Frequently, poor saddle fit affects the gait of a Paso (or gaited horse) negatively. And this counts, that goes without saying, for all horses! If the saddle makes the horse uncomfortable the horse will try to compensate by changing its body shape, to alleviate the pressure points that cause the discomfort.
The most common saddle fit problem comes from a saddletree (the frame the saddle is built on) that bridges in the mid-section, and makes excessive contact on the four corners of the bars.
This usually results in the horse lifting its back up into the saddle to get the pressure off its shoulders and/or loins – a problem caused by a saddle tree that has bars that are too straight and/or too long.
With it’s back lifted up into the saddle, the horse can’t get its head up in its natural working position. And, consequently, the gait soon goes away. Saddles with bars that are too long also place the rider too far back on the horse’s back, tipping the rider forward, and thus shifting the rider’s weight forward, too. This makes the horse short step in the front.
To bring out, polish, and perfect the best lateral four beat gait in your Paso horse, you should sit-down in your saddle, in the same spot that you would sit (naturally) riding bareback. This is what I call the “sweet spot” on the horse’s back. But, of course, first, you will need to find the right saddle for your horse.
The stirrups should be free swinging and hung forward, letting your legs hang (naturally) in the narrowest place on the sides of the horse – the “rider’s groove”. If the stirrups are hung from the center of the tree (like they are in a walk, trot, canter saddles) they will pull your legs backward, and once again, tip you forward, causing the horse to “go heavy” on the front end, and lose its best gait.
Riding bareback (obviously) eliminates the potential problems caused by poor saddle fit or incorrect rider position. Many times I hear from people that their horses gait fine when ridden bareback, but lose their gait under saddle. In these cases, we can pretty well conclude that poor saddle fit is the culprit.
Riding bareback puts you closest to your horse (of course). It lets you apply the aids of legs, balance, weight change, and seat most accurately and effectively to your horse. That may help you fine-tune your horse’s gait, but it does not guarantee that it will make the horse gait.
My advice is that if you are willing to take the additional risk and accept the responsibility involved in riding bareback, do it. See how your horse responds. If its gait is immediately better, you can almost surely look to saddle fit as the likely problem. If the horse still doesn’t gait you’ll have to look to other possibilities for the answer. For information on how to catch your horse if that’s a problem, click here.
You say that your horse trots most of the time, but mysteriously gaits when you ride her in the sand. You ask, “Why is that?” Well, I suspect that most of the time your horse is going along too uncollected (stretched out), and consequently it trots. When you get into sand she has to work harder, lift her feet higher, and collect up. She is probably more excited, too, and reaches under herself further with her back legs. In doing so, she gaits!
First, this tells you that your horse can do the Paso Llano gait (a lateral four-beat gait with equal timing between the footfalls) when it suits her. What you need to do is to ride the horse in such a way that she collects and reaches under herself when it suits you. When you move beyond a walk, instead of letting her do what is easier for her – the trot, make her collect up, and gait. In order to accomplish this, you must ride with intent.
First, learn to ride in four reins (as described in my book), and move her along in her training, step by step, to where she can finally be ridden “straight up” in a Peruvian Paso bit. If you are having trouble getting her to reach under herself, carry a stiff bat with a noisy popper on the end, and whack her in the butt when she drops out of gait and goes into a trot. She’s just being lazy, and you need to remind her that you are in charge.
You’re (supposed to be) the brains. She’s the brawn. The relationship you are undoubtedly looking for is one in which you become the benevolent master, and she is your willing servant. To achieve that partnership you have to first be the master, and make her be your servant. If you do things right, over time you can become more benevolent as she becomes more willing. In short, make her work harder. The more you let her trot, the more she will develop those trotting muscles, and that trotting mindset.
If you really want her to gait you must first get the right saddle (one like my Don West “Signature Series” Pleasure-Trails Saddles) and the right headgear (like my Don West Comfort-Able Bosal and Reins, and a Don West Training-Trail Headstall and Peruvian Paso bit).
Then you must re-school the horse to gait… instead of trot. At this point that will take determination and some real work on your part. Peruvian Pasos are usually well-gaited horses. But, ridden incorrectly, with the wrong equipment, over time, even they can be turned into trotting horses. Understanding the paca paca gait, and then applying this knowledge to your training, will lead to mastery. I wish you and your horse much happiness.
May you always ride a good horse…and may you ride him well!.