They've Got The Beat: Gaited Horses

Every horse moves forward, and gaited horses ease the journey onward. By moving their legs in a four-beat lateral gait, these horses produce a smooth ride. Their locomotion pattern varies from horses which trot in a diagonal beat. The easy-gaited horses appeal to riders who want a comfortable journey. A smooth gait is the prime quality, and riders also enjoy the unique presence of the gaited breeds. Gaited horses look graceful and flashy as they glide across the ground.

Around the world, more than 30 breeds and breed variations perform these lateral gaits. The most well-known in the Americas are the Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, Peruvian Paso, and American Paso Fino. Others seen in the United States are the Missouri Fox Trotter, Racking Horse, Spotted Saddlebred, Walkaloosa, Rocky Mountain Horse, and the Icelandic Horse. Each breed has its own expression of movement.

Laterally Forward

Four-beat gaits distinguish these breeds from those which trot. In most four-beat lateral gaits, the horse is never suspended off the ground. At least one foot--sometimes two or three--is on the ground at all times. The result is that the horse moves forward with minimal motion of the topline. The rider isn't jarred or jostled as in the trot, when the "float" of the trot (the moment of suspension) is followed by the impact of the diagonal pair of feet hitting the ground. On a gaited horse, the soft ride is easy to sit.

The four-beat gait is known by many names: running walk, fox trot, stepping pace (also called slow gait), and rack (also called singlefoot). Each variation follows a specific pattern and exact timing of footfalls. Each gait is performed with a steady rhythm and regularity.

In the true rack, only one foot bears weight at a time. Alan Raun, DVM, Cumming, Iowa, explained how the five-gaited Saddlebred moves in the stepping pace and rack.

"The slow gait is a lateral four-beat gait. The rack should be a diagonal four-beat gait, but it seldom is. The majority of horses today stay in a lateral four-beat. The only difference between the two gaits is that the slow gait is much slower, with a hesitation between the second and third beats."

On all gaited breeds, the rider sits vertically with a deep seat and straight leg. The "saddle seat" position--erect and back from the horse's withers--closely resembles that of the Renaissance royalty and nobles portrayed in paintings and sculptures.

Today's gaited horses are descendants of horses of the Middle Ages. Europe's nobility rode horses called palfreys, which carried riders at the amble (a pace) or the rack. The horses were comfortable for aristocrats, royals, and knights, who traveled long distances on horseback before the advent of highways for carriages.

One type of palfrey was the Spanish jennet, an elegant, spirited steed. European equestrians esteemed these animals, which provided a dignified ride for traveling, hunting, and hawking.

Europeans' taste in horses changed toward the end of the 17th Century. Better roads and improved vehicles shifted travel from the saddle to the buggy and carriage. Trotting horses were in demand, as horses in harness could shorten the time spent in long journeys.

Gaited horses already had traveled to the New World, and European equestrian traditions influenced colonials in the Americas. American southern gentlemen preferred easy-gaited mounts to travel across plantations. The familiar American breeds originated in the southern states, where they continue their great popularity. For example, Tennessee's famous walkers attract huge crowds to the breed's annual Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn. More than 150,000 spectators attended the show last year, packing the 29,000-seat arena to see the World Champion crowned.

Latin America generated the two separate paso breeds: the Peruvian Paso and the Paso Fino. Each performs a unique paso (step in Spanish), developed from ancestors brought to the New World.

Gaits With Grace

Gaited horses appeal to pleasure riders, who delight in gliding along a bridle path or rural trail. Besides the comfort, many riders like the satisfaction of walking as fast or faster than other horses can trot.

Dave Whitaker, PhD, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University's agricultural department, described how the plantation walkers are the breed of choice for many hunters.

"In field trials, practically everybody rides a Walking Horse. Anyone who rides a trotting-bred horse, either the horse or the rider would be worn out by lunchtime."

He also mentioned how a Montana guide has a whole string of Tennessee Walking Horses to carry hunters into the wilderness. These horses carry riders farther into the mountains than non-gaited breeds, and those not accustomed to riding suffer less stiffness than they'd endure after riding a horse other than a Walker.

Whitaker explained, "Two things are outstanding in the Walking Horse: the disposition and the smooth gait. When you combine those two, no other breed can match them. This horse excels when you take a long ride--you're going a long distance in one day, and you need comfort."

Of course, riders also take pleasure in showing off their gaited horses in competition. Horses compete within their own breed. Classes showcase the breed's unique gait, and judges look for rhythm, timing, balance, and breed-specific characteristics. Although speed varies according to the individual, the horse which looks effortless and free-going also attracts attention. He maintains a consistent gait while moving briskly forward.

The show ring generally highlights the flashier horses with crowd-pleasing action. The American Saddlebred is often called the peacock of the show ring. The breed shows under saddle as either a three-gaited ("walk-trot") horse, or the five-gaited horse which walks, trots, canters, slow gaits, and racks.

The Saddlebred moves with extreme collection, elevating the forehand with brilliant action. Top performers have the flexibility to lift the forearm above parallel, or at an angle so the knee is raised higher than the horse's underline.

In the Tennessee Walking Horse, spectators cheer for the horse with the "Big Lick." At the running walk, the horse glides forward smoothly, high in front and "sitting" behind.

Built To Move

Conformation produces movement, and training enhances the horse's natural affinity to gait. The Tennessee Walking Horse accompanies its running walk with a nodding head, nodding at every step. Whitaker said, "We have a saying: 'If they're not shaking, they're not walking.'

"A foal will shake his head and walk off, but it's not the show gait or the pleasure gait that we see. Introducing the rider changes the center of balance of the gait. Putting a bit in the mouth and collecting the horse up changes the whole aspect of the gait. It's affected by weight and training, as well as genetics."

The Tennessee Walking Horse drives from behind, so fanciers look for a horse which is loose and pushes forward from the hindquarters. They seek a long overstride, where the hind foot oversteps the front foot on the same side by as much as 24 inches. The shoulder has a good slope, and the croup a medium slope.

Comparing the horse to other breeds, Whitaker said, "The Walking horse is a little higher headed, with the neck coming higher out of the withers." He noted with the emphasis on breeding for the drive, the breed might be slightly narrower through the chest.

In the past, breeders had associated a sickle hock with the reach. "A lot of good show horses today are more utility-shaped in their hocks," said Whitaker. "Today the horses are pretty useful in their hock conformation."

He pointed out that the back and loin are critical, as they affect the Walker's balance and stride. "In order for him to stride up under himself, he has to flex his topline and loin, and push his pelvis up underneath himself."

The five-gaited Saddlebred is a substantial horse. Breeders aim for a high-headed animal. They prefer a long, arched neck set so it appears to rise up out of the withers. The horse has a sloping shoulder, short back, level topline, and generally a flat croup.

Raun noted, "You want a long enough hip. Look for length of hip, a short cannon bone, and a hock close to the ground. The pasterns should be normal, not too sloping or straight, and not extremely long or short."

The Saddlebred performs with extreme collection. He carries his head with a "hinge" at the poll. Raun said, "We wish a horse to have the underside of the neck perpendicular to the ground, with that extreme flexion at the poll."

The "high-going" flexion of knees and hocks produces the extravagant action of a top performer. Weaknesses are weak back, straight hocks, or straight pasterns.

For 400 years, the Peruvian Paso has been bred only as a gaited horse. Aficionados claim this is the only breed that can guarantee that the foals inherit the gait.

The Peruvian Paso has two primary lateral gaits, the paso llano and sobreandando. The paso llano has equal intervals of time between each footfall. The sobreandando is faster, with a different pattern of beats.

The ideal gait in this breed has reach, overstep, and looseness. The horse moves airily and lightly in front, and powerfully from behind. He takes long strides behind with an overstep of 12 inches maximum. In front, he should move like a cat, swinging forward from shoulder and hip. The loin and tail do not move as the horse steps forward.

The Paso Fino is ridden with more collection, to walk in shorter, evenly-spaced steps. This breed has three speeds of its natural gait: the paso fino, paso corto, and paso largo. At each speed, the four beats must be absolutely even in cadence and impact, and the horse must display symmetry and balance.

To encourage high action in certain gaited breeds, trainers employ action devices. Ankle bracelets add weight and unusual motion on the front pasterns. Rollers are a string of wooden or aluminum beads; chains are a bracelet of metal links. The Tennessee Walking Horse is trained and shown wearing chains or rollers.

Horses respond to the rollers or chains by lifting their legs higher. The trainer selects the appropriate type and weight of the device according to the horse's response.

Shackles are another training device used by Saddlebred trainers. These "stretchies" are straps of rubber tubing attached to boots on the front feet, and usually fitted over the withers. The tubing stretches as the horse lifts its feet, encouraging the horse to lift the knees higher.

" 'Rubber bands' are used similarly to the muscle-building bands for weight lifters," said M. W. Myers, DVM. "The horse works against the pull of the band, which is directed so that this causes leg lift. There are shackles in which the trainer actually lifts the horse's legs to a desired height. Unless this is carefully done, the effect is rather 'stilted' and artificial."

Trainers don't use shackles and action devices to cause pain to the horse. These training aids stimulate the high action that is innate in the Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horse.

Gentle dispositions are another trademark of the gaited breeds. Even a spirited-looking show ring star might be an easygoing character to handle on the ground.

These horses want to perform. Through generations bred to carry riders safely across the landscape, they express a desire to please.

Show ring champions also express a pride and special presence. Myers said, "The horse needs to be 'his own horse' and enjoy what he is doing to really be competitive. This has been referred to as 'the look of eagles.' "

Raun noted, "The Saddlebred has to be exceptionally game to perform like we want, to have that flexion--he has to go forward. One older trainer said, 'What bends the horse is what beats in his chest.' A straight-necked horse can bend well, if he has enough heart."

In Peru, breeders of the Peruvian Paso culled the horses which were unsafe to handle. This breed has a reputation as a docile animal. A Peruvian Paso's attitude is to serve the rider, and to obey the rider's commands. Yet the horse also displays the desirable quality of brio, or a vigor and exuberance.

This combination of elegance and calmness applies across the range of gaited breeds. Most individuals willingly perform and are unruffled in their dispositions.

"This is a horse that's a really good first-timer's horse," said Whitaker of the Tennessee Walking Horse. "The disposition and the smooth ride appeal to a person who wants to learn to ride without taking a lot of lessons. With the field trial participant, the dog comes first. The horse is a means of transportation."

Staying Sound

The gaited horse naturally performs the gait of his breed. The gait might appear different and energetic, but the activity isn't stressful for the horse.

For example, the Peruvian Paso moves with termino. Each front leg rolls outward from the shoulder, so the foot swings out to the side. What looks like "swimming" of the forelegs is a natural action. Despite the outward motion, the horse places each forefoot vertically and squarely on the ground.

Gaited horses have a reputation for toughness. Their European ancestors had the endurance to carry riders long distances. Whitaker said, "For the most part, the Walking Horse is excellent in terms of longevity and durability, when ridden as a pleasure mount. Three feet are on the ground at the same time. The horse doesn't pound the ground, with no moment of suspension. He doesn't get tired as fast as the trotting horse."

The more extreme the action of the gaited show horse, the greater the stress the horse confronts. Spectators applaud and judges reward extravagant motion. The animation demanded in the show ring can result in soundness problems.

Whitaker described areas prone to injury in Walkers. "With the show horse, there's more pressure when he shifts the weight to the back legs, so you see more lamenesses behind. It's mostly the stifle region, but also the hip and some hock problems."

The amount of engagement of the hindquarters also determines the site of lameness. Myers said, "Rear limb problems are more common in Saddlebreds than fore limb. These may be hock lamenesses, fetlock lamenesses, etc. Sometimes, if the front shoeing is not properly done, the horse can 'rock back' and bow a tendon."

Raun pointed out that at the Saddlebred's slow gait, the horse carries as much as three-fourths of his weight on the hindquarters. "A horse that doesn't have good conformation puts more and more stress on either the bone structure or suspensory ligaments, or the flexor tendons. The majority of problems are in the suspensories or the deep and superficial flexor tendons."

Myers noted that the show Saddlebred is kept in a stall and not turned out. "If not worked regularly and carefully, the horse can be prone to injuries from fatigue or lack of fitness. Five-gaited classes are physically tiring on the horse performing the rack for extended periods of time. This is also due to lack of adequate conditioning."

Five-gaited Saddlebreds and certain divisions of Tennessee Walking Horses are shown wearing quarter boots on the front feet. These can protect the horse from interference, and some models are weighted to enhance extreme action. (A short-backed horse has to step past the front feet and is more likely to interfere.)

Traditionally, the Peruvian Paso is shown barefoot. The horse should have tough feet, capable of carrying him across the sands of the Peruvian desert along the Pacific coast.

Horsemen from other breeds comment on the long feet and elaborate shoeing of the showier breeds of gaited horses. Shoeing affects the horse's speed, length of stride, and action. Saddlebreds are shod with a longer foot, often with a heavier shoe and leather pad between shoe and foot. The thickness and angle of the pad can affect the height and angle of the foot.

Raun said, "The good gaited horses don't carry a lot of weight or a lot of foot. Those who are top individuals and who last a long time usually are lightly shod, with not a very long foot."

Myers noted, "Shoeing of these horses is an art and science in and of itself. It follows all the rules of standard farriery principles, but in a highly exaggerated form. Horses must move with fluidity, and this is the only constraint on weight. Toe length as it increases is usually followed with a stack extending back under the heel to give support to the leg."

In certain show divisions, the Tennessee Walking Horse is "padded up," or shod with oversized pads on front. Metal bands over the hoof anchor the pad to the hoof.

The observant trainer pays close attention to the horse's condition. For example, rollers or chains might cause inflammation of the pasterns. A horseman regularly inspects the animal to check for any discomfort.

Some trainers have practiced methods that encourage high action by causing the horse pain. The federal Horse Protection Act seeks to eliminate the practice of soring. In this illegal procedure, a person applies an irritating or blistering substance to the front pastern or coronary band. The motion of action devices against the inflammation stimulates the horse to rock back on the haunches and lift his front feet higher. The pain exaggerates the action.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture enforces the Act through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), focusing on the Tennessee Walking Horse and racking horse breeds. Horses can't be shown with any evidence of previous soring, such as a scar, callous, or granulated tissue.

Under the Act, horses are inspected at shows. The show can employ a Designated Qualified Person (licensed industry inspector) or a Veterinary Medical Officer. These horsemen receive training in regulations and inspections. Officials of APHIS also perform spot checks at shows, picking horses at random.

Dick Watkins of APHIS explained the three steps of the inspection: "First is a general observation of how the horse presents himself. Then the inspector walks around the horse, or may ask the horse to be walked, to see if there's any indication of pain or soreness.

"Second, the inspector does a physical palpation of the front feet. He picks up the foot and puts pressure around the lower extremities, feeling from the fetlock down. Third, the inspector does a physical inspection for scars, which can be indicative of soring."

He noted that the person might have to probe through thick hair on the horse's legs. The irritating agent can be mixed with a hoof coloring substance and painted up pasterns and fetlocks.

Examiners grade the severity of violations of the Act. Unfortunately, even after 28 years of the Act's enforcement, unscrupulous trainers continue to sore horses. APHIS charges such owners and trainers with violations, which result in fines and disqualifications.

Another controversial practice is the set tails, or a tail carried upright. This fashion has been popular for many years in the American Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horse. In a surgical procedure, the surgeon nicks the coccygeus muscle. (The tailbone is not broken.) In the stall during the show season, the horse wears a special harness that holds the tail in position. The horse can still move his tail, although some animals might always show the effect of the surgery.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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