After a clear round in a working hunter class all riders know they have to do an individual show. Ask them how many paces they need to show and they’ll tell you four. They’re right. Ask most judges how many they see. They’ll tell you three.
The one that’s missing is gallop. It’s hardly surprising is it? When did you ever get taught how to gallop?
Gallop is more than a fast canter. It’s a pace. A pace isn’t a speed. It’s a different pattern of legs. All paces are different. They have different beats to them. Canter has three beats. Gallop has four.
Gallop is different to all other paces because the hind feet both touch the ground before the front feet (i.e. Right Hind, LH, Right Fore, LF). To be able to do this your horse has to be off his shoulder and right back on his hocks.
Your horse’s balance is crucial. If he isn’t on his hocks he can’t gallop. It’s that simple. Any weight over his shoulder will mean he can’t reach under his body with his hind legs. If he can’t do that he’ll put a front leg down with a hind leg to balance himself. That’s canter.
The key to a good show gallop is the transition. You don’t have much room and you can’t build up to it. It’s essential your horse learns to go forward instantly from your aids. It’s the same as any other transition.
Try this -
The first thing you have to do is teach your horse he’s allowed to go forwards. Horses spend much of their time being told to slow down. They live a fairly restrained life. It can be hard to break the habit. When you finally ask them to gallop it can take a while for them to believe you. It also takes time to remind them how their legs should work!
You can introduce your new aids in the school. Canter large and on the short sides use your thigh and knee to slow your horse down. (See The Other Way of Stopping). As you come onto the long side straighten up, relax your knee and lift your seat out of the saddle. Now use both heels to tell your horse to go on. His reaction to your leg must be instant. Expect him to jump off your leg. If he doesn’t back it up with your whip. It’s vital he understands - knee off + lighter seat + leg = go forward.
At no point in this exercise should you let go of your contact. Your reins contain your horse’s energy, creating power not just speed. Without power he can’t accelerate. Drop your contact and he’ll drop his shoulders. If his weight is on his shoulders he’ll find it impossible to get going.
When you ask him to come back to you at the end sit into the saddle and use your knee to slow him. Don’t be too hard with your hand. This will make him tighten his back and you’ll loose the flow of your canter.
You should be able to show a big difference between these two speeds but it still won’t be gallop. To do that you need to get out in a field. You need space.
The bigger the field the better to start with. If there’s a slight incline even better. A hill will help your horse engage his hocks.
The fact you are in a field should make your horse think more forward. Ride the same exercise as you did in the school. This time from a reasonable working canter using your knee to prevent him going too fast until you ask him to gallop.
This time as you turn a corner towards the hill (if you have one) you need to get up off his back, take your knee away and give him a strong nudge with both heels. As he goes forward do the same with your heels on each of the next four strides. This may seem excessive but you need him to understand you really want him to go on.
Remember the mechanics of gallop. Your horse must stay off his shoulders. Your hands are so important. They must stay up and level to keep his shoulders up and together. As you come up out of the saddle be careful not to throw yourself forward. Lighten your seat without leaning over his shoulder. Help him to stay balanced.
What should you expect from a true gallop? A gallop is flatter than a fast canter. It’s smooth. You know you’re going much faster by the things that pass you by but it doesn’t feel as frantic as a fast canter in which your horse’s legs seem to go at 100mph! At the gallop his legs will be at full stretch so they cover as much ground as possible. When you finally achieve it he’ll be giving his all yet it will feel effortless.
Before the shows really get going take time to perfect your gallop. Give the judges what they want to see and you could find yourself at the right end of the line up. Remember, there’s more than one way to school your horse so get out in a field and have a go.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.