Learning the Gaits
The horse has four natural gaits that the beginner will encounter and need to master over a period of time. A few unique breeds, such as the Tennessee Walker and the American Saddlebred, are labeled gaited horses. These horses will display more than the standard four gaits.
The horse walks with three feet on the ground and one foot raised at any one time. Each hoof strikes the ground individually — one, two, three, four. Most people think the walk is an easy gait because they're not going fast. Actually, it is the hardest gait to perform correctly from a judge's standpoint, as many riders tend to let their horses drag along without being engaged.
At the walk, sit deeply in the saddle and let your hips move with the movement of the horse. Expect the horse to walk with energy and life, and don't let him stall to a dull, slow amble. You should both look like you are enjoying yourself and have somewhere to go.
The trot is a two-beat gait. Two feet are on the ground and two feet are in the air at any one time. The legs operate on a diagonal pattern, with the left front and right hind either up or down at the same time, and the same with the right front and left hind, with a brief moment when all four feet are off the ground. In Western riding parlance, a slow trot is known as the jog. Most people can learn to sit the jog easily, but sitting a more vigorous trot is much harder to master. It takes a very skilled rider to sit a fully extended trot.
What is the pace?
At the pace, the two legs on the same side of the horse move together, unlike the trot, in which diagonal pairs move together. Horses that pace do so naturally, particularly ones bred for harness racing. In certain easy-gaited breeds, the pace or a similar ambling gait completely replaces the trot.
In the beginning, it is easier to learn to post at the trot. Posting, also called rising trot, is a method of rising up and down to the rhythm of the horse's movement. You rise out of the saddle with the rise of the outside shoulder and foot (the one along the fence rail or arena wall), and you sit back into the saddle as that outside front foot falls to the ground. Posting is easier if the horse is going forward with some speed because the horse's trotting movement pushes you up out of the saddle.
When you're first learning, it will feel like you are being bounced high out of the saddle, but as you gain more control over the movement, you will be able to post lower and lower in the saddle until it feels fluid and almost effortless. Posting is easier on the horse's back and easier on the rider, too.
At some point, you will learn to sit the trot, using your lower back to absorb the shock of the up and down movement, and not flop around like a dying fish in the saddle. This is where riding good school horses helps because they know to keep up their trot speed, even though what you may be doing with your body may interfere with their ability to move forward. Although you won't see Western riders posting to the trot in a class at a show, you can easily post in a Western saddle if it makes you and the horse more comfortable.
Sometimes called a slow gallop, the canter is a three-beat gait with a hind leg pushing off, then the other hind and the opposite front, then the other front leg, with a moment of complete suspension of all four legs. In the Western show world, the canter is called the lope, and is a slower gait than the working canter of the English riders.
Typically, most beginners are uncomfortable with — and even fearful of — trying the canter because the horse is going faster. A good instructor won't ask you to try this gait until she knows you have enough mastery over your body at a good working trot to be ready for it. If you're lucky enough to find a smooth, reliable horse to learn to canter on from the very beginning, you will save yourself a lot of canter angst and get this gait down very early in your riding career. Some horses truly have that proverbial rocking horse feel at the canter, while others can feel bouncy and rough.
The trick to cantering is to sit up straight (don't lean forward), keep your back relaxed and your weight balanced and in the stirrups, and scoop your seat along the saddle with the movement of the horse's back. Sometimes novice riders have trouble getting a horse to canter at all. Even if they apply the correct signals to ask for the gait, their anxiety causes their body to tense up and block the horse from moving out. As with anything involving horses, the more you canter in a controlled environment, the sooner you will be comfortable with this gait.
When cantering on a circle or around an arena, it is important to ask the horse to strike off on the correct canter lead. The horse generally leads with the inside legs on the circle reaching further forward. The more extended inside foreleg is matched by a slightly more extended hind leg on the same side. The hind leg comes further forward under the body to help the horse better balance the rider's weight on the turn. The horse is said to be cantering on the right lead if the right foreleg and hind leg extend further forward. For the left lead, it is the opposite.
What is the counter-canter?
The counter-canter is a special balancing movement in dressage in which the rider deliberately asks the horse to canter on the wrong lead for the direction he is going. Used to prepare the horse for higher-level movements, it is a difficult exercise that requires precisely coordinated aids from the rider.
When a horse switches from one lead to the other at the canter, this is called a flying change. Horses do flying changes naturally when cantering freely in the field and changing directions. Under saddle, flying changes on cue are harder to master, as the rider must learn to signal the horse at a precise moment during the canter sequence.
The gallop is a faster and more ground-covering variation of the canter.
It is also a four-beat gait, instead of a three-beat gait. Racehorses gallop all out to reach the finish line, but in most other equestrian pursuits, riders gallop in hand, which is a slower, well-controlled version of this gait. To free the horse's back in the hand gallop, the rider assumes a two-point position in the saddle (similar to that in jumping), leaning forward slightly, with bottom out of the saddle and with weight firmly down in the heels for balance.