Ode to Alpine (and lesson horses everywhere)

We often talk about the difficulty of learning to ride being that horses are not machines. They are not bikes, or cars, or any other vehicle we are accustomed to.

Lesson horses and show ponies are sold as “push button,” but we all know this is an exaggeration. For every “push button” round in a show ring, there are dozens, even hundreds, of trainer hours.

We have developed countless unmounted exercises, and riding simulators seek to perfect riders (they aren’t new either! mechanical horses were all the rage in the 19th century). Cross training is excellent, but nothing can replace the horse.

A good lesson horse is better than a machine. More precise. More effective. More correct. Not only because the horse is our goal, but because a good lesson horse will do the wrong thing in the right way. A great lesson horse will tell you why.

A great lesson horse– you know the kind I’m talking about. There’s a horse or two that anchor any lesson program, the ones that take teaching riders from a job to calling. They inevitably get brought out for new riders, for rehabing riders, and for riders that have gotten stuck on an exercise or just need a confidence boost. They take on more students than any other horse, and thrive for it. They earn their weight in carrots. A great lesson horse not only treads the fine line between their rider’s cues and the instructors, they add their own critical judgement. They teach the teachers.

Alpine is a great lesson horse. I often call him St. Alpine, but that is a disservice to him. He is not merely tolerant of the wide range of riders we teach. He is my colleague. He can tell me years of a rider’s history by how he walks off in the first minute of a lesson. He tells me when it’s time to push a student, and when it’s time to back off. He might not be able to chat about pedagogical theory, but he understands it bone deep. He walks the walk (and trot, and canter). I’ll teach with him any day.

Here’s to Alpine, and all the lesson horses out there.

Adopt Don’t Shop? Part II

Three new pups have become regulars at the barn this year.

One is a designer breed, one purebred, and one has unknown parentage. They are all good dogs.

All three are loved and loving. All three share some basic criteria in barn-suitable temperaments and energy levels that their families looked for. They are all different sizes, each selected for different reasons. They are even, all three, healthy, sound, and athletically conformed; and these last aren’t always necessary for pet!

When we consider the ethics of selecting a pet to bring into the family, there are three primary categories:

Is our lifestyle and this pet a match?

One of the three pups described above is of course my own Flora Temple. As some of you may recall, back in April I pulled a horse and a dog from the local county shelter, the day before they had to close to the public due to covid. That closure was absolutely the right choice, but did mean also sending volunteers home for a while- leaving the shelter understaffed. In emergencies such as this, it becomes increasingly important to get animals adopted out (and they did, tirelessly!) and to decentralize care by fostering as many of the remaining as possible. I was a trainer who suddenly had a bit too much free time (and was still teaching on campus, and hadn’t yet had to full stop my lessons), so on April 1st I agreed to an impromptu shelter visit.

If you’ve been here before, you’ve read about Demi and the Pandemic Horse Rescue team. Demi has put on weight, gained some gloss, and been started under saddle (yes, you can put your name on a waiting list for her forever home). I also took home a dog with a behavioral flag. He was 80lbs– not exactly apartment sized! And his flag was for a dog fight, which meant he couldn’t be my barn dog. Our lifestyle wasn’t a great match for him, but we could make it work– if he was ok with the cats. The shelter staff didn’t know his history, as he’d been found stray. But he was 80lb dog with a history of dog aggression and without leash skills, which limited how many of the staff could bring him out to meet potential families.

So I adopted Byron. Technically, “rescued,” not just in the sense of getting him from a shelter, but because his fight barred him from regular adoption. As it turned out, he could not live in a small apartment with cats. We avoided any accidents, but it was stressful for him, the cats, and us. I now think of him as our foster dog. I discussed it with the shelter (by phone, of course) and they cleared me keeping him longer than the usual trial period to confirm his newfound leash skills, and maybe add a few more tricks to his repertoire, and then I could find him a potential new family myself. Sometimes, things really do work out: his new person is a lifelong doberman owner whose old dog had recently passed away. He wanted a dog who would watch TV (Byron’s fave) and hang out while he gardened in his HUGE FULLY FENCED YARD! A perfect match.

For most folks, I wouldn’t recommend adopting (and definitely wouldn’t recommend buying) a dog or any other pet that wasn’t a great match. It’s usually well worth waiting! Like most trainers and farm folks, I’ve ended up with oh so many pets by happenstance. Octavian was supposed to be a horse. I couldn’t just leave the little kitten who kept rolling around under the horses’ feet, so I brought him home to “find him a home.” Of course, I did, it was just my own. He turned out to be a surprisingly great fit for us, winning over our landlady and our grumpy older cat. Lisa, my old farm dog, was one of four that were dropped off at Heritage Harvest when I lived there. I wasn’t ready for a new dog– mine (another drop off, though with more notice) had recently died. Lisa insisted I was her person, and she was right. Part of why I took a second look at Byron (he wasn’t on the list of dogs I was considering pulling) was the face he gave me: his expression matched Lisa’s when she was concerned.

Does my purchase or adoption support markets that disadvantage people or animals?

But what about when you are ready, and happenstance hasn’t happened? Or what if you have very specific criteria, like needing a pet that is hypoallergenic or capable of a certain sport? That’s when it’s time to adopt, or to shop. When I was a kid, I adopted a pup from a local shelter. After Octavian’s grumpy uncle cat passed away, we weren’t initially planning on getting another pet– but Octavian was upset and lonely. We adopted Abdiel from Cat House on the Kings. We visited all the county shelters and a few well-vetted rescues, and Abs picked us. He was worth the search and the wait!

My first stop, or first recommendation, when looking for a pet is the county shelter. Not only can you find an awesome pet, a perfect match, for a very small adoption fee, that adoption fee always goes towards the care of the animals. Animals in county shelters need homes, and have been removed from any incentive structures for the production and sale of animals.

Next it’s good to check out the rescues in your area. You can even find specific rescues for certain breeds or types. For rescues, I do a bit more research, and hopefully get some first hand accounts. Your county shelter might even have some information about them! In addition to the care of the animals, I look at their adoption contracts and statistics, and how they interact with potential adopters. Most rescues are fantastic, and do a lot of good despite chronic underfunding and understaffing. Some perpetuate systemic inequities, consciously or otherwise, by only adopting to certain people– usually those who are wealthy and white. And some become hoarding situations. A little research can help you know you’re adopting from a good organization.

Does my purchase or adoption support inhumane production practices?

The same goes for breeders, of course! Do a little research, get a few reviews, and know who you’re dealing with. As I mentioned in my last post, I do not believe that the only ethical animal production is that of registered purebreds; I also don’t think that all who produce registered purebreds are ethical. Sometimes our criteria are so specific that a dog with a completely known history is preferable, and this generally means a breeder. For most people, this does not necessarily mean purebred, unless you plan to show– this is true of dogs, cats, horses, and even guppies.

When we decided we still wanted a dog after Byron was re-homed (he was amazing and reminded us how awesome having a dog at home is), we were not emotionally ready to take a another longshot risk. That meant we had two choices: an adult dog who was confirmed to be good with cats, or a puppy we could raise with them. The Clear the Shelters campaign was a resounding success, so finding an adoptable dog with an excellent confirmed temperament proved difficult, and puppies are of course the first to be adopted. We debated going to a breeder. We set our budget and extra strict criteria, and set about looking.

I ruled out a couple of listings because they, well, seemed shady. One had no name, no business website or facebook page, the photos looked like a hotel room and the single pup didn’t look like they were in the best health. While I’d be happy to care for a sick pup, I didn’t want to potentially contribute to the breeding of more animals in unknown and potentially poor conditions. I also ruled out a few for nearly the opposite reason. French Bulldogs would have fit our criteria; however, I will not support purposeful production of overly brachiocephalic dogs. The only purebred Frenchie breeder I found that I liked, who had nice balanced dogs whose muzzles were short and angled but with complete unobstructed nasal cavities, was quite reasonably out of our budget.

I did look at crossbred dogs. While one of my criteria was a dog who could practice or possibly even compete in several sports, we wanted a spayed female and have no current interest in the conformation ring. With non-producing pets, there are no universal advantages to purebreds. The crossing of two known purebreds may increase the number of potential genetic health problems, in the case of simple dominant traits, but can also remove the chance of certain recessive problems, and can diminish issues caused by extreme conformation– such as brachiocephalic dogs like the Frenchie.

I apply the same ethical considerations to a crossbred breeder as a purebred one. Are the parents happy, healthy, and generally well conformed? They certainly don’t need to be as magnificent as some of the championship purebreds I looked at, but they do need to be structurally sound. Are the puppies raised in a safe, and hopefully active, environment? One of the things that finally put Flora’s breeder, Heavenly Mini Aussies, on our short list was a picture of her pups with a cat. After food and vaccinations, the most important thing a breeder can do is make sure the pups are exposed to life. And this is true even in the case of unplanned pups, of course! For us, a puppy that had already been around cats was a huge benefit.

After some research and a talk with the breeder, our tax return became a deposit. This time, we bought. This time, we selected a purebred. Next time might be different.

Equine Chiropractor

Demi saw the chiropractor last week and it was AWESOME.

I’m honestly kicking myself for not putting her on the last appointment. That was shortly after she arrived, and she was still putting on weight and getting used to us. I knew with work her balance and musculature would change (it did!), but the change since last week is HUGE. I’m sure it would have made her first rides more comfortable- for her!

A good equine chiropractor is always handy to have on call. The emphasis, of course, is on good. Like massage therapists and dentists, there are a lot of ongoing arguments (and even lawsuits) about who can legally practice these therapies and how they should be trained.

I’ve watched enough friends and students go through vet school that I don’t agree that they should all be vets. Many schools have no training requirements at all for massage or chiropractic, and often only a single dentistry course. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to go out in the world and practice a mentally complex and physically difficult- not to mention dangerous- trade after 30 hours in the classroom.

On the other hand, in many areas there are no local certifications or training courses…and that can also make it hard to determine who a “good” practitioner is. Here’s what I look for: some sort of training or a very long standing practice (ideally both!), willingness to work with a veterinarian if they aren’t one, and if I’m lucky a local reference from another client.

I knew Dr. Don was good. He’s adjusted Buffy, my lease horse, a few times, and she’s been so much sounder and easier to keep fit after- to the point where I’ve paid for her appointments a couple times when her owner was away and it was just me riding.

After seeing him with Demi, and riding her after, I will say that he is GREAT. So how does he stack up with my method above? Local reference: Check. He’d been seeing horses at Moon Dance Ranch for a while, I just tagged on to their appointment. Certification? Check. But! Here’s another reason I don’t agree with only using veterinarians: his doctorate is in human chiropractic. Long standing practice? Check. And like most in our industry, he had a hands on apprenticeship. Willingness to work with a veterinarian? Big ol’ check! The same day as Demi’s appointment, he looked at one of my students’ horses. The mare had had some indeterminate lameness and associated crankiness earlier in the summer. Some massage, stretching, and careful targeted exercise got her going again for a bit, but she’d started to relapse- and, I think from seeing her day of (it had been a while due to covid), gotten worse. He evaluated her, and then said no, I’m not going to adjust this horse. She needs to see a vet first. He was right, and x-rays caught some early hock degeneration and slight pastern osselets. Good call, Dr. Don.

So back to Demi. I walked her to the upper barn where he usually works. This was a outside her “home” area, and required standing in a spot she’d only walked through once, months ago (I’ll have to work on that! When it cools down…) She got increasingly anxious. I’d gone up early to watch the other appointments, especially the mare mentioned above. Between horses, he glanced at Demi. “This the rescue?” “Yeah.” “She more comfortable somewhere else?” “Down that hill.” And so down we went to wait our turn, he’d meet us down there.

I thought I’d work Demi a bit to get her settled, but she relaxed progressively as we walked back and by the time we got to the round pen she was hooked on to me, and even sidled right up to the mounting block. So she went back in her stall to chill. He ended up adjusting her right in the breezeway outside her stall, between her buddies’ stalls- she was a very different horse in that space! He noted the hock that she’d had trouble with when she came in (every joint in that leg went off like a shotgun!), and connected it to the shoulder that used to have a divot (more loud pops!)- that’s the front leg that kept getting stuck in ground work and riding. And then. And then! Her upper neck. The lower neck she accepted pretty easily, and was fairly quite. The upper neck (atlas, axis, and probably down as low as c4) she was CONCERNED. He waited. She relaxed a bit, and then I’m sure they could hear it down the barn aisle. And then her head shot out and down (something she pretty much never did unless eating) and her jaw worked wide and sideways and she sighed so big.

We’ve had a couple rides since, including my longest ride on her, one of my few rides outside on her, riding in company, riding at night, riding while I chatted with people going by. Almost no stick on that front foot until she gets tired. And a beautiful long strided, steady, neck long and relaxed, head bobbing walk.

Next time I take on a rescue project, I’m calling Dr. Don as soon as they’re settled it. He also works on other animals! A multi-species chiropractor for a multi-species trainer. And yes, Demi has a followup- a big adjustment like she had needs some early maintenance.

#PandemicHorseRescue: #ReadyToRide

The barn is my haven. The horses need care, even when the world around up distracts us from caring for ourselves.

If you’re confused about what is going on in the U.S. right now, or just looking for how to help, I recommend this guide. If you want a momentary distraction with good news, read on!

Last Thursday, which seems like an eon ago, I took Demi for a walk. Simple enough. Except, my destination was outside her comfort zone. I hadn’t taken her further than the roundpen (which is in sight of her herd and other horses) in about two weeks. I hadn’t done even that in a couple of days. In fact, most of what I’d done was just sit. I moved a chair into the shady, delightfully cool breezeway and spent quite a few afternoons just chilling there (literally and figuratively).

And then, last Thursday, we went for that walk. The last time I’d taken her that far she was panicked, trying to run back, screaming for any horse who would answer her, and even essayed a rear. This time? A little looky, a snort or two. She answered when the other horses called her. And she walked next to me. And then over the bridge! That took a little more investigation and convincing, but she went over both directions without any panic.

And this, folks, is the secret to how kids so often get away with- and are even successful at- training unsuitable horses. Time. Not just work time, but play time, food time, nap time. Time. Time. Time. Hanging out with Demi, not asking anything, just being there, allowed her to be less on edge when I did take her out. She was no longer expecting for me to be a chaos creature. And that allowed me the opening I needed to ask her to do something hard. We could have gotten there faster, but we didn’t need to. An I didn’t need heat stroke! She was a champ, and came back from that outing with new confidence.

Since that walk, we’ve hit some other milestones. The change in her response to me asking for new and strange things that we’ve seen over the last couple weeks meant it was time to revisit riding. We don’t know if she was ever broke to ride. I has a suspicion someone started at some point, but never finished.

This week I’ve been on her half a dozen times or so. All bareback, in just a halter, because that is what worked best for us (the next post will be a side by side of Demi and Willow at this stage!) The last time, we even walk a small unsteady circle. No fuss. No startling. No bucks. The smallest amount of anxiety, which quickly turned to curiosity. Hopefully we can keep it that way.

Want to help with Demi’s progress? I have two fundraisers going:

You can get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt here. This campaign ends tomorrow (June 4), but I’m happy to relaunch it if there is interest.

You can also order a custom mystery box of horse or pet goodies from etsy, with free shipping or local delivery.

#PandemicHorseRescue: Thoughtfulness Under Pressure

Last week, Demi had a HUGE breakthrough. If you’ve been following along on Facebook, you might remember that Demi was very whip shy. I spent a couple weeks petting her with assorted whips and whip-like things, while offering treats, praise, or skritches (depending on her mood). Chris put in a lot of handling with her during the week, and it showed in Demi’s willingness to approach and investigate even when I was carrying strange items. And then, The Big Thing.

What have I been so excited about? She stepped up to the mounting block when I asked.

Doesn’t sound huge, does it? Its one of the first things I teach a horse, whether they’re a yearling or seasoned and just new-to-me. It was one of the first things I asked Demi when we started working together, and it will be absolutely critical to getting her going under saddle. For Demi, and really for many horses with questionable human histories, this one little movement is very, very stressful.

Along with being whip shy, Demi gives the mounting block a serious hairy eyeball. I general, Demi is quite relaxed and even brave. But things change when Humans Lift Things. Plastic bag on the ground, whipped around by the wind? Yawn. Rattly feed bag on the ground? Maybe it still has food! Person sitting on mounting block? They’ll scratch my ears for me!

Plastic bag in human hands? SNORT. Feed bag in human hands? I’m going to be eaten! Mounting block in human hands? *&*^%! So, along with our “whips can just be long arms” lessons, we’ve been working on standing near human moving mounting block. She definitely know which side is the “mounting side.” If it was in front, behind, or on the right side, she’d just tense. On the left, she’d try to quietly sidle away– and if that didn’t work, panic ensued. We’ve gotten past that, and even to where I could lean on her (itchy horses really are the best), but she’d always keep her hip a little away, guarding herself.

This is, of course, a very common reaction. I teach the last step up to the mounting block by tap-tap-tapping a dressage whip on the right hip, asking the horse to step “over.” At this point, they (including Demi) understand this on the ground, but the idea of moving away from pressure but towards the person can be confusing at first. Now imagine Demi– recently afraid of whips and of mounting blocks, just starting to be ok with these things, being asked for this step!

I started her on this maneuver up against the fence, rather than the mounting block. It limits the number of directions she can move in (I always leave an “out,” but it’s best if I can predict which direction that is!), and didn’t have the associations of the mounting block. I asked for this about twice a week since the second week Demi was with us, each time asking for just a tiny bit more. The first time, we just hung out, her head in my lap and her body no where near the fence. The first bit of adjustment can be done with the halter and line, which she’s very soft about and much less afraid of. The last few steps we’ve been stuck on. I’ve been accepting “step under, don’t fully panic” as a great response.

But then she did it. She started to get upset. Then she relaxed again. She thought. I asked again- soft, but insistent. And over she stepped. And then did it again at the mounting block. And the next day she stepped up with just a word and a lift of my empty hand. Over the course of the week, she’s had an English saddle on again (yawn) and a western saddle (this got the hairy eyeball), and even did some serious mounting work. I’ve swung a leg over, though not yet sat on her. And in all her work since, that moment of thoughtfullness under pressure has been there.

Want to help Demi, or other horses in need? Here are a few ways:

Get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt through Bonfire. Youth sizes and tank tops available.

Order a multi-species mystery box of goodies for your own horse or other pets.

Donate to, or adopt from, Riverside County Department of Animal Services, or your own local shelter!

#PandemicHorseRescue: The First Seven Days

Demi was at the Riverside Shelter for fifteen days. This had two HUGE benefits for us. First, it acted as a quarantine. No, not for Covid-19 (there are no known equine cases), but for equine influenza, rhinopneumonitis, streptococcus equi (“strangles”), and other equine illnesses. Most will show symptoms within 10 days. We kept her apart from the other horses when she first arrived out of an abundance of caution, but didn’t need to be particularly worried. The second benefit was just important: the first week is critical in care and feeding for a malnourished horse.

When we picked Demi up, she was underweight but not likely to have immediate metabolic issues. She still had some muscle, and even the tiniest hint of a fat pad behind her elbow (for you non-horse folks, this spot is a major marker for equine body condition; it is the first place the gain fat, and the last place they lose it). The latter was likely due to the care she received at the shelter. We don’t know what condition she was in when she was brought in, but she would have been borderline at risk for refeeding syndrome. The shelter held her through this critical period, with the availability of their vet on call should something happen. By the time we got her home, we could have her on all-she-could-eat hay without concern. Aside from the peace of mind, this was excellent due to the potential labor shortages of quarantine. Any other time, I’d happily spend all day every day at the barn!

Kahoots gave us an EPIC deal on their EX feed. It is a hay based extruded pellet, nutritionally somewhere between Stable Mix and Strategy; pretty ideal for refeeding! Demi’s teeth do seem to bother her a bit, so the extruded form (puffed, similar to dog food) is good for her. I have a speculum and float coming so I can take a preliminary look at her dentition. I have been able to get a slightly better look than at the shelter, and place her at 6-8 years old. She has a good bit of wear on her tearing teeth (the middle incisors) that indicates she has eaten a lot of brush. I’d like to have the dentist out, but so far she’s eating well so we’ll try to hold off as long as possible. Our local animal care staff– vets, dentists, farriers, and the like– are stretched thin and at high risk. I had planned to do the same with her feet, but our farrier will be out to the barn on another appointment before my new nippers come in. So she gets to see the professional! Her feet are quite long and in need of care, but they do look like they’ve been done in recent memory, maybe around the beginning of the year. At some point, she was cared for.

She’s been on a feed through powerpac, and next month she’ll get ivermectin & praziquantel. This will take care of any parasites she’s picked up. Saturday farrier, Monday start vaccines. I plan to have her trotting up hills and walking down them a few times a week as soon as the rain lets up, and in a week or two add some sustained (5-10 minute) trots in the roundpen. Thus far she’s been very anxious about leaving the barn yard, so we’ll take that a little slow while she gets to know us. Leo had similar anxieties, and lots of increasingly long walks and eventually long lining did wonders for him. I’m hoping to follow the same plan with Demi.

Demi wanders off with saddle

Now that we’ve had a chance to evaluate her, I’m fairly sure she was broke to ride at some point. But I think she also had some sort of unpleasant experience. The first day I got her out, she was sweet as could be until the mounting block came out. Then I got the hairy eyeball. We practiced standing by the mounting block and being loved. A few days later I put a saddle on her.  Lifting the saddle got the side-eye, but I went slow and let her wander off midway. She decided I was ok, and didn’t blink at being girthed. She’s concerned with what people-with-tack are going to do, not about the tack itself. It seems likely that she has also had some good experiences, as she is very calm and engaged with a little reassurance of fair treatment.

Right now the plan is to get her physically rehabbed, then address her training, and then find her a person and a permanent home. If we’re lucky, it all goes well enough that we can do this again.

Pandemic Horse Rescue

On April 1st, I went to the Riverside Animal Shelter to look at a horse.

“Demi” arrives at Moon Dance Ranch


No, this is not an April Fool’s. Meet Pandemic, aka Demi.

The barn owner, one of the other trainers, and I had been keeping an eye on the shelter since early March. By April, the shelter closure was imminent, and despite adopting out over a thousand animals, the shelter was still not cleared (today, a week later, all the adoptable animals have homes!). The animals left were mostly those at the most risk. The livestock– like Demi– and the dogs and cats deemed “unadoptable” due to age, medical problems, or behavior. Demi’s listing looked promising. While she had not yet been evaluated– so all her ad said was “female chestnut horse, age unknown”– we decided it was worth checking if we could help her out.

Demi’s ad


Spoilers: as it turned out, we could, and we are!

At the shelter, we were taken into the back to look at her. No one was available to go into her pen, and we couldn’t. She looked sound, if underweight. Her color was striking, with a blue eye, flaxen mane, and plenty of chrome. If we could get her healthy, we could probably get her a home. Her tail was all knotted up, and I could see a bit of wire sticking out. She’d been picked up as a stray, so the shelter knew next to nothing about her. They were happy to waive the adoption fee, since she hadn’t had her vaccines done yet and livestock is difficult to adopt out in the best of times. We needed one critical piece of information before we took her home to rehab: how old was she?

She wasn’t wearing a halter, and we couldn’t go in with her. She was personable, and kept walking up to the fence to check us out and say hello, but wasn’t really interested in us looking in her mouth. I can’t blame her. Who wants a bunch of strangers prying their mouth open? But we needed to get at least a rough estimate. If she was underweight because she’s been living off of desert brush, we could rehab her. If she was underweight because she was geriatric, there wouldn’t be much we could do. Rachael, the other trainer along, held a bit of hay just out of reach. As Demi reached for it, lip smacking, I caught a glimpse of her incisors: “Normal adult teeth.” We took a chance, and brought her home. While the shelter did waive the adoption fee, I made a donation to cover the hay she’d been eating.
The Pandemic Horse Rescue was formed. Chris Rausten, owner of the fabulous Moon Dance Ranch; Rachael Hamby, young horse specialist; and myself. Between us, we know there will always be someone available to check in on Demi, even as we all navigate quarantine. As she progresses, we each have different strengths and different skills we can teach her.

For now, Demi’s main job is eating, and she’s a champ at it.

Gaits at a Glance

I had an absolute blast spending a couple of days with a former student who now runs Summer Rose Horsemanship in Hagerstown, MD. Along with getting to ride her Heck horse– who was quite a skittish fellow when I met him, but is now a cuddlebug and quite flashy– we did some work with a couple of gaited horses on the farm, helping their riders ask for better and more consistent gaits.

Usually, when folks ask where they can learn more about the different possible gaits and their mechanics, I point them at GaitedHorses.net It hasn’t changed a whole lot since I started digging around it (almost two decades ago…yikes!), but it’s still a great resource. There are good articles, clear diagrams, and lots and lots of links out to further resources. Unfortunately, it can be a bit overwhelming. So I felt inspired to write out brief definitions for the different gaits, and how I usually talk about and work with them. I hope you find it helpful.

The Pace

The pace is a two beat lateral gait, meaning the legs move in pairs, one side at a time. Just like the trot (and jog), there are many types of pace– or any gait! I group the pace gaits as follows:

Flying Pace
This is the racing gait. I take the term ‘flying’ pace from the Icelandic flugskeið; I’ve always found the term quite descriptive! The flying pace has speed, power, and a lot of air time. It is an extended gait, and requires the horse to be fairly strong in the pace. It will often throw the rider from side to side. Long suspension (the period when all four feet are off the ground) means the hooves hit the ground fairly hard, requiring a lot of flexion in the joint to absorbs the shock and push off again. To stay sound, the horse needs to be physically conditioned as well as capable. Imagine you are conditions a race horse (you are, it is a lot of aerobics), and a park horse or upper level dressage horse at the same time. This is not something to be rushed, or overdo. For the few horses I’ve worked at the flying pace, I try to minimize the lateral thrust. This is for my comfort, and to encourage them to land with their hoof flat; many pacers will land on the outside edge of their hoof, putting additional strain on the leg.

Hard Pace
This is also descriptive. The hard pace is a rather jolting gait. It does still have some suspension, but much less than the flying pace. The two lateral pairs of legs move slightly closer together– a “One-–Two” to the flying pace’s “One….Two.” The hind leg of one pair will not track up (where the hind foot lands near where the forefoot leaves the ground), but land somewhere in the middle distance. At the top end of the hard pace, you can post to it. I largely avoid this gait, unless training up for the flying pace.

Soft Pace
I’ve never heard this term elsewhere, but again it’s pretty descriptive! Gaited horse folks usually know what I mean right away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others have come up with the same term, or something similar. This is the pace– that two beat lateral gait– with little or no suspension. This is the pace equivalent of the jog. For horses that are fully lateral (like the lovely big black Tennessee Walker Raven I worked with this week, or Commander, a Walker I worked with in New York), this might be one of their working gaits. For those with the full spectrum of gaits (like Promise, the Spotted Saddle Horse in the cover image), I tend to use this only as a stepping stone. A good soft pace should be, in essence, a collected gait. It shouldn’t just be slow, it should be balanced, with adequate flexion in the limbs (much less than the trot, but much more than the flying pace), and ideally a bit of a shift in the hip, engaging the core and stepping more under than out with the hind leg.

This is often hard, as all lateral gaits are “ventroflexed,” meaning the spine tends to go down (and therefore the head up). However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for us or our horses to slouch along! That way lies soreness for all. I often take advantage of the fact that this gait can be physically taxing to the horse. I ask for the best possible soft pace, with a bit of contact and minimal wobble, asking the horse to stay so very very straight, slow but energetic. And then I encourage them to break to the stepped pace, which they usually do quite eagerly. I will also do this with multi gaited horses that have a strong trot, but are weak in the pace and running walk. It’s often easier to build a little bit of muscle and co-ordination in the pacing gaits of these multi-gaited horses before moving to the running walk or rack.

Stepped Pace

The stepped, stepping, or broken pace is a four beat lateral gait. The two legs on the same side move closer to each other than to their opposites. Some folks use “stepped,” “stepping,” and “broken” to mean slightly different timings in this gait, but others use them interchangeably. As with all equestrian language (ahem, sorrel), there are regional, discipline, and breed dialects. In Saddlebreds, this is the “slow gait.” I tend to just use stepped pace, for simplicities sake, and then describe the gait as “more” or “less” broken. I prefer a firm separation of the pairs, with each hoof landing independently (rather than the front starting to land as the hind finishes landing). There should be less lateral wobble in this gait than in the pace, but not yet the big head nodding V of the running walk. This is actually my favorite gait! I have a short hip, which tends to cramp in a good running walk (not to mention the ab workout of the running walk! …. I should get a walking horse). While all pacing gaits can be hard to collect, the stepped pace is often hard to extend; horses tend to break to the rack.

The Middle Gaits

Rack
This might be a tad controversial. Rack tends to get its own category. I’m going to group it here with the running walk not because they are the same gait, but because they tend to be found together. It’s possible this is genetic. It’s also possible it’s just breeders’ influence. In any case, both gaits are fairly in the middle of the lateral-diagnol spectrum, and I haven’t (yet) met a horse with a solid running walk that couldn’t also rack. The divisions we give between walking gaits and racking gaits also varies drastically by breed culture!

The rack has been described as even on landing, lateral pickup. What this means is that the landing of the hooves is an even 1-2-3-4, like the running walk, but the lateral pairs come off the ground closer together. This doesn’t precisely fit everything I’ve called a rack (anything four beat can be slippery anyway!), but it’s a good way of thinking about it. The rack tends to have a shorter, faster leg sequence than the running walk, making it just a little easier on those human ab muscles. I tend to break the rack into saddle rack (a paso fino or corto, or slow tölt) and speed rack (or fast tölt).

Running Walk
Everyone says they want a horse with a running walk. It’s the easiest gait, it’s so smooth, you don’t even need to learn to ride it. And then they get on a horse with a serious, big striding, ear flopping, running walk. It can be absolutely exhilarating! But it is also work. If you’re tall, with a long hip (so not me), it is merely exercise. Imagine one of those as-seen-on-TV machines that will do you ab workout for you. You’re…still doing crunches. The running walk needs a big upward swing to the rider’s hip, like sitting an extended trot. One of the reasons you often see riders in the rack or running walk leaning back is training; the other reason is that it opens the hip angle, allowing you to follow that big motion just a little bit easier. While the running walk has a lot of motion, it has minimal concussion; in this, it can be much easier on the rider than any other gait. One way to differentiate between a running walk and a rack is the number of hooves on the ground.

Many horses also have a gait somewhere between a flat walk (a big extended snappy walk that most horses, gaited or not, can develop) and a true running walk. I don’t have a word for it. Technically, it is still a running walk– four beat even, same footfall pattern as the walk. But I find it to be at least as different as trot and jog; the stride is a bit shorter, the footfalls are closer together, the back has less motion as the horse doesn’t need to stretch to their utmost. It is not, however, collected.

Foxtrot

Fun fact: the original American Horse Show Association rules for stock horses included the foxtrot, and the National Quarter Horse Breeders’ Association preferred it!

The foxtrot is a four beat diagonal gait– effectively a broken trot. It s also the only gait that lands a front hoof first. Like the stepped pace, it can lean more or less diagonal. Again, I prefer nicely separated hoofbeats.

Trot

I think y’all have got this one, right?

I’m going to add one note here, and that is the idea of collection within extension. Collection is not about speed, but rather about carriage. Good extended tot (or any gait) will have some elements of collected carriage: the core and back are engaged (regardless of the type of flexion governed by the gait), the hip muscles are in use (in trotting gaits this is often clear, as the hip will visibly rotate under the horse), and the horse lands in such a way that it can easily leave the ground again, in any direction. Look at the difference between a racing trot (especially in harness) and a dressage style extended trot.

I need more gaited horses to work with!

#JourneyToTheStart: The Yearling Year

I’ve been working with a pair of yearlings at Moon Dance Ranch. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s also been an opportunity for me to think through, consider, and now articulate my training choices for getting horses ready to start under saddle. A lot of folks view ground work as something they need to do. For me, its often the best part! I’m very lucky that these yearlings’ people are thoughtful about their horse care, and are in no particular rush. This works out well for me, as I sometimes need to take time away for my research, and for the yearlings, who have a great team behind them.

Flynn (chestnut) and Willow (grulla) July 7, 2019

Stay tuned for biographies (and foal pics) of this dynamic duo!

Bit-less, not Pressure-less

This post was originally from December 26, 2016 on my old blog.

   I’ve mentioned before that some bit-less bridles, particularly the Dr. Cook’s and bridles based on it, can actually apply a huge amount of psychological and physical pressure to the horse. Those I’ve ridden with know that I am generally a fan of riding bit-less, but do not like rigs that directly apply unfettered poll pressure. I certainly do not agree that such rigs are kinder to most horses than a simple snaffle (or even, in some cases, a basic curb).
  

Dr. Cook's Bridle with poll studs
Figures from Patent for “Bitless bridle for governing horses and other animals”

   Today, while looking up something entirely different, I stumbled on the original patent for Dr. Cook’s bridle, which contained this terrifying addendum: “The centerpiece may include a plurality of holes for receiving studs for applying painless pressure on regions of special acuity at the poll and behind each ear of the animal, or may receive a separate sleeve which includes the studs in order to apply pressure over areas of special acuity. Studs of different sizes can be fitted in a range of locations, depending upon the amount of pressure required and the conformation of any particular horse or other animal.”

 

     Thankfully, I have never seen poll studs in use at any of my barns, nor even seen them for sale.