Rack On!


Walk, trot, canter are the three basic gaits all horses have. What about slow gait, rack, running walk, single foot, tölt, fox trot, or the paso largo? These are a few of the additional gaits some breeds of horses can do. Where did all these additional gaits come from and why do they exist?

small__5787205489The simple answer is comfort. For most of human history people traveled by foot or by horse. Carts and carriages were heavy, slow and not particularly comfortable. If you wanted to get somewhere quickly, you rode horseback. However, a horse’s walk is relatively slow, the trot is uncomfortable and the canter can only be sustained for short periods. Also, it was common for women to ride sideways behind a rider, especially if they didn’t know how to ride. This put them over the most active part of the horse and restricted them to a walk. Any other gait would make it difficult to stay on.

So what was needed was a horse with a fast but smooth gait that would let you ride all day in relative ease and wouldn’t bounce you off its rump. Some horses had natural variations on the walk that allowed them to move this way. Amblers, as they were commonly known, were highly valued until about the 18th century when other forms of transportation arose.

The amble in all its permutations is a four-beat gait where at least one foot remains on the ground at all times (thanks Sue), providing a smooth, easy-to-sit ride. With three gaited horses, their backs move and require the rider to move with them. Gaited horses keep their backs relatively still and just move their legs. This provides a silky smooth ride that requires little of the rider. A classic demonstration is to have the rider carry an old fashioned, shallow glass of champagne in his hand or to put the champagne glass on the horse’s rump. A good horse won’t spill a drop.Silvano Taipe show horse

Innumerable variations of the amble developed over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Hispanic cultures tend to like flashy, showy horses and the Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino of South America reflect that. They have very fast, showy gaits that look quite unusual to American eyes. The Icelandic Pony also attracts attention for its small size and speedy ground-covering tölt.

The early settlers of the United States also valued comfortable horses and developed their own versions. The Tennessee Walking Horse, with its running walk, was bred to give plantation owners a smooth, all-day ride while they supervised their vast holdings. The Missouri Fox Trotter, Rocky Mountain Horse, Spotted Saddle Horse, and Kentucky Mountain Horse are variations on the same theme.

small_9680085853The American Saddlebred was first bred in colonial times as a high-stepping but smooth ride. Then it was further refined in Kentucky and became a popular military mount during the Civil War. Known as the peacock of the horse world, the Saddlebred can be either three-gaited or five-gaited. Its two extras are the slow gait and the rack. The rack is done at speed and is exciting and crowd pleasing. Rack on! is the command.

Here is a link to a site that has short videos of many of the horses I talked about. They need to be seen in action to be understood. http://majesticrider.com/id100.html

Since the previous site didn’t include the Saddlebred, here’s one that does. http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=American+Saddlebred&FORM=VIRE2#view=detail&mid=1C43754AAF7CEA68E44C1C43754AAF7CEA68E44C


Lady: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/marionzetta/5787205489/”>Marionzetta</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;
Saddlebred:  photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/desertnightcreations/9680085853/”>Heather Moreton-Abounader Photography</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;
Categories: gaited horses, history, Horses, Kentucky, riding, Trail riding, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Rack On!

  1. You left out the pace, which is natural for some horses and seems to be “part of the package” for easy-gaited horses. In fact the easy gaits are normally somewhere between the walk and the pace, and generally do NOT have three feet on the ground–more often alternating between two and one. Look at your own photos. Or look at Muybridge’s photos of an ambling horse. http://bowlingsite.mcf.com/Movement/HAmble.html

    • I wasn’t trying to be too technical. Many of the ambling gaits are lateral, but a true pace is miserable to ride–I know. I’ve never counted feet on the ground, just believed what I’ve read. The Saddlebred is trotting, but the Paso does have two feet up. Thanks for the link. Great info there.

  2. Hi Kate great post. You have the best resources for someone who needs horse information. I posted the link on facebook and twitter. CK aka Kathy

  3. Welcome back!

  4. I love learning horsey stuff, Kate. Thank you. My SIL and I ride together and she has a Missouri Fox Trotter. Because Maximus is a Friesian they really aren’t very compatible in terms of “walking” along the trail, if you know what I mean. Maximus’s walk is too slow for Jazz’s walk for sure.

    • I know what you mean. When I was a kid, my little Morgan mare couldn’t keep up with my mom’s long-legged Saddlebred–and she wasn’t even gaiting. One disadvantage to gaited horses is that “regular” horses can’t keep up with them. But their owners love them anyway. 🙂

  5. marsharwest

    When I lived in Puerto Rico when I was in 7-10 grade, lots of the Air Force people had horses and we had riding shows. First time I saw English riding. Some of the horses could do that beautiful paso fino gate. It is really cool.

    • It is dramatic and unusual. Had one horse freak out at a Paso. Couldn’t figure out what that strange animal was doing!
      They do look wonderfully smooth. Maybe when I get old and creak(ier), I’ll switch to a gaited horse too.

  6. Greta

    Great post, Kate.

    I was horse-mad as a girl, but with no way of getting a horse. I remember reading about Saddlebreds in the book “Harlequin Hullabaloo” (aka “Bluegrass Champion”) … an older novel now, but a great story of a girl with a pinto Saddlebred that is always downscored by the judges.

    As a Star Trek fan, I have to laugh when I see the Saddlebred described as the “peacock” of the horse world. William Shatner raises and shows Saddlebreds. Now when I see one I always have a flashback to him doing one of his ultra-dramatic acting spins.

    As a child, I was curious about pacing. What a weird thing for a horse to do! Then I thought, well, any weirder than a trot? Maybe not. As I read your post I thought, I bet there’s a genetic difference between trotters and pacers. A quick google search yielded this fascinating article (but note it may include errors).


    • I remember reading “Harlequin”–didn’t recall he was a Saddlebred.

      I loved the Startreck episode where Shatner rode one of his Saddlebreds and Patrick Stewart rode a white Arab. And Shatner jumped something big riding saddleseat with long stirrups. Felt for his horse.

      Horses aren’t the only animals that pace. Dogs and camels do too. The pace is actually faster than a trot. That’s why they don’t usually race against each other.

      Interesting that they’ve traced breaking gait to a specific gene. But I got lost on how that relates to pacing. 😦

      Thanks for commenting.

  7. Great post, Kate! Horses used in therapeutic riding and hippotherapy are paired with students/clients based on the therapeutic value of their gaits. An anxious student might benefit from a smooth gaited horse. Someone who spends all day in a wheelchair might find benefit from more active shoulder movement in the horse, as the horse’s movement causes the rider’s hips to move in a way that mimics human walking.

    Having started out riding Saddlebreds and since ridden all types of horses, including cantering on a Haflinger (uncomfortable!), I know that when my back is strong enough to ride again, I want a smooth gaited horse.

    • That’s interesting about using different gaits in therapeutic riding. Never thought about that. I had heard that the movement of draft horses tended to be better for many clients.

      The Haflingers I’ve seen didn’t look like they’d be too smooth, but I understand they’re great horses.
      Isn’t nice we have so many different types to chose from? Good luck with your back. Hope you’ll be back topside before long.

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