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Understanding the Gaits of the Horse

By Edited Apr 14, 2014 0 1

The movement of a horse's feet and legs in motion are called gaits.

There are three natural gaits of the horse; walk, trot, and gallop.

There are breeds that have gaits that are natural and some are acquired such as the running walk for the Tennessee Walking horse and pace of the Standardbred.  A natural gait is one that is performed by natural instinct and without training.  Acquired gaits are the result of specific training and practice.  Acquired gaits include the canter, rack, and the slow gaits.  The slow gaits are the stepping pace, the running walk, the fox trot, and the amble. 

Galloping Horse


The walk is slow, natural, flat footed, four beat gait.  Each foot takes off from and strikes the ground independently of the other three feet.  This is known as the foundation gait, as a horse may be asked to change to other gaits while walking.  There is a specific sequence of hoof beats follows this pattern:  right fore, left rear, left fore, right rear.  A natural gait can be improved with training. 

At a walk a horse has never more than three and not less than two feet bearing weight at the same time, making up a triangular base of support for the animal.  A well trained horse should walk at least four miles an hour.


The trot is a rapid two beat diagonal gait. The forefoot on one side and the opposite hind foot take off and strike the ground at the same time.  The horse works from one pair of diagonals to the other pair, shifting back and forth.  When making the transition all four feet will are off the ground at the same time for just a moment.  The trot should be square balanced and springy with a straight forward movement of the feet.


The canter is an easy rhythmical three beat gait.  It is not a straight forward gait as the walk it, but it is a slight diagonal movement, either right or left.  It is executed on either a right or left lead.  The horse has a hind foot that will correspond with the front foot meaning that if the animal takes off with the left front foot then the left hind foot will also take off.  The canter starts with one hind foot striking the ground, then the other hind foot and the diagonal front foot strikes the ground at the same time.  A horse can execute a sharper turn much easier and get a quicker start if he leads with the inside (correct) leg lead.  The lope is a medium fast, collected canter that is exhibited in western show classes.


The gallop is generally considered as a fast, three beat gait.  The sequence of hoof beats is similar to that of the canter.  A hind foot makes the first beat, followed by the other hind foot and diagonal front foot striking together, and the remaining front foot makes the third beat.  The gallop in an extended form is known as the run.


This is a slow, lateral, four-beat gait.  Each of the four feet strikes the ground at separate intervals.  The horse moves with his weight well back on the hindquarters and with high stepping action in the front.  The sequence of beats is right hind, right front, left hind, and left front.  This is the fourth gait of a five-gaited show horse.


This is a natural slow gait of the Tennessee Walking horse.  It is a diagonal four beat gait.  Each foot takes off and strikes at separate intervals with the front foot striking the ground before the diagonal hind foot.  This gait is very comfortable to both the horse and rider.  The Walking horse must flick his ears, nod his head, and chomps his bit in rhythm with his action to be genuine.  Normal travel will be about seven to eight miles per hour.


This gait is a slow, short, broken, somewhat uncollected nodding trot.  The hind foot strikes the ground an instant before the diagonal front foot.  It is not as comfortable to ride as the running walk or the stepping pace.


The amble is a lateral gait.  It is different from the pace by being slower and more broken in cadence.  It is not a show gait.  The hind foot may land slightly before and fore foot. 


The rack is a fast, flashy, evenly timed, four beat gait.  The feet start and stop at the same intervals of time of each other.  The horse can rack for only several minutes without breaking as practically every muscle is used in the gait.  It is an easy gait to ride.  It is the fifth gait requested of the American Saddle breed.


The pace is a fast, two beat gait.  The front and hind feet on the same side start and stop at the same time.  The feet rise only a little above the ground.  All four feet are off the dirt for a moment.  The pace is a speed gait rather than a road gait. 


  • Balance – the ability of a horse to control his action in order to travel collectedly and in correct form.
  • Directness – the line in which the foot is carried during the stride.
  • Height – the amount of foot elevation in the stride, determined by the radius of the arc described.
  • Length – the distance from the point of breaking over in preparation for flight in a stride to the point of surface contact of the same foot.
  • Rapidity – the time used in taking one stride.
  • Regularity – the precision sequence with which each stride is taken in turn.


Action – the characteristic stride in which the horse lifts his front and hind feet very high, flexing or bending his knees and ankles.

Stride – the distance from imprint to imprint by a horse’s foot when he completes one step.

Easy Gaited – is the expression used when the rider’s reactions to a horse’s gaits are pleasant and enjoyable.

Free Going – is the expression used when horses gaits are executed in a smooth, collected manner, and action is not excessive or labored.



May 23, 2011 6:45am
This is a really informative article, westernmom. There are very few gaited breeds in Australia so, although I've read (and written)about the gaited breeds, I have no first-hand knowledge of them. I would love to see some in the flesh - hopefully one day!
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