The hand gallop is seen most often in jumping disciplines, but it is a great physical and mental exercise for horses and riders of all disciplines. It improves cardiovascular fitness while lengthening, suppling and strengthening the muscles for both you and your horse. It is a good test of how well your horse listens to you. And, it’s fun!
The hand gallop falls between a canter and a gallop. It is a three-beat gait like the canter, but the horse covers more ground with each stride as he lengthens his neck and has a slightly flattened top line. The gallop is a faster four-beat gait.
Before attempting the hand gallop, your horse must be calm, light in your hands, well balanced and supple in walk, trot and canter. A supple, well balanced horse can handle changes in speed, direction and footing and can easily and smoothly lengthen, shorten and change gaits.
The following tips will help you and your horse feel calm and confident in the hand gallop.
Be balanced and secure in half seat position. Riding the hand gallop in the half seat position allows your horse to use his back freely. When you are well balanced and secure in this position, you can give clear leg aids and open and close your hip angle without tension, gripping or relying on the reins for balance. Keep contact with your lower leg just behind the girth, lift your seat out of the saddle and lightly rest your hands (without leaning on them) on your horse’s neck.
Transition gradually. Take several strides to move from canter to hand gallop and back to canter. Your horse flows forward as you move into the half seat position, close your lower leg and close your hip angle to about 30 degrees in front of the vertical. Maintain light contact not by lengthening the reins, but by moving your hands up your horse’s neck. Allow your elbows to move with your horse’s neck motion. To slow down the pace, open your hip angle closer to the vertical and allow your hands to come towards your horse’s withers. Avoid pulling or being rough with your hands, but you can use half halts if necessary.
Less is more. Establish a balanced working canter with a slightly rounded top line, consistent rhythm and light contact. As you come out of the corner, ride a few strides of hand gallop on the long side. Come back to working canter before the next corner. Evaluate how well you and your horse did. Were you confident and comfortable, maintaining light contact while keeping your position and balance without relying on your reins? Did your horse listen well to your aids? Tune up any weak areas in lower gaits and by practicing downward transitions. As long you and your horse feel balanced, comfortable and confident, gradually extend the length of time in the hand gallop.
Maintain balance through turns. To stay balanced and maintain his rhythm through turns, your horse must stay aligned from poll to tail, in true bend and light on the forehand. As you enter the corner, open your hip angle slightly more towards the vertical, support with your outside rein and keep him bent around your inside leg. If you have trouble keeping your horse balanced through the turn, practice spiralling in and out on circle at trot and canter.
Use poles to adjust stride. Set two ground poles 80 to 84 feet apart and at least 40 feet from the arena corners. Adjust the distance between poles if necessary so your horse can comfortably canter the distance in six strides. (Count – pole, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, pole.) Establish a working canter and encourage your horse to lengthen his stride while maintaining the same rhythm as you approach the poles. Your horse should now get five strides between the poles. Return to canter after the poles.
You can adapt this exercise to practice riding the hand gallop to jumps by setting up two poles on the long side and two across the diagonal. Place both sets of poles at the same distance as in the exercise described above. Canter the first set of poles. Move into the hand gallop balancing your horse and establishing the desired rhythm as you enter the turn. Maintain the rhythm as you come out of the corner and over the second set of poles. They should ride with one less stride than the first set. Come back to canter.
Avoid over-schooling. Over-practicing the hand gallop can cause your horse to anticipate and become excited and tense. So, to keep it fun for both you and your horse mix it up with transitions to other gaits.