Icelandic Horse Connection

The Running Walk

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An article by Anita Howe, of Howe They Walk Farm

Gait: Itís All about Posture
By Anita Howe

Iím not about to go into an equitation session here and talk about heels down, hips shoulders and heels lined up. I will leave that to those much more qualified than I am. No, itís not our posture that Iím referring to (even though good equitation can be very beneficial to you and your horse). Itís your horseís posture and use of his body Iím referring to.

When asked what the single biggest concept I would wish to get across to people, who are training their gaited horses, my response is to quit focusing on the legs and feet.

Quit obsessing with hoof angles, shoes, training aids, action devices, etc. Yeah, thatís right, stop looking at where the feet are and what the timing is.

Because the simple truth of biomechanics is that everything happening with those feet and legs starts with the back, the shoulders and the hips of the horse.

There is nothing that can happen with those extremities that doesnít start with the posture. Just like we canít so much as lift an arm without engaging the muscles of our back, a horseís use of all four legs starts with his back; his primary support structure.

Get the posture and youíll get the gait; the feet will take care of themselves and do exactly what the body tells them to.

We, as gaited horse owners, are inundated with a multitude of gimmicks and appliances to correct gait that some creative people have dreamed up and are trying to convince folks to spend their money on.

Lets face it, we are often so desperate to "get the gait" weíre willing to spend money on just about anything that tags itself "for gaited horses", and they know this.

Bits, shoes, saddles, pads, and the one that sets my teeth on edge the most: gaited farrier services.

You see articles all the time on how farriers specializing in gaited horses can help correct your horseís gait (and all without so much as getting on him).

That just reinforces to me how few people actually "get it"!

Understand that all those appliances and foot modifications are not only very limiting in their successful alteration of gait and timing, but are really only Band-Aids to any gaiting issues.

They will never cure it, just cover it up for a time. You would be far wiser to spend less on shoes and invest more in a well fitting and balanced saddle for your horse (but again I digress into an area better left for those with more expertise).

While a horseís natural ability to gait will always be defined by his conformation, itís his own posture and carriage that actually give us that gait.

While most horses that are built more for trot or pace, many gaited horse breeds have been bred to have elements of both in their structure that allow them to find an easy gait of some kind in between the trot and pace.

Even those horses with great conformation allowing for gait are not necessarily going to give you that gait if they have learned to carry themselves incorrectly.

Conversely, even if a horse has limitations in his conformation that may inhibit gait you can, through patient and consistent correction, help him find an easy gait that is comfortable for him to manage and be a pleasure for both of you.

It may not be textbook, and it may take a lot more patience with some horses (generally those that have been moving off-gaited for many years), but itís attainable.

In order to train, we as riders must first learn to feel the horse.

To focus on how his body action and posture is functioning; the way his back, hips and shoulders move when heís gaiting correctly; his balance and carriage.

A ground-man with a good eye can be very helpful early on to aid you in learning to feel when your horse is indeed moving correctly.

But as you begin to feel those movements and begin to understand what youíre feeling, you can then begin to correct the horse when you feel him change that posture and carriage.

This is a huge benefit, because we can become sensitive enough to detect those minor, preparatory changes (what he does just before he changes or just as heís starting to change), then we can actually correct him before the change reaches his feet. Imagine correcting the off-gait before it fully becomes an off-gait.

Itís a fundamental principle of training that the quicker you can correct a horse (the faster your correction comes after his incorrect action) the easier it is for him to realize that it was his action that caused your correction.

Helping him understand that youíre not just engaging the bit, seat and legs for no reason, but in response to his actions. You then have the opening of a good dialogue.

So when we can start communicating to the horse, "hey, donít tighten your spine" because weíve learned thatís what he does just before he begins to rack.

Or we say "donít go heavy on the forehand" because we know thatís what he does just as heís altering into a foxtrot.

Or "donít bring your head and nose up" because we know he needs to get hollow to start pacing, then we can really start training the horse to carry his own, correct gait.

When someone says you need to put heavier shoes, turn-backs, to lower angles, strap on rollers, add trailers or weighted bell boots, theyíre really demonstrating that they are still among the ones that just "donít get it".

All those things simply force a modification to what the horse is actually doing with his body posture and youíre just one farrier visit or pulled shoe away from losing that gait.

We must get the horse to change his posture to truly correct what heís doing.

If you can instruct your horse to carry his own gait; to find that sweet gear that lets him cruise along with no correction, support or engagement from the rider, then both of you will be much happier "down the road".

We are so fortunate that these wonderful creatures want to please us, and it is our responsibility to be clear in what we want out of this partnership and help them do so.

Understanding the Running Walk
By Anita Howe
Howe They Walk Farm

The runningwalk is a gait that was bred into the walking horse and trained for in the late 1800's and early 1900's as the this breed became the most desired choice for traveling salesmen, plantation owners, itinerant doctors and preachers who needed to cover miles each day.

They realized the benefits of a smooth, ground covering gait on a horse that could continue almost tirelessly in a relaxed, energy efficient stride. The breed developed from crossing long-striding pacers with sturdy trotter breeds to have a horse that was multi-faceted, loose moving and calm natured.

In recent decades however, much of the breeding practices have evolved toward the performance show horse who's gait can be artificially enhanced for the show ring.

Unfortunately, the characteristics that made this horse such a prize for both work and pleasure in the past began to fade, along with those who understood how to develop and train for their natural gaiting abilities. So much so, in fact, that there is tremendous confusion today about exactly how a walking horse should be gaiting!

Even many who own these walkers are not completely certain that their horses are performing the gaits correctly.

Many claim that the runwalk is a lateral gait, while others will say that it is more on the diagonal.

The reality is that it is neither.

It is an evenly timed, square, four-beat gait, in a neutral frame that results in the horse using it's head and shoulders as a counter-balance to the driving action of the backend with a "pump-handle" headshake motion.

You can hear an even "thump-thump-thump-thump" as it strides along, each foot lifting and hitting evenly and independently from each other.

When the horse is correctly executing a flatwalk the sound is often so bold and pronounced that it's hard to believe that the horse is simply walking as each footfall hits flat with a resounding "thump".

The head-shake is most prominent in the flatwalk as the slower tempo allows a deeper motion while the horse extends in it's mighty stride.

The runwalk carries that same form and speeds up the tempo. As that happens the head-shake must necessarily become a bit shallower, but still evident and still from the shoulder, never only from the poll.

It is this neutral spine carriage and the even timing of the footfalls that allow the horse to work it's head in such a pronounced, bold rhythm.

The over-all picture becomes one of smooth, effortless and united motion. It is evident that it is pleasurable for both the horse and the rider.

The neutral carriage allows the horse to remain relaxed with no wasted energy for suspension. In this manner dozens of miles can be covered with much less tiring than other breeds and other gaits.

The runwalk is NOT considered a speed gait.

This gait is the most energy efficient manner that the horse can propel himself over great distances for hours on end.

The weight transfer from foot to foot is smooth and without any suspension as a walk should be. The horse wastes no effort in moving his weight up, only forward.

The foot support during the gait rotation in a correctly executed runwalk is 2 feet--3 feet--2 feet--3 feet.

While the flatwalk is usually considered to be about 3 - 4 mph, a runwalk should be slightly more than double that speed, staying at about 8-12 mph depending on the size, conformation and development of the horse, but while never losing form.

To surpass those speeds the horse would need to lock up his spine and suspend himself (jog) to cover more ground more quickly.

This locked frame most often creates a hollow carriage that will alter his gait into a pace, a rack or a trot, almost without fail.

A locked frame and upward suspension results in wasted energy. It is with horses moving in this incorrect manner that many "trainers" of today will attempt to alter the gait using weighted shoes and hoof angle modification as well as severe curb bits in efforts to create lift.

At most they will alter the horse's footfall timing, changing a pace into a rack or a stepping pace, but they cannot create a correct runwalk through artificial manipulation.

You must retrain the horse to correctly carry himself. Most trainers do not have the knowledge needed to do this and will instead attempt to "fix" the horse using artificial means.

Can Icelandic Horses doing a running walk?

Yes, some can do it easily. For some Icelandic Horses it is their gait of choice.

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