By Lee Ziegler,revised 1998
|Old timers will sometimes tell you that if a horse does not have a
"little bit of pace" in him he will not be ble to do a runningwalk. If
you notice the number of Standardbred pacers that contributed to the breed,
it is no wonder that the pace lurks in so many Tennessee Walking Horses.
The "pace problem" is not unique to the Tennessee Walkers. Although they
do not advertise the fact, all of the gaited breeds produce individuals
that prefer to do a stepping pace from time to time, as well as others
that seem to do nothing but a hard pace when pushed for speed. Some of
these horses are so "hard wired" in the pace that they will not do any
other gait, even when free in a pasture. However, most pacey horses are
not "stuck" in the gait to that degree, and with training can ge persuaded
to do a more desirable gait.
The body position and muscle use of horses that pace are easy to see.
Movement: In the pace, a horse moves alternating lateral (same side) pairs of legs together. He does this by shifting his weight from side to side, away from each advancing pair of legs. In a true, fast, hard pace, he jumps from each set of lateral legs to the other, with a brief moment when all four legs are clear of the ground. At slower speeds, the jumping motion is gone and the lateral hooves do not touch down at the same moment. Usually the hind hoof sets down just before the front on the same side. This type of "broken pace" is just slightly more lateral than the "stepped pace" in which the hind hoof sets down noticeable before the front on the same side. For training purposes, everything from a hard pace to a stepped pace is usually labeled a pace.
Position: Horses that pace always do so with "hollow" or slightly swayed backs. /this position comes about in two ways:
WHY DOES A HORSE PACE?
No one knows to what extent a horse voluntarily chooses a gait. They
probably rely on both instinct and direct conscious neural signals
to get themselves around. Despite what some may believe, there is no single
scientifically identified "pace gene" that determines whether a horse will
use that gait, or any dilution of it by the "trot gene" that then produces
the easy gaits. The gait's root cause is much more complex than a single
gene. A horse paces because for some reason his body is in the physical
position necessary to produce the gait. His back sags, his neck is "hollow",
his hind legs are trailing, and he is using muscle groups that make him
swing from side to side. There are several physical reasons for a horse
to move this way.
When trainers use shoeing techniques or action devices or rough ground to get rid of a pace, they are working on the flight pattern and timing of the horse's hooves. By delaying or speeding the lift off of a hoof, they are making the gait less lateral. Eventually the horse adjusts to his new, artificially produced gait, his muscles develop along the lines necessary to do the gait, and he quits pacing, often without the action devices. Of course, this training may wear off in time, particularly if he is turned out to pasture and then ridden by someone who does not know how to keep him in gear.
Another, more long-lasting way to deal with the pace is to eliminate the body and muscle problems that make it possible. Although not much can be done about conformation, what the horse does with that conformation can make a big difference in the gait he uses. Since a horse travels with a swayed back, stiff, hollow neck, sagging belly and trailing hindquarters in the pace, if you simply train him to travel with a more rounded back, supple, flexible neck, tight stomach muscles and engaged hindquarters the pace will evaporate! Even horses with bony conformation predisposing them to the pace can be helped. You can cure a pace.
While they are not training solutions for the gait problem, equine massage and chiropractic are often useful in dealing with a horse that paces. Although physical manipulations will not instantly cure a horse of traveling with a hollow back, they can relieve cramped and blocked muscles and help him become more flexible under saddle. It is worth a try to see if a treatment or two from a competent massage therapist or equine chiropractor will help your pacey horse move better.
If you get your horse in shape before you ask him to do a flat walk or running walk under a rider, he is much less likely to start pacing. Before you start to ride a young horse, condition him by work on the longe line or in a round pen, at a controlled flatwalk if you can, both on the flat and over poles spaced about 5 feet apart. Pony him from another horse to build up his muscle strength. Spend a couple of months getting your horse "legged up" and in condition before you start riding him in gait. Remember that the younger a horse is when you start to ride him, the more undeveloped his muscles will be and the more likely he will be to pace. Give him a chance to grow up before you put him to work.
When you do start to ride, remember the credo of competitive trail and endurance riders-Long Slow Distance. Ride at a walk and occasional flat walk for several months, over gradually increasing distance. Don't overdo and wear out your horse-build him up gradually. Increase the time you ride and the distance you cover in small increments. Dismount frequently to rest his back, and ask him to raise it by cueing him with a fingernail at the midline of his belly, a version of the "belly lift" that makes him raise his back muscles as he tightens his abdominals.
Ride at nothing faster than a flatwalk for several months. The old timers used to say that a horse should be flatwalked a minimum of three months before he was ready for the runningwalk. They said they did it to develop rhythm, but it also worked to condition the horse.
Ground Flexibility Exercises:
A horse's head and neck assemblies are the most accessible part of his spinal column. To help a stiff, "hollow" horse begin to use his back and body in a more rounded way so that he can stop pacing, begin by teaching him from the ground to have a supple, flexible neck. Again, these exercises are often much more productive if the horse has had chiropractic, message therapy or acupressure treatment.
Bending: While a well-conditioned, supple horse should be able to touch his nose to the stirrup on both sides of his body, many horses that pace have very limited lateral flexibility in their necks. To improve lateral suppleness, they need some ground work in a halter. Standing at the horse's shoulder, grasp the halter noseband at the sidepiece, and gently bring his nose to the side, insisting that he keep his body still. Ask him to bend just a few inches away from a resting position, pet him, then repeat on the other side. Practice bending his neck just a bit farther each time you work with him, until he can touch his nose to his side, on both sides. This may take several lessons. The idea is not to force him to bend, but to gradually stretch the muscles in his neck so that he can do it easily. It is sometimes useful to use a carrot as a bribe, holding it in front of his nose and tempting him with it until he follows it around, bending his neck in the process. Naturally, give him the carrot when he bends as far as you want.
Reaching forward: Another useful exercise for conditioning a horse with a tight neck is the forward stretch. Again, this is best taught from the ground, with the horse in a halter. Standing in front of the horse, grasp the noseband of the halter in two hands, one at each sidepiece. Alternate light tugs toward your body and down, asking the horse to lower his neck and reach out with his nose. Practice over several sessions until he can easily lower his head to the ground in response to the alternate tugs. Again, it helps to use a carrot to bribe some horses to lower their heads. The idea is not to force his head forward and down, but to ask him to stretch the muscles in his neck and back so that it is not difficult for him to relax and lower his head. It is important to teach this exercise on the ground so that the horse will have a head start on the same exercise when you try it from the saddle.
Ridden flexibility exercises:
To overcome the hollow position that produces the pace, a horse needs flexible, well-conditioned muscles in his neck and back. After he has learned to stretch and bend his neck from the ground, he can be taught to use his entire body in a more effective position while developing the condition of his neck, back and hindquarters.
The "neck stretching" exercise: [this is a slight variation on an old Dressage exercise called "showing the horse the way to the ground" or "deep work". It is the absolute key to overcoming the type of body use that leads to the pace and replacing it with the one needed for a good runningwalk or fox trot.]
To teach this exercise you should try to use a snaffle bit, if at all possible. It will not work in a gag bit of any kind, and is very difficult in a curb. Ride the horse in a slow walk, in a large circle. Take gentle contact with his mouth, encouraging him to relax on a relatively light rein. Very gently, pull to the side and down with the outside (toward the rail) rein, then alternate this with another light twitch down and to the side with the inside rein. Keep your hands low and separate as you give these cues. Allow the rein to slip through your fingers, remaining slack, as soon as he responds by lowering his head, then repeat. Practice this exercise until the horse will stretch his head and neck down and forward with a light series of alternating twitches on the reins. This will take time. A horse that has been taught to carry a high head, been "set up" in a bitting rig, or otherwise convinced that he must never lower his head will have trouble responding to this new exercise. Be patient and persistent, and eventually your horse will learn to reach forward, stretching his neck and back muscles. It may take weeks or even months to teach this exercise, depending on the previous training and conformation of the horse.
When your horse responds instantly to the cue to reach down and forward into a loose rein, begin to teach him to work through his back into the bit. With his head in its lowest position, take light contact with his mouth-about the weight of a small plum in each hand. Push the horse forward with intermittent strong leg pressure, keeping his head low by separating your hands at the first sign of his neck or head rising. His nose should start to come in just a bit from the horizontal, his neck will arch very slightly and the base of his neck, just before the withers, will begin to rise. Ride for a few steps in this position, then reduce rein contact and allow the horse to relax with a low head. Repeat, gradually building up to riding "deep" with light contact through the snaffle bit for longer and longer periods. Push the horse on for some speed in the ordinary walk, then move into a flatwalk in this position. At the first sign of a pace, reduce speed and lower and separate your hands a bit more, while driving the horse strongly forward with your legs. This part of the exercise will not work unless the horse is pushed forward into the action of the bit with strong use of your legs. If your horse starts to rush forward from leg pressure, use light, intermittent squeezes and releases on the reins to slow him. Never use a hard, steady pull to slow him. You will have much better results if you use "half-halts" to ask for slower speed. After some practice, you should start to feel a slight fullness in the horse's back muscles under your seat as he works in this part of the exercise. He is gaining strength in his back, and beginning to eliminate the hollow that is a main part of the pace position. Work for at least half of each session in this position, alternating it with periods of a free dog walk on a loose rein.
Pacing horses are very stiff laterally, and many are not able to go in a large circle with an even bend in their bodies from head to tail. The ground exercises in neck bending can begin to overcome this problem, but more difficult mounted work is needed as well. You should start these exercises in an ordinary walk, and later perfect them in the flatwalk, after your horse has learned to semi-collect in that gait.
Riding curves: To teach a horse to bend in an even curve, start by teaching him to bend into the corners of your arena. Ride forward at an energetic walk, with his head at a medium height, on contact with the snaffle bit, in an energetic walk. As you reach the curve of the arena, push him into it, so that he must conform his body to the corner of the arena. To do this:
Riding circles: Once the horse has developed the flexibility to do good, deep curves, you can then teach him to work good circles. Remember, a circle is round, not egg-shaped or amoeba-shaped! To help you judge how well you are doing with them, place a cone at the center point and ride on freshly raked sand or dirt so you can see your tracks. You may be surprised at how hard it can be to ride a round circle.
To ride a circle, with your horse in an energetic walk, on contact with the snaffle, move forward with your:
Lateral flexion: Although these are usually thought of as "dressage" exercises and may be intimidating, they are basic gymnastic exercises invented to improve the lateral bending of any horse. They are especially useful for pacing horses because they work on the back and neck muscles that are the culprits in making a horse travel "hollow" in the gait. You don't need to be a fanatic about correct riding to benefit from these exercises.
Shoulder-fore: This is a beginning exercise in which the horse travels forward in a straight line with his head, neck and body bent slightly to the inside of the ring, while his haunches move parallel to the rail. It works to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the back and the hindquarters, as well as working to improve flexibility in the shoulders. To begin this exercise, ride a 30-foot circle, in one corner of your arena. As you come out of the circle next to the rail, ask the horse to move forward while keeping his head, neck and shoulders bent in the curve of the circle. He should walk forward parallel to the rail, while looking toward the center of the arena.
To do this exercise use:
Haunches-in: This is actually a reverse version of the shoulder-fore. In it you keep the shoulder parallel to the ring and move the hindquarters toward the center. This bends and stretches the rear portion of the horse's body. To begin this exercise, with the horse standing still, use your outside leg as it hangs in the stirrup to put pressure on his side, to push his hindquarters over one step. [You may need to teach this from the ground at first, using your hand to push on the horse's side at the girth, while tipping his nose toward you, teaching the turn on the forehand. When he has learned that, you can repeat the same cues from the saddle and he will yield his hindquarters away from leg pressure.] Ride the horse parallel to the rail, keeping his head and neck straight, not allowing him to turn his nose toward the rail. Keep his hindquarters yielded to the inside of the arena about six inches, so that the outside hind hoof falls into the track of the inside front. To do this:
In time, you can increase the number of steps you take in the haunches-in until your horse goes in the "two-track" exercise for the entire length of your arena. You can then start alternating it with the shoulder-fore, bending the horse first in one part of his back, then in the other. After several months of practice, when the horse is becoming increasingly flexible, you can try to ride the haunches-in through the curves of your arena. This is not necessary, but it does increase the bend in his body and is an indication of good flexibility.
Semi-collection and "working through":
Once your horse has achieved some lateral flexibility and learned to reach forward and down into the bit, and then maintain the stretch through his body with a slightly higher head and neck, he is ready to learn to work with a rounder body position or "frame", eliminating the pace position entirely. This is the final phase of the body use you began to develop with the neck stretching exercise. This in not false collection by "head set" as you may know it. Instead, it involves teaching the horse to develop energy in his hindquarters and channel it through his body, while taking advantage of the increased elasticity he has developed in his back muscles through the flexibility and stretching exercises.
For a typical gaited horse, the best way to work into this new position is from an energetic walk of flatwalk. Ride at the ordinary walk, with the horse in the neck-stretched position, keeping your hands low and separate. Drive the horse forward with strong, repeated squeezes from both legs, keeping his head low. Increase his speed until he is moving with energy in the flatwalk. Lower and separate your hands at the first sign of a pace. Establish a consistent flatwalk, then gradually bring his nose toward vertical with light, intermittent squeezes on the reins, allowing his head and neck to rise a few inches, keeping up his forward momentum, hands low. Again, atg the first hint of a pace, slow to an ordinary walk, lower his head and neck, and push him into the bit with leg pressure. Do not try to pull the horse's head into a more vertical position with strong rein pressure, and do not try to set his head with your hands. Ask him with light vibrations on the reins to relax and give his jaw, while moving forward energetically. He should begin to flex his neck just at the poll, with a slight bulge in the top of his neck muscles about six inches behind his ears. Find the speed at which he is willing to move out well while staying in a four beat walk, and keep him there, asking him to keep his head and neck just slightly higher than he did when you were practicing the neck stretching exercises.
Ride the horse in this position for several strides, then return to the neck stretched position to relieve any tension in his neck. Repeat, alternating between several strides with his neck up and nose toward vertical and the neck-stretched position, being sure to drive him forward with strong leg pressure when he uses the higher head position. Do not try to raise the horse's head by lifting your hands. Push with your legs and allow it to rise as he works forward from his hindquarters in response to your leg cues. If you do this correctly, and do not rush the process, the horse will naturally raise his head and neck while at the same time slightly lowering his hindquarters and very gently rounding his back. At first the new body position will be virtually imperceptible, but soon you should be able to feel fullness in the horse's back muscles under your seat. He is losing the hollow that causes the pace and allowing the energy from his hindquarters to come "through" his back.
Continue riding in this semi-collected position, gradually increasing speed in the flatwalk until the horse is moving out well, head in slightly elevated position, neck a continuous curve from poll to withers (no dip in front of the withers) back full under your seat, and hindquarters pushing efficiently. Practice maintaining this position for increasing distances in the flatwalk. Then speed him on into a runningwalk, keeping the horse slightly rounded, and preventing him from breaking into a pace by regulating his speed and "frame". If he starts to pace at the faster speed, slow him a bit, lower his head and separate your hands, and push him on with the lower head position. This will re-establish the connection between poll and tail, and stretch his back muscles, eliminating the hollow that causes the pace.
Why only semi-collection? Because if you go too far in collecting a gaited horse you will lose the gait and convert him to a hard trotting horse. This happens because to continue in gait a horse requires a bit of looseness in the back that disappears with true collection. Think of collection as a progressive continuum, shown in varying degrees by horses in various gaits. From the pacing horse, with a totally concave or "hollow" back, to a hors in a piaffe, which is totally round and at the peak of collection, different gaits and movements require different degrees of collection. Some gaits are actually best done with the back in a neutral (not rounded, not hollow) position. The runningwalk and foxtrot are in this category, with the foxtrot being just a bit more collected in position than the runningwalk. Teach your horse semi-collection to convert the pace to one of these gaits, but avoid using so much that you turn him into a hard trotter.
In addition to these exercises and riding techniques, there are some other things that can be done to help a horse develop the strength to hold his body in a non-pacing position. Although some of these have been used for years by those who also use shoeing techniques and devices to eliminate the pace, they are valid, non-artificial training aids.
Poles: Work over poles interferes with the flight path of a horse's hooves and can quickly convince him to stop pacing as he hits himself on them if he tries to do that gait. However, it also develops the muscles in the back and hindquarters and encourages the horse to hold his body in a less hollow position. Although gaited horses are likely to trot over poles, this exercise will not turn them into hard trotters. It does work to break up the pace, however, even in horses that are "wired" to do that gait.
The best way to work with poles is to spread out several series of two or three at intervals around the arena. Start with low poles, about 4 inches high, spaced about three feet apart. Encourage the horse to stretch his neck forward and down so that he can see the obstacles, then ride him over them at a walk. Gradually increase speed, until the horse starts to pace on open ground, then ride over the poles again. He will probably trot over them after hitting his hooves a few times, then return to the pace in between groups of poles. If he paces over the poles as well, you need higher obstacles-use railroad ties or regular cavallettis set at about 8 inches off the ground. Whatever you use, it must make the horse pick up his feet. In time, with practice, the horse will stop pacing over poles. It is then up to you to ask him to continue not-pacing without them, using the body repositioning techniques mentioned earlier.
Hills: Work up hills has also been a traditional method of getting rid of a pace. It works because for a horse to climb a hill he must balance to the rear and slightly round his back, getting rid of the hollow pace position. Most horse that pace on flat round will gait well up hill. Take advantage of this by asking for only a slow walk on the flat and pushing for speed in gait up hills. Not only will you be accustoming the horse to using the gait you want, you will be conditioning his back and body so that he can hold the semi-collected position more easily on flat ground.
Avoid asking for speed going down hi.., as that will throw the horse onto his shoulders, hollow his back, and encourage the pace.
Footing: Many horses lose the pace when they are ridden in deep or soft footing. Mud, sand, snow, plowed ground or deep grass can work to make a horse stop pacing because the surface delays the timing of his hooves and forces him into another gait. Soft footing also helps strengthen the muscles in a horse's legs, shoulders, hindquarters and back, since it is hard work to move over that type of ground. This increased strength will help him hold his body in a rounder, non-pacing position on a firmer surface. If it is not overdone, work in deep footing will help in curing the pace, but too much can cause damage to his muscles and tendons. Don't spend more than 5 minutes, every few days, riding over this type of ground.
The pace can be cured. If you condition a hors's body, train him to
use it in a semi-collected position, and work with his mind by constantly
discouraging the pace while encouraging his gait, he will eventually stop
pacing under saddle. With time, he will also stop using the pace when he
is not being ridden. His body will have been reeducated and repositioned
away form the unwanted gait. You don't really need a trunk full of devices
or a farrier who specializes in gait problems to train a horse to stop
pacing and start working in gait.