Getting in Rhythm with the Feet

To become an outstanding horse person, you need to understand how your horse’s body works and how your horse moves.  Each gate your horse travels on requires your horse’s feet to move with a different beat.  Along with this change in beat comes a difference in weight distribution on your horse’s front and hind ends.  Hopefully this article will help you better understand your horse’s movement and help you “Get in Rhythm with the Feet”.

Your horse basically has five gates in which it travels: walk, trot, canter (lope), gallop and back-up.  Now we are just talking about average horses here.  Gaited horses travel differently and we aren’t going to try to cover that here.  By knowing how where your horse’s feet are in each gate, you can become a better partner with your horse and help him better maintain his natural balance.


The walk is a four beat gait in which your horse will care 60% of his weight on his front end and 40% on his back end.  When riding at a walk I try not to lean forward and sit in the seat. Doing this will help your horse by not adding unnecessary weight to his front end.  Counting the beats of the walk go like this 1. right back, 2. right front, 3. left back, 4. left front.  (By the way you are not aloud to make fun of my drawings)


In the trot your horses feet work in diagonal pairs making it a two beat step.  The beat of this gait goes 1. right hind – left front 2. left hind –  right front.  In the trot your horse will carry his weight equally on his front and back ends.  To make it easier on myself and my horse I like to post when I trot.  I stand when the right hind foot lifts and sit when the left hind lifts.  If you show western style horses you will need to learn to sit a trot.  When I sit a trot I just try to let my hips rock with my horse’s back.  When he lifts his left hind leg my left hip slightly rises, and my right hip rises with his right leg. If your horse has a rough trot you may want to stand if you are trotting a distance.

Canter or Lope

When your horse canters, the majority of his weight, about 60%, shifts to the back end.  We count the lope  starting with the opposite hind leg than the lead we are in.  If we are going to be in the right lead, we start on the left hind leg. Our count will go like this 1. left back, 2. right front, 3. right hind and left front, then a pause while all feet are suspended.


In a gallop your horse will be running pretty hard.  In this gait only one of his feet will be touching the ground at a time.  Then like the canter, he will have a moment of suspension.   Just to save you from more of my drawings, refer to the pictures of the canter,  but instead of his right hind and left front feet touching the ground at the same time they will hit the ground first the right hind then the left front.  Counting the beats of the gallop in the right lead go like this 1. left back, 2. right back, 3. left front, 4. right front, then a moment of suspension.


Like the trot, the back is a two beat gait.  As your horse backs the opposite front and back legs hit the grounds. Count in the beats of the trot will go 1. right front – left back 2. left front – right back.

As you progress as a rider, you will find more importance on knowing where your horse’s feet are.  By knowing where they are and how your horse’s body works, you will be better able to work as a partner with your horse when learning new maneuvers.  As you ride try to see if you are able to pick out the rhythm of your horse’s feet.Pictures is Emily Thompson riding her paint Nehi Charm.  They are on beat one of the canter.

It’s All in the Release

When training your horse, it’s hard to not get impatient and try to force your horse to do what you want him to do.  But lets face it  horses average some where around 1200 pounds, and there is no way you are going to make him do anything he doesn’t want to.  I think it is easy for us to get caught up in trying to cue our horse and press them into doing what we want.  But in all honesty the horse doesn’t learn when we apply pressure.  He learns when we release the pressure.

No mater what I’m trying to get my horse to do, I follow this simple pattern. I ask until the horse makes the slightest effort to do what I want him to do.  As soon as he makes a try in the right direction, I quit asking and let him rest a second.  This is the point where your horse’s head starts working.

Let’s say we want to longe our horse.  One of the first things we need the horse to do here is turn his shoulder away from us.  So we apply pressure to the horse by swinging a rope at his shoulder. The second the horse starts to make even the slightest effort to turn you need to stop swinging the rope.  At this point your horse thinks, “hey that person was swinging the rope at me, and when I started to turn the person quit swinging the rope”.

Again you will swing the rope at the horse’s shoulder.  Because you released pressure before when the horse move away from the swinging, your horse may make a bigger effort to turn.  Once again the second your horse starts to turn release pressure.  Now your horse is thinking “yeah I’m pretty sure that that person wants me to move.  When I started to move again he stopped swinging that rope.” At this point your horse is probably starting to lick and chew a little.

Now that the horse is starting to get the idea, you can apply a little more pressure and see if you can get the horse to actually take a step in the right direction.  After you get a step, release pressure.  You will repeat this until he takes that one step with very little pressure.  Then you will increase pressure again working toward two steps.

This method works with pretty much anything you want to train your horse to do.  I use it to get my horses to cross bridges, spin, flex, anything.  The key is to develop good timing and release all pressure at the slightest try from your horse.  Eventually your horse will recognize that you are asking him to do something and try to find the answer to get you to release pressure.

Sounds pretty simple, right?  Well here’s where it gets tricky.  Let’s say you are wanting your horse to turn left.  You apply your pressure and instead of left your horse turns right.  Frustrated you stop applying pressure and straighten your horse so you can start over again.  Now you’ve just taught your horse to do the exact opposite of what you wanted him to do.  You must remember to continue to apply pressure until the horse makes an effort in the correct direction.  If he starts to go the wrong way, you can not stop applying pressure, in fact you could even increase pressure to discourage your horse from doing the wrong thing. Then when he makes a try at the right direction, release.

Training your horse can be made more simple if you can recognize when your horse makes an effort to do the right thing, and you reward him for that effort by releasing any pressure you may be applying to him.  When you are working with your horse try to remember that your horse doesn’t learn when you are applying a cue, but when you stop applying it.In this picture, I have Dollar’s head almost touching the ground.  There is no way I could pull his head to the ground.  To get him to do this I would apply and release pressure on his poll and nose until he realized what I wanted.  Once he got the picture he lowered his head.



Flexing at the Poll-Using Aids

In today’s world of horses, we are told to soften our horse’s face or to collect our horse.  Or we often wonder how do those people get their horses to carry their heads so low.  Any of these start with teaching your horse to flex at the poll.  For someone who is just learning how to train a horse, this can be pretty tricky to do.  Teaching a horse to break at the poll without any aids takes a lot of practice.  In this post I will tell you about several different riding aids a person can use to help them teach their horse to flex at the poll.

Draw Reins

When I was training my first horse I used Draw Reins to help me teach him headset.   There are many different styles of draw reins, and different trainers each have their opinion on how to use them.  Basically, draw reins are a continuous line that runs from one side of your cinch, through the bit, to your hands, back through the other side of the bit and to the other side of the cinch.  They really are a  single movable pulley.    When you pull your hands back it causes the horses head to move inward and down.  I recommend only using draw reins with a mild snaffle bit.  Also because draw reins don’t offer much in the line of stopping power, I like to pair them up with a regular set of reins.  Where a person connects the draw reins to their cinch depends on the individual and the style of draw reins they are using.  I’ve seen people hook them to the  center D-Ring of the cinch, running the reins between the horse’s front legs.  I’ve seen them hook to the rigging of the saddle where the cinch fastens to the saddle.  I personally prefer to hook them to the center of the cinch, but run them around the outside of my horse’s legs.  By using them this way, as the horse walks it bumps the reins.  Therefore, when I ride without the draw reins, if I need my horse to lower his head, I can simply bump the reins in rhythm with his steps.  (The draw reins pictured above are ones I made.  I just took a piece of yacht rope and fastened snaps on the ends. Notice that the pony is flexing at the poll and the front of his face is vertical.)

Training Fork and Running Martingale

These are two similar devices.  The training fork is primarily for western disciplines and the running martingale is used mainly for English riding.  The only real difference is that the martingale has a neck strap that goes around the horse’s neck.

To use either of these you simply fasten them to the center of your cinch (or girth) between the horse’s front legs.  If you are using a martingale, you will fasten the neck strap around the neck of the horse. And finally you run your reins through the rings and then up to you.

These devices work by creating leverage through the reins on the bit and on the bars of your horse’s mouth.  This happens when the horse raises his head too high.  The pressure encourages the horse to lower his head.

Running Martingale

Training Fork

German Martingale

The final aid used in teaching the horse to flex at the poll, I would like to tell you about is the German Martingale.  This type of martingale works in much the same way that draw reins do.  You have rope (or some have leather straps) that runs through the bit to create a pulley.  Unlike the draw reins, the rope on the German Martingale then fastens to rings on the reins.  Because these reins are attached to the bit you have a little more control of your horse than you would if you were just using draw reins.  When you have slack in your reins, the draw rein part of the martingale is working to help lower your horses head.

The German Martingale has four parts: the chest strap, which fastens to the center ring on your cinch; the neck strap, which goes around your horse’s neck; the draw rein, which runs through your bit and then you have the reins, which have rings on which to fasten your draw reins.

Pictured is Dollar with the German Martingale on.  In the second picture you can see that he has dropped his head, and it is now vertical.  The German Martingale should only be used with a ringed snaffle.  (Dollar is pictured with a curb bit, but the picture was taken to show how the martingale operates. Please if you decide to use a German Martingale, use it only with a snaffle bit.)

There are many different training aids on the market.  I think that before you run out and buy any of these, that you should try to borrow one see if  that particular aid will work for you.  Training aids can be great tools when used correctly. If you are uncertain if you are using any equipment correctly, ask a trainer or someone with more experience.  If you have any questions about these training aids or anything else, feel free to ask questions in the Forum section of this website.