Gaits at a Glance

I had an absolute blast spending a couple of days with a former student who now runs Summer Rose Horsemanship in Hagerstown, MD. Along with getting to ride her Heck horse– who was quite a skittish fellow when I met him, but is now a cuddlebug and quite flashy– we did some work with a couple of gaited horses on the farm, helping their riders ask for better and more consistent gaits.

Usually, when folks ask where they can learn more about the different possible gaits and their mechanics, I point them at GaitedHorses.net It hasn’t changed a whole lot since I started digging around it (almost two decades ago…yikes!), but it’s still a great resource. There are good articles, clear diagrams, and lots and lots of links out to further resources. Unfortunately, it can be a bit overwhelming. So I felt inspired to write out brief definitions for the different gaits, and how I usually talk about and work with them. I hope you find it helpful.

The Pace

The pace is a two beat lateral gait, meaning the legs move in pairs, one side at a time. Just like the trot (and jog), there are many types of pace– or any gait! I group the pace gaits as follows:

Flying Pace
This is the racing gait. I take the term ‘flying’ pace from the Icelandic flugskeið; I’ve always found the term quite descriptive! The flying pace has speed, power, and a lot of air time. It is an extended gait, and requires the horse to be fairly strong in the pace. It will often throw the rider from side to side. Long suspension (the period when all four feet are off the ground) means the hooves hit the ground fairly hard, requiring a lot of flexion in the joint to absorbs the shock and push off again. To stay sound, the horse needs to be physically conditioned as well as capable. Imagine you are conditions a race horse (you are, it is a lot of aerobics), and a park horse or upper level dressage horse at the same time. This is not something to be rushed, or overdo. For the few horses I’ve worked at the flying pace, I try to minimize the lateral thrust. This is for my comfort, and to encourage them to land with their hoof flat; many pacers will land on the outside edge of their hoof, putting additional strain on the leg.

Hard Pace
This is also descriptive. The hard pace is a rather jolting gait. It does still have some suspension, but much less than the flying pace. The two lateral pairs of legs move slightly closer together– a “One-–Two” to the flying pace’s “One….Two.” The hind leg of one pair will not track up (where the hind foot lands near where the forefoot leaves the ground), but land somewhere in the middle distance. At the top end of the hard pace, you can post to it. I largely avoid this gait, unless training up for the flying pace.

Soft Pace
I’ve never heard this term elsewhere, but again it’s pretty descriptive! Gaited horse folks usually know what I mean right away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others have come up with the same term, or something similar. This is the pace– that two beat lateral gait– with little or no suspension. This is the pace equivalent of the jog. For horses that are fully lateral (like the lovely big black Tennessee Walker Raven I worked with this week, or Commander, a Walker I worked with in New York), this might be one of their working gaits. For those with the full spectrum of gaits (like Promise, the Spotted Saddle Horse in the cover image), I tend to use this only as a stepping stone. A good soft pace should be, in essence, a collected gait. It shouldn’t just be slow, it should be balanced, with adequate flexion in the limbs (much less than the trot, but much more than the flying pace), and ideally a bit of a shift in the hip, engaging the core and stepping more under than out with the hind leg.

This is often hard, as all lateral gaits are “ventroflexed,” meaning the spine tends to go down (and therefore the head up). However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for us or our horses to slouch along! That way lies soreness for all. I often take advantage of the fact that this gait can be physically taxing to the horse. I ask for the best possible soft pace, with a bit of contact and minimal wobble, asking the horse to stay so very very straight, slow but energetic. And then I encourage them to break to the stepped pace, which they usually do quite eagerly. I will also do this with multi gaited horses that have a strong trot, but are weak in the pace and running walk. It’s often easier to build a little bit of muscle and co-ordination in the pacing gaits of these multi-gaited horses before moving to the running walk or rack.

Stepped Pace

The stepped, stepping, or broken pace is a four beat lateral gait. The two legs on the same side move closer to each other than to their opposites. Some folks use “stepped,” “stepping,” and “broken” to mean slightly different timings in this gait, but others use them interchangeably. As with all equestrian language (ahem, sorrel), there are regional, discipline, and breed dialects. In Saddlebreds, this is the “slow gait.” I tend to just use stepped pace, for simplicities sake, and then describe the gait as “more” or “less” broken. I prefer a firm separation of the pairs, with each hoof landing independently (rather than the front starting to land as the hind finishes landing). There should be less lateral wobble in this gait than in the pace, but not yet the big head nodding V of the running walk. This is actually my favorite gait! I have a short hip, which tends to cramp in a good running walk (not to mention the ab workout of the running walk! …. I should get a walking horse). While all pacing gaits can be hard to collect, the stepped pace is often hard to extend; horses tend to break to the rack.

The Middle Gaits

Rack
This might be a tad controversial. Rack tends to get its own category. I’m going to group it here with the running walk not because they are the same gait, but because they tend to be found together. It’s possible this is genetic. It’s also possible it’s just breeders’ influence. In any case, both gaits are fairly in the middle of the lateral-diagnol spectrum, and I haven’t (yet) met a horse with a solid running walk that couldn’t also rack. The divisions we give between walking gaits and racking gaits also varies drastically by breed culture!

The rack has been described as even on landing, lateral pickup. What this means is that the landing of the hooves is an even 1-2-3-4, like the running walk, but the lateral pairs come off the ground closer together. This doesn’t precisely fit everything I’ve called a rack (anything four beat can be slippery anyway!), but it’s a good way of thinking about it. The rack tends to have a shorter, faster leg sequence than the running walk, making it just a little easier on those human ab muscles. I tend to break the rack into saddle rack (a paso fino or corto, or slow tölt) and speed rack (or fast tölt).

Running Walk
Everyone says they want a horse with a running walk. It’s the easiest gait, it’s so smooth, you don’t even need to learn to ride it. And then they get on a horse with a serious, big striding, ear flopping, running walk. It can be absolutely exhilarating! But it is also work. If you’re tall, with a long hip (so not me), it is merely exercise. Imagine one of those as-seen-on-TV machines that will do you ab workout for you. You’re…still doing crunches. The running walk needs a big upward swing to the rider’s hip, like sitting an extended trot. One of the reasons you often see riders in the rack or running walk leaning back is training; the other reason is that it opens the hip angle, allowing you to follow that big motion just a little bit easier. While the running walk has a lot of motion, it has minimal concussion; in this, it can be much easier on the rider than any other gait. One way to differentiate between a running walk and a rack is the number of hooves on the ground.

Many horses also have a gait somewhere between a flat walk (a big extended snappy walk that most horses, gaited or not, can develop) and a true running walk. I don’t have a word for it. Technically, it is still a running walk– four beat even, same footfall pattern as the walk. But I find it to be at least as different as trot and jog; the stride is a bit shorter, the footfalls are closer together, the back has less motion as the horse doesn’t need to stretch to their utmost. It is not, however, collected.

Foxtrot

Fun fact: the original American Horse Show Association rules for stock horses included the foxtrot, and the National Quarter Horse Breeders’ Association preferred it!

The foxtrot is a four beat diagonal gait– effectively a broken trot. It s also the only gait that lands a front hoof first. Like the stepped pace, it can lean more or less diagonal. Again, I prefer nicely separated hoofbeats.

Trot

I think y’all have got this one, right?

I’m going to add one note here, and that is the idea of collection within extension. Collection is not about speed, but rather about carriage. Good extended tot (or any gait) will have some elements of collected carriage: the core and back are engaged (regardless of the type of flexion governed by the gait), the hip muscles are in use (in trotting gaits this is often clear, as the hip will visibly rotate under the horse), and the horse lands in such a way that it can easily leave the ground again, in any direction. Look at the difference between a racing trot (especially in harness) and a dressage style extended trot.

I need more gaited horses to work with!

Equine Etymology: The Origins of Canter

This article says that “if you look up the word canter, it means to maintain a canted position.” While this is true, this is not the origins of the word “canter” for the three beat ‘running’ gait of the horse. If you’ve taken any Romance languages, you might have wondered why trot and gallop tend to be cognates, but canter doesn’t translate well. In French, it is a ‘petit galop,’ or little gallop. In Spanish, it is ‘medio galope,’ or mediumgallop (which may say a little about the relative riding styles). German does haveclerkCTa cognate for canter, being ‘kanter,’ which at first may seem to be because German does not stem from Latin, but it is simply taken from English. Germany’s domination of Equestrian sport came fairly late, and so much of the equestrian vocabulary in German is borrowed from English and French. So why does English stand alone in this? English tends to steal words and grammatical structures from a variety of languages, but the term ‘canter’ originated in English, in England. It is short for the ‘Canterbury gallop,’ which has more to do with an easy or lazy pace than with the angle of the gait.