Understanding the Movement of the Horse, â€¨by Steve Lantvit
Welcoming Steve Lantvit to the Horse Digest’s Contributing Clinicians…
In our journey to become better horsemen we must understand the movement of the horse and the mechanics that he uses to propel himself forward, backward and turn. Once we know how nature intended the horse to move, we can then use it to our advantage, or change it to suit our needs. The horse pulls from the front, turns in the middle and pushes from the rear. He naturally carries more of his weight on his front-end, not the rear. It is this basic understanding that we need to help us position the horse to do the task at hand. When we watch a rider move effortlessly around an arena or field, and the horse seems to float and steer with the slightest touch, we are watching these concepts being put to use. The rider is working with the horse and not against him. Understanding footfall patterns and feeling the rhythm and timing help us to become better horsemen.
There are different gaits in which the horse uses to move himself around. Walk, trot, canter and gallop. These gaits have a different feel and beat. Learning the rhythms and timings of these gaits will aid in controlling the horse more effectively. Experienced riders ride in rhythm with their horse, creating a harmony they can use to help control speed and direction. Practice at different gaits moving freely with the horse, encouraging him to move faster. Then at the same gait slow your body rhythm and the horse will start to slow down. Think of riding as a dance. The gait sets the beat and the horse and rider is the couple. It becomes the rider’s job to take the lead and set the pace. When a horse continually breaks gait the problem is usually the rider being out of timing with the horse.
The first of these gaits that a rider must learn is the walk. The walk is the slowest of all the gaits and has four beats. When we refer to beats we are referring to the footfall pattern it takes the horse to move one stride. In other words, each foot is striking the ground separately, so the rider is feeling four separate beats. The footfall pattern starts off right hind, then right front, then left hind and finally left front. Learning to distinguish the different beats and footfall patterns will aid in controlling the direction the horse is going. For example, at this gait start making a turn when the inside front leg is off the ground. That is when the horse has the ability to move the leg and reposition the foot. How can the horse make a direction change when he is bearing weight on the leg he needs to move first? When the rider is out of timing giving the cues for a directional change to the horse, the horse will appear heavy and clumsy in his steering.
The trot is probably the hardest gait to learn for a new rider because it is a diagonal, two beat rhythm. The footfall pattern starts with the right hind and front left striking the ground at the same time, followed by the left hind and right front. Depending on how high the horse lifts his knees, will determine on how bouncy the trot feels. For example, a horse that moves his knees flat has a smoother more western jog then a horse with a lot of knee action. While posting the trot you can start to learn the diagonals by glancing down. Do not shift your weight forward, because this throws off your balance and causes the horse to accelerate. Begin rising with the outside shoulder, trotting in a large circle. Be careful not to develop a crutch by visually checking all the time. Instead, teach yourself to feel for the correct diagonal by closing your eyes and feeling for the outside rear hip as it lifts and drives you into the post.
After mastering both the walk and the trot, and being able to stay in time with your horse, start to work on the canter. The canter is a three beat gait which can have either a right or left lead. The best way that I can describe the importance of the correct lead, is to have a rider dismount and skip a circle to the left, with the left leg leading through the turn. Then I have them try the same exercise on a left circle with the right leg leading the turn. Once you feel how awkward that is to do, you will understand the importance of getting the correct lead. The footfall pattern for the left lead starts with right hind, followed by left hind and right front striking the ground simultaneously, then left front followed by a moment of suspension. The right lead footfall pattern is left hind, followed by right hind and left front striking the ground simultaneously, then right front followed by a moment of suspension. Again, feeling the rhythm and timing is important to controlling and turning the horse. Directional changes should happen when the front legs are off the ground. At this time the horse has no weight on his front legs and it is possible for him to redirect them. Safety and riding in control are key to advancing your horsemanship. If you are out of control slow down and go back to the trot. Again, circles are great exercises to practice this technique. Start off with a large circle and redirect the horse with a gentle hand making the circles smaller, then redirect him back out the same way. Remember to keep in mind all of your natural aids; hands, seat, legs and voice. All of your aids should be working in unison to communicate effectively.
The gallop is the fastest of all the gaits and should only be done by riders who demonstrate total control. The gallop is a four beat gait similarly to the canter but in the diagonal beat the feet hit the ground with a slight timing separation. Understanding how the horse moves and the pattern in which the feet strike the ground is an essential part of horsemanship. Practice feeling the rhythm of your horse, and as you become better in tune with your horse communication lines between the two of you will start to open. This feeling will give you more control and enable you to guide and correct your horse more successfully. Communication requires an open mind between horse and rider. Listen to what he is telling you.
[Written by Steve Lantvit to be published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 6, Issue 1.]
Have you ever considered riding a “dance” between you and your horse?
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