The horse differs from other animals as it can move using several different gaits.
A gait describes the horse’s way of going. The foot sequence distinguishes each one, along with the number of footfalls, before the pattern starts again. They are either natural, ambling or artificial.
Here we look at the different horse gaits to have a better understanding of how the horse moves.
5 Natural Horse Gaits
There are five natural horse gaits; walk, trot, canter, gallop and back. They naturally occur in all breeds of horses and ponies without any training.
Understanding the footfall patterns of your horse is the foundation to improving your riding, such as knowing when you are on the correct trot diagonal or canter lead.
The walk is a four-beat gait that is slow and smooth with each foot moving independently. It follows a sequence of right hind, right fore, left hind, left fore.
There is always one foot raised while at least two feet are on the ground distributing the weight from one foot to another.
In riding the different types of the walk are medium, free walk, collected and extended.
The trot is faster than a walk, being a two-beat, diagonal gait, which is regular and even. When the horse trots, the left hind and the right fore move together, then the right hind and left fore move together. There is a precise moment of suspension between each stride when all four feet are off the ground.
The trot is the best gait to detect lameness in horses. The horse performs typically in a working trot when ridden but can also produce collected, medium and extended trot.
The canter is a three-beat gait which should have an uphill cadence with a moment of suspension.
If a horse is leading with the right lead, the left hind initiates the sequence by hitting the ground first. It is followed by the right hind leg and left foreleg together, finishing with the right foreleg.
When leading with the left lead, there is an opposite foot sequence starting with the right hind, then left hind and right front together, finishing with the left foreleg.
When the horse is travelling to the right, they should lead with the right leg and vice versa. A horse performs mostly in working canter, along with collected, medium and extended canter.
A horse’s fastest gait is the gallop. It has a four-beat rhythm but, like the canter, the horse has a leading leg.
If the horse starts with the right hind leg, the left hindleg follows, then the right front and lastly the left front, which is the leading foreleg. If the horse starts with left hindleg, the opposite sequence occurs.
When a horse goes back naturally, they execute a two-beat diagonal gait but at a slow pace.
The footfall sequence is like the trot, only the horse moves backwards instead, and there is no moment of suspension. The left front fore steps back with the right hind, and the right front moves back with the left hind.
Here is a nice simple video showing four of the natural gaits: walk, trot, canter & gallop:
Ambling Horse Gaits
Some breeds of horses can perform intermediate, four-beat ambling gaits such as the running walk, pace and rack.
These specific gaits, seen in gaited breeds like the Tennessee Walking horse and the Icelandic horse, allow the horse to maintain them for long periods and are comfortable for the rider.
Their paces come in various forms, derived from variations in footfall sequences and speed, often referred to as the “amble.’ These gaits are usually faster than a walk but slower than a canter.
In non-gaited horses, although the nodding of the head usually indicates lameness, it is typical in ambling horses. They also move in a hollow frame instead of a rounded outline, allowing the hind legs to slide under them.
The three categories comprise of diagonal gaits, lateral gaits and square gaits.
The Fox Trot
The fox trot, like the natural trot, is where each diagonal pair moves in unison.
However, the difference is that the forefoot moves a microsecond before the opposite hind foot, so there is no moment of suspension or two-beat rhythm. This action produces an uneven four-beat gait, which makes the horse look like it is walking in front and trotting behind. This type of movement increases the smoothness of the ride.
The pace is a fast two-beat gait. It is like the trot except that the right hind and right fore move together in unison and then the left hind and left fore.
The horse sways from side to side, and there is a moment of suspension between each stride. This footfall sequence is seen in Standardbred harness racing horses and is considered too uncomfortable for riding.
The Stepping Pace
The stepping pace, also called the slow gait, is almost identical to the pace only the hindfoot lands a split second before the forefoot on the same side.
There is no moment of suspension, creating an uneven four-beat gait, and the rider feels a slight side to side motion in their hips.
The horse has their weight well back onto their hindquarters, showing a high action in front. It is more comfortable for riding than the straight pace.
The Tὅlt and The Flying Pace
The tὅlt and the flying pace are unique to the Icelandic horse. The horse executes the tὅlt at a variety of speeds ranging from a slow tempo to a fast tempo, matching the speed of a canter.
The footfall sequence matches that of a walk, which is left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. It is a smooth and ground covering pace allowing a rider to go long distances in comfort.
The flying pace is a fast, high-speed gait. It is a two-beat, lateral movement with both legs on one side touching the ground at precisely the same time with a moment of suspension. Horses can travel up to speeds of 30 mph so is only used over short distances of around 100 to 200 meters, often in races.
Here is a brilliant of the Icelandic horse gaits. Skip to halfway to see the Tὅlt and The Flying Pace.
The Running Walk
The running walk is a four-beat gait almost identical to a regular walk. It is executed at speed with more engagement from behind, producing greater impulsion and collection and is unique to the Tennessee Walking Horse.
The hind feet overstep the front feet to more than 36 inches providing a smooth gliding motion that is extremely comfortable for both horse and rider. It has the appearance of the horse walking behind and trotting in front.
The horse flicks their ears and nods their head while chomping the bit in the rhythm of the movement. A horse can travel at speeds of 7 to 8 miles per hour in this gait.
The rack is an exaggerated walk that is fast and flashy, and which likens the horse to climbing a ladder. It is a four-beat, evenly timed gait with considerable knee action making for a comfortable ride. It is also known as the ‘single foot’ as there is only one foot on the ground during the series of footfalls. In some breeds, especially the Paso Fino, they are so well-bred for this gait they do not perform any diagonal or lateral gaits.
Artificial Horse Gaits
Artificial gaits are formed through specialized training of the horse’s natural gaits by an experienced and skilful trainer. These gaits develop and strengthen the horse’s hindquarters and seen in the higher levels of dressage.
Some of the artificial gaits include:
The passage is where the horse performs a highly elevated, powerful trot almost in slow motion. The horse suspends each leg off the ground for a more extended period than seen in other kinds of trots, giving the impression the horse is dancing.
The piaffe is a highly collected, elevated trot where the horse remains in place without advancing or moving backwards. The horse raises each diagonal pair of legs alternately showing an even spring and cadence.
Below is a video of the passage and piaffe:
The Canter Pirouette
The full canter pirouette is the ultimate in collection. There is a clear three-beat canter that turns on the hindquarters almost on the spot, deployed on two tracks. The horse moves in a slow-motion manner with a full pirouette consisting of between six and eight strides.
The Spanish Walk
The Spanish walk is where the horse lifts each foreleg off the ground in an exaggerated upward and forward movement.
It is considered more of a trick than a dressage movement and often taught to Andalusian or Lusitano horse breeds as part of the Spanish culture. The action benefits the horse by teaching it to open up the shoulder movement.
There is much confusion as to what gaits of a horse are artificial or trained and which ones are natural. Much depends on the natural environment as well as the breed of horse and their genetics. The confirmation of a horse also dramatically determines the horse’s movement.
Over time, horse breeding has created a variety of body types, producing different gaits most suited to the job of the horse. Quite often, gaited horses have natural ambling gaits, but additional training is usually required.
All horses benefit from dressage training. Still, for the advanced movements, Warmbloods or the Andalusian or Lusitano breeds are most suitable as they are athletic and strong with good natural movement.