World champion Mozaun McKibben teaches his horses to speed up at this basic gait.
There’s not much that annoys Mozaun McKibben more than a horse that pokes along at the walk, barely covering any ground. It’s not something he wants to see—or ride—in the pasture or the show pen.
After winning back-to-back American Quarter Horse Association ranch pleasure world championships in 2012 and 2013, the Whitesboro, Texas, trainer still seeks ways to improve his horses’ performance. Teaching them to extend at the walk has made a difference both at shows and in his daily routine, he says.
“With the ranch pleasure class being so popular, one of the things they’re putting a lot of emphasis on is the extension of the walk,” he says. “The judges want a horse to walk fast and forward, just like you’d want one to walk across the pasture. There’s nothing more aggravating than if you’re gathering cows or have a long way to go across the pasture, and you’re riding a horse that can’t walk fast, so you have to trot all day long.
“The extended walk is a comfortable gait to ride, and a horse can cover some country and not wear himself out.”
In the arena, he says, more emphasis is being placed on extensions at the trot and lope. Both the American Stock Horse Association and Stock Horse of Texas call for an extended walk in their stock horse pleasure classes. Although AQHA rules don’t call for an extended walk in ranch pleasure classes—the rulebook calls for the horse to “work at a forward, working speed” with an extended jog and lope as required maneuvers—a horse that can travel freely and quickly at a walk will gain credit, McKibben says.
“The judges will really reward it,” he says. “If you have a good extended walk and extended trot, that will win more ranch pleasure classes than anything.”
McKibben says he spent a lot of time thinking about improving the way his horses walk by adding extension to the gait, and came up with a successful method of teaching them.
“I wanted to figure out a different cue, so I wouldn’t confuse them, and they would know what I was asking and wouldn’t break into a trot,” he explains.
To get a horse to go from a walk to a trot, McKibben squeezes with both legs. To cue for an extended walk, he alternates pressure from his legs.
“I’ll bump with one leg and then the other leg, alternating with every stride of the horse,” he says. “When I first do this, I might have to use my spurs. After the horse figures it out, I can just use my legs. Once the horse starts speeding up, I’ll quit bumping as much but I’ll still move my legs [alternately] so he can feel it.”
The reward is as important as the cue, he adds.“The very second I feel the horse speed up, I pet him on the neck,” McKibben says. “This is important, because it’s our job when we’re training these horses to try to communicate with them. They don’t speak English and I don’t speak horse, so it’s my job as a trainer to try to get him to understand what I want him to do. When he does something right, I’m going to pet him and reward him for it. When he does something wrong, I’m going to correct him.”
The trainer stresses that it’s also a vital part of the training process to allow the horse to make mistakes, rather than constantly trying to prevent them.
“This is so important, because they learn from their mistakes,” he says.
In this case, if the horse breaks into a trot when asked to extend the walk, McKibben uses the same correction technique he uses when a horse breaks into a lope from an extended trot. He pulls the horse’s nose around to its shoulder to stop its front end from moving, and then pushes the horse’s hind end around the front end using pressure from his leg.
“When I’m first teaching the horse, he’s going to get confused and think I want him to go faster, so he’s going to break into a trot,” he says. “It’s important to shut that front end down, because it’s a lot of work for that horse to walk his hind end around his front end. I used to stop a horse and back him up whenever he broke gait, and he never understood it. If you just stop him and let him move his front end, that’s just a turnaround and is easy for the horse. It’s not much of a correction. But if I walk the hind end around the front end two or three times—not fast, and not enough to scare him—it’s a lot of work for him. It’s enough of a correction that it’s work, but it doesn’t scare him. That horse will get to where he doesn’t want to break into a trot.”
After making the correction, McKibben goes right back to walking and alternately bumping his legs on the horse until the horse speeds up at the walk, and again rewards it with a pat on the neck.
“In three or four days I can have a horse really walking,” he says, “but it takes longer to get one really solid at it.”
If he wants a horse to slow down to a regular walk, he stops bumping with his legs.
“I want him to have two different gaits, so he doesn’t walk fast all the time,” he says. “I want to be able to take the energy out of my body and sit, so he’ll slow down. As long as I’ve got energy in my body I want him to walk fast. When I take it away I want him to respond and slow down.”
McKibben says that the horses in his barn seem to enjoy the newfound pace as much as their rider does.
“Once they get used to it, all of them like it,” he says. “And it’s made my horses much more enjoyable to ride. If I have to gather mares or cows, I can hit that fast walk. It’s a much more comfortable ride.”