Feel the Beat

It's a thrilling moment for spectator and exhibitor alike on a steamy August night in Freedom Hall, Louisville, Ky. The place is filled wall-to-wall with spectators. Some are in elevated private suites surrounding the arena floor. Many are dressed in resplendent finery augmented by expensive jewels. The reserved sections are filled with equine aficionados. This is not a time for the uninformed. This is a night for appreciating talent and sheer athletic excellence in the equine world. It is the final night of the 10-day World Championships, featuring the American Saddlebred horse.

The organist strikes up "My Old Kentucky Home." As one, the crowd rises to its feet. All eyes are on the ramp leading down into the arena.

And here they come, one by one, as the announcer intones the horse's name and that of its rider. It is the Five-Gaited World Championship. There is fire, emotion, and supreme athletic power. Eyes are opened wide, ears are pricked forward, nostrils are flared and powerful legs drive them forward.

Around the arena they sail, their heads carried high on slender necks, tails plumed. Then the announcer calls: "Rack On!" They shift into another gear. It's a thing of beauty and the crowd roars its approval.

It's all there--drama, beauty, and
spectacular action, but it also comes at something of a price for equine legs and body.

"When the five-gaited horse is slow gaiting and racking correctly," says Alan (Doc) Raun, DVM, of Cumming, Iowa, "it is a four-beat gait, and that means that in every stride all of the weight is suspended on one leg. When slow gaiting or racking, the horse's weight is shifted toward the rear, and this puts added stress on the back legs, especially the hocks."

Over time, he says, this might mean that arthritis will become a performance-limiting affliction.

We switch now to the Saturday night before Labor Day. The location this time is Shelbyville, Tenn., and it is championship night at the Walking Horse Celebration.

The stands are packed and the ring is filled with "big lick" horses that are putting on an awesome display of athleticism as they move around the ring like so many synchronized swimmers. Their front legs pump high into the air as rear feet glide far past the spot where front feet have just left an imprint. How can a horse do that? Is it cruelty? You know that they are carrying heavy shoes, built high with multiple pads, but it's more than just the shoes; equine athleticism has to be involved.

Again, it is spectacular and a thing of beauty for the Walking Horse fancier, but it, too, can come at a price.

Tennessee Walking Horses can have problems in the hind limbs as a result of their gaits, and in the front limbs as a result of the shoeing.

Gordon Bush of Riverton, Wyo., a former farrier with 30 years experience who has worked at the Celebration and noted Walking Horse farms and shows in the Northeast, Pennsylvania, and New York, feels front limb arthritis is a problem. He says, "They are using their shoulders and knees to the limit," and that's where problems, including arthritis, are apt to show up.

The good news, he adds, is that through the years, owners concentrating on show animals are breeding for Tennessee Walking Horses with powerful front ends that can handle the strain of training and competition while carrying heavily weighted shoes on their front feet.

To understand how these horses can do what they do, we have to know a little about how the two breeds were developed and why. An excellent source of American Saddlebred history can be found in The Horse World of the Bluegrass by Mary E. Wharton and Edward L. Bowen, a noted Thoroughbred historian. There also are websites for the American Saddlebred at www.asha.net and www.saddlebred.com.

Information on the history of the Tennessee Walking Horse is available at www.whbea.com. These sources were utilized in compiling the following background information for this article.

Development of Saddlebreds

The American Saddlebred traces its lineage to two English breeds that were imported to the United States from Great Britain. They are the Galloway and Hobby horses, both of which were natural pacers (moving at a four-beat gait). They weren't large horses, but they were strong and hardy. Once in this country, they provided the foundation for the Narraganset Pacer, which was developed in Rhode Island and which would become a key ingredient to the forming of the Saddlebred.

When the Thoroughbred was developed by crossing Galloway and Hobby horses with Arabian stallions in England, the recipe for the American Saddlebred was on its way to completion. Before being finalized, however, a hefty pinch of Morgan, Canadian Pacer, and Standardbred were added. The Saddlebred, as we know it today, was pretty much developed in Kentucky, then spread from there--first to the south and eventually all over the United States.

When the Civil War rolled around, the south fielded a remarkable cavalry consisting primarily of American Saddlebreds. Many of these horses were killed or died during the conflict, and entire genetic lines were wiped out. Remarkably, the breed flourished after the war and soon was taking its place in the equine world as a premier show horse.

The modern-day American Saddlebred show horse is a product of selective breeding to produce a horse that is the peacock of the show ring, with its elevated neck and head and high-stepping action. To achieve this look, in some cases, other desirable traits have been sacrificed, including properly conformed legs and feet.

Because of the stress and strain produced when performing exaggerated gaits, it goes without saying that good conformation is a must in performing Saddlebreds if they are to remain sound.

When performing in the show ring, the five-gaited Saddlebred is asked to travel at the walk, a stylish four-beat gait; the trot, a highly animated two-beat gait; the canter, an animated three-beat gait; the slow gait; and the rack. The key gaits to winning are the slow gait and rack.

Here is how Raun explains the two gaits, pointing out along the way that many performers do not achieve a true slow gait, nor a true rack: "The slow gait is a lateral four-beat gait with a slight hesitation between the second and third beats. It is left hind, left front, slight hesitation, right hind, right front. The true rack would be a changed sequence, left hind, right front, right hind, left front. In some horses, the rack is just a speeded up version of the slow gait, but this would not be a true rack."

As Raun mentioned earlier, during the slow gait and the rack, the rear legs are placed well underneath the horse and the forehand is elevated, bringing added stress to the rear legs. The slow gait is described as being restrained, but it is executed with extreme collection and with impulsion from the hindquarters. At the rack, speed is increased as the gait changes. The goal is to have a Saddlebred that can rack at speed and remain in good form.

While performing at the rack can take its toll on a Saddlebred's back legs, especially the hocks, Raun says some soundness problems that develop are not the result of performance stress, but rather are man-made before the horse ever hits the show ring.

Raun speaks from a background of experience. He was a veterinarian who specialized in horses for some 25 years, then sold the practice to devote himself full time to Reedannland Farms, his training, breeding, showing, and marketing facility. Through the years, Raun, 79, has bred, raised, trained, and shown numerous world champion Saddlebreds and Hackney Ponies. He manages the farm and is in charge of the breeding operation. Reedannland features 30-plus Saddlebred broodmares and stands five Saddlebred stallions and one Hackney Pony stallion. In addition, Raun starts all of the young driving horses in training.

One of the man-made problems with Saddlebreds involves shoeing the horses at too early an age and, once they are shod, not resetting the shoes with appropriate frequency, Raun says. He is the first to say that a number of successful trainers disagree with his approach, but Raun does not shoe his yearlings. The first time shoes normally grace the feet of a Reedannland show horse is during its 2-year-old year. Shoeing too early, he believes, can hinder the normal growth and development of the feet.

When shoes are put on a young, growing horse, Raun says, it is highly important that they be reset often.

"Those feet can change size in a short period of time," he says, "and the shoes should be replaced every four to five weeks."

He has seen numerous cases, he says, of contracted heels and quarter cracks that resulted from shoes that were left on too long before being replaced. In some cases, he says, the bottom of the horse's foot will be compressed to the point where it is smaller in circumference than the coronet band.

Another key word in Raun's lexicon on shoeing and soundness is balance. Because of the drive in the rear and lift in the front of Saddlebred performance horses, the feet must be well balanced to prevent the horse from injuring itself during training and performance.

Two other classes that call for extreme animation and action in the Saddlebred show ring are three-gaited and fine harness. In three-gaited, as the name of the class implies, only three gaits are involved--walk, trot, and canter. These show horses, says Raun, normally carry a longer hoof in front and more weight as well as more weight in the shoes. However, Raun adds, this normally does not cause front leg problems, providing that the horses are properly conditioned and the feet balanced.

These performers, too, are elevated in the forehand and drive strongly off the rear. Here, the signature gait is the trot, which doesn't cause as much physical stress as the slow gait or rack because it is a two-beat gait--left front/right rear and right front/left rear. The same is true of the fine harness horse, but it is asked for only two of the gaits--the walk and the animated trot.

Walking Horses

Like the Saddlebred, the Tennessee Walking Horse is a composite breed, containing blood from the Narragansett Pacer, Canadian Pacer, Morgan, Standardbred, Thoroughbred, and American Saddlebred. The Walking Horse was developed in the middle of the Tennessee bluegrass region to provide a horse that could carry riders for hours at a smooth gait that also covered much ground in a short time. Soon, the show version of this versatile horse was developed, with the stride at the running walk, in particular, greatly exaggerated.

It has been a much-maligned breed through part of its show ring history as some unscrupulous trainers resorted to varying forms and degrees of cruelty to enhance action. That is now much less common as legislation and show ring rules require that horses be examined for soreness before entering the show ring.

Today, says Bush, Walking Horses that are properly conditioned and shod can remain sound and strong throughout a long show career, despite carrying heavy weight and pads on their front feet.

According to the Tennessee Walking Horse Owners and Breeders Association, the running walk--the signature gait of Walking Horses in the show ring--is the same as the flat-footed walk, but it is performed at speed and with high-stepping action in front. It is a four-beat gait with the hind feet gliding over and past the tracks left by the front feet--right rear over right front and left rear over left front. This action is called over-stride and is unique to the breed.

Over-striding can become a problem if a horse strikes the front foot with the rear foot. In some cases, when this is a danger factor, Bush says, the horse is shod in such a way that the rear foot slides past the outside edge of the front foot.

With Tennessee Walking Horses that are show ring-bound, Bush says, it is customary to shoe them as yearlings, with pads added gradually as the horse grows and matures.

Take-Home Message

There are other gaited breeds, of course, but the Saddlebred and the Walking Horse are two of the most visible in the show ring. These show horses do have special soundness concerns, but common sense and proper foot care can help prevent problems from occurring.

Horses of both gaited breeds that are bred for non-show pursuits, generally speaking, do not tend to be predisposed to the same problems and concerns as the show horse.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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