Anyone who ever owned a horse knows how special these amazing creatures are and how unique each one is. Horses exist alongside humans and communicate and work with us, and these are abilities that few other animals possess to such a degree.
One fascinating feature of horses is the way they can learn to control each of their four limbs separately, allowing them to perform a wide variety of gaits, both natural and learned.
There are certain natural gaits that most horses are capable of from birth. The natural horse gaits are the walk, the trot, the canter, and the gallop. There are variations within these rhythms, but in general all natural gaits fall into one of these categories.
Walk: The walk is the horse’s slowest gait. Each of the legs moves independently. Most horses lead out with the right front leg, but this is not universally true.
Trot or jog: While the walk is a four-gait beat, the trot is two beats. The front and back legs on opposing sides move together in a quick, smooth motion. Some people differentiate between the trot and jog, as the jog is a bit slower, but in general they are the same movement.
Canter: When a horse canters, it moves in a three-beat gait. One pair of feet — the front and back on opposing sides — will move at the same time. The other two feet strike the ground independently. This gentle, loping stride is typically comfortable to ride and lets the horse and rider travel long distances at a slightly higher speed.
Gallop: This fastest of all the horse gaits can sometimes appear to be a fast canter, but in reality it is a four-beat gait like the walk.
Because horses are so versatile and can move all their limbs together or independently, they are capable of learning unique gaits. About 30 breeds have distinct gaits of their own. Although these movements are frequently referred to as “artificial gaits“, most of them are quite natural to the breeds who can perform them. Some horses can be taught artificial gaits for the purposes of sport or show.
Running walk: This movement is similar to an ordinary walk. It is a four-beat gait, but it is faster than a walk. The back hoof oversteps the front in a way that makes the horse appear to be gliding. The Tennessee Walking Horse has the most famous example of this gait.
Tölt or largo: There are several horses which display this type of gait, most famously the Icelandic horse and the Colombian Paso Fino. This gait also has much in common with the walk, but can be performed at very high speeds.
Slow gait: This is a popular show gait where both feet on the same side of the horse leave the ground simultaneously but land at different moments. This gives the horse’s movement a broken look. Also known called the “stepping pace,” this gait is often seen in American Saddlebred horses.
Pace: This unusual gait sees both feet on each side hitting the ground simultaneously, as if the horse was split in half. The gait appears smooth, and there is a moment when all four limbs are off the ground. Some horses even run at this gait, jumping from side to side. Horse breeds that like to pace include the Tennessee Walkers and the Icelandic horse.
Like humans, horse individuals walk in their own ways, with varying stride lengths or with toes pointed in or out. Genetics also factor into it, as recent studies linked specific genes to a strong preference for artificial gaits. Some gaits are far more enjoyable for the human rider than others, but all are part of the unique partnership that humans and horses have developed.