Today I’m going to talk about how horses move—their gaits. Contrary to what the movies usually show, horses do more than walk or run flat out. In fact the most commonly used gait of all, the trot, is only seen if they are pulling carriages. So what is the reality?
You’re probably familiar with the horse’s four natural gaits—walk, trot, canter and gallop. But did you know that some horses have six or more gaits? I’ll talk about the basics first.
The walk is a slow four-beat movement. First a rear foot moves, followed by the front foot on the same side, then other rear foot followed by its front. With this pattern three feet are always on the ground providing a smooth, easy ride. Horses vary greatly in size, shape and energy, but an average walk is about four miles per hour. Some have much faster walks, in the six mph range.
A good rider knows to keep his/her body still and quiet so as not to disturb the horse’s balance. If you allow yourself to move in the saddle, the horse has to constantly deal with a shifting weight that can interfere with his equilibrium. Therefore, it’s important to keep your upper body still—but not rigid. Your pelvis needs to move with the movement of the horse’s body. At the walk, this means allowing each side of your pelvis to move forward and back independently as first one rear leg steps forward and then the other. At a normal, casual walk this is usually no problem. At a speed walk, it’s surprising how tiring that can be.
The trot is a faster two-beat gait where opposite pairs of legs move at the same time. As each pair goes forward, the horse’s back drops a bit, which causes the rider to feel a jar when the feet land and the back rises again. Learning to ride a trot comfortably is a beginner rider’s hardest task. The easiest way is to learn to post, which means rising out of the saddle and sitting back down in rhythm with the gait. Some horses do a slow jog that has very little bounce and is much easier to sit, but it doesn’t cover a lot of ground. If you want to go a long distance fairly fast, you’ll be doing most of it at a trot. This applies whether you are riding or being pulled in a carriage or coach. The trot is the “working” gait for going places. Something to keep in mind if you write about people traveling distances.
The horse’s third gait has a couple of names. If you are riding English style it’s a canter, but it’s a lope when you ride Western. Either way, the canter is a three-beat leaping gait with a moment of suspension, but is much smoother to ride than the trot. Here the rider needs to let her whole pelvis move forward and back with the movement. The canter or lope is a controlled fast pace that allows you to cover ground quickly, for a shorter period of time.
The gallop or full out run is the fourth standard gait and used for racing or fleeing a predator in the wild. It’s a four-beat, stretched out, ground-covering canter that can only be sustained for a relatively brief period of time—one to two miles. Despite what you see in the movies, horses can’t run fast for long periods. Usually the rider stands in the stirrups when galloping.
In addition to these standard gaits, there are a number of additional gaits specific to certain breeds. These horses are unusual and fun and I’ll talk about them next time.
Here’s video about gaits:
***************************************Race photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/kubina/185495090/”>Jeff Kubina</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a> Horse walking photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/63942879@N05/10020981376/”>Katherine Mustafa Photography</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a> Horse trotting photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikkis_pikkis/369623604/”>nikki_tate</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a> Horse cantering