There’s no doubt that horses are majestic animals that are known and loved for their graceful way of moving and for their speed. Their unique movements, known as gaits, have fascinated riders and horse lovers for millennia, but what exactly are they? The aim of this article is to provide a comprehensive guide to horse gaits and their characteristics.
While we’re able to walk, run and skip horses are able to perform a far wider range of gaits. From the five natural gaits (walk, trot, canter, gallop, and back) to the pace and other ambling gaits. Some gaits are also specific to certain breeds and are present from birth while others can be trained.
Horse gait terminology
When talking about the way horses move there are a number of terms that are used to describe this which is why I thought it would be helpful to look at a few of the commonly used ones first.
Natural gaits – This refers to the five gaits that all horses can perform which are walk, trot, canter, gallop, and back. They’re called natural gaits because they don’t need any training at all and can be seen in wild and untrained horses.
Artificial gaits – While the term ‘artificial’ is wrong, it refers to ambling gaits that are only present in some breeds. While a lot of these gaits are inherited some are trained which is why they’re known as artificial.
Symmetrical – Present in gaits such as the walk and trot, this refers to one side mirroring the other half a stride later. For example, the left hind and right front legs move in a trot while the right hind and left front move straight after.
Asymmetrical – Unlike symmetrical gaits, asymmetrical ones (such as the canter or gallop) don’t mimic the other side at all.
Lateral – When a horse moves both front and hind feet on the same side move together this is known as a lateral gait.
Diagonal – Unlike lateral gaits, diagonal gaits invovle the horse moving their legs diagonally. For example, they’ll move a hind leg and the opposite front leg at the same time.
Stride – A stride is a cycle of all four limbs completing their movement. For example, in a walk, a stride would involve the left hind moving, followed by the left front, right hind, and then the right front.
Beat – When a horse’s hoof hits the ground it’s known as a beat. A walk has four individual footfalls so is known as a four-beat gait while the trot has two separate footfalls so is a two-beat gait.
Overstep – Sometimes referred to as overreaching, this is when a horse’s hind feet move over the imprint made by their front feet before landing. While it may be considered an undesirable fault in some gaits in others, such as the running walk, it’s a desired characteristic.
Moment of suspension – Most gaits have a moment when none of their feet, albeit briefly, are in contact with the ground. This is known as the moment of suspension.
Leading leg – The leading leg (or leading limb as it’s also known) is the last leg to leave the ground before the moment of suspension. This only really applies to faster gaits such as the canter and gallop.
What are the horse gaits?
Horses can perform a large number of gaits, some are unique to certain breeds, some are acquired through special training and some are natural to all horses.
The walk, which is a symmetrical four-beat gait, is the slowest of all gaits and has a smooth, steady movement with each hoof hitting the ground separately. Many horses will also bob their head up and down as they walk to help them keep balance. The walk is great for warming up both horse and rider but is also a crucial foundation for every type of riding.
While the walk is a natural gait, some breeds have their own version of the walk which can be more exaggerated and often differs in speed (both faster and slower).
The footfall of the walk, which is left hind, left front, right hind, right front, can be seen in this video.
Thinking about learning to ride? How to ride a horse at a walk.
A symmetrical two-beat diagonal which is faster than the walk and is great for covering ground without tiring the horse or rider, the trot is characterized by its bouncy up-and-down motion. This ‘bouncy’ motion means that the rider needs to either sit deep into the saddle or rise (also known as post) in time with the movement of the horse.
The trot is very rhythmical with a moment of suspension and is ideal for long distances because the horse is able to travel for long periods without tiring.
The footfall of the trot which is left hind and right front, suspension, right hind and left front can be seen in this video.
What does it feel like to ride a horse at a trot? Learn to ride a horse at a trot.
This is often referred to as a western trot, the jog is in fact the same gait but just much slower and can’t be posted. It’s more comfortable for the rider and was developed by ranchers who wanted a comfortable gait that wouldn’t use up the horse’s energy.
Many people argue about whether the jog is really a gait or not because it’s a variation of a natural gait but the jury’s still out on that.
Being a slower version of the trot the footfall of the jog is exactly the same.
The canter is a very comfortable three-beat asymmetrical gait that can look similar to the gallop, albeit slower. While it’s faster than a trot, the canter is actually a lot smoother and is characterized by its rocking motion which makes it very easy on the rider. When cantering the horse can lead on either leg and will change the leg naturally when they’re making sharp turns in a new direction.
The canter is a popular gait, in part due to its speed, and can be seen in many disciplines such as jumping and dressage.
The footfall of the canter for a right leading leg is left hind, right hind and left front, right front, moment of suspension. Likewise, if the horse’s leading leg is their left leg then the footfall will be right hind, left hind and right front, left front, moment of suspension. This can be clearly seen in the video below.
Just like the jog is the western version of the trot, the lope is the western equivalent of a canter. It’s slower than the canter with horses traveling at around 8 to 12mph (as opposed to 10 to 17mph for the canter).
The fastest of all gaits, the gallop is a four-beat gait that’s more commonly reserved for racing and other high-speed events such as eventing and barrel racing. It has a long, ground-covering stride but can only be sustained for a mile or two before the horse starts to tire.
Like the canter, horses can lead with either leg and will automatically change their leading leg when they get tired. The more tired the horse gets the more often they’ll change their leading leg.
Depending on the leading leg the footfall of the gallop is left hind, right hind, left front, right front, moment of suspension for the right lead, while the footfall for a left lead is right hind, left hind, right front, left front, moment of suspension.
You might not consider back to be a gait but it is actually a symmetrical two-beat diagonal gait rather like the trot, just with the horse moving backward instead.
The footfall of the back gait is right front and left hind, left front and right hind.
While you might argue that the pace is just a sped-up version of the trot it’s actually a different gait altogether. For starters, it’s a lateral gait rather than a diagonal one. More common in harness racing Standardbreds with reaching speeds of up to 46mph.
The footfall of the pace is right hind and right front, moment of suspension, left hind and left front, moment of suspension. While the gait is extremely fast the footfall can clearly be seen in this video.
While the pace itself may be more common in Standardbreds, other breeds do have their own versions. Such as the flying pace which is unique to the Icelandic Horse
and the stepping pace which is found in breeds such as the Tennessee Walker.
It’s also worth pointing out that there are some breeds that perform the pace or stepping pace but just refer to it by another name. For example, the Saddlebred’s slow gait is actually the same as the stepping pace. As is the Mangalarga Marchador’s march picada and the Peruvian Paso’s sobreandando.
With a natural symmetrical four-beat gait, the rack is often wrongly referred to as a version of the walk but this isn’t the case. While it does have the same footfall it can’t be performed by every horse, nor can it be trained in non-gaited breeds. The rack is an elegant gait that is characterized by a flashy high knee action and bobbing head.
There are two main versions of the rack, the saddle rack is a slow gait which is more common in saddle seat shows while the rack is much faster and is ideal for covering rough terrain at speed. Some breeds (such as the Rocky Mountain Horse) also have their own version of the rack but these generally have the same footfall.
The footfall of the rack is left hind, left front, right hind, right front which can be seen in the video below.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Icelandic Horse performs a unique version of the rack known as the tölt. The footfall of the tölt is very slightly different from the rack though in that it has moments of half suspension (where all but one hoof is on the ground) between each beat.
Not such a well-known gait, the Indian shuffle is a lateral two-beat movement where the legs don’t quite move in unison. It differs from other stepping paces because the horse ‘shuffles’ its hooves across the ground rather than lifting them right up. While this obviously isn’t quite true horses performing the Indian shuffle will actually slide the feet into place rather than putting them down. Not only does this movement give the gait its name but it also makes it a very smooth way of traveling, both for the horse and rider.
The footfall of the Indian shuffle is the left legs move together with the rear leg being slightly ahead of the front, the right legs then move back slightly to extend the stride. This is then repeated with the right legs moving forward and the left legs moving back.
Unique to the Tennessee Walker, the running walk is a four-beat symmetrical gait which is similar to the walk but much faster. It has a characteristic sliding motion which is caused by the hind feet overstepping the front by as much as 18 inches.
Like the rack, horses performing the running walk will bob their heads up and down as they move to help them maintain their balance.
The footfall of the running walk, which can easily be seen in the video below, is left hind, left front, right hind, right front.
Typically associated with the Missouri Fox Trotter the foxtrot is an irregular four-beat gait that has a similar movement to the walk, while its footfall is more akin to that of the trot. The foxtrot is characterized by the fact that the front feet leave the ground slightly before the hind feet do, this gives the gait its distinctive rhythm while also making it immensely smooth.
At slower speeds horses will have either 2 or 3 feet on the ground at any one time but as the horse picks up speed this changes to 1 or 2 feet.
While the foxtrot may be more commonly associated with the Missouri Fox Trotter (which takes its name from the gait), other breeds such as the Tennessee Walker can also perform the foxtrot. Other breeds have their own name for their variation gait, for example, the Mangalarga Marchador’s march batida is a version of the foxtrot.
Like the walk, the footfall of the foxtrot is left hind, left front, right hind, right front.
Horse gaits are an essential part of horseback riding with each one serving a specific purpose. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, understanding horse gaits will help you to improve your riding skills as well as allow you to have a better grasp on how your horse is moving (and can move).
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉