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Gaited horses – what you need to know

Of the approximately 350 horse breeds in the world, 30 are gaited. “Gaiting” is the term for a horse that “single-foots” (always has one foot in contact with the ground), ambles, paces, or does a running walk. Gaited horses have a smoother, more comfortable ride and are therefore popular for travelling longer distances. They also have greater stamina and endurance. The gaits are faster than a walk but generally slower than a canter. The smooth gaits come in various forms and are often breed-specific.

Though there are differences in footfall patterns and the speed of the various gaits performed by the variety of ‘gaited’ breeds, these gaits have historically been referred to using the all encompassing term, ‘amble’. The many specific names for these gaits reflect the nuanced differences looked for by aficionados of each breed, with traits considered desirable in one breed sometimes being discouraged in another.

Breed characteristics

Commonly gaited breeds are sturdy, sensible mounts that don’t require too much from the rider in terms of riding experience. Some naturally gaited horses, particularly those with lateral ambling gaits like pace and stepping, may have difficulty learning how to canter. Most gaited horses tend to be high-headed, with their heads set higher than most ‘non-gaited’ horses.

History

Gaited horses have existed for thousands of years and were even described in the writings of the ancient Hittites. In the Middle Ages, the ability of a gaited horse to ‘amble’, and move smoothly over challenging terrain, meant that they were considered ‘suitable’ mounts for women. Similarly, many Kings used to ride to a battle on a gaited horse, for a comfortable ride, before switching to a non-gaited horse for the battle.

Genetics

Research has shown that a dominant gene, DMRT3, determines the ability to move in these specific gaits in certain horse breeds. This gene controls the spinal neurological circuits related to limb movement and motion. With gaits now known to be highly heritable, breeders can use gaited horses in their breeding programmes rather than trying to train non-gaited horses to move in with gaits.


Did you know?

DMRT3 is referred to as the ‘gait’ keeper gene.


 

Gaited horses in South Africa

In South Africa, we often call these gaits the ‘triple’ or ‘tripling’ (as three hooves are off the ground at any one moment) and ‘umhambo’, which translates as ‘motion’ in Xhosa. Both the Transkei and Basuto Pony breeds are known to be gaited and this trait is also seen sometimes in their relative, the Nooitgedacht. Another indigenous South African breed that is gaited is the Kaapse Boerperd.


Transkei Pony

Breeding for these gaits in the Transkei Ponies makes good sense, as their main function is comfortable transport. These ponies are often used by rangers to keep animals off the roads to avoid accidents.


 

Gaited horse breeds overseas

Some of the most common gaited horse breeds include:

  • American Saddlebred
  • American Standardbred
  • Icelandic Horse
  • Marwari
  • Morgan Horse
  • Tennessee Walking Horse
  • Paso Fino
  • Peruvian Paso
  • Rocky Mountain Horse
  • Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse

Ambling gaits

All ambling gaits have four beats. Some ambling gaits are lateral gaits, meaning that the feet on the same side of the horse move forward, but one after the other, usually in a sequence of right rear, right front, left rear, left front. Other ambling gaits are diagonal, meaning that the feet on opposite sides of the horse move forward in order, usually, right rear, left front, left rear, right front. Ambling gaits are further distinguished by the timing and cadence of the footfall pattern. One distinction is whether the footfall rhythm is isochronous, four equal beats in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm, or a non-isochronous 1-2, 3-4 rhythm created by a slight pause between the ground-strike of the front foot of one side and the hindfoot of the other.

Many breeds of horses inherit the ability to perform these gaits, which may be observable naturally from birth or present with minimal training. Some horses without apparent inborn gaited ability can be taught to “gait”. However, training usually does rely on some inherited genetic ability in the horse. Ambling gaits can be taught by slightly restraining the horse at a trot or canter. The length of the stride is kept long, but the rider asks the horse to alter its balance to break up the two strides in such a way that a four-beat gait is produced. Sometimes, this effect is accidentally achieved in an attempt to create the slow two-beat jogging trot used in western pleasure riding. This occurs when the horse cannot sustain a slow jog and falls into a shuffling, four-beat gait described as “trotting in front and walking behind”.

Conformation also plays a role. Horses with a longer back will find it easier to perform a lateral ambling gait, though they may also have to work harder to achieve collection. An average length back still allows a horse to perform ambling gaits, but a very short-coupled horse will struggle. A well-laid back shoulder and more horizontal hip angle favour a longer length of stride, which is helpful in horses that fox trot, while a steeper shoulder angle combined with more sloped croup produce a stride preferred for some lateral gaits such as the running walk.

The benefits of a gaited horse

  • Gaited horses can be easier to ride: Gaited horses tend to offer a smoother ride, with much less bounce, making them easier for beginners to ride. This makes them particularly useful for inexperienced riders on trekking holidays or long trail rides.
  • Gaited horses are great for covering long distances: Gaited horses can travel long distances without growing tired. This quality, coupled with the smooth ride they provide, make them common choices for trail rides. ID: 1389600737 Icelandic Horses on a trail ride.
  • Most gaited horses are calm and easy-going by nature.

Myths about gaited horses

  • Gaited horses cannot jump: Gaited horses are not natural jumpers but can be taught to jump, and some, like the Tennessee Walking Horses, are great once trained. Jumps must be introduced gradually, and pole work needs to be the first step.
  • Gaited horses are not safe as they are not as surefooted as other horses: This is just a myth! Gaited horses have been used for centuries to traverse even the most challenging terrain.
  • Gaited horses need special saddles: No – gaited horses can go in any saddle that fits them properly.
  • Gaited horses need special shoes: No – just like every other horse, gaited horses need a good farrier, but shoeing and trimming of gaited horses are no different to the shoeing and trimming of non-gaited horses.

Did you know?

While a head bob while riding a non-gaited horse is often a sign of lameness, it is typical in ambling gaits. This head nod actually contributes to the quality of the gait.