The motion of the horse’s feet and legs are called gaits. There are roughly two groups of gaits, the natural gait and the acquired gait. The four natural gaits are the walk, the trot, the canter and the gallop. Some people consider the cantor and the gallop as one gait. A gait performed by natural impulse and without training is called a natural gait. Gaits that require specific training and practice are acquired gaits.
The walk is a four beat gait which is flat footed, natural and slow. At the walk, the horse will have three feet on the ground and the other foot raised, except for a brief moment when the weight is being transferred from one foot to another. The head and neck of the horse slightly move up and down at the walk. This helps maintain balance. The walk, even though a natural gait, can be improved with training. If your horse is well trained he should be able to walk at least four miles an hour.
A trot averages around eight miles an hour. It has a wide variation of speeds but is a two beat gait. A very slow trot is called a jog. The jog trot is generally seen in Western classes. Riders need to learn specific skills in order to sit the trot without bouncing. At most speeds above a jog most riders will post to the trot, especially in English riding. Posting will keep you from be jostled out of the saddle and also keep you from bouncing on the horse’s back harming the horse. For the horse the trot is a working gait. A working trot can be maintained for hours by a horse in good condition.
Cantering is a three beat gait. Either to the right or left it is a slight diagonal movement. In Western classes a medium fast collected canter is called a lope. A lead is when the more extended foreleg is matched by a slightly more extended hind leg on the same side. The canter is executed with either a left or right lead. The correct lead provides the horse with better balance. The lead should be changed at intervals because of the added strain on the legs and feet that strike separately.
Averaging about 25 to 30 miles per hour the gallop is the fastest gait of the horse. In the wild the gallop is used to flee predators or to cover short distances quickly. In an extended form the gallop is known as the run. In the classic horse race the gallop is the gait used. Seldom will a horse gallop more than 1 or 2 miles before they need to rest.
In the pace the front and hind feet on the same side start and stop at the same time. Two feet are always off the ground in the pace. A rider is lightly rocked from side to side in relative comfort at a slow pace. It is speed gait rather than a road gait.
Being slower and more broken in cadence than the pace, the amble is a lateral gait. It is faster than a walk but slower than the canter. These are four beat gaits. The fox trot, the running walk, and the rack are all major ambling gaits. The ambling gaits are smoother for the rider and can be longer. They are good when the rider has to stay in the saddle for long periods of time.
Whatever gait you are using your body should be in rhythm and balance with the action of the horse. This should become a habit used every time you handle a horse. For more information about horses take a quick look at thebestofhorses.com.