Saturday, August 20, 2011

GAITED HORSES for the WESTERN RIDER

WHY GAITED HORSES ARE FOR MORE THAN JUST A SMOOTH TRAIL RIDE

As a Western rider, your favorite mount is almost certainly a Quarter Horse, Paint, Appaloosa – or if you’re a bit on the daring side, maybe an Arabian or a Morgan.  More than likely, you’ve never ridden a gaited horse, and would never have thought that you would want to.  You might think that a cowboy would look odd or just plain silly on a gaited horse, or that such horses are really only suitable for English disciplines.  It might surprise you, therefore, to learn that two of the most iconic Western horses of all time – the Lone Ranger’s “Silver” and Roy Rogers’ “Trigger” – were both gaited horses, (Tennessee Walking Horses, to be specific), and that gaited horses can do just about anything the more traditional stock breeds can do.  In fact, a growing number of  Western riders are discovering the joys of riding gaited horses for a variety of activities, from ranch work and pleasure riding to sports like barrel racing, competitive trail, cutting and reining. 
Although gaited horses come in many shapes and sizes, and the various breeds originated in very different parts of the globe, they all have one thing in common:  a remarkably smooth and comfortable way of going that many riders say is like “floating”.  Developed to allow horsemen to stay in the saddle for long hours over many miles with little fatigue, gaited horses are gaining in popularity, especially among people who need or simply want a less jarring ride than non-gaited horses can provide.  Of course, a well trained stock horse of any breed can do a slow jog that is often quite smooth and comfortable, but the difference is that a gaited horse’s smoothness is natural, and they can maintain it at speed.  Sort of like getting a Cadillac and a Ferrari all rolled into one.   Add to this the fact that many of the gaited breeds are used as stock horses in their countries of origin, and suddenly, they don’t sound so odd after all.
The gaited breeds we’ve profiled below are only a few of many, but they will give you an idea of what these wonderful horses are capable of. 

THE PASO FINO

            With a history that traces back to Christopher Columbus’s exploration of the New World, the Paso Fino has been bred in Columbia for over 500 years, but is now found throughout Central, South and North America.  Used by the Conquistadors for travel and battle, and by the vaqueros for herding cattle, the Paso Fino was prized for its stamina, its catlike athleticism, its great beauty, and its spirited yet gentle temperament.  Most of all, however, it was valued for its natural and incomparably smooth, four-beat lateral gait, the paso fino (“fine walk”) for which it is named.  All of these qualities are still readily apparent in the Paso Finos of today.
            Camilla Willings, of  Fina Vista Farm in Damascus, Ontario, is a breeder, trainer and exhibitor of Paso Fino horses. “I used to ride a variety of different horses,” she says, “but  when I first rode a Paso Fino, I almost fell off laughing! Wow...those feet were going to beat the band, and I was just flying around the ring.  I felt like I was riding a magic carpet – no bouncing, just gliding. I was hooked!  I then began investigating the various gaited breeds, but was drawn back to the Paso Fino for their naturalness, their beauty, their energetic spirit, their unparalleled smoothness and their wonderful temperaments and personalities.” 
            Willings has seen a steady growth in the popularity of the Paso Fino in Canada, which reflects the over 60% growth in membership the Paso Fino Horse Association in the U.S. has seen since 1992.  She attributes the rising interest in Paso Finos and other gaited breeds in part to the increasing age of the Baby Boomers. As she explains, “The majority of my customers are 45 or older, pleasure riders who are either looking for their first horse, or their first horse in a long time, or a horse to replace the one they are no longer physically comfortable riding.  Whether it is a sore back, sore neck, sore knees, hips or tushes, it is often the pain of riding a trotting horse that leads them to the pleasure of a gaited one.   The funny thing is, they may come to the breed because of their age
or the pains they feel with trotting horses, but when they get here, they wonder why they waited so long and why everyone doesn't ride a gaited horse.”
            One thing that may put some people off of the Paso Fino is its small stature – 13hh to 15.2hh, with the average being a little over 14hh.  However, they are exceptionally strong for their size and are generally considered capable of carrying roughly 25% of their body weight.  Says Willings, “Most good sized Paso Finos can carry all but the very largest riders without difficulty.  This is possible because the nature of the Paso Fino gait is such that at least one and up to three feet are on the ground at all times.  This lack of ‘air time’ is what makes the horse so smooth (no period of suspension
equals minimal or no bounce), and what makes them capable of carrying a lot
of weight for their size with less stress to their own structure.”  Still, she advises that larger riders should seek out Paso Finos with more substantial frames (they range from delicate to stocky in frame), larger bone, and healthy, strong suspensories.              Despite its relative smallness, the Paso Fino can look like a lot of horse, due to the breed’s active and spirited way of going.  But for those who fear that this might be too much for them, Willings says, “Within the Paso Fino breed there is a wide range of temperament, from the 'very spicy, not for beginners' type to the 'gentle as a lamb, safe for the whole family' type.  For the prospective buyer of a Paso, or any horse for that matter, I think it is important to find an honest, reputable breeder whose priority is matching horse to rider. Additionally, it is always important to be honest with yourself – how quiet or spirited of a horse do you really feel comfortable on?  Are you capable of doing some training yourself, or do you need to invest in a fully trained animal?  Answering such questions truthfully will help you find the Paso that is right for you.”
            As for its gait, if you haven’t seen a Paso Fino moving, it can be difficult to imagine, but the Paso Fino Horse Association describes it as follows:  “The gait of the Paso Fino horse is an evenly-spaced, four-beat lateral gait with each foot contacting the ground independently… Executed perfectly, the four hoof beats are absolutely even in both cadence and impact, resulting in unequaled smoothness and comfort for the rider. The Paso Fino is capable of executing other gaits that are natural to horses, including the relaxed walk and lope or canter.  The Paso Fino gait is performed at three forward speeds (Classic Fino, Paso Corto and Paso Largo) and with varying degrees of collection..”
Regarding the Paso Fino’s suitability as a Western mount, Willings urges people to not to assume that the Paso Fino can’t do something because it is gaited.  “Paso Finos and other gaited breeds are like other horses in their ability to do whatever they are trained for,” she says, “and they are only limited by the expectations and experiences brought by their owners.” She acknowledges that you are not likely to see a Paso Fino competing at the highest levels in the stock horse sports, but says,   “I know of lots of Paso Finos performing cattle work, racing barrels or doing reining at a local or fun level.  I personally had a blast doing some team penning a few years back with my Paso Fino mare.”
Willings had a chance to put her horse’s “cowiness” to the test recently when she and a friend took two Paso Finos on a cattle drive on a large working ranch.  Though the pair got some strange looks at first, their horses ended up impressing even the most skeptical cowboys.  As Willings recalls, “We spent the day rounding up and moving a large herd of Angus cattle, and over the course of the day our horses were the focus of much scrutiny.  However, Paso Finos really are great at this work.  They are so quick and nimble that they have no trouble making the speedy maneuvering required in cattle work.  Their quickness to learn and eagerness to please also helps with this work  – and their smooth gait and tremendous stamina certainly make it a pleasure for the rider.  We loved it and so did our horses, and by the end of the day they had many enthusiastic admirers.  People seemed impressed at their ability to do the job and were also struck by their beauty.”

THE ICELANDIC HORSE

            Another interesting breed that can make a fun Western mount is the Icelandic Horse, which is the oldest gaited breed in the world.  Small but stocky and phenomenally strong for their size, Icelandics were developed in an extreme environment of cold, ice, lava and rocks.  They were highly valued by the Vikings and their descendents, who used them to round up sheep and as the main form of transportation of both goods and people.  As one can imagine, the Icelandic horse’s tremendous endurance, its legendary sure-footedness, and its unique “tolt” – a four-beat gait which a quality horse can perform at a thrillingly high-speed – were particularly prized, as they made it possible for people to quickly cross great distances over some of the coldest, harshest terrain in the world.
            Lisi Ohm of Vanderhoof, BC, is a trainer, breeder and judge of Icelandic Horses.  Originally from Germany, Ohm grew up doing dressage and jumping on German warmbloods, but even as a child, she was drawn to Icelandic horses. As she recalls, “I read about them and was fascinated by the age of the breed and their aura of hreggfaxi (wind in the mane), meaning the head proudly up, the legs flying, the rider sitting at ease and motionless, and the huge mane flying like rays around the horse’s head and neck - power and fun in motion!”  She started working with Icelandics in 1989 and hasn’t looked back since. 
            Having been involved with the breed in both Iceland and North America, Ohm has observed differences in people’s perception of the breed on this side of the pond.  “Here,” she says, “Icelandics get marketed as fluffy, easy-going guys that anybody can ride.  You do have that kind within the breed and they are cherished, but the goal of an Icelandic breeder is a fine, responsive horse with speed in all gaits, which can be intimidating for beginners.  We clocked one of our competition horses at 30km/h in tolt and in trot – and he wasn’t even trying hard!  There certainly are some really nice once for the beginner rider, but if you want to truly experience what Icelanders call the ‘gaedingar’ ( the perfect riding horse ), then work to become a good, balanced rider, get on an Icelandic that can really move, and I promise, you will have the time of your life!”
            Ohm recommends that those new to Icelandics should buy a well-trained horse secure in its gaits, because the unique Icelandic gaits can disappear with constant rider mistakes. Icelandic horses can be four or five gaited, with speed, consistency, and high leg action being desirable.  Says Ohm, “From the talented Icelandic horse, you would expect to see a powerful, long-strided walk; a fast trot with good suspension and stride length;  a round, jumping, three-beat canter and also a fast, spirited gallop; the famous tolt:  a four-beat gait with high action and beautiful carriage in various speeds – from slow and collected with expression to high speed with high front leg action and the hind legs stepping well under; and  the exhilarating ‘flying pace’, a two-beat gait in racing speed with a clear ‘flying’ phase between the lateral leg movements.”
While Icelandic horses are traditionally ridden in saddles that look something like a hybrid of an endurance saddle and a dressage or park saddle, they can be ridden and enjoyed in Western tack. Elaine Sanderman, an Icelandic trainer and breeder in Bowden, AB says, “We always ride Western, and I do everything with my Icelandics, from driving to cattle penning.”  She finds that Icelandics are no different than any other breed when it comes to their ability to do Western sports.  “Some are really good at things like penning, and some are scared of cows.  Some of them are really quick and agile, and some are slow.”
 Like Camilla Willings on her Pasos, Sanderman sometimes gets strange looks when doing Western sports on her Icelandics, but she says, “Icelandics can do whatever you train them to do. One of our clients did roping and everything with her Icelandic, and we’ve participated in a reining clinic, so it’s really up to you.”  The only thing you have to take into consideration, Sanderman says, is the type of Western saddle you put on an Icelandic.  “Because they have a shorter back,” she says, “the larger saddles get in the way of their hind ends going down hill, so you want a rounder, shorter skirt.”
Sanderman first got into Icelandics by way of a boarder, who asked Sanderman to exercise the two Icelandics she had boarded there.  “I told her that I would, but they were going to have to take a Western saddle,” Sanderman recalls.  “She said that was fine with her, and I just couldn’t believe how much fun I had on those things!  I went out and got some for myself, and now we’ve sold all our Paints and just have the Icelandics.”  Even Sanderman’s husband has been won over, although it wasn’t an easy sell at first. Says Sanderman, “He took a look at them and said, ‘I’m not riding a little pony.’ Then one day, we were out on a trail and the horse he was on was acting up, so I told him I would ride that one and he would have to ride my Icelandic.  At the end of the ride, I noticed that he wasn’t asking for his horse back, even though it had calmed down.  I asked him why, and he kind of looked at me and said, ‘Because I like riding this horse.’”
Sanderman points out that while her husband is “not a small man,” there is no problem with one of the larger Icelandics carrying a bigger rider.  “When we were at the reining clinic, the clinician actually said that my husband and his horse suited each other very well.  I’m not small myself, and I’m on them all the time.  You have to keep in mind that Icelandic men are good sized, and we find that the only real difference with these horses being shorter is that they are easier to get on.  You really have to ride them to know – don’t judge them before you ride one, because you just can’t imagine it if you’ve never experienced it.”

THE TENNESSEE WALKING HORSE

            If you like the idea of a gaited horse, but you just can’t see yourself on something as exotic as a Paso or an Icelandic, the Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) might be the perfect horse for you.  As previously mentioned, many Hollywood cowboys have been mounted on TWHs because they needed something smooth, gentle and good looking, but the TWH also makes an excellent “using” horse out in the real world.   They are a good size, ranging from 14.2hh to 16.2hh, and though they make flashy show horses, they are also tough, outdoor horses that can carry a big rider all day.  Historically, the breed was an all-rounder used for plantation work, riding stock, and transportation.  They became widely popularity for the ease of  their gait, their versatility, their docile temperament and their ability to stride all day over the rocky middle Tennessee terrain. Today, the TWH is the second fastest growing breed in the world.
Kim Pringle, D.EqSc, of Pringle Farms in Arden, ON, is a breeder, trainer and exhibitor of TWHs who is not surprised at their increasing popularity.  She was attracted to the breed for their proven versatility, as well as the variety of established breed programs for people to enroll in.  “I show my horses in all breed shows, compete in TWH Dressage Testing, and do demonstrations throughout Ontario,” she says. In addition, Pringle started reining last year and has fallen in love with the sport. “I am hoping to compete at some NRHA shows next year,” she says, having no doubt that she can hold her own on a TWH. As she explains, “Due to their athletic ability and their to-die-for balanced canter, Walking horses are competitive in many Western disciplines such as reining, cattle penning, endurance riding and speed events like barrel racing.” 
Indeed, TWHs are one of the few gaited breeds that you do sometimes see going head to head with the stock breeds in Open competitions – and sometimes coming out on top.  In addition, the TWH’s smooth gaits, good mind and desire to please also make them a natural fit for Trail Obstacle Classes, and for Search and Rescue work known as “Ride for Rescue,” for which they are used in Western Canada.  Perhaps most revealing of just how much these horses can do is the TWH Supreme Versatility Program.  In order for a horse to earn the title of Supreme Versatility Champion, they must earn points in Gaited Riding Classes, Reining, Dressage, Jumping, Barrel Racing, Pole Bending, Trail Obstacle, Halter, Promotion Events and Driving.  Now that’s versatility!
The TWH is also known for is its exceptionally gentle nature, which makes them an excellent mount for less experienced riders.  Says Pringle, “The TWH is a perfect ‘First Horse’. They are user friendly and forgiving, and their people loving disposition will win you over. TWHs are an amazing combination of ‘GO’ without being hot headed, which is why they are said to be ‘Smooth, Sensible & Safe’. And, as the population ages, people are looking at the TWH because that ‘glide ride’ enables them to ride for many more years.  That said, they are also wonderful horses for more advanced riders, who discover that they can continue to develop and test their riding skills in so many disciplines with these horses.  Of course, trail riders love them because they are bold, not spooky, pleasant to be around, oh so smoooooth and fast.  I’m telling you, if anything else is going to catch me out on the trail, it will need to have wings!” 
As for tack for the TWH, Pringle says, “Saddle fit is always important. A TWH should have a saddle that frees up the shoulders. You do not have to have a special saddle, but do make sure it fits you and the horse. The “Tennessean” was made exclusively for the TWH, and they do fit other gaited breeds.  It is a good quality Western saddle, and they also have a great light weight endurance saddle for long distance riding.  The Tucker is very comfortable with its gel seat, and the Brenda Imus ‘4 beat saddle’ is popular with many pleasure gaited Western riders. I like close contact reining saddles for riding & training TWHs. My personal saddle is a Circle Y Ladies Reining saddle.”

OTHER BREEDS

            There are other breeds of gaited horses that are equally worth attention, including the American Saddlebred, Rocky Mountain Horse, Peruvian Paso, and Missouri Foxtrotter.  There are even gaited mules, for those who are fans of the “long-ears”.  If you are considering going gaited, the best thing to do is to leave your assumptions in the truck and just try as many different kinds and individuals as you can.  Do keep in mind that gaiting is natural to these horses, and while training can enhance their movement, you want to stay away from trainers and breeders who utilize unnatural methods or shoeing techniques to achieve more extravagant gaits.  Stick with the beauty and smoothness that generations of careful breeders have given these horses, and you will know why people say that to ride a gaited horse is to own one.

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