The Soft Gaits
The biggest problem in discussing the gaits of horses is the lack of standard definitions. Some breed registriesí official definitions, like walking in front and trotting behind, are inaccurate over simplifications, as are some traditional descriptions derived before high speed photography. And scientific descriptions are often worded in a way that is hard for a lay person to understand. I will attempt to clarify some of this by defining the terms I use to describe the gaits.
What is a soft gait? In a practical sense, it is a gait about the same speed as the trot that is easy to sit because there is no jarring bounce. In a technical sense it is an intermediate four beat gait that lacks the suspension phase of the trot. This definition excludes the flat foot walk and the flying pace; two gaits sometimes included as soft gaits. The flat foot walk, although faster than an ordinary walk, is not an intermediate gait and the flying pace has a suspension phase where all the feet are off the ground. Those classifying the flying pace as a soft gait do so because the impact is softened by the hind foot contacting the ground before the front foot.
When you are observing a soft gait, look for these elements. Is it diagonal, lateral, or even? What is the rhythm of the foot falls? Is the horse stepping or hopping from one foot to the other? How much overstep is there? There are lots of names for the different soft gaits. Some breeds, like the Icelandic Horse or the Spanish horses, use names in foreign languages. It is my belief that the gaits: stepping pace, fox-trot, running walk, and rack, contain all the elements of the soft gaits. Understanding these gaits will give you the ability to analyze any soft gait, no matter what it is being called.
Many people categorize soft gaits as either diagonal or lateral based on unaided human observation. Does it look like the diagonal or lateral legs are moving together? Unfortunately, when observing a horse from the side, it is so much easier to see the lateral legs, every gait except the fox-trot looks lateral. Others use the sequence of foot falls to classify a gait as diagonal or lateral. This is done by first deciding whether the gait is diagonal or lateral, then starting the foot fall sequence with the foot which supports that conclusion. Actually all the soft gaits have the same sequence of foot falls. You can demonstrate this by writing the foot fall sequence for five strides of each gait on separate strips of paper. Lay the strips of paper on a table and adjust them until the foot falls line up. The foot fall sequence is a repeating cycle. It does not matter where in the cycle you start recording, the sequence remains the same. I believe the designation of diagonal, lateral, or even should be based on the relative amount of time the diagonal or lateral feet are on the ground. This can be determined with film or video. Record the horse and play it back frame by frame, counting how many frames the horse is supported by diagonal or lateral feet. If the diagonal support phase is significantly longer, it is a diagonal gait. If the lateral support phase is significantly longer, it is a lateral gait. If they are about the same, it is an even gait. Without film or video you can still tell if a gait is even or not by the sound of the foot falls. An even four beat gait will have an even rhythm, 1--2--3--4. A diagonal or lateral four beat gait will have an uneven rhythm, 1-2----3-4. Once you hear the uneven rhythm it is easy to see whether it is diagonal or lateral. Trying to determine if a gait is diagonal or lateral by observing the horse, when you hear an even four beat rhythm, is like trying to find the long side of a square blanket.
While it is true that none of the soft gaits have a suspension phase like the trot, where all four feet are off the ground at once, suspension does have a role in a slightly different sense. When a horse is walking it is stepping from one foot to the next. The foot being set down touches the ground before the foot being picked up leaves the ground. In the trot the horse is hopping from one foot to the other, the foot leaving the ground is in the air before the foot being set down touches the ground. With gaited horses, think of the front feet and hind feet separately. When the horse is transferring his weight from one foot to the other, is he stepping or hopping? This is what I mean by suspension in gaited horses.
The stepping pace, sometimes referred to as the amble or saddle, is the most common soft gait. It is a four beat lateral gait with no suspension between the front or the hind feet. While the lateral feet are moving almost together, the hind foot is leading the front foot slightly; it picks up first and sets down first. The horse goes through alternate phases of having two feet on the ground and three feet on the ground. Starting at the end of the time the horse is being supported by the right lateral pair of feet, one stride of the gait is as follows. The horse has three feet on the ground, momentarily, as he steps from the right hind to the left hind foot, then is supported by the left hind/right front diagonal pair. This diagonal support phase last the length of time by which the hind foot is leading the front foot. The horse again has three feet on the ground, momentarily, as he steps from the right front to the left front foot, then is supported by the left lateral pair for a significant length of the stride. Again there is a brief moment with three feet on the ground as the horse steps from the left hind to the right hind foot, and a short phase of diagonal support, right hind/left front, for the amount of time the hind foot is leading the front foot. For a brief moment the horse has three feet on the ground, again, as he steps from the left front to the right front foot, ending the stride with a significant lateral support phase. In the saddle the rider feels a slight side to side movement, and hears the uneven chucka-chucka beat. The horse will generally have his nose out and back level; there is very little or no collection, and the track of the hind foot is disturbing the track of the front foot. I have found that horses who prefer doing this gait are generally stiff sided. To cue my Foxtrotter to do a stepping pace I slouch very slightly in the saddle and follow the slight side to side movement.
The fox-trot is a four beat diagonal gait with no suspension between the front or the hind feet. While the diagonal feet are moving almost together, the front foot is leading the hind foot slightly. The track of the hind foot disturbs the track of the front foot, and there is a distinct chucka-chucka sound of foot falls. Starting from the end of the time the horse is supported by the right hind/left front diagonal pair, one stride of the fox-trot is as follows. There is a very brief moment when three feet are contacting the ground as the horse steps from the left front foot to the right front foot. As the left front foot is picked up the horse is supported by the right lateral pair for the length of time the front foot is leading the hind foot. Again there is a brief moment with three feet on the ground as the horse steps from the right hind foot to the left hind foot. When the right hind foot is picked up the horse is supported by the left hind/right front diagonal pair for a significant portion of the stride. The horse goes through another brief moment with three feet on the ground as it steps from the right front to the left front foot. When the right front foot is picked up the horse is supported for the length of time the front foot is leading the hind foot by the left lateral pair. Then a brief moment of three feet on the ground as the horse steps from the left hind foot to the right hind foot. When the left hind foot is picked up the horse is supported by the right hind/left front diagonal pair for a significant portion of the stride. The rider feels a quick front to back motion from the hips to just below the ribcage; the upper body is very still. It is interesting to note that a similar motion is felt in the upper body at a flat foot walk. When a horse is fox-trotting well, there is an observable rhythm that looks like a vertical ripple starting at the end of the tail and going all the way through the horse to the head. To cue my Foxtrotter to fox-trot I center and grow, keeping my body as tall and straight as I can. I ask for some collection and follow the front to back motion. When the horse elevates his shoulder and breaks at the pole the gait improves. This gives the horse more reach and the ride is smoother. Even in this frame the horse's face is not vertical but the nose is slightly out. When pushed for too much speed, the horse will start to get suspension between the front feet and over-reach with the hind feet. This creates a rougher ride although it looks flashier and is what you generally see at the big shows. People who want this improper gait refer to the true fox-trot as the "old time" fox-trot. I have seen one horse pushed for so much speed he had suspension between both the front and the rear feet.
The running walk is an even four beat gait in which the feet are moving the same way they do in the walk but with much more reach and over stride. In extreme, big lick, cases the overreach can approach four feet. The stride sequence is just like the stepping pace or the fox-trot except the length of time the horse is supported by lateral and diagonal feet is about the same. The rider feels a lowering of the hind end as the horse positions himself to over-stride, and the riderís seat bones alternately move forward and back. This motion in the hind end is so pronounced observers can see the tail shaking from side to side, hence the colloquialism swishy tail, referring to a horse that does a running walk. Although I have seen people get fox-trotting horses to do a running walk by raising their heads and hollowing their backs, good walking horses improve their gait with proper collection. The goal of most of the insane training devices used by some walking horse people is to get them to carry more of their weight on the hind end, and heighten the action of the front feet. Within the walking horse organization there are different divisions. The "Big Lick" horse's gait is exaggerated to a grotesque extreme through the use of highly built up weighted shoes and fetlock chains. The light shod horses, allowed to do the gait God gave them, make very smooth, ground covering riding horses.
The rack, sometimes called the single-foot, is an even four beat gait with suspension between both the front and the hind feet. The feet move in the same pattern as the walk but the horse hops from one foot to the other. Beginning with the end of the time the horse is supported by the right lateral pair of feet, one stride of the rack is as follows. The horse is supported for a brief period of time by the right front foot as he hops from the right hind to the left hind. When the left hind contacts the ground the horse is supported by the left hind/right front diagonal pair for a significant length of the stride. The horse then is supported by the left hind while he hops from the right front to the left front foot. When the left front foot lands, the horse is supported by the left lateral pair for a significant length of the stride. The horse is supported briefly by one foot, the left front, as he hops from the left hind to the right hind. When the right hind lands, he is supported by the right hind/left front diagonal pair for a significant length of the stride. The horse is again supported briefly by one foot, the right hind, as he hops from the left front to the right front foot. When the right front foot lands the horse is supported by the right lateral pair for a significant length of the stride. As the horse begins to rack, the rider feels the horse elevated a little, especially the hind end. The best description I have heard of what the rack feels like is, "A whole lot of something going on underneath you but you are moving along smoothly." To get my Foxtrotter to rack I use a loose rein, and imagine inflating a helium balloon in my chest. This lightens my seat and hollows my back moving my chin out and up. I have been told a horse cannot rack without hollowing his back. There is an observable rhythm in a horse that is racking; it is as if the horse is hinged just behind the withers and the head and hind end are vibrating up and down. This motion is particularly noticeable at the base of the tail. Racking is pretty hard on the horse. I know of several horses who racked for years that now have joint and back problems. In my opinion the Icelandic Horseís tolte is a rack, and the paso gaits: paso fino, paso corto, and paso largo, are a rack without suspension, stepping from one foot to the other. The Peruvian Paso throws in another element called termino. This looks like paddling with the front feet but is actually a rolling of the shoulder.
The soft gaits, without suspension, require less effort than the trot. Is it easier for you to walk three miles in an hour or jog three miles in an hour? While we tend to associate certain gaits with particular breeds, all gaited horses can do a variety of gaits. Allowing our horses to use different gaits on long trail rides gives them more stamina. Each gait uses a different combination of muscles so one set is not getting over used. One account I read attributed the ability of the Nez Pierce Indians to out distance the Cavalry to their horses being gaited.