Everything you need to know about a horse’s gaits

There are four globally recognized horse gaits—the walk, trot, gallop and canter. Gaits in dressage are sometimes differentiated according to the rhythmic movements such as the 4-beat walk, the 2-beat trot, and the 3-beat canter. However, each type of horse gaits may be further distinguished. For example, there are collected, medium, free and extended walk – same as in canter and trot, except gallop which differs with only two different gaits: the halt and the pace. Horse gaits refer to how the animal moves in a set order.

Whether you’re putting your horse on display, training the unique and lovable animal, or simply watching videos or real-time horse performance at a dressage, there is need to know the different horse gaits. Admittedly, being able to distinguish between the walk, trot, canter, and gallop can be an uphill task for many horse lovers – and that’s too bad – because gaits are a remarkable part of a horse’s life. It is more so for the fact that, during dressage tests, the emphasis is always on “freedom” and “regularity” which are measured by the horse’s rhythmic footfalls, its ability to cover some distance with each walk, trot, canter or gallop, including how the animal maintains its scope—with same rhythm, sequence, or timing throughout the time. Consistency of the tempo is therefore an important feature to perfect horse gaits.

In this article, we explain the different horse gaits, including why and why they are used either during training sessions or horse racing competitions. For better understanding of terms used in this article, a horse’s hind leg is also known as the near hind, the foreleg is the near fore, the right-hand side is its offside whereas the left-hand side is known as its nearside.

The Walk

During the walk, which is between 2 to 5mph, every horse displays a four-time movement involving separate movement of each of the hind and forelegs—but in a set order. The pace usually builds up from the near hind before the near fore, followed by a leap with the off hind and off fore. It is common to see horses tracking up when they are on a walk (i.e. fitting the hind hoof right into or in front of the forefoot’s hoof print).

Collected Walk refers to a horse’s light, rhythmic movement marked by shorter, steady, and active footfalls that constantly engage the hindquarters to achieve a livelier movement.

Medium Walk involves steady, rhythmic steps and even footfalls that are longer thereby allowing the horse to cover more space than when in collected walk.

Extended Walk is marked by the horse stretching its stride to the maximum while maintaining steady, rhythmic pace with both hind legs and fore legs. This allows its body to extend slightly for better performance.

Free Walk keeps the horse rider in control but allows the animal a level of freedom. During a free walk, the rider is required to apply light contact with the rein, thus, enabling the horse to stretch down the rein and exercise their full frame.

The Trot

While trotting, the horse strides with two diagonal pairs of legs simultaneously. This two-time movement involves lifting of both fore and near hind from the ground at once while the near fore and off hind remain fixed. Trotting speed of horses is between 7 and 10mph.

Walking Trot is a natural movement for horses. In walking trot, the horse’s two-time stride requires moving simultaneous footfalls with both diagonal pairs of legs and keeping the tempo by launching the hind foot within imprints from the forefeet.

Collected Trot is a shorter stride compared to the walking trot but requires more stamina. The animal achieves this movement by keeping its forehand light and actively engaged throughout the distance while supporting the tempo and connection with its hindquarters.

Medium Trot requires an increased tempo and stride. However, the horse maintains the rhythm with an actively engaged hindquarters in order to cover the distance in relaxed, lively steps.

Extended Trot involves stretching of the horse’s frame to extend the scope of its stride. This movement is achieved by simultaneous use of both the hind legs and forelegs—with great impulsion—to ensure that the desired length of stride is covered.

Canter

The canter is widely known as a rhythmic three-time movement. Horse riders differentiate between the right lead canter and left lead canter by the type of rein they are using. Generally, the right lead canter requires the horse to start its movement with the near hind and alternate with the off hind and near fore staying down at the same time. The off fore is usually the first to touch down and is therefore considered as the “power house” or leading leg.

In contrast, the left lead canter commences with a horse’s off hind and the stride is supported by movement from both off fore and near hind. However, the near fore becomes the last to touch down, making it the leading leg.

An average canter speed is between 10 and 17mph.

Working Canter allows the horse to choose its unique, active and purposeful three-time rhythmic movement.

Collected Canter involves shorter canter strides which lightens the rider’s grasp and, at the same time, increases the horse’s activity and impulsion.

Medium Canter is marked by increased activity, pace, and length of stride. The canter footfalls—though involving three even beats—remain noticeable. However, the animals tend to bend more and use more energy from supporting joints. Strides in the medium canter is shorter than the extended but longer that the working cater.

Extended Canter requires the horse to loosen its frame and actively engage its hindquarters in order to perform with its maximum length in a clear 3-beat rhythm.

Gallop

The gallop is a horse’s fastest movement and it is a 4-beat pace that involves striking of each of the four legs on the ground in quick, repeated strides. A moment of suspension is, however, noticed between each gallop which initially starts with canters. The kind of footfalls therefore depends on whether the rider started with a right or left lead canter. Unlike the three-beat movements in canter, you will easily notice four distinct sounds when a horse is galloping—usually at a speed of about 35 to 40mph. When the fore leg is leading the stride, the footfall progression would be with the off hind, near hind, and off fore, followed by the near fore. A moment of suspension is usually noticed between each stride.

The Halt refers to stopping of the gallop strides. A horse is said to have made a square halt if it stops and stands with both front and hind legs clearly paired.

The Pace is one of the remarkable features of harness racing. The 2-time movement involves moving both legs on the right or left side together as opposed to trotting, where the four legs move diagonally.

It is, nonetheless, important to know that a horse’s gait isn’t just about the scope of its steps or the distance between its footprints. Information provided here is contextual and involves the overall outline such as how the animal raises its head, elevates its legs, bends or raises its neck, lowers its croup, or even shortens or elongates its neck. In addition, horse gaits depend on dressage training which enables the animal to build muscles and develop better balancing, activity and animation skills through slow and step-by-step training This progression is reliant on the “Training Scale” theory which relates performance tests with straightness, rhythm, connection, relaxation, impulsion and collection; and is usually weighed by how energetically a horse can comfortably lift its feet from the ground with great stamina and speed during a walk, trot, canter or gallop in any kind of terrain – a performance which beatifies gaits with unique movements.