Training Exercises: Maintain Gait

Teaching Gaits & Maintaining Gait
Let’s preface this lesson by clarifying it is for Western Riding. Some English riding techniques use different click and kiss sounds for different gaits. That is not the way I use or teach the gaits, but equally effective if you choose to use them. “There is more than one way to skin a cat”.

Quite a bit of teaching gaits was done on the ground during line-lunging. Your horse should already know that a “kiss” means move forward, louder or more insistent kissing (or clicking) means move faster, a step in front of the drive line with the words “easy” or “walk” should bring him down to a slow walk from a trot. If you have paired verbal cues with your body language he already knows “walk-on”, “trot”, “canter”, “easy”, “Whoa” (or any specific cues you have chosen to use).

He was also asked to maintain his speed during his line-lunging exercises. If you set him at a trot, he was expected to maintain a trot until told otherwise.

Now you can climb into the saddle.

This riding work is done for Western riding with slight variations in verbal cues depending on which cues you prefer.

Work on only one issue at a time. Gait is separate from direction. For that reason, we want to separate the two issues.

The “Hug & Kiss” Method

Cowboy movies would have you believe that horse GO when you kick them and STOP when you haul back on the reins and that is all you need to know. I have known riders who have ridden for years kicking and hauling their horses. But there is a much better way.

Forward movement starts with changing position in the saddle. thrust your hips forward a tiny bit, “hugging” with your thighs, and “kissing” softly. Faster gait involves more leg pressure, more insistent “kissing”, and “rhythm” pushing him from the seat.

Some trainers start training gaits right from the get-go: as soon as the horse is carrying the rider without bucking. I am not so agile, brave or expert at riding. Therefore, I prefer to train longer on the ground and believe he should already know the gaits “walk-on”, “trot”, and “canter” from his intense line-lunging work.

Start at the slowest gait: the walk. Nothing works at a faster pace that is not perfect at the slower one. Read Reign’s progress during his first 30 days under saddle

Move slightly forward in your saddle, squeeze with your thighs, “kiss” two times (say, “walk” or “walk-on” if he recognizes that cue). A green horse will usually take very little pressure to move forward.

If he responds, relax the thighs a little and get into sync with his rhythm, kind of rocking your hips to his beat. If he wants to stop, squeeze again (maybe with a little calf) and exaggerate your rocking a little to “push” him forward. If he wants to go faster, sit slightly back on your fanny bones (using a little seat cue for stop). Pick up the reins if necessary to signal) your intent to stop, but don’t actually shut him down all the way. Just slow him down. (He isn’t ready for this exercise if he is so scattered that he wants to bolt. In that case, you will end up in a one-rein stop and should go back to more mounting and/or line-lunging work. He is not just green, he is unbroke.)

Thanks to Danielle De Medeiros for the great demonstration riding and training

If he is very new to carrying a rider and moving forward, you might try this first with a partner cueing him on-line from the center of the round pen just like he learned to move forward during ground training. He understands the “move forward” cue from that perspective. He should also understand the “walk-on” and “whoa” verbal cues from his handler. Pair the ground-handler’s “walk” and “whoa” instructions with your new seat and leg cues. Add familiar verbal cues from the rider instead of the handler. With all of these hints, he will soon begin to understand the seat and leg a little better.

Instruction from the handler should be used simultaneously with the same cues from the rider. Gradually replace the instruction (both verbal and physical) from the handler until the rider is the only one giving cues. The handler and lead remains just to keep the feeling of the exercise familiar and to give some security to the rider and horse.

Now, take off the line (leave the ground handler silently in the middle) and repeat the seat and leg cues (with verbal reminders if necessary). Then remove the ground handler from the equation. That leaves the two of you alone in the round pen practicing the leg-squeeze-kiss together: Baby Steps to moving forward on cue.

At this time, it is totally irrelevant WHERE he goes, just THAT he goes. Most will follow the rail because that is what they have been doing all along and horses are creatures of habit: “patterns” are everything to them. However, he might cut corners or just take a smaller circle at first. That is OK. Let him concentrate on your impulsion cues and leave direction for later lessons. Work through the walk and the trot, transitioning down and up, and full halt. Go in both directions. Change speeds.

He will be as soft to the “move forward” request as you let him be. You are pairing the cues. He is anticipating them.
1. First you pick up the reins. (He will feel the reins jiggle and should prepare for your request, but he should not walk off with this move)(see signal)
2. Then your body moves slightly forward.
3. Then your legs squeeze.
4. Then you kiss.
5. IF he still resists, some heel pressure might be in order.

As time goes by, he will understand which cue follows which. Eventually, he will move forward as your body moves forward and stay in sync with your hip rock in order to just get to it. The heel disappears first. The kiss and verbal cues can disappear if you like. Just a slight body adjustment and/or a tiny squeeze will do the trick. No slaps, no sounds, no heels.

You should be able to “plug in” to your horse’s cadence, rocking your hips comfortably to his walking step, gently urging him forward with a little bit of squeeze. Your rocking motion first follows the horse (as you get in sync with his step) and then begins to dictate to the horse as he takes your cues from your seat – encouraging or slowing his pace.


When you slow your rocking rhythm and “relax” back onto your seat bones, he will slow down and ultimately stop. The whoa is a three-count cadence in rhythm with his walk:

1-2, 1-2, sto-op. Stand.
step-step, step-step, sto-op. Stand.
pre-pare, slow-down, sto-op. Stand. Can you feel the walking steps?

He doesn’t have to throw you over his head. Give him the full time to feel your cue, compute your wish, come down gradually.

feel-cue, think-slow, who-oa. Stand.
pre-pare, pre-pare, and-stop. Stand.


The “Easy” and “Whoa” are perfected using the same techniques. After you are perfect at the walk, relaxed and able to “whoa” from a seat cure, add the trot. A horse who is new to trotting with a rider on his back will be insecure, tense, uncommitted to a smooth trot or a smooth direction. Expect jerkiness and even possible startles forward or sideways. Bring your handler with lunge line back into the ring if your horse gets too unsettled or you feel insecure.

The working trot is a two-beat diagonal gait. The right front and left hind leg move forward together, and the left front and right rear move forward together. The beat is one-two, one-two. Bring your horse’s gait down with the “Easy” slow down and “Whoa” seat cues when necessary. Don’t try to go from trot to screeching stop at this time. The cadence for “whoa” from a trot is the same three-beats but at a faster pace:
eas-sy, slow-down, sto-op. Stand.
Rest and reward.
Each step, you are relaxing your leg and sitting further back on your fanny bones. This will eventually be VERY subtle.

If you want him to just come down from a trot to a walk, the cadence is: get-ready, eas-sy, little-leg (just enough rhythm in your seat or leg to push him onward instead of total stop). Lower your impulsion cues but don’t give him the full halt cue.

When this is perfected in the round pen (it took about 10, 30 minute sessions in the round pen for Danielle and Cadence to get both directions really beautiful – no hands, just seat), you can now go to the arena. Continue with the halter. Use reins for “emergency” situations, but give him face cues only in an emergency. If you feel insecure, take your handler and lead rope and practice the same exercises in a 15-20 meter circle on line in the arena. Eventually get rid of the rope, then the handler. Then widen the circle until you can ride the full arena.

The Slow Canter or Lope

The hardest gait to get and perfect is the Canter. Horses trot naturally, and it is a very efficient gait for them. It covers ground without wearing them out. Cantering, on the other hand, is quite a bit of work.

Your horse should have been cantered on line in the round pen. He should be relaxed about it and you should have found a nice cadence for a slow canter or lope before you try it under saddle. If he has been properly exercised through the canter in the round pen, he will have enough back muscle, balance, and suppleness to carry the rider through the same gait. However, if he has not been conditioned, he will find it much harder to maintain the canter with a rider on his back, and you will find him strung out, clumsy, reluctant, heavy in the front or hollowed out with his head in the air.

If there is any lack of respect for you, your horse will certainly exhibit it when asked to canter. A good many will kick up (at the very least) when asked to canter under saddle the first couple of times – particularly if they are not smooth and easy with it during line-lunging. If you are not a good enough rider to take a jerky “kick-up”, ask someone who is a good rider to do the first few cantering sessions. You MUST get a canter without objection.

Remember, nothing works at a faster pace that is not PERFECT at the slower one. Perfect the walk and trot and transitioning from one to the other before asking for the canter.

Start your under-saddle canter in the round pen. Use the same procedures you used for the other gaits. Use his face as little as possible. Pick up the reins for signalling your intent to move forward, and use them for an emergency to bring him down to a slower gait if necessary, but otherwise, concentrate on your seat and legs supplemented with the verbal cues. Kiss and squeeze for forward, kiss and squeeze more for faster. Squeeze and heel with, “Canter” for your slow lope. “Eeeeasy” to come down, “hup”, “hup”, “whoa” to stop. Stand and rest.

If his preparation was good, this should smooth out quickly.

There is additional discussion of learning to canter in the Theory section of this manual. See Patterning. Use the “barrel trick” discussed there for a lazy horse or a horse who will not stay in the canter but drops to the trot continually.

Horse training and equestrian activities in general can be dangerous. While we try to present relevant and valuable content, under no circumstances does or its members or contributors take any responsibility for the well-being of any horse or person using a method outlined here.

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