Horses are beautiful animals. The history of the many different breeds of horses is intertwined with the history of our own human race, as for thousands of years, humans have ridden horses. Horses have carried humans on travels, into battles, in races, and more. Horses are significant because of their ability to travel long distances and at different speeds. And the speed of a horse depends, to a large extent, on its gait.
What is a horse’s “gait?”
Essentially, a horse gait is a way that a horse walks or runs. Horses don’t always walk or run in the same way. Depending on which gait it is using, a horse may lift and put down its hooves in a different order, and different sets of hooves may be on the ground or in the air at the same time.
Horses that are easy to ride have distinct gaits at different speeds and can transition between those gaits smoothly. In fact, humans have bred horses in order to achieve these traits. A horse breed that has distinct gaits which can be switched between comfortably while riding is said to a “gaited” breed. Most breeds of horses that you see humans riding around are gaited.
Types of horse gaits
Gaited horses generally have four basic gaits. The slowest of the major horse gaits is the walk. This simply means the horse is walking. For horses, walking means moving each leg independently. The hooves each hit the ground at different times, so this gait is said to have four “beats.”
The next-slowest gait is the trot. In a trot, a horse moves its legs in two pairs. The front right leg is paired with the rear left leg, and the front left leg with the rear right one. The paired legs move together, so the result is a gait with two beats. In the western horse-riding tradition, a trot is also called a jog.
A little faster than the trot is the canter. The canter is an interesting gait because it has three beats. The horse moves its hind leg first, moves its other hind leg in unison with the opposite foreleg, and then finishes up with the remaining foreleg before repeating the whole process. Western riders sometimes call the canter the “lope.”
The fastest horse gait is the gallop. A gallop can look a little different depending on how fast the horse is going: at slower speeds, it looks a lot like a canter, but as the horse speeds up a gap grows between the two hoofbeats that happen in unison in a canter. The gallop is a four-beat gait, as opposed to a three-beat one like the canter, and the gap between beats two and three grows as the horse moves faster.
A word about ambling
Most horses have the four gaits outlined above, but some have extra ones. An extra four-beat gait that is faster than a walk—and usually, but not always, slower than a canter—is called an ambling gait. Only certain horses have such gaits, and the trait is hereditary.
Though most breeds of horses share the same basic gaits, there is at least one exception: the Tennessee Walker. A Tennessee Walker has a “running walk” gait faster than a traditional walk. In a sense, it’s still the same gait — the gait still has four beats, and the horse still puts down its hooves in the same order — but it is different enough in speed that it is considered a unique gait.