Riding Tips

Gaited Horses for Beginners: What You Need to Know!

gaited horses for beginners
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Written by Kelsey W.

You’re in for a smooth ride!

Most people that learn about gaited horses want to know “What does it feel like to ride a gaited horse?” Well…strange to begin with, but fun! The first time I hopped on a Rocky Mountain horse and asked for a Pleasure Gait I was nothing but smiles—let’s dive into why!

Gaited horses have adopted a very unique way of moving that absorbs more up and down motion, making them unusually smooth to ride. The gait might take a little getting used to, however, much like finding your balance at the trot or canter. In spite of that, once you find your stride you’re in for a smooth, enjoyable ride!

gaited horses

source: canva

Defining Gaited

‘Gaited’ refers to specific horse breeds that have adopted a unique way of going other than a walk, trot, canter, and gallop. This altered gait may have been artificially developed or naturally present from birth.

Common adaptations include a broken four-beat gait that maximizes smoothness and stride efficiency.

Popular Gaited Horse Breeds:

  • American Saddlebred
  • Tennessee Walking Horse
  • Icelandic Horse
  • Standardbred
  • Paso Fino
  • Missouri Fox Trotter
  • Rocky Mountain Horse
  • Peruvian Paso
  • Spotted Saddle Horse

Differences between gaited and non-gaited horses

Differences in gait heavily depend on the breed. In general, most gaited horses create a different version of the trot, a two-beat gait. Some gaited horses also have slightly different ways of walking, such as the Tennessee Walker or Paso Fino.

New Buttons: How to Ask for Different Gaits

Just like non-gaited horses, cues can vary from horse to horse and trainer to trainer. Generally speaking, you want to encourage your gaited horse to move into a balanced, rhythmic, and forward gait.

  • Begin with your horse in a relaxed forward walk, then push them with your leg into an extended walk without letting them break into a faster gait. Repeat until they can maintain speed.
  • After they can maintain speed, increase collection to get them balanced to execute the gait. Doing lots of transitions, from the walk to the halt, to reverse and back to an active walk, will help you get the horse more collected and engaged.
  • Once your horse is comfortable maintaining both collection and speed at the same time you can ask for more impulsion, collection, and speed by applying leg pressure, maintaining light contact on the rein and maintaining a relaxed but rhythmic seat. The horse should be able to work into their gait in a relaxed way.
  • Work at slower speeds before moving on to practicing the faster gaits.

Want to read more? Check out this helpful step by step guide from Horse and Rider Magazine.

Horse

horse rookie guide to jumping

What varies when riding gaited horses

There can be quite a few differences between gaited and non-gaited horses under saddle. Most obviously, gaited horses have extra “gears.” They also tend to have higher head carriage than stock-type horses such as Quarter Horses or Paints.

Coming from a show background where I was riding mostly stock horses, I was surprised at how comfortable the horse was with that high head carriage while still smooth and light in the bridle.

It can be hard to tell the difference between gaits because of how smooth the gait was.

What is the same between gaited and non-gaited horses

Gaited horses and non-gaited horses have many similarities in the way they are ridden. The tack is mostly the same, your position should remain balanced and you want the horse to be moving forward and in a relaxed way between your hands and legs.

Your seat is still your first tool to communicate with your horse, gaited or not.

Beginner Tips for Riding a Gaited Horse

  • Keep a positive and relaxed attitude when riding.
  • Remember to sit up tall in the saddle with your ear, shoulder, elbow, hip and heel in alignment.
  • Your hand position may need to be slightly higher with your elbows more bent to maintain a proper contact with the horse’s mouth due to naturally higher head carriage.
  • Ride with someone who is familiar with your specific breed of gaited horse, especially if you are new to riding the gaits! Special cues and exercises can help bring out the best in your horse’s gaits which makes for a smoother ride.
  • Learn everything you can about your gaited horse–their history, common issues, temperament, and how they move.

Many professionals in the horse world don’t know a lot about gaited horses and may rely more on your knowledge as an owner or rider to determine what is and is not normal for your horse. It could make the difference in catching a lameness issue before it becomes a major injury or not. Be your horse’s advocate by being informed.

Looking for more? This website has a lot of helpful tips and exercises for gaited horse riders across a variety of disciplines.

Gaited Horse Tack

Beware of tack that is marketed specifically for gaited horses! Some disciplines might require certain types of tack for a particular event, such as saddleseat attire in a 5 gaited saddlebred class, or dressage attire in a gaited dressage class. Generally speaking, however, tack is not breed or gait specific.

Go with what fits you and your and your horse!

Do gaited horses need special tack?

For the most part, if you’re using your gaited horse for pleasure you won’t need to hunt special tack as long as what you use fits, is in good condition, and works well for you and your horse.

If you plan to compete with your gaited horse in the show ring, it is best to check the rules to see what tack is appropriate. For example, Saddlebred horses are shown in cutback saddles, which allow for more range of motion.

Breeds such as American Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers, and Morgans are commonly shown in bridles with fancy browbands. Do you need a browband like this? No. But they are certainly flashy!

horse rookie guide to jumping

Gaited horses – Saddles

A saddle that fits your horse’s back without pinching or causing soreness is always the main goal. You don’t need a special saddle for a gaited horse, but know that many gaited horses are shown in saddleseat tack.

“Cutback saddles” are english-style saddles with long, straight, unpadded flaps, a long and shallow seat, adjustable stirrup bars, and a cutback pommel to allow for the high head carriage and maximum shoulder movement.

Stockier gaited breeds such as Icelandic Horses or Rocky Mountain Horses might be extra tough to fit, as they are more likely to have mutton withers.

This means the withers are flat or rounded. Mutton withers combined with high neck carriage may make saddle fitting extra difficult. The key is to find a saddle that allows your horse to move freely at all gaits through the shoulder, neck, back and loin without pinching or causing interference.

Gaited horse rider

Gaited Horses – Bits

There aren’t any special gaited horse bits that make your horse gait or move a certain way. The bit should be well placed, not too wide or too narrow for the horse’s mouth and should be comfortable.

You can use anything from a simple snaffle to a shanked curb bit.

In show environments, you are likely to see horses in curb bits or double bridles. If you plan to show, check the rules to find out what is appropriate and legal. If you do need to make any bit changes, practice with your horse well in advance of the show.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do you ride a gaited horse?

Every horse you ride might be trained a little differently. Generally speaking, gaited horses are encouraged to move into their gaits by using light, steady hand contact, combined with light leg pressure while maintaining a balanced seat.

Q: How do you get a gaited horse to gait?

To get a gaited horse to gait, start by slowly building up the horse’s strength and ability to maintain speed and collection at the same time. Always start slowly and work up to quicker gaits by doing a lot of transitions and half halts.

horse rookie guide to jumping

Q: What is the best bit for gaited horses?

The best bit for a gaited horse is the bit that fits, encourages responsiveness, is comfortable in the horse’s mouth, and is appropriate for both the horse and rider’s education level.

Q: What is the best saddle pad for gaited horses?

Because gaited horses move a little bit differently than other horses, you’ll want to make sure your saddle pads are sturdy yet flexible and don’t impede the motion of the horse’s shoulder, neck, or back.

Saddle pads that have extra wither clearance or cutback panels at the front of the pad may be beneficial.

Many gaited horses will show in a well-fitted saddle with either no pad or a simple non-slip pad. It’s important not to attempt to ride without a pad unless you are 100% certain that your saddle is properly fitted or you could risk injuring your horse.

Q: Are gaited horses good for beginners?

The designation “beginner horse” depends more on temperament than breed. Beginner-friendly horses are generally patient, “bomb proof,” and forgiving.

Some gaited horses can be great for beginners as they may be smoother to ride, helping a new rider build confidence in the saddle before trying to sit a bumpy trot.

Q: Can gaited horses jump?

Technically, all horses can jump, although some are more athletic and talented at it than others. Gaited horses can be taught to jump, just like any other horse.

Parting Thoughts

If you’re lucky enough to have hopped on a few gaited horses you will understand the joy and ease that they can bring to your riding experience. If you’re interested in learning more about gaited horses, I highly encourage you to dive into specific gaited horse breeds that sound interesting to you. Each breed has unique characteristics that should be shared!

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to: 

horse rookie guide to jumping

Sources

Gait Training and Cues: https://horseandrider.com/horseback-trail-riding/gait-training-101/

USEF Parade horse discipline: https://www.usef.org/learning-center/discipline/parade-horse

General resource: https://www.naturallygaited.com/

https://www.naturallygaited.com/forward-movement-without-leg-aids/

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About the author

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Kelsey W.

Kelsey loves hippology and judging horses from 4-H through national levels. She achieved national qualifications in the Arabian Horse Association atop a horse she brought along herself, and she's now working with her 6 yo rescue Thoroughbred.