EC Blog by: Shelby Glessner
Fancy Footwork- Equine Specialized Gaits
What’s your favorite gait to ride? Perhaps you prefer a relaxing jog on the trail, or you tend to seek the thrill of a sprightly gallop down the racetrack. Beyond the basic four, our equine partners can perform a wide variety of specialized gaits, bringing advantageous qualities such as speed efficiency and rider comfort to the table. The following is an exploration of various shows of fancy footwork by horses across the globe.
Before we delve too deeply, let’s review the mechanics of the four, basic gaits. The walk, the slowest of course, is a four-beat, lateral gait. Each hoof will touch down independently, giving the four “beats.” The term “lateral” indicates that both left side legs will move and then both right (or vice versa). This is in contrast to some other animals, such as salamanders, which move at a “walk” with diagonally paired leg movements.
The trot (or jog, for Western-riding folks) is the next gait: jaunty, two-beat, and diagonally paired. Among individuals, breeds, and riding disciplines, there is great variation in the speed, style, and animation of the trot, ranging from a quiet Western Pleasure jog to a lively extended trot.
Slightly faster in pace is the canter (or lope). This is a three-beat gait expressed in two variants known to equestrians as “leads.” In the right lead, the right front leg extends slightly farther, as does the left hind. The footfall sequence of a right lead canter is as follows: left hind, right hind/left front diagonal pair, right front.
Similar to the canter but, of course, faster, is the gallop. It follows a similar pattern to the canter but in a four-beat fashion. While Thoroughbreds may be the most famously fast galloping racehorses, the racing Quarter Horse actually holds this title, with short term speeds approaching 55 miles per hour.
North American Breeds
Beginning the discussion of specialized gaits close to home, let’s take a look at some breeds originating in the American south. Designed for rider comfort, these surefooted horses are bred and trained to perform very smooth gaits that can be ridden all day long. A familiar example is the Tennessee Walker. These horses mainly perform the “flat walk” and “running walk.” Most famous is the flat walk, a rapid and long-stridden version of a typical lateral walk. Walkers characteristically will overreach their front feet with their hind feet and nod their heads in rhythm at the running walk. It is important to note that practices used to exaggerate these gaits, both in the Tennessee Walker and in other breeds, are now illegal (“Big Lick” Tennessee Walkers come to mind).
Another common American gaited breed is the Missouri Fox Trotter. Of course, their featured specialized gait is called the fox trot, essentially an offset trot with the front legs moving just before the hind. The fox trot is so smooth because the horse is in contact with the ground at all times! Other North American gaited breeds include the Rocky Mountain Horse, the Tiger Horse, and the McCurdy Plantation Horse. These horses all are able to produce various versions of ambling, shuffling, or flat-walk type gaits.
Some society-type breeds are also considered gaited, namely the American Saddlebred. Saddlebreds are able to compete in five general showing divisions including “Three-Gaited” and “Five-Gaited.” Five-Gaited horses are asked to show off their “slow gait” and “rack” in addition to the walk, trot, and canter. Oddly enough, some Morgan horses are also gaited! Overall, this is not a standard of the breed, but some farms do produce horses capable of performing the rack, fox trot, or other atypical gaits.
Spanish Type Breeds
Most commonly known are the Peruvian Paso (PRE) and Paso Fino. Peruvian Pasos naturally perform the paso llano, a slow and even lateral gait, and the sobreandando, a faster and slightly uneven gait. Interestingly, this high-stepping gait is quick enough that there is no practical need for a canter! As you may have seen in photographs, these horses tend to have an outward swing at the shoulder, which would normally be considered a flaw in other breeds. However, to the Paso, it is simply considered an extra element of expression. The Paso Fino’s gait is unique to the breed, consisting of very rapid, even footfalls. It can be performed on three levels: the Classic Fino, with full collection and rapid yet very small steps; the Paso Corto, with medium collection and speed; and the Paso Largo, with minimal collection and maximum extension.
Several varieties of Brazilian breeds are also known for speed and smoothness, such as the Mangalarga Marchador. While we have discussed mostly lateral gaits so far, this breed uniquely alternates laterally and diagonally paired movements! The two varieties of this Marcha are called the Marcha Picada (notated as a broken pace) and the Marcha Batida (a broken trot).
The pacing Standardbred is a fine example of a gaited elite athlete. While Standardbred horses do race slower than Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, they are still able to attain very high speeds while confined to the trot, clocking in in the 30 mile-an-hour range! Pacers achieve high speeds with a pacing trot where the leg movements are laterally paired, as opposed to diagonally at the typical trot. Pacing racehorses usually wear hobbles on each side to ensure their legs move precisely together. If any Standardbred were to break into a canter or gallop during the race, they would be disqualified.
European and Asian Breeds
Now for a famed example you have all been waiting for…the Icelandic horse! These spunky, small horses are four or five-gaited, utilizing the Tölt and flying pace for an incredibly smooth ride at a very high tempo. The Tölt has a footfall the same as a typical walk but is much faster, reaching speeds of around 20 miles per hour. It is said that one could drink a pint whilst riding the Tölt without spilling a drop. Lacking in some Icelandics, a variation of a typical pacing trot called the “flying pace” is used for racing or short distance runs.
A fascinating combo of the Peruvian Paso and Icelandic horse is a small riding horse bred in Germany called the Aegidienberger, also capable of performing the Tölt. This is a very new breed, first recognized in 1994.
Jumping from Europe to India, the Marwari and Kathiawari have more to offer than just their quirky curled ears! These athletic equines naturally perform a rambling gait similar to a pace called the revaal. Used mainly as cavalry mounts in the past, the Marwari and Kathiawari are riding and show horses today, with the Marwari occasionally dabbling in polo events.
Importance of Gait
As we have outlined, there is a huge variety of equine specialized gaits, each with their own subtle differences between breeds. While of course you might be in the market for an eccentric equine partner such as a gaited horse, it is important for professionals in the industry to be familiar with these gaits as well. Veterinarians may be called upon to treat a potentially lame gaited horse, and as their movements fall outside of the norm (in footfall, step height, and head movement) it may make diagnosis more difficult. A familiarity with these nuances could make a world of difference in treatment. In any case, knowledge of these extraordinary horses can give us a new appreciation for the diversity the equine world has to offer.
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“Gaits.” Gaits – The Official Site of the Icelandic Horse, www.horsesoficeland.is/the-icelandic-horse/gaits.
“Gaits.” Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association, mfthba.com/the-breed/gaits/.
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“Gaits.” TWHBEA, 6 Mar. 2018, www.twhbea.com/gaits/.
“HORSE SHOWS & AWARDS.” ASHA, asha.net/medianevents/horseshows/showring.
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“Marwari Horse.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Sept. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marwari_horse.
“Rocky Mountain Horse Breed Standard.” Rocky Mountain Horse Association, www.rmhorse.com/breed/rocky-mountain-horse-breed-standard/.
Salem, Patricia. “6 Facts About the Peruvian Horse.” Fédération Equestre Internationale, 29 June 2019, www.fei.org/stories/lifestyle/teach-me/horse-breed-peruvian-paso-6-facts.
“Tiger Horse.” International Museum of the Horse, imh.org/exhibits/online/breeds-of-the-world/north-america/tiger-horse/.
Shelby Glessner is a senior student at Michigan State University studying Animal Science and the equine industry. She spent an academic year working with renowned researcher, Dr. Stephanie Valberg, in the Equine Neuromuscular Diagnostic Lab at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and has undertaken extensive science and equine related coursework. Passionate about education, she hopes to pursue a career advocating for research-based practices in animal agriculture.