Horse Gaits; How the Horse moves itself
Horse gaits are the different methods by which a horse, either naturally or
through human training, moves itself.
Gaits can be roughly categorized into the ordinary gaits that probably every
horse will do without special training, and several other gaits that may
appear spontaneously in some individuals but which usually require special
training and/or special breeding to enable the rider to obtain them by
communicating with the horse.
The ordinary horse gaits
Some people count these as three gaits, combining the canter and the gallop,
considering the gallop a variation of the canter. Others count them as four
gaits, separating the canter and the gallop.
In increasing order of speed, the ordinary gaits are: walk, trot, canter, and
gallop. Only two gaits are natural to wild horses: the walk and the gallop.
The trot and the canter have been developed in horses through domestication,
breeding, and training.
In this gait, the horse is alternately supported by three legs, and two legs.
The sequence of event is as follows. The left hind leg moves forward while the
other three feet are on the ground. Then the left front foot leaves the
ground, leaving the animal supported by the two right legs. The two supporting
right legs are far apart, with the other two legs in between. The left hind
foot hits the ground, and the animal is supported by three feet again. The
right hind foot leaves the ground, and the horse is supported by two diagonal
legs that are close together. The left front leg hits the ground, giving a
Then the motion continues from the start, but with left and right reversed:
the right front foot leaves the ground, the right hind foot hits the ground,
the left hind foot leaves the ground, and the right front foot hits the
ground, completing the cycle. As humans move their arms to balance when
walking and running, so too, the horse must move its head and neck to maintain
Ideally, the advancing rear hoof touches the ground ahead of the place at
which the previously advancing front hoof touched the ground. This makes for a
smoother and more comfortable (for the rider) walk. Different horse breeds (as
well as different individual horses) differ in how smooth their walk is.
Essentially all mammals, when walking on four legs, follow the same sequence:
left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, right front leg, in a regular
In this gait, the horse moves its legs in unison in diagonal pairs. From the
standpoint of the balance of the horse, this is a very stable gait, and the
horse need not make major balancing motions with its head and neck. The trot
is a two beat gait. The trot is often referred to as a jog. See also: fox
In the canter, one of the horse's rear legs, let us say the right rear leg,
impels the horse forward. During this beat, the horse is supported only on
that single leg while the remaining three legs are moving forward. On the next
beat the horse catches itself on the left rear and right front legs while the
other hind leg is still momentarily in contact with the ground. On the third
beat the horse catches itself on the left front leg while the diagonal pair is
momentarily still in contact with the ground.
The more-extended foreleg is referred to as the "lead". A horse initiating
with the right rear leg would have the diagonal front leg, the left, more
extended. This is referred to as being on the "left lead".
Listening to a horse canter, one can in most cases hear the three stages of
this movement as though a drum had been struck three times in succession. Then
there is a rest, and immediately afterwards the three-beat occurs again. At
liberty, individual horses may tend to prefer to lead with either the left or
right hind foot. Because horses, like humans, lean into a turn, the tighter
the turn the more it matters which lead is chosen. If, for instance, the horse
is turning to the left, then the horse's left front foot is more likely to be
the one that is extended farther to the front. Horses learn to balance
themselves around turns by adjusting their lead to the direction of their
When a rider is added to the horse's natural balance, the question of the lead
becomes more important. When riding in an enclosed area such as an arena, it
provides the horse with better balance to be on the correct lead. The rider
typically signals the horse which lead to adopt when moving from a slower gait
into the canter. In addition, when jumping over fences, the rider typically
causes the horse to switch from one lead to another (the "flying lead change"
or "flying change"). This switch is also a feature of dressage and reining
schooling and competition.
The word is commonly said to be short for "Canterbury-gallop", but it may come
from an expression meaning "corner-gallop".
Working canter: the natural canter given by a horse, with "normal" stride
Medium canter: a canter between the working canter and extended canter. It is
bigger and rounder than the working, very forward with moderate extension.
Collected canter: an extremely engaged, collected gait (balance is shifted
toward the hindquarters) where the strides are shorter and bouncier and the
horse's frame is short and compressed.
Extended canter: an extension of the canter, where the horse's frame lengthens
and the horse takes larger stride, with the horse covering as much ground as
possible without losing the 3-beat gait. It is very engaged.
Lope: seen in western horses, the canter is preformed on a
loose rein. There is less suspension than a working canter, and the horse has
a longer frame, but the gait is still 3-beat and the horse is well-engaged.
In the gallop, the gait is like the canter and feels the same, except the
three-beat canter changes to a four-beat movement. After a moment of
suspension, where all feet are off the ground, the four feet hit the ground
individually, the hind feet before the front feet. When the legs are stretched
out, at least one foot is in contact with the ground. When all four feet are
off the ground, the legs are bent, not extended (in contrast with old
"classic" paintings of running horses).
In a right-lead gallop, the sequence of events is as follows: after the phase
of suspension, the left hind foot hits the ground, then the right hind foot,
placed about 1 meter in front of the left hind foot. Then the left hind foot
leaves the ground, and immediately afterwards the left front foot hits the
ground. The horse is now supported on two diagonal legs, about 2.1 meters
apart. The right hind foot leaves the ground, and then the right front foot
hits the ground, placed about 1.55m in front of the left front foot. Then the
left foot leaves the ground. Finally the right foot provides the push off to
reach the phase of suspension again.
Note that when a horse jumps over a fence, the legs are stretched out while in
the air, and the front legs hit the ground before the hind legs, completely
different from the suspended phase of a gallop.
In 1892, Leland Stanford settled an argument about whether galloping horses
were ever fully airborne: he paid photographer Eadweard Muybridge to devise an
apparatus with multiple trip wires attached to camera shutters. The photos,
the first documented example of high-speed time-lapse photography, clearly
showed the horse airborne.
Some authors consider the canter and the gallop to be a single gait.
When some other animals (e.g. cows) gallop, the footfall order is: left hind,
right hind, right fore, left fore, or the same exchanging left and right. This
is called the "rotatory gallop".
As in the trot, two feet are always off the ground. In the trot, two
diagonally opposite legs move together; in the pace, the two legs on the same
side of the horse move together. The trot is more common, but some breeds of
horses prefer to pace. Horses can be raced at a trot or pace, usually when
pulling a sulkey. Among
standardbreds, to whom almost all such races are
restricted, pacers breed truer than trotters – that is, trotting sires have a
higher proportion of pacers among their get than pacing sires do of trotters.
Pacers are also faster than trotters on the average.
The pace is very comfortable for riding and was sometimes used for transport
Some Icelandic Horses can do the pace.
The slow gait
This gait follows the same general sequence of movement as the walk, but the
rhythm and collection of the movements are different. The slow gait was
developed from the pace, a gait that can currently be seen in harness racing.
In the pace, both legs on the left side move together and then both legs on
the right side move together. The speed of the two-beat pace is even faster
than the trot. If the length of the stride is kept long, but there is a slight
gap between the foots-falls, the result is a gait that will be intermediate in
speed between the walk and the pace, but very smooth.
In the rack, the speed is increased to be approximately that of the pace, but
instead of being a two-beat gait like the trot and the pace, it is a four-beat
gait with equal intervals between each beat. The fast trot is difficult to sit
because between beats the body of the horse actually falls (just as for humans
running is a coordinated rapid process of falling forth and catching oneself).
Each time another diagonal pair of legs hits the ground, the rider is given a
strong upward impulsion and meets the horse with some force on the way back
down. But in the rack the impulsive "explosions" are each divided in half
because the hooves hit the ground individually rather in pairs.
The rack is hardwired in the Racking horse, there are Racking horses that are
of moderate speed and there are speed rackers. A Racking horse can rack as
easily as other horses trot or canter.
Riding the Rack is like riding on a comfortable chair that slightly sways your
hips gently from side to side. To achieve this gait the horse must be in what
is termed a hollow position. Instead of a rounded back as seen in dressage
horses and those that work of their hind quarters, the spine is curved
downward. The downside of this is that this position weakens the back and
makes the horse less able to carry the weight of the rider without strain.
This puts the racking horse in the best position to rack without breaking into
another gait. If the rider sits back or leans slightly back this will cause
the hollow back, or the back to curve downward. This allows the legs to trail
and makes it easier for the horse to do the 4-beat single step called a rack.
The speed Racker can achieve speeds of a fast canter. The ride is smooth, and
the rider appears to remain motionless as the horse racks. The horse's tail
naturally is raised without nicking. The horse itself maintains a fairly still
head and most of the action is in the tail and legs.
The Racking associations goal is to preserve the Racking horse in a natural
state with little or no artificial devices that enhance gait. Some classes
allow special shoes that enhance the gait but chains and other devices are not
The foxtrot is most often associated with the Missouri Foxtrotter breed, but
is also seen under different names in other gaited breeds. The foxtrot is a
four-beat diagonal gait in which the front foot of the diagonal pair lands
before the hind, eliminating the moment of suspension and giving a "no bounce"
ride. The foxtrot is a comfortable gait for trail-riding.
Tolt is a gait that is often described as being unique to the Icelandic Horse.
In its pure form, it is the same as a Rack. Icelandic Riders will demonstrate
the smoothness of a tolt by going at the speed of a gallop without spilling a
drink they hold. However, some of the breed have a tolt that is considered
imperfect, and may be described as a "trotty tolt" or a "pacey tolt".
More Info About Horse Gaits
At the full canter (or full gallop) and at the extremely collected canter, the
impacts of the two diagonally related legs are sufficiently separated in time
to be differentiated. At this time one will hear a four-beat canter.
When turning, the horse will naturally lean into the turn. It is at this time
that it makes a great deal of difference to the horse which front leg is
moving together which the diagonally opposed rear leg, and which front leg is
moving independently. If the horse were turning to the left, for instance, its
left side would be lower to the ground because it is leaning into the left
turn. It is advantageous to the horse, then, to be able to extend the left leg
farther to the front. In fact, the horse cannot lean if the leg on that side
is directly under its body. So the only possible thing to do with that leg is
to move it farther forward than it would need to be if the horse were going
straight. To put the situation in somewhat more familiar terms, imagine a
racing bicycle rider trying to take a tight turn at high speed while riding a
bicycle with a child's training wheels. The training wheel on the inside of
the turn would prevent the rider from leaning into the turn, and a crash would
probably result as weight came off his main rear wheel and went onto the
If the horse moves forward with the left front hoof moving independently and
the right front and left rear hooves moving together, the horse is said to be
taking the left lead. If the right hoof goes out in front the horse is on the
right lead. According to the mechanics just discussed, it is easiest for the
horse to take a left turn on the left lead.
If a horse is deliberately instructed to take a left turn on the right lead,
or vice-versa, this is called a "counter canter" ("counter gallop"). Moderate
use of this gait by an informed rider may be useful in the athletic training
of the horse, but the horse that is still not sufficiently athletically
developed to handle the difficult balancing act involved may try to compensate
in ways that will be detrimental to its well being and to its training.
There are several specialized breeds of horses with special genetic
inheritance of which facilitates the spontaneous or trained appearance of
other gaits such as the pace (in which the legs move in lateral pairs rather
than diagonal pairs), the slow gait, the rack, etc. The
has been selectively bred to easily learn the walk, trot, gallop, slow gait,
and rack. The Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino are two breeds which have a smooth,
innate gait sometimes known as the running walk or the paso corto, paso largo,
and paso fino. Another breed famous for its distinctive mode of locomotion is