The Terminology of Equine Movement
We use the term “gaits” to describe a horse’s movements at various speeds. Many horses have the standard gaits that you may be familiar with, such as the walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Other horses have additional gaits specific to their breed.
This ‘guide to gaits’ provides an overview of all horse movement. Most horses that you will encounter move using basic gaits such as walk, trot, canter, and gallop. These gaits are the standard speeds of some of the most popular and prolific horse breeds.
Occasionally, you may hear the basic gaits referred to as “natural gaits,” and the speeds of gaited horses, such as the rack, running walk, and pace, called “artificial gaits.” There is nothing artificial, however, about how gaited horses move!
What are horse gaits?
Horse gaits are the different types of movements that a horse uses to get around. Compare horse gaits to how people walk, jog, and run!
The walk is a four-beat, lateral gait, and a horse’s slowest speed. The pattern typically goes right hind, right front, left hind, then left front.
The trot is the next speed up from a walk. The trot is a two-beat, diagonal gait, meaning that the front leg is paired with the opposite hind. The right hind moves with the left front, and the left hind is paired with the right front.
The canter is a three-beat gait. It is faster than the trot and does look a bit like a gallop, however it is significantly slower. Horses also have two canter leads. On the “left lead” the horse is being propelled by the right hind, with the left front leg reaching out farther than the right (the left front “leads” the horse).
While on the “right lead” they are leading and being propelled by the left hind, with the right front leg coming farther forward than the left.
The gallop is a horse’s fastest gait. It is similar to a canter but has four beats. The gallop also has a right and a left lead. This is the gait that you see thoroughbreds using to race.
An interesting fact about the gallop is that at a certain point in each stride the horse has all four legs off the ground, referred to as full suspension.
The term back is used to describe a horse backing up. The legs move the same as that of a trot—in diagonal pairs, just backwards.
A hand gallop is essentially a controlled version of the gallop. This gait can be asked for in flat classes at a horse show. It is commonly included in more advanced equitation patterns on the flat as well. It is meant to be a controlled gallop, but may appear to be more of an extended canter.
Typically, you’ll see riders in a two-point position at the hand gallop, which means the rider is more forward and out of the saddle with two points of contact (the knees).
English vs Western Gaits
English and Western gaits are mechanically similar, however there are some key differences—enough so to warrant some new words!
The English and western walk are essentially the same. Both are a four-beat, gait. The Western walk (in most cases) is a bit slower and less ground is covered with each stride.
The jog is the western counterpart of an English trot. It is a two-beat gait, but just like the walk, the ideal jog is much slower than a trot. A jog is more comfortable and much easier for a rider to sit than a trot. Western riders would not post at the jog.
The lope can be considered a western canter. Similar to the other western gaits, the lope covers a lot less ground per stride compared to a canter and is much slower. It should be smooth and comfortable for the rider to sit.
Galloping is the same regardless of discipline.
Gaited Horse Gaits
There are certain breeds of horses, for example Standardbreds and Tennessee Walking Horses, that move at different paces. These are called “gaited horses.” Gaited horses are often considered to be smoother movers than non-gaited horses.
The pace is a two-beat gait that is commonly used in Standardbred racing. The legs move in lateral pairs instead of diagonal pairs. The pace can be significantly faster than a trot.
The rack has a similar foot pattern to the walk, however the speed at which the legs are picked up and suspended is unique to this gait. It is very distinguishable by the flashy movements and the height of the front legs.
This is a gait that can only be found in a racking horse breed and is often showcased at saddle-seat horse shows.
The running walk has the same foot pattern as a regular walk. This gait is much quicker, however, than a regular walk. You can find this gait in gaited horses like the Tennessee Walking Horse.
The slow gait is another four-beat gait. It is much slower than the rack or the running walk and has a unique footfall. Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses often perform this gait.
The tolt is a four-beat gait that is unique to the Icelandic horse.
The Paso Fino gait, also called the Classic Fino gait, is a four-beat lateral gait that is naturally occurring in the Paso Fino horse. The horse is very collected and takes very short and quick steps while moving forward very slowly.
The Paso Corto is the second speed of the Paso Fino horse. While it is similar to the Classic Fino gait, the steps are slightly more ground-covering.
The Paso Largo is the fastest speed of the Paso Fino horse. Again, the horse is taking very rapid steps but they are covering more ground than the Classic Fino or the Paso Corto.
The Foxtrot is a smooth, diagonal gait typically associated with the Missouri Fox Trotter horse. The hind foot typically falls into the track of the front foot.
Want to learn more about gaited horses? Read on here!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is it called when a horse runs?
When a horse is running it is called galloping.
Q: What are the five gaits of a horse called?
The gaits of a non-gaited (your average) horse are back, walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
Q: How fast can horses run?
The average horse gallops at top speed around 30 mph. Quarter horses can reach speeds of 55 mph, but this would be over a very short distance.
Q: What do you call a non-gaited horse?
Most horses are non-gaited, so there isn’t a specific term for them. Rather, we use the term “gaited” for horses that are gaited.
Most horses move in the standard gaits: walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Regardless, it can be fun to learn about all the unique gaits specific to certain breeds! Understanding horse gaits is an important foundation to learning more about all things equine.
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