22 Aug Horse Gaits 101: Gait Guide For Beginners
The Different Horse Gaits
A horse’s “gait” is a pattern of movement a horse uses to move from one area to the next, with the slowest being the walk and the fastest being the gallop. Because a horse has four feet, there are multiple patterns and paces they can use to move.
What are the different horse gaits? There are two classes of gaits: natural gaits and ambling gaits. The natural gaits include:
These gaits require no training and come “naturally” to horses. Some breeds can additionally perform ambling gaits, such as the fox trot or the rack. These are four-beat gaits that are smoother to ride and are found in what are called “gaited” breeds.
In this article, I’ll break down each gait for you so you can recognize it when you see it or ride it. Keep reading!
The “Beats” In Horse Gaits
If you’ve been confused by the terms “two-beat,” “three-beat,” and “four-beat” when discussing horse gaits, you aren’t alone. It took me some time to understand exactly what this means too! It has to do with the independent movement of each foot. A four-beat gait means that all four feet are moving independently of one other, and each foot will touch the ground at a different time. This creates four separate hoof-falls, or “beats,” in some pattern of 1-2-3-4.
A three-beat gait means that two of the feet are touching the ground simultaneously while the other two are moving independently of one another. This creates a total of three hoof-falls within each gait cycle. When you are learning to canter, for example, it may help to count the beats aloud (“1-2-3… 1-2-3… 1-2-3…”).
Two-beat gaits are movements where two legs move together at all times, meaning that there will only be two beats, or hoof-falls, heard within each cycle. In these gaits, one hind leg will always move together with one front leg.
Horse Gait #1: The Walk
The walk is the slowest a horse moves. While there are slow and faster walks, the average horse walks at about 4 miles per hour. The walk is a four-beat gait performed naturally in this order of hoof-fall: left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, right front leg. If you are listening to a horse walk, you will hear four hoofbeats.
Horses use their heads as a form of balance, and during the walk, you will see a horse moving their neck just slightly up and down to keep itself naturally balanced. When riding the walk, you will feel your seat swing side to side.
Horse Gait #2: The Trot
The trot is considered the horse’s “working gait” and is the gait at which they will cover ground most efficiently without easily tiring. The trot is a diagonal two-beat gait, meaning that the horse’s hind left leg will move and fall in unison with the right front leg, and then the right hind leg will move forward in unison with the left front leg.
When listening to the trot, you will hear two hoofbeats and be able to count a rhythmic 1-2 pattern. When riding the trot, you will feel your seat go up and down.
The trot averages about 8 miles per hour, but that can feel like an easy 8 miles per hour on a smooth horse or a rough 8 miles per hour on a particularly bouncy horse. Many horses can also give their riders a very slow trot, called a “jog” in the Western world, which is quite easy and comfortable to sit.
Horse Gait #3: The Canter
The three-beat gait horses perform is called a “canter” in English riding and a “lope” in Western riding. It is faster and smoother than the trot but slightly slower than the gallop. The average canter is considered to be 15 miles per hour. When riding the canter, you will hear three different hoof beats, and your seat will go from back to front as if you’re on a swing.
In the canter, the horse will move his right hind leg in unison with his left front leg (or his left hind leg with his right front leg, depending on the lead), and his other two legs will move independently. The hind leg that is moving on its own will be the one that propels the horse forward.
To learn more about how to ride the canter, visit my article How to Ride the Canter (Step-by-Step Guide).
Horse Gait #4: The Gallop
The gallop is the fastest of horse gaits and can average up to 25 miles per hour, with some horses running upwards of 50 mph! The gallop is a four-beat gait and can only be sustained for a couple of miles at most before the horse needs to slow down and rest.
During each gallop cycle, there is a movement of suspension when all four feet are off the ground. Contrary to some classic artistic depictions, when a horse’s legs are stretched out in the gallop, at least one hoof touches the ground at that point of movement. If you listen to a gallop, you’ll hear four hoof falls, and your seat will move similarly to the canter, just in a faster motion.
Other Horse Gaits
Horses that are referred to as “gaited” move differently than horses with natural gait patterns. Gaited horses are built differently than normal horses, with larger shoulders and angled stifles. They are able to move each leg independently from the others, which enables them to conserve energy and move more quickly over a longer distance. Some popular gaited horse breeds include:
- Tennessee Walking Horse
- Missouri Foxtrotter
- Icelandic Horse
- Morgan Horses
- Paso Finos
- Rocky Mountain Horse
- Spotted Saddle Horse
Some of these horses have the ability to perform four-beat gaits called “ambling gaits.” All ambling gaits are faster than the walk and slower than the gallop. In addition to the ambling gaits that certain gaited breeds do naturally, like the foxtrot, and the rack, there are gaits similar to these that are named specifically for the breed that performs them.
For example, the Paso Fino will perform the paso fino, the paso corto, and the paso largo. The Peruvian Paso can perform the paso llano and the sobreandando. The Icelandic Horse does a similar ambling gait known as the tölt. Gaited horse breeds were bred specifically for their smooth “rideability,” making them great trail and pleasure horses.
To learn more about gaited horses, visit my article What is a Gaited Horse? Everything You Need to Know.
Horse Gait #5: The Pace
A few gaited horse breeds, like the Icelandic Horse and the Standardbred, will naturally “pace” instead of trot. This trait has been bred into these particular breeds, and not every breed member may be able to do it. The pace is a two-beat gait where each side moves together; the right hind leg will move in unison with the right front leg, and the left hind leg will move in unison with the left front leg.
While the two-beat pacing gait may look similar to the trot, horses that pace are able to travel at incredible speeds within this movement. An Icelandic Horse performing the flying pace could travel at the same speed as a horse galloping.
Horse Gait #6: The Foxtrot/Rack
When watching a gaited horse perform a foxtrot or a rack, you may be fooled into thinking that they are trotting; however, if you watch closely, you will see that their back feet are hitting the ground before the corresponding front leg does, meaning that they are actually moving in a four-beat ambling gait.
These gaits are smooth and easy to ride, making your seat move side-to-side. If you are looking for a comfortable ride, I would highly recommend looking for a gaited horse who can perform ambling gaits.
Horse Gait #7: The Tölt
The tölt is the Icelandic Horse’s version of an ambling gait. This is a smooth four-beat gait that almost all Icelandic Horses perform naturally. The only difference between a tölt and a foxtrot is the expression and freedom used in the Icelandic tölt. The tölt is expressive, with the horse lifting its shoulders for exaggerated leg movements. These horses do this movement freely without any aids to encourage them to move this way.
I’ve had the pleasure of riding an Icelandic Horse and tölting through the large expansive landscape of southern Iceland. This is indeed a very special gait!
Understanding Gaits Helps Condition The Rider
When you do start riding, it doesn’t take long before you realize there is a lot more to riding than just hanging on. Before you canter confidently, you must learn to sit and post the trot. Before you begin learning the trot, you must master giving cues at the walk.
Learning how to move with your horse is much easier if you understand the mechanics of your mount’s gaits. If you stay rigid, you will not stay in the saddle very long. You’ll need to learn to fluidly move your body with those two beats, three beats, or four beats.
Having the knowledge of what your horse is physically experiencing will only help you to experience the gait yourself physically. After all, the art of riding is learning how to move with your horse, not staying in the saddle in spite of his movement. To learn more about improving your seat while riding a horse, visit my article 10 Tips to Improve Your Seat on a Horse: Beginner’s Guide.
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.