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Home First Posted: June 9, 2007
Aug 25, 2016

Horse Gaits (Regular and "Artificial") Footfalls

by Debora Johnson

Note: "Gaited horses are horse breeds that have selective breeding for natural gaited tendencies, that is, the ability to perform one of the smooth-to-ride, intermediate speed, four-beat horse gaits, collectively referred to as ambling gaits....In most 'gaited' breeds, an ambling gait is a hereditary trait. This mutation may be a dominant gene, in that even one copy of the mutated allele will produce gaitedness. However, some representatives of these breeds may not always gait. Conversely, some naturally trotting breeds not listed above may have ambling or 'gaited' ability, particularly with specialized training. Many horses can both trot and amble, and some horses pace in addition to the amble, instead of trotting. However, pacing in gaited horses is often, though not always, discouraged, though the gene that produces gaitedness appears to also produce pacing ability. Some horses do not naturally trot or pace easily, they prefer their ambling gait for their standard intermediate speed. A mutation on the gene DMRT3, which controls the spinal neurological circuits related to limb movement and motion, causes a "premature 'stop codon'" in horses with lateral ambling gaits." [Agricultural Communications, Texas A&M University System (5 September 2012). "'Gaited' Gene Mutation and Related Motion Examined". The Horse (Blood-Horse Publications). Retrieved 2012-09-06.} List of Gaited Horse Breeds

Have you ever wondered in what order your horse's feet move? Does your horse walk, trot, canter, gallop, slow gait, fast gait, perform a flat walk, running walk, stepping pace, pace, rack or single-foot, the classic fino, paso corto, paso largo, the tolt? Do you know how to tell the difference between all these gaits? Have you ever considered which kind of horses do what? Let's have a look.


Paso Fino Gaits

It helps to define what a gait is. A gait can be described as the horse's way of going, that is, how the horse's feet move. Think of a gait as the order in which the horse moves his feet-or how the feet fall. People have gaits. Anything with a backbone (a vertebrate) and moves on legs has gaits. Think about yourself. How do you walk? Do you walk slowly, quickly, with a limp, with short steps, long steps, with a skip, a hop, with an up and down movement, or with a side to side movement? Consider, also, that you have to deal with only two legs, but our friend, the horse, has to deal with four. Let's have a closer look.

Correctness of Gaits

"All gaits have different degrees of quality. These differences separate the good movers from the average or below average movers. Quality of movement can translate into the difference in horse value. The quality of the gait is dictated by the horse's balance and structural correctness in conformation as well as by hoof flight pattern. It is the combination of these attributes that influence performance and is commonly referred to as 'form to function.'" Way of Going/Extension

"There are over 167 symmetrical gaits described for the horse. Symmetrical gaits such as the walk, trot, and pace are gaits in which limb movements on one side are repeated on the opposite side half a stride later. Asymmetrical gaits such as the canter and gallop have limb movements on one side that do not exactly repeat on the other side." Most horses walk, trot and canter. However, when one refers to a "gaited horse" this has come to mean horses that may do the above, but also perform gaits beyond the above. These gaits are often referred to as 4-beat gaits. Among these are the walk, amble or stepping pace, the flat walk, the running walk, the fox trot, the rack or single-foot, the classic fino, paso corto, paso largo, the tolt. The gallop also has a 4 beat sound as well.

It is also important to define a diagonal gait versus a lateral gait. Think about the trot. The trot is a diagonal 2-beat gait. The book, Gaits of Gold, by Brenda Imus, describes this perfectly and is being used as a reference, along with years of personal experience, for this entire article. In my opinion, this is the best book that I have read on this subject. "Diagonal gaits are those in which the horse's legs at opposite corners, or diagonally opposed limbs, move forward in unison; i.e.: left hind and right fore; right hind and right fore." Think about the pace. The pace is also a 2-beat gait; however, it is performed with a lateral movement. Both feet on the same side of the horse move in unison. The left front and the left hind move together on the left side and the right front and the right hind move together on the right side. One can count, 1-2, 1-2. The fall of the feet is quite well defined. The pace is a difficult gait to ride and considered undesirable in the gaited horse community for a riding horse. Pacers are often used for pacer carriage racing or for driving. English riders post to the trot and some Western riders do, too. It makes it easier for the rider-no bouncing.

Let's take a closer look at how the horse's feet move at the different gaits. I want to stress here that the next section deals with the natural gaits: There are five natural gaits which include the walk, trot, canter (also called lope in Western riding), gallop and back. Most breeds perform these gaits. Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, Appaloosas, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, etc. As you read this try to picture the horse's movement and feel yourself on your mount.

Walk

The walk is a 4-beat gait no matter what kind of horse you own. Horse's walk at different speeds depending on their conformation, stride, etc.; however, the way the feet fall are basically the same. The rhythm, or timing, may be different, but the sequence is the same: left hind, left front, right hind, and right front. (1-2-3-4) A good endurance horse will walk up to 6 miles an hour.

Trot

As was stated above, the trot is a diagonal gait. The feet move to a 1-2, 1-2 sound. The foot falls are quoted above. There are different speeds of the trot. Basically there is the sitting trot, or Western riding calls it the jog. It is usually very slow and collected and can be enjoyable to sit-not post. I always refer to it as a parade trot. My gaited horse is five gaited and he performs a beautiful parade trot. Next there is the working trot which has more extension, and usually you post. Lastly there is the extended trot which has greater extension, is faster, and you usually post.

"Trotting" or "square gaiting" are terms describing the gait of a trotter. When trotting or square gaiting, a horse stretches its left front and right rear legs forward almost simultaneously and then follows suit with its right front and left rear legs. This is seen most often in harness racing trotters.

Canter

The canter can be counted as a 3-beat gait. It almost sounds uneven, but is delightful to ride. Considering that you are picking up a right lead (if you are in a ring, the inside front leg comes forward first) the feet would fall as follows: left hind, right hind and left front together; right front. For left lead just reverse the order. The canter is done in a collected manner- and well balanced.

Gallop

The gallop is an interesting movement. The horse is extended fully. Imagine a canter with the two paired diagonal legs landing out of synchrony. This gives the gallop a 4-beat sound. (1-2-3-4- 1-2-3-4)

Back

A horse backing up in the pasture or in the wild will back to a two beat gait.. An idea of the footfall pattern might occur as follows: the right front moves with the left hind and the left front moves with the right hind.

Gaited Horse Footfalls or the "Artificial Gaits"


The gaited horse gait spectrum

Let's take a look at the "gaited horse" foot falls. They can be somewhat tricky. It takes a discerning eye, ear and feel to figure out the horse's entire way of going. With the "gaited horse" you may be working with a five speed instead of a three speed. The ride may be more comfortable, but the shifting (as I call it), or transitioning from one gait to another, is more difficult. The horse must be held in his gait and not break gait until asked. Gaited horses are more difficult to ride correctly! People make the mistake of saying that anyone can ride a gaited horse. Not true. I always say that they are more difficult to ride correctly because there is so much variety and nuance. I would also like to point out that we started with Thoroughbreds and transitioned to Gaited Horses. We do ride our horses with English saddles, but we use the park seat position. My husband had a Trooper saddle made for his horse, Rusty. I use a treeless saddle, a Barefoot, with A Patchy. I have also ridden A Patchy in my traditional endurance saddle.

You may hear the term "artificial gait" used to define the running walk, slow gait, pace and rack. They are very natural to specific breeds of horses, and are genetically passed on and can often be seen from birth. In that sense they are not really artificial gaits. A horse with natural artificial gaits does not need mechanical influence, not even special shoeing. Our two horses, A Patchy, a Spotted Mountain Saddle Horse, and Rusty, a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse, have natural gaits and are barefoot. ( all 4-around!) To view Extension's video on the artificial gaits follow this link: Artificial Gaits Video Some breeds that are identified as "gaited" are: Tennessee Walkers, Rackers, Icelandic Horses, Fast tolt/Icelandic Horse Paso Finos, Rocky Mountain Horses, Kentucky Mountain Horses, Spotted Mountain Horses, the Mountain Pleasure Horse; some Morgans, Saddlebreds and Standardbreds can be naturally gaited, some not. Although this is not a complete list, it gives the idea of a gaited horse. For quite a complete list follow this lead on HorseHints: Many Gaited Horse Breeds. Look for the breeds that have the "green ball."

The rack is often referred to as the single-foot. Although a 4-beat gait, the rack has a shorter stride from back to front. Speed rackers perform this gait really fast. To see a speed racker show is quite exciting. The crowd goes wild. The stride is shorter than the running walk, for example. Also the horse often moves with a high head carriage, hollowed back, nose out (not tucked) and little head nod, if any. I mentioned the Icelandic Horse as a gaited horse earlier. The Icelandic Horse performs the tolt which is a very fast rack.

Running Walk from birth

Head nodding is often very apparent with this gait. Most Tennessee Walkers will have a head nod in varying degrees; however, Mountain Horses will not necessarily exhibit a head nod with a running walk. There is often a suspension in the front because the hind legs have a great length of stride-more than the front. This lull or suspension allows the front legs to catch up to the hind. Usually the hind feet overstep the front feet by a varying degree of inches. The horse moves gracefully with an arched neck, rounded back, and tucked nose. A well performed running walk is a thing of beauty visually and to ride. It is so smooth for the rider. The horse covers a large amount of ground but feels like he is hardly moving. To simplify, a flat walk is a slower version of the running walk. The front suspension may be less because the hind legs are not over striding as much at slower speed. Both are 4-beat gaits performed laterally.


Watch on youTube/the link is restricted but working.

The slow gait is a general term for several slightly different gaits that follow the same general footfall pattern in that lateral pairs of legs move forward in sequence, but the rhythm and collection of the movements are different. Terms for various slow gaits include the stepping pace and singlefoot or rack.

The Amble

The term Amble is a general term used to describe a number of four-beat intermediate gaits. All are faster than a walk but usually slower than a canter or gallop. They are smoother for a rider than either a trot or a pace and most can be sustained for relatively long periods of time, making them particularly desirable for trail riding and other tasks where a rider must spend long periods of time in the saddle.

Though there are differences in footfall patterns and speed, historically they were once grouped together and collectively referred to as the"amble." Today, especially in the United States, horses that are able to do an ambling gait are referred to as "gaited."

If you talk about nuance, this is the perfect place. I put these gaits together so that you can have a visual. The stepping page is another of the ambling gaits. As was discussed above, the pace is a 2-beat gait with the lateral left and lateral right legs moving in unison. The stepping pace, is similar, however, the hind lateral foot sets down before the fore foot, is a broken 4-beat gait, and has no head nod. There is no suspension, fore or hind. The stepping pace is a 4-beat gait, but has a broken sound when you count. All are very smooth; the stepping pace is said to have been used at times to transport wounded soldiers from battlefields.

What is suspension? I would describe suspension as a moment of non-movement where you sort of float in the air as on a cushion. It is a lull, a hesitation. Because of overstride of fore or hind feet it is a moment for the appropriate legs to catch up. That is the best I can do to describe it. Once you feel it you will understand, completely, from that description.

Fox Trot

The fox trot is a diagonal gait that is extremely smooth. Some say the horse is trotting with the hind legs and walking in the front. It is to the trot as the broken pace is to the pace. The diagonal fore foot hits the ground just before the opposite hind. There may be a moment of hind suspension depending on the stride.

I have tried to keep these descriptions simple to follow. With time in the saddle you learn to feel the horse's way of going and can tell what kind of gait he is performing. It is, of course, very important to keep your horse in his gaits. Only let your gaited horse transition from one gait to another when you ask him to do so. It takes training, time, and great patience to reap the rewards of this wonderful partnership with your horse. It is an oneness, a feeling of union.

This article was written for my friend, Frank Harrell. He has a love of horses and rides Western. Frank's passion is the Rodeo. Thank you, Frank, for all your patience and kindness in teaching me how to use a compute, make a web site, and write my own html code. You are the best!

For More Information:

University of Minnesota Vet School - Gaits
Evaluating Horse Feet, Legs, and Gaits (AAEP 2011)

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