Horse Gaits Explained: Categories, Gaited Horses, Etc.

It can be difficult to understand all of the different terminology that applies to horsemanship. One of the most confusing topics is horse gaits. In this article, we briefly explain the several different groups of gaits and provide resources to help you sound like an old hand when speaking of horses’ gaits. Read on to learn more.

Horse Gait Categories

Horse Gait Categories

There are basically two groups of horse gaits. They are natural and ambling. Natural gaits are those that all horses can perform without training.

The natural gaits are:

  1. The walk
  2. The trot
  3. The canter (a.k.a.: lope)
  4. The gallop

All horses of all sorts are able to perform these basic gaits.

The ambling gaits are very smooth, comfortable riding gaits that are specific to horses of particular breeding and/or training. Even for horses that may naturally amble, special training is often required to perfect the gait and to teach the horse the necessary cues to encourage it.

There are a number of different sorts of ambling gaits, but the basic ones are:

  1. Foxtrot
  2. Rack
  3. Running walk
  4. Slow gait
  5. Tolt

Ambling gaits are typically slower than cantering and faster than walking. These smooth gaits are easy on both horse and rider and are good for covering a great deal of ground over an extended period of time.

Variances On Classifying & Categorizing Gaits

In addition to these two categories, there are also a handful of gaits known as the Paso gaits that are specific to Peruvian Pasos and Paso Finos.

You may also hear the gaits classified and categorized as:

  • Category one: walking gaits to include the ambling gaits.
  • Category two: the trotting and running gaits.
  • Category three: the leaping gaits.

Horse Gait Definitions

Horse Gait Definitions

No matter how the various horse gaits are categorized or classified, the descriptions of the individual gaits remain consistent. Here are some basic definitions to help you identify gaits when you see them.

1. Walking

Walking is a four beat gait in which a horse sets down one hoof at a time. This creates a four beat rhythm. Generally speaking, horses can walk about 4 miles an hour.

Whenever a horse is walking, one foot will be raised and the other three will be on the ground. When walking, horses move their heads up and down slightly to maintain balance.

2. Trotting

Trotting is a two beat gait in which one front hoof and the opposite hind hoof work in tandem. In other words the right front hoof and the left hind hoof will be off the ground at the same time while the left front hoof and the right hind hoof are on the ground.

This creates a two beat rhythm. A standard trot covers about 8 miles an hour, but there are also slow trots (a.k.a.: jog) that are quite a bit smoother.

The trot can be the most challenging gait to ride because some horses have a very rough trot. To learn to sit the trot, you should learn to relax completely in the saddle, settle your hips and shoulders and hold your weight in a balanced manner.

You may also wish to post a trot which involves rising in the saddle in rhythm with the horse. This option can certainly make a rough trot easier to ride.

3. Cantering Or Loping

Canter and lope are two terms for the same gait. Typically you’ll hear this gait called cantering in English disciplines and loping in Western disciplines. This is an asymmetrical three beat gait.

In cantering or loping, one hind hoof will strike the ground and then the other hind hoof and one foreleg will strike the ground simultaneously. When the other foreleg strikes the ground, a three beat rhythm is achieved.

The speed of a lope or canter is very much dependent on the size and condition of the horse. A tall athletic horse may be able to canter about 17 miles an hour. A shorter, stockier horse may lope or canter only about 10 miles an hour.

4. Galloping

Galloping is very much like cantering or loping, except that is much faster. A tall horse in good shape can gallop 25 or 30 miles an hour.

When performing this gait, there are times when all of the hooves are off the ground at once. Horses cannot gallop long distances. One or two miles is the maximum for all but specially trained racehorses.

5. Pacing

Some breeds of horses, such as Standardbreds, are able to pace very rapidly. In the pace, the legs on the same side move in tandem, so the right front and hind legs will move at the same time and the left front and hind legs will move at the same time.

Pacing is a two beat gait in which 2 feet are on the ground and 2 feet are off the ground. Pacing is typically faster than trotting and is often a favored gait for a horse pulling a carriage or surrey.

It can be comfortable to ride a slow pace, but a fast pace can be quite tiresome and difficult.

6. Ambling

Ambling gaits are typically, four beat gaits like walking; however they are faster and enable horse and rider to cover great distances without becoming tired.

Horses who are able to perform ambling gaits are typically called gaited.

What Are Gaited Horses?

The gaited horses include:

  • Tennessee Walking Horses which were originally bred to allow plantation owners to ride the plantation.
  • The Racking Horse is similar to Tennessee Walking Horses. A Racking horse has a four beat racking gait that is desirable for trail riding and pleasure riding.
  • Icelandic horses have a gait of their own called the Tolt. This is quite a bit like the running walk for which Tennessee Walkers are so well known.

Icelandic horses may also perform an ambling gait known as the flying pace. In this gait, much like the pace in other horses, the legs on the same side move in unison. This is a two beat gait.

  • American Saddlebreds, which hail from Kentucky.
  • Missouri Fox Trotters possess an ambling gait called the foxtrot. These horses were specially bred to perform this gait for the purpose of covering lots of territory in rugged terrain to locate and work cattle.
  • National Show Horses are a relatively new breed developed in the 1980s. They are a cross between American Saddlebreds and Arabians. These gaited horses are able to perform a slow gait and a rack. Both are four beat gaits that are very comfortable for riding long distances.
  • The Paso Fino is another gaited horse which was created by crossing Spanish Jennets (now extinct) with Spanish Andalusians. This breed is approximately 200 years old.

The gaits performed by Paso Fino’s are:

  1. Paso Fino
  2. Paso Corto
  3. Paso Largo

Another type of Paso is the Peruvian Paso which typically has three gaits:

  1. Paso llano
  2. Sobreandando
  3. Huschano

These are four beat lateral gaits that are comfortable to ride for long distances. These gaits are easy on horses who can maintain them for a long period of time.

Frequently Asked Questions

horse gaits FAQs
1. How does the rider’s posture affect a horse’s gait, posture and movements?

A rider’s posture is often mirrored by the horse. For example, if the rider is hollow backed, the horse may adopt this posture. If the rider holds one hip too far forward or back, the horse will tend to mirror this in its own haunches.

2. How does a rider’s pelvis affect a horse’s gait, posture and movements?

The direction of the rider’s pelvis conveys direction to the horse. For example, if you move your pelvis forward, your horse will naturally move forward. If you draw your pelvis back, your horse will naturally step back. If you shift your weight and tilt your pelvis to one side, your horse will take that as a signal to move in that direction.

3. Why is correct seat important in developing good gaits in a horse?

If you have a balanced, supple, correct seat, you will be able to ride in harmony with your horse’s movements without interfering with the horse’s gaits. If you are unbalanced or stiff, you will not feel secure on horseback and you will tend to grip with your heels or cling to the reins for security. These bad habits will cause your horse to brace and stiffen against the equivalent of constant assault. A horse ridden in this manner cannot produce smooth, fluid gaits.

4. How do you correct problems with your horse’s gaits?

Begin by examining your riding style. Have someone film you riding your horse. Watch the video closely and look for errors such as unclear and/or contradictory aids and signals on your part. Identify areas where you might change or improve your technique to correct the situation.

5. When working on your horse’s gaits, what is the most important step?

It cannot be emphasized enough that developing your own seat is the most important part of training your horse to move with smooth, pure gaits. If you are relaxed, comfortable, flexible and secure on horseback, you will reflect and move along with your horse’s movements, and your horse will move freely and well. If you are stiff, uncomfortable and insecure, your horse will be as well. A comfortable, experienced rider will coax and encourage the best movement in any horse. A stiff, inexperienced rider will ruin a beautifully gaited horse.

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