As is well known, the Icelandic horse has some truly unique gaits. Tölt and pace contribute to making it a special and much-loved breed, even here in Denmark. In this article, experienced Icelandic horse rider Rasmus Møller Jensen offers inspiration on how to train the tölt gait, and provides valuable advice for handling the most typical challenges.
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THE COMFORTABLE TÖLT
Most people who have tried riding tölt can agree that it is quite pleasant. Many riders enjoy taking a leisurely ride on an Icelandic horse that just tölt along, whilst basking in the lovely weather and scenery.
The reason tölt is often so comfortable is that it is a four-beat gait, with the same leg movement sequence as the walk. Consequently, there is always one or two legs on the ground, which means the horse’s back does not move much – hence the comfortable experience.
THE VARIOUS COMPETITION CLASSES
At competitions, there are many different classes where tölt is part of the programme. For example, riders can participate in four-gait classes, where tölt is one of the four gaits, or they can enter a specific tölt class. When riding tölt at competitions, it can be performed at different tempos: chosen tempo, slow tempo, or fast tempo. Additionally, there are classes that focus on tempo changes during the tölt, such as increasing the tempo along the long sides. There is even a class, like T2, where riders can tölt with completely loose reins.
When tölt is judged at competitions, the primary focus is on the purity of the gait, the horse’s spacious and high movements, good carriage and an engaged topline, as well as proper communication between horse and rider, with the horse respecting the rider’s aids.
Rasmus Møller Jensen is an Icelandic horse rider and has been involved with horses all his life. At just 16 years old, he travelled to Iceland and worked as a horse trainer for a year. He continued to do this full-time after returning to Denmark. Rasmus is also a familiar face on the Danish Icelandic horse team, and he has presented around 400 horses at evaluations. He now runs the Flødalgaard training stable together with his wife, Theresa Meldgaard.
KEY TRAINING ELEMENTS
To achieve the correct tölt, training is naturally required. When doing so, some aspects are more important than others. Rasmus Møller Jensen emphasises that the rider must have a balanced seat and know how to use it, including when to urge the horse forward and when to be passive.
Riders must be able to relieve the horse and give it space, but also be able to sit down and ask the horse to work – depending on what is needed. Rasmus likens it to having control over one’s weight distribution.
“Many challenges can stem from the rider’s seat,” he explains.
“A rider who is tense and stiff in their seat can make any horse’s gait small and rigid. Conversely, a rider who never sits down and asks the horse to work can make the horse long and dull. So one must have control over one’s body. This should be varied depending on what the horse needs.”
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WHAT CAN THE HORSE ALREADY DO?
Another important aspect to consider is the importance of adapting to the horse’s level of education. Rasmus points out that riders should familiarise themselves with what the horse can and cannot do and work from there.
“There should be synergy between the horse’s education level and the rider. This also involves the rider understanding the horse and sensing how it moves. The rider must, therefore, have an understanding of when the horse has a pure tölt or an impure gait. That’s why it’s important for the rider to absorb all knowledge and hold onto their experiences.”
To focus on this, Rasmus recommends regular lessons or recording oneself riding to review later and learn from.
Lastly, Rasmus emphasises that before starting tölt training, the horse should have learned basic training, which is a prerequisite for success in tölt training.
“Riders must ensure that the horse understands their signals, for example in walk , so that the horse also understands them in tölt. Therefore, as a rider, one must familiarise oneself with the horse’s education level, be very attentive to one’s seat and have a solid foundation in basic riding skills.”
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THE MOST TYPICAL CHALLENGES
Regarding typical challenges in tölt, Rasmus is quick to explain that rhythm problems are the most common. For example, challenges may arise if the horse is either pace-bound or trot-bound in its tölt.
“Of course, it varies greatly from horse to horse, as their natural ability to perform the tölt can differ significantly.”
“This can be crucial for which gaits the horse itself prefers. Some Icelandic horses, for example, find it much easier to perform a clean tölt than others. However, the challenge sometimes also comes from the rider, which is why it’s essential for the rider to have an understanding of the gait.”
If the tölt is pace-bound, it is often seen that the horse’s stride length is shortened. This can be due, in part, to the rider’s seat.
“If you constantly sit with the same pressure, it can result in a pace-bound tölt,” Rasmus explains. “Therefore, you must remember that when the horse is doing it correctly, you should release the pressure and simply follow passively. When you continue to maintain the same pressure, the horse shortens its stride length, and that’s why the challenge usually lies with the rider,” he elaborates.
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How you should train:
Start by warming up the horse thoroughly and loosening it up. You can achieve this by performing some loosening exercises and avoiding having the horse move in a straight line for too long. Instead, warm up by focusing on bending and riding circles before starting tölt training. Once you are underway, release the pressure and be passive in your seat as soon as the horse moves well and performs a clean tölt. By easing the pressure, the horse learns that it is doing something right. Once the horse is tölt-ing, you can continue for a while, as this tölt can be trained in longer intervals.
A trot-bound tölt is quite different from a pace-bound tölt, and therefore the training is almost the opposite.
“The most important thing here is to activate the horse’s hindquarters,” Rasmus explains.
“Riders should guide the horse towards a passive rein and activate it with their seat, encouraging the horse to step more underneath itself.”
How you should train:
Train short intervals of tölt and focus on achieving the correct rhythm in these short intervals. A good idea is to begin in walk and then urge the horse forward into a short, slow tölt while activating the hindquarters. This way, the horse has the opportunity to lift its chest and back, allowing for increased engagement.
Not many horses can perform the tölt. In fact, the Icelandic horse is one of the few breeds that can. There is still some uncertainty as to why Icelandic horses can tölt, but it can be traced back many, many years. It is believed that there has been a focus on this gait because it is so comfortable for the rider. This was particularly advantageous when horses were the only form of transportation in Iceland.