward without crossing the midline of the horse as that would create too much stress on his joints. If there is a smooth even bend through the full length of his body he will be able to flex without interruption of energy flow and he will be able to engage effectively. This combined lateral and forward movement will at first be difficult for the horse to accomplish.

The weakest spot of the horse’s topline is at the lumbo-sacral joint. However, this joint is critical for transferring the energy from the hind end to propel the horse forward. Working the horse in this lowered and arced position the muscles around this joint can begin to strengthen and he will be able to propel himself forward and upward rather than downward into his chest.

Through these exercises the back will not only become softer but will become activated and accessible. Through better vascularization his neuromuscular system can function as designed. He can now mobilize and use his hind end, flex his joints, and coil his hind end underneath his core to support the rider. He himself will feel balanced and thus be calmer and will not feel the need to rush forward. Now we can see that collection; the horse’s hind end coiled under, back basculed, and neck stretched forward, is beneficial for smooth gaited horses and is not just reserved for the dressage horse.

Learning new exercises and new ways of moving is difficult for the horse and it is our job as trainers to help the horse stay relaxed through the process. We must take care to set him up to succeed by asking only for what he can provide both physically and emotionally at any particular point in time. Following the principles of caring for the horse’s back and training with both correct biomechanics and relaxation, the natural gait of the horse will emerge.