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what gait is my horse performing

  • Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the gait spectrum, (you have, haven’t you?), it’s time to determine what gait your horse does most frequently. This can be difficult since the gaited horse’s legs may be moving too fast to determine actual footfall and timing without a stop action camera. Nevertheless there are a few signposts that help the rider to ascertain how the horse is moving without having to look under the hood.

    If your horse tends to pace, the ride will be very swingy, side-to-side. It will usually be quite uncomfortable. Your horse will tend to be ‘slab sided,’ or unresponsive to leg and rein aids, and not very rounded in the barrel. A true pace is distinguished by a very distinct movement of lateral, or same side, sets of legs together. Usually the horse goes with its nose up and out. Some pacing horses will never do anything but pace, just as some trotting horses will never do anything but trot.

    More often, a gaited horse will execute a ‘stepping pace,’ or amble. Some horses perform this gait so smoothly that there seems to be little need to work at smoothing things out. Still others are far less smooth to ride. Like the pace, the stepping pace has a back and forth motion, and there’s a discernible swing of the head from side to side. Also like pace horses, these mounts tend to be somewhat high headed and slab-sided–though many are taught ‘false collection’ where they carry their heads more vertically. The lack of appropriate muscle development makes it difficult to help them collect up and smooth out. Pacers and stepping pacers have a tendency to be long backed, as well. Such horses may break down early under hard use, unless the rider takes the time to build up the correct muscles and teach the horse to move well off its haunches.

    The racking horse is often quite fast, and there’s very little headshake. There’s actually very little movement overall–except in the horse’s legs, which may churn up a storm! Overall it’s a comfortable and fast saddle gait. Often these quick-going horses are very responsive to their riders, have a lot of natural impulsion, and need to be ridden with a certain amount of tact. It’s been my personal observation that natural racking horses tend to be short-coupled–that is, not as long from front to back. Because they are so naturally smooth, riders are inclined to simply get on their backs and go! This can be unfortunate for the horse, however, since a horse that’s not moving in at least a slightly rounded frame may suffer back, hock and stifle problems over time.

    The most distinct difference between the rack and the running walk is the length of hind stride–a running walk horse will overstep the track of its front foot by at least several inches. This causes the most notable characteristic of a true running: a deep head nod, growing faster as the speed of the gait increases. You’ll notice this nod even when the horse moves at liberty in the pasture. The run walk head nod isn’t simply a ‘head shake,’ but actually originates in the haunches as the horse sets each hind foot down and lowers its head to help maintain balance. In order to perform a true running walk, the horse must be ridden in a relaxed but engaged (collected) manner. Too much take on the reins, and the horse will stiffen up and trot or step-pace. Not enough collection, and it’s frame will ‘fall apart,’ with similar results.

    A good running walk horse will always have a long, deeply sloped croup and long hind legs. These qualities are imperative for a horse that has to stride so deeply underneath itself with every stride, and keep well balanced in the bargain. To try to force a horse with the wrong conformation to perform a true running walk is ridiculous–but it is tried in hundreds of ‘training barns’ every day of the week.

    While the running walk can be very smooth, there is a lot of hyperbole about how superior this gait is to all others. The truth is, I own a young racking horse that is smoother than any run-walker I’ve ever seen or ridden! At least for trail riders, the comfort of the gait combined with the comfort and long-term welfare of the horse should outweigh all other gait considerations.

    If your horse is trotting, you’ll notice a very definite up-and-down jarring motion in the saddle. The horse’s head will also shake up and down. If you have any doubts, try to post the gait using the horse’s hind end momentum to lift you out of the saddle. It’s not possible to post anything other than a very diagonal gait.

    The fox trot has similar qualities to the trot, but lack of suspension makes it much smoother. The best fox trotting horses move in a nice, relaxed collected manner. You may notice a very slight ‘bump’ in the back of the saddle as one hind leg sets down, then the other. This bump will be in close relation to the up and down–shaking, not nodding–action of the horse’s head. It shouldn’t be so exaggerated that you could use the momentum to lift yourself out of the saddle for posting. In fact, you should be able to sit a fox trot without any discomfort whatever.

    Now you’ve got a good idea of what the gaits are of the gaited horse, and how to identify them, you're well on your way to striking 'pure gait gold!'
  • I’m often asked if my books or video contain information about training a Missouri Fox Trotter, Tennessee Walking Horse, or other specific breed of gaited horse. My answer to this is usually qualified, because my definition of gait training has more to do with the horse’s inherent tendencies than with whatever breed association the horse may be registered with.

    It’s certainly true that a horse registered with a particular gaited breed registry might be expected to naturally perform an intermediate gait (one between a trot and a pace). What most riders don’t seem to appreciate, however, is the fact that every horse is built (conformation) and wired (nervous system) differently–and this will have a greater bearing on the horse’s natural gait tendencies than any information gleaned from registration papers. While a registered racking horse may very well do a good–or at least passable–rack, it may very well be more able to comfortably perform a stepping pace or fox trot.

    We’re dealing with complex genetic issues. Contrary to the opinion of some folks, you can’t simply say: “Breed a good running walk to a good running walk horse, and you’ll always get a good running walk horse.” That’s like assuming that if a great female basketball player marries a great male basketball player, all their offspring will be outstanding basketball players. Sounds good in theory, “but it just ain’t so!” The likelihood of their children being good at basketball is greatly increased over the average–but there’s always a chance that a soccer or football player–or music lover!–will crop up in the bunch

    This issue gets even murkier when we consider the genetics of various gaited horses, since the gene pool of almost every breed contains a mixture of good and less desirable gait tendencies. An obvious example is the preponderance of pace blood in the Tennessee Walking Horse gene pool–but this is by no means a unique circumstance among the breeds as a whole. As long as there is a multitude of people getting involved in a breed for a variety of reasons, we’ll have great diversity among individual horses of the same breed. This diversity within a breed needs to be appreciated and celebrated, rather than denied or covered up.

    I recently watched a video where a couple of fellows were showing people how to get their Tennessee Walking Horses to perform a running walk. All of the horses they used for demonstration purposes were registered TWH’s, but it was apparent that several animals didn’t perform the gait comfortably or naturally. All of them, however, did perform a comfortable intermediate gait. One horse did a fantastic natural rack, another tended to fox trot, etc. But though the gaits were comfortable, and might have been made even more so with simple riding techniques, the stated goal of the video was to get those horses to do a running walk.

    Some of the horses never did a running walk at all. Nevertheless, the narrator claimed at various points in the tape that the horse was ‘getting it.’ All of the horses had their feet trimmed and shod ‘just so’ to help them ‘change their timing’ or ‘mix up their gait’ so they’d be more likely to run walk. These changes were so severe in a few instances that you could actually see how sore and stiff the horses were from being unnaturally trimmed front to back, or asked to carry so-called ‘lite shod’ or ‘plantation’ shoes–some that weighed as much as two pounds each, others with exaggerated heel caulks or straight-across toes. In one case a very nice fox-trot type mare actually squealed in discomfort. The narrator admitted this was the case, but then laughingly assured us that she would soon ‘get used’ to traveling in this new manner. Poor thing probably did, since she had no choice.

    It should never be necessary to change a horse’s way of going so dramatically that it makes them physically sore to train. This is abuse. It is also self-defeating since the horse will either break down early from being forced to perform this way consistently, or will immediately revert back to a comfortable gait once the trimming, shoeing and bitting return to normal. This is why so many people buy horses that do a ‘wonderful, natural’ gait, and then the animal ‘loses’ that gait a couple of months after they bring it home. If this has happened to you, then you need to find out what your horse can do naturally, and go from there. It won’t help to try to get it to perform the way it did at first–that may never happen. It is Far better to work to improve what you’ve got, based on reasonable expectations.

    So it is very important that the buyer of a gaited horse learn to recognize the various intermediate gaits. Remember? Lateral: Pace/stepping pace. Intermediate: rack/running walk. Diagonal: fox trot/trot. By becoming educated you can be sure to make an informed decision, and purchase a horse that naturally executes the breed’s preferred gait if that’s what is really important to you. You won’t be guilty of making your horse increasingly uncomfortable in order to make it perform to a certain breed standard that is artificial to your horse, but will be able to recognize your particular horse’s strengths, and work with reasonable goals and expectations.

    If the show ring isn’t your thing, but you’ll be content with a reasonably smooth horse regardless of its preferred gait–then you’re almost assured of success from the start.

    Here’s to 'striking gold!'


  • (14 minutes) The gait spectrum explained in detail along with video footage of different gaits in regular and slow motion. Includes the running walk, fox trot, pace, step-pace, walk and trot. Excerpted from the Gaits from God 3 DVD Set



    gaited horse gait spectrum

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