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Where Did The Slow Gait Go?

(Editor’s Note: Questions about the slow-gait and rack are nothing new. The October 1960 issue of Horse World queried "Where is yesteryear’s true Show Horse." The opening, "How long has it been since a class of five-gaited horses really racked? When did we last see a Saddle Horse trot true to form? Has the great style of the ‘old school’ horses passed from existence altogether?"

How much has changed in the past 48 years? What do judges see and why? As with the park trot, Saddle Horse Report’s editors elected to address these issues.)

by Ann Bullard

"One. Two. Three. Four." Those may be the opening words to The Pinball Song, popularized by the Pointer Sisters and Sesame Street. To Saddle Horse people, they describe ‘what you’re looking for’ in a slow-gait and rack.

"A restrained four-beat gait, executed slowly but with true and distinct precision. It is high, lofty, brilliant and restrained denoting the style, grace and polish of the horse… developed from the pace to be a four-beat gait with each of the four feet contacting the ground separately. In the takeoff, the lateral front and hind feet start almost together but the hind foot contacts the ground slightly before its lateral forefoot… a highly collected gait with most of the propulsion coming from the hindquarters, while the forequarters assist in the pull of the final beats. The slow gait is not a medium rack." So the USEF rulebook describes the slow gait. The question is: how often do we see that true gait and the rack that follows in the show ring?

When it moves on to the rack, the rulebook adds "a four-beat gait in which each foot meets the ground at equal, separate intervals. It is smooth and highly animated, performed with great action and speed, in a slightly unrestrained manner… it should be performed by the horse in an effortless manner from the slow gait, at which point all strides become equally rapid and regular."

Only here do the rules mention pacey, along with trotty or hitchy-gaited, as something to be penalized. However, as the rack is an extension of the slow gait, it stands to reason that a pacey, trotty or hitch-gaited slow gait also is incorrect.

The late Walter Gant of Ardmore, Okla., who bred (among others) the great Oak Hill Chief, used to come to his barn when in his 90s. He couldn’t see well but he would sit in a chair and listen. One. Two. Three. Four. "That horse is racking right," he’d say.

Saddle Horse Report discussed the art and the somewhat lost slow gait (and rack) with a panel of experts: trainers, judges, a breeder and a top amateur. Trainers Bill Becker, Rob Byers, Mitchell Clark, Redd Crabtree, Fran Crumpler, Debbie Foley, Don Harris, Gayle Lampe, Scott Matton, Merrill Murray, Donna Moore, Reedannland owner and breeder Dr. Alan R. Raun and amateur Chris Nalley each weighed in on the question.

Nalley recalls being "a little kid and hearing [the late] Eddie Gutridge say to determine the trueness of a slow gait and rack, he would close his eyes and listen. We talk about having the eye to see a horse’s physical potential," Nalley said. "There is the horseman’s ear, too."

Raun emphasized that the slow gait and rack are man-made, not natural gaits for an American Saddlebred. It takes time to teach a horse to do them right, and not all are bred or built to do it.

Murray agreed. "For many years, we bred a lot of straight-legged, post-legged horses behind. They weren’t put together mechanically to rack, although some were so-called gaited. We’re getting back to some of the old-time blood. A [gaited] horse has to have some bone to him and some bend to his hock. We’re not so concerned about his being pretty. We all love a pretty horse, but you have to have a combination of both."

Crumpler took it a step further. "I think we have some very nice gaited horses today; some rack very well. Many horses that don’t rack well probably don’t because they have a breeding or soundness issue.

"We don’t have a lot of rack in our breeding today. I think [most] horses had a stronger back end years ago. Today we are breeding for top quality," Crumpler said, pointing out that soundness is a big issue with gaited horses. "If a horse is a little off, it can throw it off so a rack becomes a pace."

Most of the panel agreed that rushing a colt to the show ring for the trainer, amateur or junior exhibitor rider has contributed to the problem.

Murray spoke of the pressure owners put on trainers. "Rarely will you hear an owner say take your time any more. If it’s a nice horse, it’s worth waiting on but the way of the world today is financial… [look at] what you used to train a horse for compared with what it costs today. Making a top horse is a long haul."

Clark agreed, although he phrased it a little differently. "We have people in the industry now for not much longer than it takes for a McDonald’s burger to get warm. It’s hard to get them to appreciate the big picture, to appreciate a young prospect, a colt or a horse than can do a true slow gait."

The late Fritz Jordan knew the importance of taking his time with a young horse. The Hall of Fame trainer, associated with Kentucky’s Hayfield Farm and later Fritz Jordan Stables in Franklin, Tenn., was best known as the trainer and exhibitor of CH Gallant Guy O’Goshen. The team had but one blemish in their Louisville appearances, a reserve world’s grand championship in 1956.

"Fritz said it often took three years to gait a colt before he put a curb bit in its mouth," Crumpler said. "He would walk a horse into it for months at a time. Once he put a curb bit in their mouth, he never went back to the snaffle.

"Fritz would tell you that a rack is halfway between a trot and a pace," she continued. "A horse that’s a little hitchy, jabbing its toes and not striding right behind is closer to the trot. One that’s pacey going is closer to the pace."

Few will argue that CH Imperator had the greatest slow-gait of the ‘modern era.’ Don Harris selected the then two-year-old gelding for Curtis and Dr. Geraldine Meanor. He and Harris won an even dozen world’s and world’s grand championships in a 10-year span.

"A slow gait is not a slow rack," Becker said. "A horse should have three feet off the ground, have exaggerated front motion and is supposed to have hesitation.

"I can’t think of four or five really good slow-gaiting horses now in America," he continued frankly. "It takes time to teach a horse to slow gait; many trainers don’t take the time to do it any more. Fritz, Garland Bradshaw, Lee Roby: those guys had slow-gaiting horses."

Harris, acknowledged by Becker and others as "the master of the slow gait," agreed, particularly where the necessity for putting in time is concerned. "That’s probably the whole secret. I don’t know how to tell someone to do it," he said, acknowledging that having the right horse comes first.

"Perry was just a natural-born show horse," Harris continued. "He was out of a mare [Empress Wing by Wing Commander x Carol Trigg] that was kind of natural-gaited. I remember seeing Lillard Cox with her at Lawrenceburg. Warming up, he had to twist and turn her and pinch her on the neck to catch her trot."

A horse that slow-gaits correctly ‘squats,’ putting a great deal of weight on its back feet. "A trainer has to strike a balance, not putting so much on the back end that it damages the horse," Nalley said, adding, "as a kid watching Imperator be developed was the ultimate. I vividly recall Don’s telling the Meanors they would have to back off a little bit.

"Don has such an amazing ability to slow-gait a horse. He rides almost exclusively off the curb. With Perry’s long, swan neck, Don could use the curb to really…" Nalley paused. "When Perry was a young horse, Don was very conscious of the transition from the three-year-old to junior to open division. He knew he needed more rack. Perry was so talented being able to rock off the [curb] bit. Don was conscious of getting Perry to go forward, to have enough momentum, enough stride to rack down the rail."

Redd Crabtree is one of six trainers to win the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship at least three times with three different horses. The late Earl Teater holds the record, winning in 1934 with CH Belle Le Rose, 1940 and ’41 with A Sensation, in 1943 with CH Oak Hill Chief, 1956 with CH Dream Waltz and from 1948 through 1953 with CH Wing Commander.

Crabtree is another who is outspoken about judges tying horses that pace and who don’t look past what he calls "horses skipping and skiving. If a horse isn’t racking, he’s not racking. He shouldn’t be tied in a class as long as other five-gaited horses are in there. It’s great to have that indefinable charisma, but just head, neck, the ‘look’ and ears don’t define a Saddle Horse and especially five-gaited horses. They all need the look, but that’s not the only thing they need to do," he said, adding, "A lot of good ears have been wasted on bad horses.

"Earl [Teater] told me early in my career that the slow gait is the hardest thing a horse could do physically. It would take the trot away faster than any other thing you could do to them," Crabtree said. "A lot of great slow gaiting horses didn’t have the hesitation people talk about. If they did, they may not have had the other gaits to go along with it.

"Some people say Wing Commander didn’t slow gait; he could trot and rack a hole in the wind," Crabtree continued. "I remember when Stonewall Duke Of Dixie came to Lexington. He was a great slow-gaiting horse but Wing Commander out-slow gaited him. I learned something that day; Earl could slow gait Wing Commander anytime he wanted to. He just knew how hard it was on him."

Before you start to slow-gait a horse, you have to have a good prospect.

"One of the magical aspects of our breed is that we can breed horses that have these tendencies," Nalley said. "We have lineage that orients horses to being able to perform this unusual gait. We have to look at how they’re put together; how their legs are joined, neck put on and the mass of their haunches. Then you put it all together to determine whether they’re even built to do this gait."

Yet Crabtree is concerned. "We seem to be breeding further away from rack all the time," Crabtree continued.

What else do you look for when choosing a five-gaited prospect? Few people have selected more of them than Hall of Fame trainer Donna Moore.

"You look at the way they move; they have to think ‘go forward.’ They have to be brave," she said. "It takes a lot of nerve to be a top gaited horse. They have to have all the other parts, good conformation and a good leg and foot to stay sound."

Moore, who has been deeply involved with Thoroughbreds in recent years, compared a racehorse to a Saddle Horse. "There’s never been a racehorse that had to do what a Saddle Horse going for the big stake has to do. That class is not over in a minute; sometimes it can last an hour. And a racehorse doesn’t carry a 200-pound man. Saddle Horses have to have a lot of pizzazz and gameness."

Like other trainers, Moore speaks of what might be called the ‘fast’ rather than the slow gait. "We’re breeding the ability to go slow out of our horses. I don’t think trainers think enough about form, not only with gaited but with walk-trot and harness horses," she said. "Valley View Supreme and Sultan weren’t known for their motion: they were beautiful horses and correct. Go back to Kalarama Rex and Society Rex. Some of those didn’t have a great deal of action but did it right."

Our panel agreed that there are two problems with the slow gait today. One: it isn’t slow. Two: it’s a pace. The latter also extends to the rack.

Why so many pacing horses? Simply put: it’s more natural to a Saddle Horse, whose lineage traces back, in part, to the Narraganset Pacer. There’s less stress on a horse when he has two feet, whether lateral or diagonal ones, on the ground than having all its weight on one.

Early Saddlebreds were known for their speed as well as motion. In writing about Kalarama Rex, Emily Ellen Scharf, known as ‘Suzanne’ in her books, Famous Saddle Horses, referred to his stepping "at a thirty gait if urged by his rider though the letter laid the reins on his neck and folded his arms." John Cisna, executive director of the Illinois Standardbred Owners’ and Breeders’ Association, explained this gait would be the equivalent of traveling at 30 miles-per-hour or a two-minute mile.

Earlier versions of the rulebook referred to the slow gait as a ‘steppin’ pace,’ where the rack was [and is] a four-beat gait.

"The slow gait isn’t as important as it used to be," Scott Matton said. "Still, a horse must stay in gear and wear the bridle. If you have a horse that slow gaits and still racks, it will have a big advantage in front of me. Many can’t go on."

Teaching one the true four-beat gait takes time, patience and skill. Some trainers say it’s easier for an amateur or juvenile to ride a horse that paces rather than one that slow gaits or racks. Perhaps one reason is that so many amateurs hold demanding, full-time jobs that take away time they might spend practicing, perfecting their balance and skills. Junior exhibitors have many more demands on their time than in years gone by.

And few judges seem to severely penalize a pacing horse.

"It’s up to the judges to stop tying them," said William Woods University Professor of Equestrian Science and world’s champion rider Gayle Lampe. "They need to be educated, although most know what a rack and pace are. A horse that out-right paces at a slow gait and rack hasn’t done two gaits times two (each direction.) I don’t know how many pace like Dan Patch or how many are a little pacey-going.

"[The late] Dale Pugh said ‘Some of them pace prettier than others rack,’" she continued. "My interpretation is that if we have a pacer with its ears up, head set; a beautiful horse competing against a horse racking, but who hates it; a horse that fights the bridle and the trainer is shaking its head off to keep it racking… which is the prettier picture."

The question of how serious a fault pacing is remains a matter for judges and trainers’ debates. But, simply put, until judges quit tying them, pacing horses will be part of the Saddlebred scene.

So why do judges tie a horse that paces? Again, Matton replied. "I haven’t seen where the pace is a required gait but I can see where a pacing horse will beat a racking horse," he said frankly. "The pacing horse may be absolutely gorgeous; it wears its bridle and paces pretty; better than a bad-moving horse that racks correctly. It may rack right, but be crooked-legged and may wing," he said. "In another case, a horse that racks quits racking and the pacing one finishes the class. There are other gaits, other qualities than just racking. As a judge, I have to combine whole thing, not just one gait. A lot of people want a technicality to eliminate the top-quality horse. You don’t beat a mistake with a mistake."

Some people question why a judge will tie a horse that paces over a horse that misses its canter. Part of the reason lies in class specifications. In the open division, classes are judged on performance, presence, quality, manners and conformation. Manners are paramount in ladies, amateur and junior exhibitor classes, followed by quality, presence, performance and conformation. Ladies horses are defined as suitable for a lady; junior exhibitors’ mounts as mannerly, willing and expressive with balanced action. An amateur horse "can be a bit stronger and perform in a bolder manner. More action and animation are desired and less emphasis can be placed on manners than in ladies or junior exhibitor classes."

Thus, a horse that misses a canter lead in an open class may receive more ‘forgiveness’ than one that refuses the same gait with a lady, junior exhibitor or even an amateur. These criteria also explain why a horse may not transition well from one division to another, even at the same show.

In explanation, Matton referred to the ‘old standard rulebook’ which some judges still use as a guideline. "The canter, walk and slow gait counted for 10 percent of a horse’s performance; the rack was 40 percent and the trot 30. A horse can’t win on a canter, but can lose it."

Rob Byers, who won the 2004 Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship with CH Boucheron, has trained many outstanding amateur, ladies and junior exhibitor horses. The most recent: According To Lynn with Mary Gaylord McClean in the irons.

"A lot of amateurs cannot keep a horse in a true rack," he said, pointing out that McClean is one of the few who can do so. "Sometimes we’re lucky to get one going in a lateral gait with an amateur on its back. So many amateurs are new to the business that they don’t understand a rack. They get on, get going and eventually figure it out."

He pointed out that there is a lot of middle ground between a horse that "dead paces" and one that slow gaits and racks. "A dead pace is one, two; one, two. There’s a lot of bounce in the saddle. At times I sit and watch underneath other horses and maybe their feet leave the ground a little later. They get more lateral swing, but the rider still is still sitting in saddle. The horse’s hind feet are coming up and setting down pretty darned hard and straight and they’re putting one down at some point in time. You really have to slow down a tape to see it.

"There are so many different opinions on what a rack is," Byers said. "A lot of people like a sticky rack, where a horse puts its back toes in the ground. I like one that takes a big stride; they have a little more of a lateral gait, a little more swing. (CH) Face Card was real loose racking, yet she was smooth."

The unskilled, untrained eye – particular of an amateur – often has a problem determining how many of a horse’s feet are on the ground, particularly when a horse is ‘racking on.’ The easiest way: if the rider looks like he or she is posting or bouncing from one side of the saddle to another, odds are the horse is pacing. Yet if a gaited horse is really strong off its hocks, its rack is not going to be smooth. The rider can’t sit dead still.

As Donna Moore put it, "First you have to know what pace feels like. No wonder horse trainers are so down in the back; they keep chiropractors in business."

As for the rack, there’s a rhythm. "I say chew tobacco, chew tobacco," Moore added, explaining one way she checked herself.

Looking at racking pictures often points out the difference. "If a horse is doing a true rack, you’ll never get a picture with more than one foot on the ground," Becker said, adding that some of those can be deceiving. "It’s sometimes hard to realize that a toe is off the ground."

Mitchell Clark is no stranger to Louisville’s winners circle and Saturday night roses. He rode CH Memories Citation to the three-gaited grand championship in 1992 when the gelding was a junior horse. From 1981 through 1984, CH Sky Watch was undefeated with Clark in the irons. The duels with CH Imperator remain at the top of modern-era five-gaited championships.

The grandson of the late Hall of Fame trainer Garland Bradshaw, Clark had the opportunity to learn from, watch and later show the best.

"The slow gait was a very animated, exaggerated gait. In an open class, you clearly had two separate gaits, much to the judge’s thankfulness. Going back to the late ’50s or early ’60s, horses, even My-My, were beginning to move up in the slow gait."

In those days, Clark says, "ears didn’t make the horse. It was nice when you had them but you couldn’t win a class because a horse’s ears were up. We don’t want to talk about what’s not getting done with cadence, balance – all that needs to be addressed."

Debbie Foley of Silver Brook Farm arguably brings out and sells many if not most of the young five-gaited horses seen today. As a trainer and judge, she simply hates a horse that paces.

"You see 90 percent of the gaited horses showing today pacing. [Most of] today’s riders don’t have enough feel to use their legs. They have no clue of how to raise a horse’s head and make it shift to its back end. There’s no way they are going to rack; they drop their heads down and will learn to pace pretty quick," Foley said in her always-direct way. "Horse trainers have allowed horses to learn to pace because they’re not teaching riders to ride a horse."

Foley continued, "It starts back in how people are teaching kids to ride. No longer do people teach horsemanship, they teach mannequin-style riding. Those kids have no clue how to push a horse with their legs, bend a horse with their leg or collect a horse with their legs. An amateur has to be taught to use his legs, his bridle or he will not be able to rack one. I hear well-respected people say we’d better put a chunk of lead behind to keep this horse racking. If a rider were taught to use his legs, we wouldn’t have to worry about lead behind. I think we are developing the wrong kind of riders.

"Horsemanship is having a horse in the bridle, not seeing how fast you can go around the ring," she explained, pointing out that keeping one there requires use of legs and hands. "People don’t want to get sweat on their pants. I tell the kids who ride with me, when you get off gaited horse, if your pants are not wet from the knee down, you ain’t been riding much. If you have not had your leg in a horse, you’re not asking it to raise up, push up in bridle and rack. We have accepted it’s all right to pace because they aren’t enough riders to make them ride it."

Yet keeping a lower leg on a horse when it racks is not an absolute. Not all horses respond to such pressure. Once again, the challenge is riding each horse as an individual.

Merrill Murray and Foley are best friends, strong competitors and strong advocates for a horse that racks. "For most of the horsemen in this age bracket, that is one of their pet peeves. I’m not sure a lot of the young people know what a slow gait and a rack are," Murray said, pointing out that some of this has been lost over the past 20 or so years.

He concedes there "is something to amateurs not being able to ride a racking horse. They haven’t been taught to use their hands [or legs] well enough. It falls on the trainer to teach them to ride one."

Matton added to the discussion. "It’s easier to keep a horse in gait at a pace than at a rack. A horse has to carry its weight on its rear end to do this. If a rider pulls down on the curb, the horse can’t slow gait or rack. It is pulling on the front end instead of balancing on the rear."

Murray, a Hall of Fame trainer, addressed another problem: shoeing. "I don’t think a lot of young people know about shoeing a horse, about balancing one to where it can rack and trot. All horses need to be comfortable in their feet. They need a balance. Sometimes you can leave that to the blacksmith, but they’re getting to be a younger generation, too.

"Some don’t look at where the horse’s leg comes out of its shoulder or how it sets its hocks down. Look at bottom of the shoe. See if the heel is shiny but not the toe; the toe and not the heel. Rather than all that jerking and snatching, if a horse is balanced and put together right, the whole process comes together like cogs on wheel. If a horse’s feet are organized, it helps its brains and mouth. The rider won’t be doing something to the bridle he shouldn’t have to do to overcompensate for the horse’s not being balanced right."

Nalley speaks of the ‘physics’ – Foley phrases it the ‘mechanics’ of the slow gait and rack. "Some people have forgotten where a horse’s transmission is; that’s one reason we don’t have a rack any more," she said. "It starts from the back end, not the front end. If you don’t get their heads up and weight on their back ends, they aren’t going to be racking. We need to teach those mechanics to riders or the horses won’t do anything but pace."

How do you teach a horse to slow gait and rack? More articles, books and videos have been written on the subject than can be covered here. Some trainers start their colts from a walk, others from a trot. Some may take a colt outside on a slight downhill grade. Others go to a gravel road and still others start one indoors. One trainer may turn his horses’ heads ‘upside down,’ while another simply elevates the colts’ heads. Some pull a horse’s front shoes, some add chains behind. And every horse is different.

Only so much knowledge can come from book learning, listening or watching. "I cannot tell someone how to do it," Harris emphasized. "Take the time – that’s probably the whole secret."

"I can talk from here until doomsday about how Don puts on a slow-gait," Nalley added. "I watched for years and years, but that doesn’t mean I understand the connection that happens between Don’s brain and the horse’s body. That’s magic, but not Harry Potter magic. The magic is the trainer making his hands and body convey what’s in his brain."

What Nalley appropriately calls ‘magic,’ others call ‘the gift.’ It’s what separates trainer from amateur, trainer from trainer.

The next time you’re at Louisville, Lexington or another show, and the announcer says, "Rock ’em back and slow gait," take a good look. Watch the riders’ hands and legs as well as the horses’ motion. And remember, you’re watching magic as well as a horse show.

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