Dressage and Gaited Horses

In the horse world, there are many divides that separate the disciplines. English and Western riding, dressage and hunter-jumper, driving and riding, etc. But one of the biggest divides is between gaited horses and “regular” horses. Most people who ride “normal” horses look at gaited horses as some freaks of nature, as if there is something inherently wrong with the fact that most of the time, they don’t trot. People who don’t experience gaited horses are often curious about how these strange horses move, but they are often resistant to trying to ride one. However, does that really need to be the case?

Indeed, the world of gaited horses seems very foreign to the other disciplines. Shows are often exciting and thrilling as the horses fly around the arena, showing their brilliance in their movement to thrill spectators. Some, like the Tennessee Walkers, invite a lot of criticism for “Big Lick” practices (which is a topic for another day). Even Saddlebreds fall under the category of being something “other,” and most of them aren’t even gaited!

However, gaited horses are simply horses. They have four hooves, they eat hay and grass, they communicate like any other horse, and they have the same needs every other horse has. However, they have an extra “tool” in their toolkit. Genetically gaited horses will gait from day one, and even in adulthood will show off their natural gait in the pasture when playing. Some find it easier to gait instead of canter when trying to gain extra speed, which is much smoother for the rider than a gallop.

The History of Gaited Horses

It’s hard to know exactly when gaited horses appeared. It appears the gene appeared in the 9th century AD in the British Isles and quickly spread. There is evidence that the Medieval “palfreys,” which were often women’s horses or the horses of nobles that needed to travel long distances, were gaited. It also appears that some of the old masters of dressage trained their horses to gait as well! This is mostly seen in the writings of Baron d’Eisenberg and some earlier writings. Later, gaited horses spread to the Americas, and now we have many different breeds that each have their own unique gaits. The basic function of these gaits is very similar breed-to-breed, but the details vary.

Why go Gaited?

Most people who choose to ride gaited horses do so because they are smooth to ride. Trotting can be jarring, especially if the horse has large or stiff movement. Some people with back problems struggle with trotting. It is interesting to note that in some traditions, such as doma vaquera or even in Xenophon’s writings, trot was trained very little, instead focusing on walk and canter. There is also something alluring to the sound of a well-gaiting horse making an even four beat sound as they travel.

Why the Divide?

Because gaited horses seem so “different,” a lot of riders who stick to conventional horses look down on gaited horses. This has created a lot of animosity between the two worlds. Is it really necessary though? What about people who want to do something extra with their gaited horses, like dressage? After all, not everyone just wants to show or trail ride.

Dressage for Gaited Horses?

Why not! After all, dressage was not developed for itself, but for the horse. With the immense popularity gaited horses enjoyed during the Medieval period, why shouldn’t dressage have a place for gaited horses? Dressage is based on rider and equine biomechanics, and it’s not like a gaited horse has completely different biomechanics than a trotter. If you look at the modern training pyramid or scale, the first step is “rhythm.”

For gaited horses, it’s the same! We still listen for the same mistakes in the gait as we do in the walk. If the gait, whether it’s an amble, fox-trot, flat walk, or whatever, does not have four even beats, it’s faulty. For trotting horses, it’s the same at the walk. How do we fix that? Simple: find the source of the problem. Trotting horses give a lateral walk (1-2, 3-4) if they’re stiff through the back. Same for a gaited horse! The fixes are very similar: release the tension in the back, develop equal thrusting power from behind, and voila! The walk and gait are improved!

Many, if not all, of the principles of dressage can be used to help the gaited horse. Lateral work also helps improve the evenness and strength behind as well as suppleness. Gaited horses often have a magnificent canter, and good dressage work helps to improve that even further. Gaited trainers and dressage trainers alike love to use ground poles or cavaletti to improve hind limb strength and rhythm. Even the equipment doesn’t have to be so different. An adjustable dressage seat helps improve the gait immensely, adjusting weight where it needs to be to improve the gait as needed.

Of course, it can be a little more complicated than just that; the dressage trainer who works with gaited horses needs to have a good eye for the rhythm of whichever breed they are working with as well as an understanding that it may look different than what they’re used to. The dressage trainer who works with gaited horses also needs an open mind to understand what they’re working with and knowing the difference between the breeds.

What can I do with my gaited dressage horse?

A while back, there were some avenues for gaited dressage shows, but these are few and far between. Luckily, working equitation has opened up their rule book to allow for gaited horses. Where the prescribed gait is “trot,” the gaited horse may do his natural gait of choice (depending on the breed). Most shows have the option of competing just the dressage portion and not the obstacles portion, but the obstacles portion is a great deal of fun. If you can find avenues for breed demonstrations, take your horse out and try to show what you’ve got! Even if it’s just intro level, it’s still great fun to see. If anyone is interested in doing a virtual gaited dressage show where you film a test (whether it’s a USEF dressage test or a working equitation test) and send it in for judging, we’d be happy to make that happen here! If you are local to our area or wish to come for a training retreat, we are happy to work with you and helping you start your journey with gaited dressage.

In short, if you have a gaited horse and want to explore dressage with your beloved horse, don’t let any of the stigmas stop you! Have fun with your horse and give dressage a try. You’ll find that you and your horse will have so much fun together, and your troubles with gaiting may improve before your very eyes!

For inspiration, check out videos of Champagne Watchout on YouTube. He was a Tennessee Walker that was shown flat-shod and later did FEI level dressage work all en gait.