"Today, Tennessee Walking Horses are known throughout the industry
as the breed that shows abused and tortured horses."

~ Jim Heird, Ph.D., Do Right By The Horse, February 2010

"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,
you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."

~ St. Francis of Assisi

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

RESEARCH - A Lesson in Listening

I've spent a lot of time studying the gaits the Tennessee Walking Horse can perform.  The TWH is defined by his unique gait: a perfectly square, four beat movement where each foot hits the ground at a different moment with the same timing between each foot fall.  The head and neck will nod up and down from the withers so as to balance the hind end of the horse--it is physically impossible for a TWH to gait correctly without this head nod or "head shake."  This is known as the flat walk, and at faster speeds without sacrificing the form of the horse, it's known as the running walk.

The TWHBEA has an excellent explanation of the gait on their website, and since they are the breed registry, I believe it is the rule we should all follow.

The Flat Walk is a brisk, long-reaching walk that can cover from four to eight miles an hour. This is a four cornered gait with each of the horse's feet hitting the ground separately at regular intervals. The horse will glide over the track left by the front foot with his hind foot: right rear over right front, left rear over left front. The action of the back foot slipping over the front track is known as overstride. Overstride is unique to the walking horse breed. The hock should show only forward motion; vertical hock action is highly undesirable. A Tennessee Walking Horse will nod its head in rhythm with the cadence of its feet. This nodding head motion, along with overstride, are two features that are unique to the Tennessee Walking Horse. This distinctive head motion along with overstride are both things the judge should take into consideration when judging a Tennessee Walking Horse.

The Running Walk is the gait for which the walking horse is most noted. This extra-smooth, gliding gait is basically the same as the flat walk with a noticeable difference in the rate of speed between the two gaits. Proper form should never be sacrificed for excessive speed in a good running walk. The breed can travel 10 to 20 miles per hour at this gait. As the speed is increased, the horse over-steps the front track with the back by a distance of six to eighteen inches. The more "stride" the horse has, the better "walker" it is considered to be. It is this motion that gives the rider a feeling of gliding through the air as if propelled by some powerful but smooth-running machine. The running walk is a smooth, easy gait for both horse and rider. A true Tennessee Walking Horse will continue to nod while performing the running walk.

To watch this movement in action, check out Papa's Royal Delight, a barefoot and all natural stallion trained using only dressage methods, conditioning, and hard work.

The TWH gait is specifically defined as "each of the horse's feet hitting the ground separately at regular intervals."  But what I'm seeing in the show ring are horses that are either performing the pace or the stepping pace with what I see as a false head nod.  Now of course, as is nature's design, not every horse is going to perform perfectly at every single step.  However, the TWH can be conditioned to perform as perfectly as possible for his particular conformation and body type.  So it makes no sense to me that horses are being showcased in the show ring that are not performing the correct gait, especially the Big Lick horses.

I'd like to show everyone what I mean by this, and I think the easiest way I can do it is by a method I use myself that helps me more than any other when I'm working with a TWH on his gait: MY EARS.  When a horse is well conditioned to perform a flat walk or a running walk, then we can literally hear each individual hoof beat hitting the ground at a separate time.  Having a father who is into steam trains, I realized that the flat walk has the same rhythm that a steam train has.  So dipping into my childhood, I found that if I chant the old saying from the Little Engine That Could, "I think I can, I think I can" then I can see if the foot falls are matching up with my voice.  If they aren't, I do whatever exercises are needed to bring the horse around to where his feet are hitting the ground at separate intervals.

So here are some videos where I want to show you what I have seen the BL horse becoming.  You can listen and watch these videos to help you learn the foot falls.  Then you can watch horses in videos in the ring to see how the horse is moving and point out when it is and isn't in gait.

NOTE: THESE VIDEOS ARE BEING PUT HERE AS EXAMPLES OF GAIT SOUNDS ONLY.  THEY ARE NOT TO BE CRITICIZED IN ANY WAY, EITHER ON THE RIDER, TRAINER, OWNER, TACK, OR THE HORSE ITSELF.  I picked them because you can clearly hear the footfalls, as that's the focus of this post.  I respectfully request that the readers this blog not to contact the people who have posted these videos.

First, here's a great example of a flat walk.  Listen to the footfalls as best you can and try to ignore the wind.  You will hear each foot hit the ground individually.  Sometimes you might hear them falter a bit, but that's okay--that's normal with any horse.

He also has a wonderful head nod--straight up and down without the head swinging from side to side.  This is  key to a true flat walk--a horse that swings it's head side to side is physically not performing in the true flat walk.  A horse MUST nod his head up and down to truly be able to balance his hind end correctly.

Now let's listen to another gait, the tolt, as performed by an Icelandic Horse.  This is a fast gait akin to the rack, which many gaited horses and American Saddlebreds can perform.  The rack is not desirable in the TWH show ring, but there are Racking Horse shows that showcase the rack.  I'm adding it here so you can hear the separation of hoofbeats at a faster speed.  I have ridden Icies before, and they will perform a true flat walk--it is within their conformation to do it. I've been able to get several to perform it.  One was a horse who the owner told the trainer he wasn't gaited at all, and now the trainer and I have him gaiting everywhere!

If you ever get the chance to ride an Icy, I recommend it.  They have big personalities in small bodies, and are very strong and sure footed.  It's fun to ride that little gait all over the place!

Here is an example of a TWH performing a pace.  The pace is a completely two beat gait where the two feet on one side hit the ground then the two feet on the other.  It's basically a lateral trot.  Listen carefully for the two beats, like a march.  Not how the rider is bouncing and being slung from side to side.  This rider recognizes that her horse is pacing and wants to change it.

Here is an excellent example of a TWH performing the stepping pace.  Again the rider recognizes the horse is not performing well and wants to change it.  Listen to the footfalls: there is hesitation between them.  Also notice how the rider is being slightly bounced from side to side.

You will see this particular gait a lot on videos.  It is smooth for the rider depending on the footfalls, but it's bad for the horse.  They can perform it either being "strung out," where their nose sticks out far and the head bobs from side to side with no head nod, or they can be overflexed in the bridle with a hollow back where their body is not allowed to stretch out, so the horse starts short striding, or in layman's terms, mincing his steps.  Both motions are harmful to the horse's back and joints over time.

Now here's a listen to the footfalls of some BL horses.  This one is the best example because we can clearly hear the footfalls.  AGAIN, we are listening to footfalls ONLY.

And a couple more.

From what I hear, these are broken gaits.  there is not four beat gait here at all.  In fact, if you pause here and there during the videos, you will see that the horse isn't even in the correct gait and he will have two feet on one side in the air during forward motion.

I really don't understand how this is considered natural or the correct gait when it goes against the breed definition of the gait.  The feet are not "hitting the ground separately at regular intervals."  The sound is clearly broken up.

Now true, these horses are in training.  But I find if I watch horses in the show ring, they also are not performing the gait correct to the breed standard.  Pause the video during the classes and take a look at the footfalls.  The horses are clearly not in a four beat gait.  Plus the riders are being slung about, which is indicative of the pace and the stepping pace.

I worry that the flat walk is slowly being bred out of our breed because of the desire for the BL.  These are the horses that are showcased the most and that make the most money for this industry, so they are breeding for the BL.  Never mind what happens to those that don't "make it" as a BL horse.  When those horses are tossed aside as leftovers, those who buy them are having increasingly difficult times getting the true flat walk out of them.  Even though only 10 percent of the TWH show industry are BL horses, those are the horses the industry is overbreeding for, with thousands of foals every year with only a few able to "make it."

So I recommend to anyone that if you are considering breeding for a foal, find a stallion and a mare that are truly performing a true four beat gait.  See them go without pads and chains on and see what natural gait it truly has--the flat walk or a stepping pace.  This will preserve the initial breed standard for the breed, but it will also make your job as a rider to find that four beat gait much easier.

1 comment:

Cathy Walker said...

Very nice story! It really inspired me.


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