Four Beat Canters & Lopes

     There is a great deal of discussion among western riders & judges about what a lope should look (and sound) like. The primary split is between those who favor the four beat lope, which became common in the last half century, and those that consider it an abomination. I’m going to complicate that by looking at cases where the canter also becomes four beats, most commonly in dressage and in saddleseat. In all disciplines, the number of beats can be the easiest criteria to look at, but it does not denote quality or lack thereof on its own. A more detailed understanding of the mechanics can benefit both riders and judges, and help us articulate and achieve a variety of goals.

First, let’s take a look at some official definitions:

AQHA Rulebook:

   SHW330.3 The lope is an easy, rhythmical three-beat gait. Horses moving to the left should lope on the left lead. Horses moving to the right should lope on the right lead. Horses traveling at a four-beat gait are not considered to be performing at a proper lope. The horse should lope with a natural stride and appear relaxed and smooth. It should be ridden at a speed that is a natural way of going. The head should be carried at an angle which is natural and suitable to the horse’s conformation at all gaits. (pg. 114)

USEF Rulebook, Morgan Division:

  • Canter: Smooth, collected and straight on both leads.
  • Lope: Smooth, slow, straight and a three beat cadence. 
  • Extended Lope: A lengthening of stride while maintaining a smooth, straight, three beat cadence.
  • Extended Canter: The extended canter should be ground covering, free moving and smooth. The extended canter should show a definite lengthening of stride, while still being controlled and mannerly. Extreme speed SHALL be penalized. 
  • Hand Gallop: Long, free ground covering stride under control. Not a fast collected canter, but a true lengthening of stride, correct and straight on both leads. Extreme speed penalized. (pg. 943)

     Note: number of beats is only specified for lope. Within the chart for “major and minor” faults in the Morgan Western Pleasure division (pg. 951), number of beats is not listed. Thus, it is up to the discretion of the judge whether it should be considered a major or minor fault. The Arabian Western Pleasure division does specify “not performing a three beat lope” as a major fault (pg. 345). The Arabian division, in general, has stricter and more cut & dry rules. The Morgan Park Saddle section uses “proper cadence” as one of its criteria, but never mentions number of beats (pg. 944). 

USEF Rulebook, Dressage Division:

  1. The canter is a three-beat gait where, in canter to the right, for example, the footfall is as follows: left hind, left diagonal (simultaneously left fore and right hind), right fore, followed by a moment of suspension with all four feet in the air before the next stride begins.
  1. The following canters are recognized: Working canter, lengthening of strides, Collected canter, Medium canter and Extended canter. 
  2. Working canter. This is a pace between the collected and the medium canter, in which a horse’s training is not yet developed enough and ready for collected movements. The horse shows natural balance while remaining “on the bit”, and goes forward with even, light and active strides and good hock action. The expression “good hock action” underlines the importance of an impulsion originating from the activity of the hindquarters. 
  3. Lengthening of strides. In some tests, “lengthening of strides” is required. This is a variation between the working and medium canter in which a horse’s training is not developed enough for medium canter. 
  4. Collected canter. The horse, remaining “on the bit”, moves forward with the neck raised and arched. The hocks, being well-engaged, maintain an energetic impulsion, enabling the shoulders to move with greater mobility thus demonstrating self carriage and an uphill tendency. The horse’s strides are shorter than in the other canters, without losing elasticity and cadence. 
  5. Medium canter. This is a pace between the working and the extended canter. Without hurrying, the horse goes forward with clearly lengthened strides and impulsion from the hindquarters. The rider allows the horse to carry the head a little more in front of the vertical than in the collected and working canter, and at the same time allows the horse, to lower the head and neck slightly. The strides should be balanced and unconstrained. 
  6. Extended canter. The horse covers as much ground as possible. Without hurrying, the strides are lengthened to the utmost. The horse remains calm, light and straight as a result of great impulsion from the hindquarters. The rider allows the horse to lengthen the frame with a controlled poll and to gain ground. The whole movement should be well-balanced and the transition to collected canter should be smoothly executed by taking more weight on the hindquarters.

(pg 474-475)

     In all of these very different competitions, a four-beat canter or lope is considered a flaw. So what is the difference between them? Are good canters and lopes always three-beat? Problematically, no. 

     The most visible, and visibly problematic, of the four-beat canters and lopes are in Western divisions, especially among stock horse breeds. AQHA specified four-beat lopes as a flaw after USEF did, and there is still some disagreement among judges in all breeds about if it is a flaw and how severe a flaw it is. There are related discussions on headcarriage, as often an extreme four-beat lope also has a very down hill appearance, with the horse leaning on the forehand and the head carried below the chest. This sort of movement that is very recognizable, and while it does cause the horse to cover a minimum of ground (i.e., go slow), it is clearly detrimental to the horse. I won’t show examples here, but if you search youtube for “western pleasure” you will find a range of examples. While seeing the break of the footfalls can sometimes be difficult without slow-motion, horses that move in this way have a noticeable hitch in their stride as they move forward using their backs and forelegs rather than their hips and hindlegs.

     The second place where this type of gait is very noticeable and not uncommon is in saddleseat. It is not, however, talked about as a number of beats issue. It is most often talked about as a shoeing issue, as the heavy shoes and action devices can often cause the same hitching four-beat gait as western pleasure riders can achieve by backing the horse out of the bridle. In saddleseat, this gait is hugely animated, and when achieved more by equipment than by training and conditioning it can appear very strange and un-horselike. This is, of course, exemplified most by the “big lick” walking horses, but can be seen in varying degrees anywhere a collected, animated canter is desire: park classes, most other saddleseat classes, and yes, even in dressage.

     But wait, didn’t I say that a four-beat canter or lope isn’t always bad? I did. The reason lopes often devolve into four-beat eyesores is because we humans, as rider, trainers, and judges, get stuck on the idea of “slow.” We forget that the lope is actually a type of collection, and requires building up the horse’s strength, stamina, and coordination. The reason saddleseat and even dressage fall prone to a similar four-beat gait, with the horse laboring more from its front end than its hind, is the same. It is a lack of conditioning. That lack can be temporary, a moment in the horse’s progression, or it can become chronic if we are not aware of the issue. The problem, however, is not actually in the number of beats.

1770 representation.
Also this article is well worth reading.
This pirouette is lovely, balanced, strong– and four beat.
Or how about this jumper over poles. Still four beat, but I would not call this a flaw.
Neither I nor the judge placed this leggy Morgan first, but she does show how the park canter can be four beat without causing an inversion of the back.










     These are all cases of four-beat canters that are ‘correct;’ meaning, they maintain the soundness of the horse and its balance to be able to move into a different gait or maneuver. They tend to go to four beats due the the degree of collection, with the hind of the diagonal pair landing before the fore, but the pair leaving the ground together. Now go back and look at those youtube videos. Look closely at the ones you didn’t like. Play with the pause button. Are any of those broken looking lopes three-beat? I’d bet a few of them are. Because of the focus on the number of beats, that issue is often fixed without addressing the underlying cause. Just as shoes aren’t necessarily the issue in saddleseat (plenty of keg-shod horses also move in a disunited fashion), not all three-beat lopes are good and not all four-beat lopes are bad: it is a question of carriage, not beats. The canter, or even the lope, moves fast. So we have to learn to see fast, or take advantage of the technology we have that lets us see it more slowly, in more detail, and play it over and over again. We need to look at the quality of the movement, rather than the quantifiable numbers of how they move. No matter the discipline, we need to look at the whole picture.

   I should also footnote this post with two other cases of (non-gaiting) fourbeat, being the true gallop (which is by definition four beats) and the break or jump, the little-discussed transition ‘gait’ see in racehorses, barrelhorses, ropers, and others who accelerate suddenly.

Gaits: The Running Walk

As always let me begin by saying that the best way to find out what gait your horse is doing is to have a ground person with a good eye, who will help you develop a feel for each gait. A camera that will allow you to view him moving frame-by-frame is also helpful.

The runningwalk is exactly what it sounds like. The hoof-fall pattern is identical to the walk, four beat and even (neither lateral nor diagonal). The Tennessee Walking Horse is of course the breed best known for this gait, but many gaited horses have this “middle” gait. The Tennessee Walking Horse tends to have gaits on the lateral end of the spectrum, both because of the rack (being an even footfall but lateral in weightbearing), and because of the emphasis on overstride, where being a hair to the lateral helps in preventing interference. These middle gaits can absolutely be achieved without any equipment or shoes. The horse in a runningwalk should have a fairly level back, and as such it much kinder on the back than any of the lateral gaits. However, it can be very straining on the lower limb. It is a difficult gait to collect, as most horses will either fall to the lateral or break to the flat walk.

“Cajun” Cloud 9 Walkers

Keep asking for your horse to extend the walk. Some horses are so smooth you may not even notice the change of gears at first. Get to know the feeling of the transition, even though our goal is for it to be nearly imperceptible. If you can feel the moment the horse goes into gait, you will be able to ask for the gait more reliably. You might feel as if your horse’s back suddenly tilts, as they work to get under themselves, and you suddenly have more power, more “go”. A moment before, they were laboring to extend their walk, and now they have plenty to give.

Gaits: The Foxtrot

The best way to find out what gait your horse is doing is to have a ground person with a good eye, who will help you develop a feel for each gait. A camera that will allow you to view your horse moving frame-by-frame is also helpful.

The foxtrot is a four beat diagonal gait. What this means, is that each leg moves independently (four beat), with the diagonal pairs moving close together. The rhythm will be 1-2, 1-2. Much like the hard trot, the more suspension (the pause between each “1-2”), the rougher the gait will be. The foxtrot is unusual in that it is the only gait, four beat or otherwise, in which the front hoof lands first! The Missouri Foxtrotter is of course expected to have a foxtrot, but any horse that has both a true trot and any four beat gait can probably also perform the foxtrot. Unlike most four-beat gaits, I prefer the foxtrot to keep the pairs moving closer together, to avoid the tendency of the horse to lean forward onto the shoulder in this gait.

Front Right-Left Hind–Left Front-Right Hind
Left Front-Right Hind–Front Right-Left Hind

Foxtrotter in lengthened foxtrot. Note the near front hoof having just hit ground, while the off hind is just about to.
Foxtrotter in lengthened foxtrot. Note the near front hoof having just hit ground, while the off hind is just about to.
Foxtrotter in mildly collected foxtrot. Note that the back remains more level than in a collected trot, but the hip rotates and drops and hind legs should step well under.
Foxtrotter in mildly collected foxtrot. Note that the back remains more level than in a collected trot, but the hip rotates and drops and hind legs should step well under.

The the rider’s hip motion in the foxtrot is mostly forward-back. A horse in an “extended” foxtrot may give you just enough movement to post to. It you feel like you could post to it without a lateral wobble, but you still hear four beats, you’ve found the foxtrot. Now relax a little and let your hips just follow your horses back. If you post strongly in a foxtrot, you will encourage the hard trot.


Further reading:
Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association
“Within a Fox Trot” by Liz Graves

What Can a Gaited Horse Do?

I often get asked this. Many people assume that, if they don’t want to be involved with shows requiring crazy shoes and crazier equipment, that gaited horses are only good for trail rides (which they are great for). But, they can do anything another horse can do! Well, nearly. Assuming you have a sound, healthy horse, there is only one limitation. You cannot enter a class that calls for a gait your horse cannot perform. This means that if your horse can’t trot (many gaited horses also trot), you can’t enter a class that calls for trot. If your horse only does a running walk, you can’t enter a class that calls for a fox-trot. Of course, at home you can play with adapting any sport to your horse’s gait.
So what can you do? Aside from gait or breed specific shows, gaited horses are becoming popular in performance sports. Trail is of course where the benefit of gait is most seen, but you also see gaited horses in open jumping and barrels. There is also an eventing format just for gaited horses!
The hardest thing for most riders is finding a way to show at the local level. You need to do two things for this: be creative, and get involved. Look over you local class listing and see what your gaited horse CAN go in (assuming they don’t trot). This takes some creativity, as you usually can’t do a “division.” You can do trail (english, western, or both); “go-as-you-please” or “all day” classes (these usually call for a walk, and then choice of gait); cakewalk, musical posts, or other similar fun classes; and any gymkhana or timed classes, even if you don’t want to go fast. If all else fails, just show up and ride around the grounds. Think of it as a colorful trail ride. Get to know people. Then comes step two! Get involved, help out with your local saddle club. Then you can suggest adding a class or two for gaited horses.

Historic Horses: The Spanish Jennet

     Every gaited American breed claims as its progenitor the “Spanish Jennet.” Unfortunately, there was no such breed. These folks might be a little upset by that. The Jennet, or Gineta, horse was a riding discipline, rather than a breed. For more on this, I recommend The Art of Riding on Every Saddle (a 15th century riding manual), and this article.
     So what were these horses? The mythos of the Spanish Jennet is not a modern invention. There are multitudes of records outside of the Iberian peninsula referring to horses an “Spanish Jennets” (or Genets, or Genetas), and they do all share a number of characteristics. Regardless of how they were categorized at home, an Iberian animal whose primary purpose was aristocratic travel was called a “jennet.”
The common characteristics were: a “small” head, an abundance of hair, often an unusual coat color, high set neck, and usually an “amble.” In paintings they often have long backs, and while we consider this a flaw is does prevent an exuberantly gaiting horse from stepping on itself (ever wonder why you usually see boots on Icelandics?). These were also not exceptionally large animals.
     If you’re looking for a modern “Jennet,” I recommend the Peruvian Paso:

JWF Aficion

     Or a Mangalarga Marchador:

Júpiter Quitumba

     Currently only Pasos (both the Peruvian, and the Puerto Rican Paso Fino) are allowed to be registered with the Spanish Jennet Horse Society which seeks to recreate this historical horse, except in the case of “atigrado,” or appaloosa-colored, division where Paso-crosses are permitted.