Sunday, December 6, 2009

Teaching your Standardbred to Trot (and not pace)

Christine, from Quebec, astride her darling Standbred mare, Jessie. Notice Jessie is perfomring a text book "pace," with her two left legs moving in tandem.

One of the reasons I love doing this blog is that it has connected me with Standbred lovers from all over the world. I have readers who send me questions from places as far flung as Australia and as close as just down the road from our farm in beautiful Pilot Hill.

A few days ago, I received a traomomg question from All About Standardbreds reader Christine, who hails from Quebec, Canada. She is working with her 13-year-old former pacer, Jessie. Jessie had a brief racing career, and then became a brood mare for several years. Now, she comes to Crhistine green broke to saddle riding, despite her somewhat older age. Christine plans to use Jessie mostly for trail riding in English tack.

Christine's concerns? "Jessie is fantastic in the harness, but she falls apart under saddle. She has a fantastic pace when it is slow, but when she speeds up, it is impossible to sit. How can I train her to trot?"

"You mean like a normal horse?" sneer my friends who have yet to come to the Standbred side, the side of right, the side of common sense with pure athleticism. But I digress.

Christine's concerns about teaching her horse to trot have merit. But it's important to remember that the trot is, fundamentally, a natural gait to all horses. Including pacers.

Pacers are taught two things while training at the track: The first is to never, ever canter. The second is to never trot. So although the trot is natural, it has been trained out of race horses who pace. It can also be trained back in, which is what Christine now must do.

Difference between the pace and the trot As discussed in a previous post, one of the most common questions I get is "What is the different between a pacer and a trotter?"

In its simplest terms, a trotter moves its legs in a diagonal fashion. For example, when the horse's right front is extended forward, its left hind will move forward in tandem.

By contrast, a pacer moves laterally. This mean when her left front leg is extended forward, her left hind is also moving forward.

Ridden at a normal, non-racing speed, a Standardbred's pace can be smooth as glass, much like the feeling riders get astride gaited horses like Tennessee Walkers. However, if you are working with a retired race horse who still has n't gotten the word that its' time to slow down, you can find yourself nearly unseated by a full-out pace.

In recent years, pacers have also been discouraged from performing their gaited amble because some experts consider it unsafe. On a narrow track trail, a horse traveling in a lateral trot can become unbalanced. Accrding to the nay-sayers, this puts the rider at risk for the horse falling over. I have personally never seen this--and never had anything but sure-footed performance from my pacer/trail horse. Having said that, I can understand the logic behind the argument that pacers are not safe trail horses. As I always say, "It is good to have a healthy fear and to respect that riding is inherently dangerous. Make the safest choises you can at all times."

Given that Christine has already expressed concern about her mare tripping, it is my advice that she start to train Jessie to do it the old fashioned way--just trot.

How to start In my recent posts about teaching your Standardbred to canter, I discussed at length the idea of teaching your horse your language. Getting your horse to understand the connection between your word, "trot," and his gait is critical.

The Steps in Brief

1) Hopefully, you have a round pen. If not, working on the longe line is also fine. I was recently asked "Why do you always promote the round pen so much?" Simple: The round pen offers a place where the horse can travel in a consistent direction at liberty. The round pen works better than a ring with corners. I also like working the horse at liberty without a halter, so he leans to make decisions on his own. It builds confidence in a young horse--or an older one who is still green broke.

At any rate, let your horse run lose to play and get his jollies out. After he gets all his friskiness out, he will be more inclined to settle down into his work. For Christine, who is working on a longe line, I suggested that she first let her mare run loose to kick and play. After she is done with that, Christine can then put the halter and longe line on, clearly signaling to Jessie that "It's time to work now."

2) Tools: you will want to have a longe line, flag, or other took that you use to drive you horse forward and away from you. I prefer halters and longe lines that are rope. This light-weight creations make the horse feel less confined. Also, a proper rope halter is constructed so that pressure points on the poll and nose help the horse to learn more quickly.

3) Saying the word, "trot," ask your horse to trot by getting behind her drive line and putting pressure on her with the whip or flag. The minute she starts to pace, bring her back to the walk. Say the word, "Walk" as you bring her down. If you are working at liberty, you can help her transition down by position your body slightly in front of her shoulder, saying, "walk."

If you are working with a longe line, you will want to give a gentle tug on the longe, along with the command to "walk." If she won't walk, step in front of her shoulder while tugging the line slightly. She will start to get the connection.

4) Try again. Ask for the trot, use your vocal commands and combine them with pressure behind her drive line. If your mare trots, even a couple steps, praise her lavishly and add the words, "Trot, trot, good trot, good trot."

5) Stick with it. In teaching a Standardbred to trot, the most important key to success will be your patience. You are teaching her to do something she was taught to never, ever do. Now you are giving her permission. It can be confusing.

Always start with your ground work. Your mare already feels uncertain and unbalanced. Allowing her to learn the trot at liberty wil make your work much easier when you get into the saddle.

A word about goals Keep your goals realistic as you work with your horse. Don't expect her to get it within the first few sessions. My beautiful mare, Cordealia, is now doing fantastic second level dressage work. She also loves to trot on the trails for hours. But when I first got her, she was a natural pacer. It took several months to train her pace out of her. Even now, she will slip into it every once in a while when breaking from the center. But mst of the time, you would never know of her former days as a winning pacer. She is proof that you can train a pacer to trot--brilliantly so!

Keep us posted on your progress with Jessie, Christine!

In my next post, I will address teaching the trot while in the saddle.


  1. Hi, I own two trotters, a russian trotter who hasn´t raced and a ex racehorse standardbred. And I must say, I´m really glad I found your blog. Altough I havent had any problemns with training my horse (standardbred became to me after injuri and is still resting, he has been compeating under saddle in endrance before)I still enjoy reading other peoples toughts and tips. I also recomended your blog to some ppl. Keep up a good work, one new fan is here! :)

  2. Hi, we have just brought a standeredbred filly/mare. She is 3 rasing 4, she is very very green. The current owner before we brought her broke her in to push cragages (sorry about my spelling) and they took her to the race track but was not fast enough to make the cut. She was then put into a stable/padock (sorry again about my speeling) then the owner had only ridden her a couple times, we brought her home and let her get settled in. We havn't done much with her but have had a unconfidant teenager on her but he felt unsafe, we dont really know how to train horses and she is still very green. How do we get her to stop bucking and getting scared about pigs, dog kennals, ect. We realy want to keep her but she is not the kind of horse for us as we are still beinngers ourself's. She needs alot of work, alone and in company!

  3. My horse i very much like this. But he will trot in the paddock on a lead but as soon as i get on him its like he forgots its. He goes from walk straight to canter. any ideas would be much appreciated?

  4. I have a 11yr old pacer who retired a few years ago. He has a beautiful trot on the lunge line and most of the time undersaddle. Its when we are in the show ring in the led classes he will only pace and it looks ridiculous :) how to I get him to trot on the leadrope. Nicole - Aus