Fox Trotting and the Trot
The trot and fox trot are similar. As we discussed in previous articles, the pace is a lateral gait. The trot and the fox trot are square gaits. The Walking Horse gait has been developed from the pace with its object being very long, low to the ground strides, pushing forward from the back leg. The head and neck should be arched in a very proper saddle seat position and the horse should be moving in a graceful, powerful and yet calm forward movement. The root of the gait is power from behind creating long strides and a long, sweeping, smooth forward motion.
The fox trot and the trot are about as far away from this idea as you can go and there are at least three reasons that immediately come to mind why you would want to correct the trot and/or fox trot. First, these gaits are a very stiff up and down motion which gives the rider a bouncing or forward and backward shuffling feeling in the saddle. After about an hour of riding, it will become fatiguing to the rider’s back and legs. The running walk, when performed correctly, allows the rider to remain perfectly still in the saddle and enables the rider to ride much farther without saddle fatigue. Finally, the long, low to the ground movement of the running walk lessens concussion to the hoof, legs and back of the horse.
Fox trotting is the result of lack of collection. The horse’s hip is high in the air, rotated upward, allowing the rear legs to drift out behind the horse. The back legs travel in an up and down motion, stepping into place. The front end is supports the body weight causing the front legs to travel in a stiff-legged forward slide with no knee action. The neck and head are carried very low because the horse is keeping his body weight over the front legs. This causes the rear end to act as a trailer following the horse’s body movement instead of pushing and driving the horse’s body movement forward. This gait is not energy efficient and is not a comfortable gait to ride.
When you begin to alter the fox trot, it is important to recognize that the rear end is supporting very little of the horse’s total body weight. The first concern is to change the horse’s body position so that he is standing or supporting his weight with the back legs. Use spurs to brush the horse’s belly upward which will raise his back into an arched or rounded position and will help roll the pelvis under placing his back leg under his hip instead of out behind himself. When you ask the horse to travel forward, support him strongly with your leg. It is also important to collect the horse in the neck drawing the head up and the nose in so that the weight of the head and neck are drawn back toward the rear of the horse. I have found that a Plantation bit or a Walking Horse bit is the best bit to use for collecting a fox trotting horse. This is a solid bit. It has and 8” shank and a crescent-shaped mouthpiece.
This bit allows you to cue the horse without pulling him into position, which could cause him to become hyper and start to rack. This solid mouthpiece allows you to use very light hand cues to raise the head up and coax his nose in.
A fox trotting horse will normally carry about 60% of his body weight on the front leg while a horse performing a correct walking gait will carry about 60% of his body weight on his hind legs, so it is very important to create a body position which will alter the weight placement. A horse performing a walking gait should be taking long steps and you should feel the momentum being created in the back legs. A fox trotting horse creates his forward momentum by pulling his body forward with his front legs leaving his rear end as a trailer following along.
Some exercises that are commonly used to stop fox trotting are the roll back; cantering in a figure eight, stopping in the center; doing serpentines accelerating through the corners and slowing down in the straights; and riding in a surging, faster and slower action. As you go slower you want to increase relaxation and as you go faster you want to increase drive. What you are looking for in all of these exercises is weight placement to the rear and all of this work must be done while the horse is relaxed. It is easier to set the horse up to do the right thing than it is to pull him into position.
The roll back. Use a fence line and travel down it at a canter. Stop. Turn the horse toward the rail while you are very close so that the horse has to lean backward or sit down on his back legs to change position. This exercise is extremely good for two reasons. First, you are displacing the body weight to the hind legs and second the horse is starting from a stand still so that he has to accelerate off of his back legs. The reason this exercise is done at the canter is because when the horse is cantering, stops and rolls back, his legs are in a position to pick up the canter again.
Cantering in a figure eight. The idea is very similar to the idea behind the roll back. You start in the center and you canter left in a 50 foot circle, stopping at your starting position. The stopping action causes the horse to stop and sit down very similar to a reining horse’s tucked hip but without the slide. As the horse picks up the right side of the circle he will pick up the canter and push his weight forward with his hind legs. Complete the circle to the right returning to and stopping in the center with a tucked hip position. Repeat the left circle, stop, right circle, stop, and continue the figure eight while mixing in the walk and flat walk to allow the horse to rest and comprehend the new exercise. This will help to create the same pelvic rotation that you can achieve in the roll back.
Serpentines. A serpentine is simply turns to the left and turns to the right traveling down a straight line in a zigzag fashion. Imagine riding a straight line that runs north to south. Start your serpentine by turning due west from the north/south line. Take a few steps and slowly round your turn 180 degrees to the east, crossing the center line. Take a few steps and round your turn 180 degrees west, crossing the center line. Continue down the straight line making your turns until you come to the end. As you travel through the turns you should feel the horse dropping down in the hind quarters pushing his weight through the turn. Use leg pressure to drive the horse through the turns, relaxing leg and rein pressure through the straight sections allowing him to relax. Keep your turns wide and round so the horse pushes through the turn. If the turns are too small the horse will be jammed into the turn and will lift his hip to compensate.
It is very important for the rider to have proper leg position in the serpentine and the figure eight exercises. In order for the horse to maintain the proper bend, you want your inside leg to be slightly forward in the turn and the outside leg to be slightly to the rear supporting the outside flank. You turn around the position of your forward leg and the outside leg prevents his rear end from swinging to the outside of the corner. You want your horse to bend his body around and accelerate through the corner by pushing his body weight with his back legs. You will be shifting your leg position as you change directions. The horse should be accelerating through the turn, moving from left to right using his pelvis which should be supporting most of his weight, then relaxing in the straightway. These exercises can also be done by circling trees or bushes in a field instead of traveling down a straight line. Simply find a filed with five or six trees or bushes and start circling them in a random pattern paying attention to the placement of your inside and outside leg as you move through the pattern. Your inside leg bends the horse into the correct curve of the circle and your outside leg supports his hip. Use both legs to keep the horse driving through the curve of each circle and relax your leg pressure as the horse straitens into a straight line to allow him to relax and stride.
Surging. This is the next exercise and is an acceleration exercise you can do most anywhere and at any time. Go from a flat walk to a run walk to a flat walk to a run walk trying not to be too predictable. This exercise accomplishes two things. It increases the cues and responsiveness from the horse and it creates acceleration and pelvic tilt while maintaining relaxation. The horse should power forward in the running walk and you should be able to feel him de-accelerate into the flat walk, traveling in a very loose, comfortable fashion. As you cue the horse forward again you should feel the power of the running walk and as you come back down you should feel the relaxation. You can do this in an oval ring using the corners as your acceleration points and the straight-aways for relaxing. This exercise can be done on the trail as well. If you come to a hill accelerate up the hill and then decrease to a slow flat walk down the hill. You may need to de-accelerate to a walk down the hill but the idea is to create a longer driving forward stride as you begin the running walk. Be sure to keep your collection even when you relax into the flatwalk. It is important to understand that collection is not pulling the horse’s head into his chest but cueing his head and neck into an arched and rounded self carriage. The horse accepts this new position over time and the cues remain soft and suggested, never forced.
Trotting. This is the other problem faced when dealing with a square horse. Most gaited horses will trot when excited but it is considered a fault in the Walking Horse while he is being ridden. The trot is caused from stiffness in the back. The horse will usually carry its head low and hump its spine. The horse is rigid throughout his spine. The rider will feel a distinct up and down movement while in the saddle. To solve this problem the rider must relax the horse and ask the horse to take slower more purposeful steps. To help slow the horse down and take longer strides, ride in sand or a plowed field. This will cause the horse to push through the thick ground. Create more stride in the horse’s steps and shape the horse slowly. The head needs to come up with the nose in and the back needs to lower into a natural position. Ask for speed only when the horse is moving freely. This problem is usually caused by the horse becoming intimidated in the early stages of training.
A cross fire shoe will also help the horse to stride. When the horse humps his back he is also traveling narrow with his hind legs. This means they are passing each other very close together. The cross fire shoe has a diagonal flat cut on the inside toe area. This notch entices the horse to break over the inside of his toe. The result is that the horse widens his stance and takes a longer stride.
Any time you have a horse that trots you want to refrain from cantering. When a horse is cantering two legs hit the ground at the same time, this creates the three beat gait. The two legs that are hitting the ground at the same time are on the diagonal. When a horse trots, the diagonal legs also hit the ground at the same time. This similarity will enhance the chances of the horse continuing to trot and should be avoided.
There are several exercises which are helpful to stop the trot. The two that follow are the most effective exercises of which I am aware.
Put the horse into a harness and attach him to a cart. Travel down a straight field or road making small side to side zigzags no more than 5 feet in either direction. Each zig to a zag should cover about 50 feet of land. The goal is to rock the horse onto his outside legs which should create a pace. When he picks up the pace, reward him by stopping the exercise and allowing him to walk for awhile before trying again. A trotting horse under harness which is taught to pace for a couple of weeks will usually quit pacing as soon as you return to saddle work. When you start back on saddle work, encourage him to initiate the pace and as soon as he begins, collect him just slightly and he should break into a four beat gait.
The second exercise to correct a trot is to ride on a hilly surface. Ride the horse uphill using a relaxed rein. Place your body weight to the middle of the saddle and drive the horse forward with cantle pressure. Sit straight and let your legs relax to a position near the girth. Ride the horse downhill with collection. Smoothly draw the neck into a proper arch. You should still keep your body weight to the middle of the saddle but use a driving seat. Use leg pressure just behind the girth to cue the horse to rotate his pelvis under. Focus on pelvic rotation, stride, curvature of the neck and relaxation. As the horse travels down the hill he will stride farther because his leg hits the ground later than normal due to the slope of the hill. Take slow deliberate steps no faster than the flat walk speed and keep the horse in a rounded position throughout his spine. Reward all relaxation and very slowly increase collection until the horse becomes accustomed to the new collected position. When the horse supports his own weight down the hill by tucking his hip under and then fells confident enough to relax he will begin to stride which will later develop into a gait.
Though some horses are born to trot, most gaited horses will improve with these exercises and suggestions. A square horse should be ridden to swing and any exercises that bend and flex the horse will be beneficial. Work on dressage lateral movements to help stretch the horse’s waist. Stay away from hyper activity and tension, and remember to keep your voice soft. With a little hard work you will soon hear the cadence of 4/4 time.