Helping your pacer learn his other two-beat gait
by Anne Chunko, administrator of the USTA Standardbred Equine Program
Many Standardbreds are truly five-gaited, able to walk, trot, pace, canter and gallop. However, if you’re not used to the pace, or want to show your horse in classes such as saddle seat, Western pleasure or hunters, you probably want to focus on the trot instead of the pace.
Some pacers will not pace unless they are wearing racing hobbles, which help them maintain their gait on the track. Others, however, are free-legged pacers, and need to learn to trot. Most Standardbreds bred to race on the trot do not pace, but many have the ability to pace. For gaited horse enthusiasts, the pace can be developed into such actions as the running walk, stepping pace, and others.
Does your horse understand the difference between trot and pace? Determine this on the ground first, since the horse has to learn to balance himself first before he can learn to balance with a rider.
As with many training exercises, groundwork helps to develop the horse’s confidence and understanding while on the ground. Lunging or long lining a horse is an excellent way to develop the horse’s balance and learn voice commands. Plus, the horse is less likely to pace around a circle because of the balance necessary for the turns. When you lunge or long line your horse, be sure to tell the horse in a loud, firm tone to trot when you ask him to. Then, when you ride, speaking the command will reinforce your leg cues.
If your horse tends to mix the trot and pace while lunging or long lining, you can add a ground pole to the exercise. Walk the horse over the pole in-hand, then ask the horse to trot over it in-hand. Lunge the horse over the pole at a walk, then a trot and canter. Don’t let the horse "run out" from the pole; in other words, don’t let the horse avoid it by running either to the inside or outside.
Once the horse knows how to trot over one pole, you can add poles around the lunging circle, but be sure to leave enough space between the poles for the horse’s stride. The easiest way is to cut the circle into quarters and lay the poles on the quarter lines.
When the horse is balanced enough to trot alone, trotting under saddle is the next step. To encourage the trot, you can use trotting poles, also call cavaletti. Place several poles in a straight line, parallel to each other, about 6 to 8 feet apart. Walk the horse through first, then try the poles at a trot; be sure to use only one or two poles at first to avoid intimidating your horse. You can place trotting poles at strategic locations, such as in the turns, to help the horse maintain the gait.
Besides using trotting poles, you can add extra weight to the front legs to invite the horse to trot. You can use heavy bell boots, heavier shoes, or both.
In some cases, you may need to teach your horse to differentiate between the trot and the pace. You can ask your horse to pace by taking tight hold of the reins and asking the horse to hold its head higher than normal. This will hollow out the horse’s back and allow him to pace easier. Then squeeze with your legs. Once the horse begins to quicken its stride, shift your weight and seatbones from side to side to promote pacing. To ask the horse to move into the trot, drop as much contact as possible with the reins, cue with large amounts of leg, post, and tell the horse to trot. Hopefully, with practice, your horse will be able to tell the difference between the two gaits and not to mix them up.
Now that you have some tips for developing the trot, you’ll probably
learn exactly why most people refer to Standardbreds as "trotters"!
Enjoy the ride!
This advice should not replace that of a good riding instructor or other equestrian professional, and should be used as part of a complete riding program.
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