top of page

Natural and Artificial Gaits of the Horse

NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL GAITS OF THE HORSE Excerpts from articles, Ashley Griffin, University of Kentucky and My Horse University Horse Selection and Evaluation Online Course, Christine Skelly, Michigan State University

Introduction The study of equine locomotion is a study of motion, physics and style. Horses have been bred over the centuries to express their movement for speed, athletic prowess, comfort and pure excitement. For simplicity's sake, the gaits recorded for the equine species have been divided into two categories, natural and artificial. We will discuss the gaits associated with each category and provide many videos to help explain the horse’s movement being performed at each gait.

Natural Gaits There are five natural gaits of horses. These natural gaits include the walk, trot, canter/lope, gallop and back. Many breeds perform these gaits. They include stock horse breeds like the Quarter Horse, Paint Horse, Appaloosa, etc. and hunter or English type horses such as the Thoroughbred, Arabian, Saddlebred, Morgan, etc.

Walk The walk is a four beat gait where each foot hits the ground independently. The pattern of this four beat walk may be as follows: right front, left hind, left front, right hind or right hind, right front, left hind, left front.

Trot The trot is a two beat diagonal gait where the horse’s legs work in paired diagonals. The pattern of this two beat diagonal gait may be as follows: right hind and left front then left hind and right front or left hind and right front then right hind and left front.

Canter The canter is a three beat gait where one pair of feet strike the ground simultaneously and the other two feet land independently. The canter/lope will either be on what is referred to as a right or left lead. If the horse is on the right lead then the hoof pattern is left hind, right hind and left front simultaneously, then right front. The opposite foot pattern represents the left lead as follows: right hind, left hind and right front simultaneously, left front. In general, horses are to be on the right lead when circling to the right and the left lead when circling to the left.

Gallop Although the gallop or run appears to be only a faster canter, it is in fact a different gait containing four beats. Like the canter, the gallop also has a right and left lead. The footfall pattern of the gallop on the left lead is right hind, left hind, right front, left front. Likewise, the right lead footfall would be left hind, right hind, left front, right front.

Back When a horse backs naturally without interference from the rider they perform a two beat diagonal gait. The back has a similar hoof pattern to that of the trot, only backwards. The footfall pattern of the back might be the right front moves with the left hind and the left front moves with the right hind.

Artificial Gaits Gaits such as the running walk, slow gait, pace and rack are considered artificial gaits. However, they are very natural to specific breeds of horses. There are several breeds of gaited horses, with each breed possessing distinct gaits unique to that particular kind of horse. Many adults who are purchasing their first horse prefer a gaited horse like the Tennessee Walking Horse or the Missouri Fox Trotter. The American Saddlebred Horse is considered by many to be the ultimate in glamour and excitement. The five-gaited American Saddlebred is shown at the animated walk, trot, slow gait, rack and canter. The slow gait and rack evolved from the breed's easy riding gait traits and showcase their brilliance and elegance. Standardbred horses are driven in harness racing and can compete as trotters (performing a two-beat diagonal trot) or pacers (performing a lateral two-beat pace). Eighty percent of harness racing is performed at the pace gait, which is faster than the trot.

Running Walk The running walk is the gait characteristic of the Tennessee Walking Horse. This four beat gait is similar to that of the regular walk, yet faster. In the running walk the hind feet overstep the front foot print by as much as 18 inches. This travel gives the gait a gliding motion. The running walk is also recognized by the horse's bobbing and nodding head and flopping ears in rhythm with the horse's legs.

Slow Gait The slow gait is performed by the five-gaited Saddlebred. This four beat lateral gait is also known as the stepping pace. In this gait, the horse performs a broken pace, with the hind and front leg on the same side leaving the ground and landing at slightly different times.

Pace The pace is a fast two beat lateral gait where the feet on the same side strike the ground simultaneously. The pace is performed by Standardbred harness racing horses. The footfall pattern of the pace is the right hind and right front together, then left hind and left front together. As the horse rocks from side to side, there is a brief moment of suspension where all four feet are off the ground prior to the next lateral pair touching the ground.

Rack The rack is a flashy, faster, more exaggerated four beat walk performed by the American Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walking Horse. Each foot meets the ground independently of each other.

Evaluating Travel When evaluating travel at any gait, the following points should be considered:

  • Directness: Straightness of the footfall pattern.

  • Length of Stride: Amount of ground covered in a single stride.

  • Snap and Flexion: Height and elevation of the knees and hocks.

Directness The directness of travel refers to the straightness of the footfall pattern from point A to point B. It makes sense that the quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line. We want a horse that is conservative in its movement. In other words, we don't want a lot of deviation in the flight of the hoof to get from point A to point B. This is considered wasted energy and effort.

The directness of the footfall pattern is dictated by the horse's correctness of bone column in its legs. Simply put, if the horse's legs are set on a straight column of bone when viewed from the front and rear, the horse should move straight ahead with little to no deviation. Review the following conformation faults to see how they affect the directness (straightness) of travel.

  • Toed-In: The horse will wing-out as it tracks forward.

  • Toed-Out: The horse will wing-in (dish) as it tracks forward.

  • Base Narrow: The horse will travel close.

  • Base Wide: The horse will travel wide.

Diagram comparing different ways of travel for horses

Illustration of directness of travel from My Horse University Selection and Evaluation Online Course

Length of Stride Length of stride is a function of both the horse's shoulder and hip conformation. A long, free shoulder and strong hip with good hind leg conformation will allow a horse to have a long, free flowing stride. Ideally, at the trot, the hind foot should step into the front hoof's print. If the horse is short-strided from the hindquarter, then the hind foot will step behind the print of the front hoof. Horses that are extremely engaged from behind may actually step lightly over the front hoof's print (long-strided).

Snap and Flexion Snap and flexion refer to how easily a horse can lift its feet off of the ground from the knees and hocks. Society type horses with a lot of animation in their movement may display more exaggerated snap and flexion as they trot when compared to stock horses. Exaggerated snap and flexion is desirable for the saddleseat disciplines, but it may be judged critically if seen in hunter or western horses. However, even a stock horse should exhibit fluid, easy movement in the knees and hocks.

Travel in Aged Horses As a horse ages, its sharpness of motion may appear slower and stiffer, without the elevation of its younger years. Certain conformational problems that predispose the horse to excessive rotation (bow-legged or cow-hocked) or extreme force to the joints may predispose a horse to arthritis at an earlier age. An arthritic horse will move with stiff joints, traveling with a stilted gait.

References and Additional Resources

Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center Website, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University

bottom of page