Ask a Trainer: Developing Quality Gaits

Photo by Kacy Brown

Q: What exercises will help develop quality gaits in the recently-retired racehorse?

A: I am a hunter/jumper trainer, but developing quality gaits in a Thoroughbred is a universal goal for every discipline. All performance horses, regardless of their usage — pleasure, polo, trail, or hunter — must develop balance and rhythm. My experience of many years with OTTBs is that the primary concern is relaxation. While some horses return from the track or a respite in the field with a quiet mind and relaxed body, most do not. When we put tack on, it means hurry up and work. My first goal is to get them to relax their bodies under tack and return to using the gaits that were “factory installed” at birth. Racehorses do not spend much time walking, and the walk is the building block of all other gaits. I start at the mount and the walk.

Racehorses are mounted while walking forward, head bent to the left as the rider gets a leg up. In reschooling a racehorse, the first lesson is to stand while being mounted. A rider may be able to accomplish this by themselves, or they may need a person at their head to help the horse stay still. Initially, we may only get a few seconds of stillness. With work, a few seconds will become many seconds, and then into minutes. If a horse can relax and tune in to you when you mount it, your ride is on the right track.

At the instant of a rider landing astride, we would like the horse to relax and find his balance. As we move into the walk, we encourage a relaxed rein, use a soft leg (but, yes, put your leg on his side), and walk in a straight line. As a rider, teach your horse the meaning of straight. Make sure that his head is centered on his neck, his neck bisects his chest, and his hips are aligned with his shoulders. If your horse wants to jig, keep encouraging him to walk. He will get better.

Cavaletti rails are very useful for flat work. Introduce rails on the ground as soon as you can in your training program. Teach your horse to walk in a straight line over the rails. Do not start with them too close — they are not walk or trot rails — they are rails well spaced from each other so that the horse does not feel trapped. I recommend at least 6 feet apart. Start with 2-4 in a row. Try to get your horse to stretch to the rail, reaching with his head and neck, thereby taking a longer step with his front legs. As he drops his head, relaxes his back, and takes a longer, more natural step, you are building the quality of his gaits. Be patient and make rails a part of every training session, so that your horse becomes used to them.

As the horse digests the walk rails, introduce the same exercises at the trot. Again, with lots of space between the rails, let your horse slowly trot the poles, looking down and thinking about where each of his legs is. You can trot them one way, half circle, and trot them back the other way. Now, you are developing balance, steering, changes of bend and direction. As your horse becomes relaxed to the routine, move the rails closer together — approximately 3’ apart. As the spacing closes, the horse must be more aware of his feet, of his balance, and of his speed. If at any time, he becomes upset, backtrack to a relaxing exercise and then move up to the more difficult again. I also set up poles in a wagon wheel spoke pattern so that the horse navigates the rails on a circle. Space them appropriately for your horse.

Once the trot work is solid, then move on to the canter. Anything accomplished at the trot will apply to the canter, and you should have a solid building block A (the walk) before you go on to B (the trot) and then C (the canter).Make the canter poles a few strides apart to start (33’ approximately for a 2 stride, 45’ or so for 3 strides) and teach your horse to maintain a consistent length of stride. Racehorses have been taught to build in speed, so we must retrain them to carry a consistent, balanced pace. If your horse needs more or less room between the rails to suit his stride, move them so that you are successful at the exercise. It is not a trap.

Transition work is essential to developing quality gaits. Walk to trot is the place to start. Rising trot to a slower and more collected sitting trot helps their rideability (make sure your horse can tolerate the sitting trot. If not, slow the gait and continue posting). I like to utilize teaching the downward transition for any gait or speed in the corners of the ring. For example, working trot down the long side of the ring, sitting trot on the ends. Canter down the long side, collected canter or trot on the end. This exercise teaches your horse to slow down on the ends of the ring which helps his balance through the turns and will help him if/when we introduce lead changes.

Developing quality gaits is easy for some horses, and more challenging for others. Keep your goals realistic and be patient with progress. Your horse should not be punished with flat work. Rather, it is a chance to teach him to focus on small movements, to relax to his rider, and to reconnect with his body. Flatwork is the basis for everything the OTTB will do next.

Sissy Wickes is a highly regarded USEF “R” Hunter judge and trainer who has operated her own Springtown Show Stable for over three decades. An advocate for the Thoroughbred, Wickes and her husband, Tim, are also active in racing, breeding, and sales, and she has served as a repeat judge of the Show Hunter division at the Thoroughbred Makeover. Wickes joins the RRP board with extensive experience in nonprofit governance and development, currently serving on the board of the United States Hunter Jumper Association as well as board president for the Hill Top Preparatory School. Beyond her equestrian career and participation in nonprofit governance, Wickes has additional experience in media and marketing, having served as editor at large of The Plaid Horse Magazine.


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