Gaited Horses

by Hidden Trails 03/31/2010

If you are considering a tour that offers rides on Icelandics, Mangalarga Marchador, Missouri Foxtrotter, Tennessee Walker, Peruvian Paso, Rocky Mountain Horse, or another gaited breed, you may want to know a little bit about what to expect.  This section will give a brief overview about gaited horses and what you need to know about riding them. 

To understand the definition of a gaited horse one must first know a little about the way horses move. The trot is the most common gait of the horse other than a walk. Horses perform the trot as a diagonal gait, moving a front foot and the opposite rear foot simultaneously. This action produces a jarring motion that is found in all non-gaited breeds. A horse that is trotting has two feet on the ground at a time, but is not supported at all almost one third of the time. The jar felt when riding a trotting horse is caused by the free fall of the horse and the rise needed to carry the horse from one step of the trot to the next step. A gaited horse does not have free fall or the jar caused by the trot, because the gaited horse has a broken gait that allows at least one foot on the ground at any given time. This creates the smooth ride of a gaited horse because the horse is always supported and never in free fall.  Gaited horses are defined by a unique four-beat intermediate gait that is natural to the breed.  These ambling gaits are faster than a walk, but generally slower than a canter.  The smooth gaits come in various forms, and are often breed-specific.  (source: Watson, Rick.  What makes a horse a gaited horse?)

A gaited horse is much more efficient than a non-gaited horse because there is no energy wasted fighting gravity and free fall. This is one reason the gaited horses seem to have more natural stamina than his rough trotting counter part. The smooth ride produced by the gaited horse is another advantage of these efficient movements.

All ambling gaits have four beats. Some ambling gaits are lateral gaits, meaning that the feet on the same side of the horse move forward, but one after the other, usually in a footfall pattern of right rear, right front, left rear, left front. Others are diagonal, meaning that the feet on opposite sides of the horse move forward in sequence, usually right rear, left front, left rear, right front. A common trait of the ambling gaits is that usually only one foot is completely off the ground at any one time. (Source: Wikipedia. Ambling. Revised, February 5, 2009.)

Differences you may notice when riding a Gaited Horse:

·         If you are used to riding a horse in a “round frame,” you may find riding a gaited horse quite different.  In order for the gaits to be executed properly, the horse must keep a “hollow” frame, allowing his hind legs to slide under him. 

·         In all of the Rack family gaits, the rider will feel as if they are sitting in the smooth center while action goes on all around him, there will be the feeling of the “horse climbing a ladder” as the front end has a fold which gives height to the front legs while the length of step is not increased. 

·         While a head bob, or shake while riding a non-gaited horse often is a sign of lameness, it is typical in ambling gaits.  A productive head shake actually contributes to the quality and square component of the gait.

·         The feel of the Rack gaits from the saddle is a very slight side to side sway, but the primary feeling is of the legs moving rapidly and independently. When moving into a rack family gait from a flat walk, you will have a "gear shift" feeling as the horse seems to literally leap directly up out of the flat walk into the rack family gait. This is due to the way a racking horse transfers the weight from one leg to another. The transfer is a "leaping" weight transfer.

Riding the Gaits:

A straight pace is very easy to feel as it shifts a rider from side to side in the saddle and can be very uncomfortable and it is easy to hear the 1-2 beat of the 2 halves of a horse moving forward and back together.  The Flying pace is a faster version of the straight pace and can achieve speeds of up to 30mph. 

The stepping pace is a smoother gait but there will still be some side to side shift to the rider due to the lateral lift of the legs. A rider should be able to see some side to side motion in the head of the horse, it can be a little seen at the poll and can also be seen in some side to side motion of the horses muzzle from the back of a horse.

The fox trot gives a rider a forward and back motion, no side to side. This done correctly is also a smooth gait but one should be able to feel the lift of the hind legs and breaking of the hock action when the hinds are coming up and forward. There is a definite bump feel in the hind at a fox trot.  The fox trot is a diagonal gait. It appears that the horse is walking with spirited action in front while trotting with the hind legs. The hind hooves reach well forward and touch down with a sliding movement.  This gait is specific to the Missouri Foxtrotter breed. 

The rack and saddle gait are also smooth gaits but tend to move a rider a bit side to side due again to the lateral pick up of each side even though they are 4 beats in hoof falls. The saddle gait (stepped rack) is one that a rider can feel the shorter stride of the gait and feel a slight bump in the base of the spine due to the breaking of the hocks rather than the low sweeping hind legs of the running walk. In the rack gait feels faster. The rack has a lighter off the fore hand, up in front feeling, with more reach to the gait, covering ground faster than the saddle gait.

A gait that is often described as being unique to the Icelandic Horse. In its pure form, the footfalls are the same as in rack, but the gait in the Icelandic horse has a different style with more freedom and liquidity of movement. The most prized horses have a very long stride and considerable lift with their forelegs. Icelandic Riders will demonstrate the smoothness of a tölt by going at the speed of a gallop without spilling a drink they hold. The Tölt differs from the rack as the horse is not supposed to hollow its back. 

The running walk is a gait where the rider can feel a slight, soft forward and back movement in the saddle. One should be able to feel the long low reach of the hind legs coming under the horse and the front pulling in the ground giving the sensation of floating across the ground.

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