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!'