Newcomers to the horse world are often left bewildered as they struggle to decipher the outdated and obscure lingo that experienced horsemen and women throw about left, right and center. One of the terms you may have heard is “gaited horse,” but what does that mean? You’ve heard your instructor talking about your horse’s gait while referencing walk, trot, and canter, so aren’t all horses gaited?
Gaited horses are horses who are capable of artificial single-foot, four-beat gaits. The artificial gaits either have a lateral or diagonal footfall pattern which may be isochronous or non-isochronous. The ability to gait is dependent on genetic inheritance and is developed with careful training.
Most people can identify a gaited horse when they see one move, but they struggle to define what constitutes a gaited horse. Is it a breed, a specific movement, or a discipline like saddle-seat riding? This article explores what makes a horse gaited or non-gaited and identifies the differences between artificial and natural gaits.
What Is A Gaited Horse?
Gaits refer to the horse’s movement pattern, specifically to the horse’s biomechanics, footfall sequence, and body posture as they move at different speeds.
All healthy horses can perform the four so-called natural gaits; walk, trot, canter, and gallop. However, only a few breeds of horses can produce additional gaits.
Horses capable of performing a single-footed, four-beat ambling gait at intermediate to fast speeds are called gaited horses. These gaited horses always have one foot on the ground at all times and thus are informally known as “single-foots,” “single-footed horses,” and “amblers” in the USA.
In addition, to walk, trot, canter, and gallop, gaited horses perform one or more of the following “extra” gaits:
- Slow gaits including the classic amble, singlefoot, Marcha picada, and stepping pace
- Rack, Tölt or running walk
- Paso fino, paso corto and paso largo
- Fox trot, Marcha batida, trocha and pasitrote
- Revaal, aphcal and rehwal
Why Were Gaited Horses Developed?
If you have ever ridden Arabians, the world-record holder for long-distance rides, you will be able to sympathize with the struggles of medieval riders. Bruised bums, sore backs, and jostled brains made these riders determined to discover a more comfortable mode of transport.
Before cars and other mechanical modes of transport, the horse was the primary tool for long-distance travel. Long-distance horseback travel is not comfortable and was made worse by the poor condition of the available roads.
These desperate but innovative horsemen and women began purposefully breeding horses with the desired movement; ultimately, the selective breeding of horses demonstrating the artificial gaits led to the advent of the modern gaited horse breeds.
A gaited horse is more comfortable to ride; these horses have reduced vertical movement, impact, ground floor reaction, and less back movement than a typical horse. These “smooth-ride” locomotion strategies made the gaited horses the perfect travel companion for multi-day journeys.
What Are The Four Gaits Natural To All Horses?
The walk, trot, canter, and gallop are four gaits that virtually any horse, gaited or non-gaited, can perform as long as they are healthy and balanced.
|Symmetry||Yes||Yes||No – leading inside leg extends further forward than the outside front leg||No – leading inside leg extends further forward than the outside front leg|
|Different leads (foot placement) based on the direction of travel||No||No||Yes – right and left leads||Yes – right and left leads|
|Base of support||Triangular with at least 2 to 3 legs in contact with the ground||Diagonal||Diagonal (1st phase of stance) to triangular (midstance) to single-leg support (late stance phase)||Diagonal to triangular to single-leg support|
|Beat||4 beat||2 beat||3 beat||4 beat|
|Suspension (aerial gait phase)||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Footfall sequence||1 beat – left hind leg 2 beat – left front leg 3 beat – right hind leg 4 beat – right front leg||1 beat – left hind leg and right front leg Moment of suspension 2 beat – right hind leg and left front leg||1 beat – outside hind leg 2 beat – inside hind leg and outside front leg 3 beat – inside front leg Moment of suspension||1 beat – outside hind leg 2 beat – inside hindleg and 3 beat – outside front leg 4 beat – inside front leg Moment of suspension|
|Variations||Collected, working, extended||Collected, working, extended, piaffe and passage||Collected, working, medium, extended||Slow gallop and full gallop|
Comparing Alternate Ambling Gaits To Natural Gaits
The natural gaits of walk, trot, canter, and gallop are called “natural” because virtually all horses are capable of these four gaits.
The artificial gaits, also known as alternative gaits, are the product of a gene mutation that was selectively bred for during the medieval period. These “extra” gaits became known as artificial gaits because they do not occur in wild horses.
The differences between natural and alternate gaits:
|Natural Gaits||Alternate Ambling Gaits|
|Except for the walk, all-natural gaits have a moment of suspension in which vertical body movement is increased.||Never have a moment of suspension regardless of speed or type of gait performed.|
|Can be a 4-beat, 2-beat, or 3-beat movement depending on the gait performed||Only ever a 4-beat movement.|
|The slowest 4-beat gait is a walk, and the fastest is a gallop||The alternate gaits are faster than a walk but slower than a gallop|
|The natural gaits are most expressive and dramatic when performed with a rounded, convex posture||The alternate gaits are most expressive when performed with a hollow, concave posture|
|4-distinct gait types with variation according to the degree of collection||4-distinct gait groups (lateral, diagonal, isochronous, non-isochronous) with variations according to breed specifications|
How Is Gaited Horse Movement Described?
Alternative gaits produced by a gaited horse are classified according to three parameters:
- Lateral versus diagonal gaits
- Timing and cadence producing isochronous or non-isochronous gaits
- Footfall sequence
Lateral Vs. Diagonal Alternate Gaits In Gaited Horses
Lateral gaits are 4-beat gaits in which the ipsilateral legs (i.e., legs on the same side) have a 1-2 sequence:
- Right hind leg
- Right front leg
- Left hind leg
- Left front leg
By contrast, diagonal gaits are identified by a diagonal movement sequence of footfalls:
- Left front leg
- Right hind leg
- Right front leg
- Left hind leg
The most well-known lateral alternative gaits include the running walk, slow gaits, rack, tölt, and Paso fino gaits produced by the Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, Paso Fino, Morgan, Cape Boerperd, and Icelandic Horse.
Fewer gaited horse breeds are capable of producing an alternative diagonal gait. The most famous diagonal ambler is the Missouri Fox Trotter, named after their foxtrot gait.
The foxtrot is a 1-2, pause, 3-4 beat gait, in which the front leg lands slightly ahead of the contralateral (i.e., opposite) hind leg. The foxtrot is a more energy-efficient gait than an alternative lateral gait; the foxtrot resembles a walk stride in front and a trot action in the hind legs.
Cadence And Timing Of Alternate Gaits In Gaited Horses
Alternative gaits are frequently described in terms of cadence and timing. Isochronous gaits refer to alternative gaits in which the footfalls have a steady, rhythm cadence and the time between footfalls is equal. These gaits are said to be isochronous.
There are no alternative diagonal gaits that are isochronous. Examples of lateral isochronous gaits are the single foot slow gait and rack.
Unlike isochronous gaits, the timing between footfalls in non-isochronous gaits differs. Regardless of whether it is a diagonal or lateral gait, most non-isochronous gaits have the following pattern: step, step, pause, step, step, i.e., 1-2, longer interval, 3-4.
All alternative diagonal gaits are non-isochronous; the pause between diagonal footfalls is shorter than the pause occurring as the horse switches to the new diagonal pair. Examples of non-isochronous lateral gaits include the stepping pace slow gait and the less well-known Paso Fino gait, the sobreandando.
When competing, Paso Fino riders must ride their horses over a thin strip of plywood placed on the ground. The judges can hear the horses’ footfalls and severely penalize horses displaying less than perfect regularity.
These gaited horses are better at keeping a steady beat than a musical metronome!
Comparing Alternate Ambling Gaits To Pacing
If you are knowledgeable about horse locomotion, you may have heard of pacing. Pacing is an additional gait that most horses cannot perform; however, this gait is not commonly attributed to gaited horses due to distinct differences in biomechanics.
|Alternate Ambling Gaits||Pacing|
|Can be diagonal or lateral||Always lateral|
|Footfall sequence: legs are moved individually||Footfall sequence: ipsilateral legs are moved together as a pair|
|Rhythm: 1-2-3-4 or 1-2, 3-4||Rhythm: 1-2|
|No moment of suspension thus less body movement||Moment of suspension as horse switches from right leg pair to left leg pair|
|Developed as a comfortable gait for intermediate speeds – it is always slower than a gallop.||Developed as a high-speed gait – it can rival the galloping speeds of horses.|
|Developed for riding surfaces||Too uncomfortable to ride, only used for harness racing|
|Performed by gaited horses||Performed by pacers (also known as trotters) and some gaited horses|
|Controlled by a dominant gene||Controlled by recessive genes|
Can Gaited Horses Pace Like A Trotter?
The ambling gaits of a gaited horse were developed to create a comfortable riding horse.
Pacing requires the horse to throw its body from side to side as it shifts its balance from the left pair of legs to the right pair of legs, making this one of the most uncomfortable movements to ride – it feels like your spine is trying to twist like a pretzel breaking in half!
Most gaited horse breeds cannot pace, and the gaited breeds capable of pacing are often discouraged from doing so.
The one exception to this “no-pacing” rule is the Icelandic horse. These tiny horses are actively encouraged to perform the tölt (lateral ambling gait) and the flying pace (lateral pace).
Racing Icelandic horses performing the flying pace achieve median speeds of 11.18 m/s (25 mph) and maximum speeds of 12.31 m/s (27.5 mph), according to a study done by Gunnar Reynisson.
Non-gaited horses may also demonstrate a bastardized version of pacing during collected walk and piaffe. Pacing in these horses is incorrect and a sign of poor balance and inadequate strength.
True pacing results from a recessive gene; a horse needs to be homozygous (i.e., have two copies of the gene) to show a true lateral pace. The most well-studied pacer is the standardbred.
It is thought that the homozygous form of the pacing gene inhibits the horses’ ability to gallop or canter, a restriction not seen in the heterozygous phenotype of gaited horses.
Are Piaffe And Passage Ambling Gaits?
Dressage riders pride themselves on the development and purity of the natural gaits demonstrated by their horses; most dressage enthusiasts are horrified to discover that while the passage and piaffe are derived from the trot, scientists classify them as artificial gaits.
Both piaffe and passage show increased stride duration, decreased suspension, and shorter stride length correlating with the degree of collection, hind joint flexion, and shift of the center of mass backward.
Both the piaffe and passage show slight dissociation of the hindleg, thus distinguishing the movement from a traditional trot footfall sequence. The forward momentum is reduced in the passage and negligible in piaffe; a well-developed piaffe should be performed on the spot with no backward or forward motion.
While the piaffe and passage may be technically challenging and a feat of athletic prowess, they cannot be classified as an ambling gait.
A well-executed piaffe and passage should show a clear 2- beat diagonal movement pattern. The passage has a small but distinct aerial phase (i.e., moment of suspension) absent from all ambling gaits.
The piaffe lacks an aerial phase as horses have a slight overlap (i.e., 4 leg stance phase) as they switch between diagonal supports.
A weak or poorly executed piaffe may show a distinct 4 beat gait instead of the correct 2 beat diagonalization. An incorrect piaffe meets 2 criteria needed for the gait to be classified as an ambling gait, i.e., 4-beat with no suspension.
However, the piaffe fails to meet the 3rd criteria. For a gait to be classified as an ambling gait, the horse must travel forward and move faster than a walking speed while maintaining the correct footfall sequence.
Are Gaited Horses Genetically Predisposed To Gaiting?
Research conducted in the past 11 years has revealed fascinating insights into the genetic profile of gaited horses. It is believed that a mutated variant of the wild allele DMRT3 is linked to the horse’s ability to produce an artificial gait, i.e., ambling or pacing.
A high percentage of the gaited horses demonstrate either homozygous or heterozygous DMRT3 genotypes. Horses homozygous for the A-allele show an inhibited canter transition and poor gallop quality, causing these horses to favor the artificial gait over the natural canter.
Horse’s homozygous for the C-allele typically score higher for their canter transitions and the quality of their canter and gallop.
What Horse Breeds Are Naturally Gaited?
Horses that have been bred to be gaited include the:
- Cape Boerperd
- American Saddlebred
- Tennessee Walking Horse
- Missouri Fox Trotter
- Paso Fino
- Icelandic Horse
- Peruvian Paso
- Rocky Mountain Horse
Other breeds of horses display a natural affinity for the ambling gaits, but the horses listed here are the most popular gaited horses used and ridden in modern times.
Gaited horses typically carry the DMRT3 variant gene and can perform a single-footed ambling gait at speeds greater than a horse’s natural walking speed. These horses are valued as riding horses due to the smooth, comfortable feeling they give the rider.