Why Rate the Gait?

Before your students learn lengthenings, rebalancing, corner adustments or even takes a ride in the pasture they need to learn to rate the gait. It doesn’t matter whether you teach dressage, hunt seat, saddle seat, or western riding, the need is the same and this exercise will help. 

The need to rate the gait, or rate the horse, goes beyond the beginner start, stop and turn lessons, but comes before leaving the arena to walk down a hill or ride away from the barn. Learning to rate the horse gives the rider better control which results in more cofidence. And it is a step toward developing body control, feel, and refining aids.

Thankfully there are many excersises an instructor can use to teach students to rate the gait. The more of these you have in your program the more interesting teaching and learning will remain.

The Plan

This is a simple lesson plan. It is adaptable to all levels and ages by changing focus and termonology. Today we are going to stick with the basics.

What You Will Need

  •  An Enclosed Arena.
    • Enclosed because this lesson assumes you are teaching beginners. If you are teaching more experienced riders you can take this exercise anywhere.
    • The exercise adapts to any size or shape arena. We will use the dimensions of a small dressage arena because it’s tidy and most instructors have access to an arena roughly this size.
    • Small dressage arena is 20 X 40 meters or 66 X 132 feet.
  • 12 Markers.
    • The markers can be anything ranging from orange soccer cones, buckets without bails (handles) or dressage markers.  If the weather is good you can even staple paper plates to the fence for all but the 4 center markers. (See diagram 2)
    • I prefer not to use jump standards for this exercise because the are visually restricting.

The Arena Set Up

Diagram #1
  • I have used different colors in my diagram for the purpose of explaining the exercises to you. rate the gait TheRidingInstructor.netYou do not need a variety of colors.
  • If your arena has dressage markers, they will work for the side (blue, white) markers. You will need additional markers for the short sides (pink and yellow)
  • Place the markers about 20 feet from the corners (official dressage would be 6 meters or about 19 feet)
  • If you don’t have a wall or fence that you can attach to, use soccer cones (or buckets) and place them off at east 10′ off the track, so your student rides between the cones and the perimeter fence.
Diagram #2
  • Teaching students to rate the horse begins with walk. I use a rate the gait TheRidingInstructor.netshorter version of the full arena because using the whole arena at a walk for beginners can become boring.  
  • This is an optional formation that you can use depending on your students
  • Markers don’t have to have numbers although you might find the numbers handy.

What Will They Do?

Students will be given goals for a certain ‘speed’ of gait between particular markers. They will learn to rate the gait.

The Goal

Our goal is not just to teach the student to rate the horse, but to teach him to do so with ever lightening and less noticeable aids. This requires learning to control legs, hands and body and being quietly active enough to develop a feel of the horse’s gait. Our beginners will have to learn how much leg or seat to use to move forward, and how much seat and hand to use to slow down. 

At first you will verbally reward your student when they accomplish the speeds you ask for between the predetermined markers. Then you will chose issues for the rider to focus on- example: working to keep hands still when they use their legs, remembering to sit up when they slow the horse, remembering to ride into their corners, etc. 

Chose one or two areas to work on. Do not overload your student with every flaw at one time.  Use this exercise to gradually fine tune your student’s aids and thinking process.

The Method


I’ll begin with diagram 2. If you opt out of this set up just apply the same teaching process to diagram #1.

Make sure students know they will ride around (between the cones and the wall) all four orange rate the gait walk TheRidingInstructor.netmarkers. If you don’t make this clear they may ride to each marker and stop.)

After students are warmed up and ready for a new exercise explain what they will do and the goal.  Make your first goals simple.  Some times even remembering to do things in order is a challenge. If you know your students well, you will pick a simple, easily managed challenge for the first try, like:

 “Walk Brownie in his regular walk from marker 1 to marker 2.  When you reach marker 2 see how slowly you can get Brownie to walk from marker 2 to marker 3, then show me how fast you can get Brownie to walk from marker 3 to marker 4.And finish by asking Brown to walk as slow as you can from marker 4 to marker 1.”

It’s simple enough- regular walk to slowest walk to fastest walk to slowest walk. Simple in our mind but a lot for your rider to think about. Not only do they have to regulate their horse, they have to also remember the order of the changes.

A Tip

Have students work on both reins and mix up the order or rates of speed. Once they have an rate the gait trot TheRidingINstructor.netunderstanding of the routine and are paying attention to your instructions regarding turns, hands or whatever you’ve chosen as a goal, they are ready to try the trot.

Moving to diagram 1.

The full arena allows more room for trotting. You will follow the same teaching process going large in the arena. 

Another Tip

Use generic terms for you gait variations such as slowest, normal, and fastest. Save classical terms until your riders are ready to use and understand them.  You are not teaching extensions or lengthenings in this lesson. You are teaching speed up, slow down and maintain your chosen pace.

I’m glad you joined me today and I hope this lesson plan is useful to your teaching. Do you have a favorite way to teach riders to control their horses? I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s to great students and creative instructors!

Barbara Ellin Fox


Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Love it! I also use two cavaletti spaced far apart in the arena or the field. I ask the student to count the strides or steps (depending on how well they understand walk or trot stride as set of 4 or 2 steps) and challenge them to see how many little-tiny-steps they can cram in between or how many long-forward-steps they can make to minimize the number.

    Everyone gets a feel for rating the speed without breaking to the slower or faster gait, and they also gain a bit of an intuitive feel for collecting and lengthening (though we don’t worry about maintaining rhythm or impulsion, just staying in the gait however slow or fast it gets. You can see the lengthening lighbulb go off when they realize that rushing through the exercise does NOT necessarily get them fewer steps!

    The really creative riders sometimes find out themselves that bending the line can help them game the system, which turns into a good intro to talking about courses, lines, not crossing your own path in approaching an element, etc.

    • Erica- I love this! It’s very creative and a super way to develop feel. And I love the comment about bending lines because it’s so helpful for adjusting distance. Maybe creative instruction develops creative riders. Barbara

    • Hi Katy, Being creative at walk can sure be a challenge but it’s so important for students to learn that walk is a valuable gait. That said, there are times it can be like watching paint dry! Thanks for your comment. Barbara

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