There’s nothing quite like the rhythmic pace of a horse’s stride. From the clack of their hooves, to the swish of their thick manes against the wind, watching a horse in motion is always a sight to behold. With their superior anatomical and physiological traits and social skills, horses across history have aided humans in transportation, communication, and even entertainment and recreation.
So, when it comes to understanding one of humanity’s best friends, what is referred to when talking about horse gaits?
Natural vs. artificial horse gaits
When we watch that beautiful, dark Friesian horse prance around the stables, we are also observing their gait. A horse’s gait is the manner or sequence of movement it makes when travelling forward. Just as human beings possess different means of moving their bodies – from pacing and walking to running and sprinting – horses have their own standards of movement. Horse gaits can be inherited naturally, as well as bred and trained artificially.
Natural horse gaits are those that a horse can develop with or without human intervention. These manners of movement appear genetically in all breeds, at varying degrees. Most horses possess one of the four natural gaits. Each gait varies in speed and rhythm. Here’s a breakdown of natural gaits.
Walk: There are four beats to a horse’s ‘walk’ gait. This is the horse’s slowest gait, which allows a steady rhythm to be developed. Your horse keeps at least two hooves on the ground at each beat and moves forward at a stable pace.
Trot: A trot consists of a two-beat movement, where a horse appears to spring from one side of their body to another. This is the horses second-slowest gait. The horse’s legs will ‘pair off’ in diagonals. For example, when the right-front leg moves, so would the left-hind leg, and vice versa.
Canter: This is the second-fastest gait for a horse, similar to a paced human run. There are three beats to the horse’s canter. The horse will lead with their left or right sides, and three hooves will hit the ground per beat.
Gallop: A gallop is the fastest gait that a horse can perform and is a faster, four-limbed variation of the canter. For this four-beat gait, four hooves hit the ground at once, but it is taxing on your horse’s stamina. A horse will gallop, on average, no more than three miles before needing to recover.
Artificial horse gaits are typically those found natural to specific horse breeds, or those that are refined by equine trainers. A horse born with a propensity to perform a four-beat gait is generally referred to as a Gaited Horse. Horses bred with artificial gaits can possess unique stylistic qualities, from the elegant ‘running walk’ of the Tennessee Walking Horse, to the flamboyant ‘rack’ of the American Saddlebred.
When evaluating a horse’s gait, there are three areas of consideration. The first is the snap which refers to judging the height of the knees and the horse’s hocks, both of which are a part of the horse’s hind leg that can be most closely related to a human ankle. The flexion should also be considered, as it’s the elevation of the knees and hocks. The length of stride—measuring the ground a horse covers per stride—is also important, as is assessing how straight a horse’s footfall pattern is.
When selecting a gaited horse to ride, it is important to be mindful of the pace and style that will suit your physicality, level of riding expertise, and comfortability. Being a happy and secure rider is always a positive way to begin any horse-riding experience – for you and your horse companion. Find a qualified riding instructor and take your horse for a few comfortable ‘walks’ and ‘trots’ to feel a range of horse gaits. Be sure to compare how you handle them on the track before settling.