Training the Standardbred Horse to Gait Under Saddle

As the owner of a Standardbred retired race horse (pacer) mare, I knew I just had to train her to gait under saddle. Putting a saddle and bridle on was simple, the Standardbred horse is well trained and used to be touched, tied and handled. Their temperament is gentle and willing to please, however, my mare’s trot under saddle was bumpy, rough and almost impossible to post, or sit. So my number one goal was to help my horse develop a smooth saddle gait and next, to “get the gait” consistently, without her reverting back to a hard trot or pace.

My tack consisted of a so-called walking horse bit in an English style bridle, split reins knotted together at a shorter length than typical riding reins, a caveson and an Aussie saddle, or Western with a light breast plate. Initially the horse was keg shod on all four, but upon pulling the metal shoes and after a good barefoot trim the horse still moved perfectly well barefoot, or even better. I decided to use Renegade® hoof-boots for the horse's comfort and protection of the hooves. 

I started by "working the walk". We must have done miles and miles at the walk, increasing the speed over several weeks, even months. This helped me to improve my seat, get a sense of the rhythm and train my ear to the sound of the hooves, and as far as my horse, gave it time to build necessary muscles, coordination and build the necessary muscle memory.

Important is to relax the rein tension and your seat enough to allow the horse to be impelled forward, either by leg pressure or by voice urging.  Since the off-track Standardbred already understands even the lightest touch with a whip on the tail dock or rump to get their focus back on the task, it's a good idea to carry a dressage style whip. If you don't have one, you can make one from a perfectly straight, slender branch cut off a tree or shrub to which you tie a little tassel at the tip and wrap the upper end with duct tape for a better grip. Make sure it is long.

Tap, tap (with the whip)... more propulsion from the rear is desirable so that the mare is really striving to go forward and yet, is maintained in her gait buy obedience to my hands. Good collection is necessary to obtain the flexion and in preparation to a higher head carriage that will be asked of her in the future. 

The following video shows the gaiting action from the saddle. My goal was to get a nice, rhythmic head shake, consistent tempo, ability to hold the speed and straightness. We practiced on a stone dust training track, in the grass, a large field, on the road and the trails. You might find it redundant, lacking variety and not showing the whole horse, etc. however, if you watch carefully and listen you should be able to "catch" the rhythm, realize the sound of the hooves, notice the hoof beat's sequence, observe the strong head nod and learn that it's NOT the reins that set the head to create collection, or impulsion.

The Standardbred horse is doing the running walk/rack. It moves in complete self-carriage, energetically, smoothly and consistently. If the horse starts to pace, or hollow out, slightly raise your reins and slow the horse down just enough to transition back down to the running walk. I wish to also point out that this horse is barefoot, meaning that it's also not the shoes that make a horse gait. All this is important and a matter of practice and getting a feel for it. 

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