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?
The 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.
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.
The 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> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a> 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> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>