"I know my horse has a smooth saddle gait," a gal told me at one of my clinics. "When we're headed for home or he's rushing to catch up with other horses, it suddenly feels like I'm gliding along on ball bearings. But I don't know how to achieve that gait the rest of the time. When I try to push him for more speed, he gets very choppy and hard to ride, especially going downhill."
Have you ever had this problem with your gaited horse? To produce his smoothest saddle gait on cue, you first need to understand how he gaits.
Every smooth saddle gait falls somewhere on a spectrum between the perfectly diagonal two-beat trot, and the perfectly lateral two-beat pace. Here, I'll go over six intermediate saddle gaits: the diagonal gaits (trot and fox trot), the lateral gaits (pace and stepping pace), and the square gaits (walk and running walk). But first, I'll explain your gaited horse's unique, inborn talent to work each leg independently from every other leg to produce a smooth ride.
A Unique Talent
Most gaited saddle horses possess a unique quality I term quadridexterity. Just as people are either monodextrous (left- or right-handed) or ambidextrous (proficient with either hand), horses are either ambidextrous or what I call quadridextrous.
Most people write predominantly with their right hand or left hand. Most of us can do some elementary writing or drawing with our nondominant hand. But if we try to do so with any speed or precision, we soon discover that we're hardwired to be either right- or left-handed. With practice, ambidextrous people can become equally adept with both hands.
Horses, having four legs, are diagonally or laterally ambidextrous. A diagonally ambidextrous horse moves his two diagonal (opposite side) legs together in perfect, two-beat synchrony: left hind/right fore; right hind/left fore. This constitutes a trot; trotting horses might be likened to right-handed people.
A pacing horse is laterally ambidextrous. He moves his two lateral (same side) legs together in perfect, two-beat synchrony: right fore/right hind; left fore/left hind. Pacing horses might be likened to less common left-handed people.
In either case, there's generally a moment of suspension when the set of diagonal or lateral legs lifts from the ground before the other set comes down. The concussion or jarring you feel during the trot or pace is the result of the horse's weight dropping back down to earth at the beginning of each new stride.
On the other hand, a naturally smooth-gaited horse uses each leg independently of every other leg. That's what I call quadridextrous. And just as ambidextrous people can improve their ability to use each hand independently, quadridextrous horses, too, need to be brought along carefully to properly develop their natural ability to its full potential. This in mind, here's a look at gait mechanics.
The Diagonal Gaits
At the diagonal end of the gait spectrum are the trot and the fox trot.
The trot. The trot is a perfectly timed, two beat gait whereby two sets of diagonal legs (right hind/left front; left hind/right front) pick up and set down in perfect, two-beat rhythm, with a moment of suspension and resultant concussion between strides.
The fox trot. The fox trot is similar to the trot in that each set of diagonal legs move somewhat in unison, but the forefoot lands a microsecond before the diagonally opposed hind foot, breaking the two-beat rhythm. This action eliminates suspension/concussion, and creates an uneven, four-beat gait: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. (This rhythm closely mimics the sound of the phrase: "Hunk o' meat and peck o' potatoes.") A naturally fox trotting horse generally has a long, low, reaching stride in front, and a higher, lifting stride behind. He looks as though he's "walking in front and trotting behind."
The Lateral Gaits
At the opposite, lateral end of the gait spectrum are the pace and the stepping pace.
The pace. The pace is a perfectly timed two beat gait whereby the right hind/right fore and left hind/left fore pick up and set down in perfect, two beat rhythm. There's a moment of suspension/ concussion with each stride. The pace horse also tends to throw his rider from side to side as he swings his body to accommodate the paces' extreme lateral action.
The stepping pace. The stepping pace is nearly identical to the pace, except that the hind foot lands a split instant before the same-side forefoot. This eliminates suspension/concussion, and turns it into an imperfectly timed four-beat gait: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4.
The stepping pace is smooth to ride, but presents inherent problems for both horse and rider. First, when a stepping pace is speeded up, it tends to turn into a rough two-beat pace. More important, this gait can create a hollow, strung-out body frame. Too much of the horse's body weight is carried on the forehand, then suspended for too long over his hyperextended rear leg. This is why strongly oriented lateral horses tend toward hollow backs, saddling problems, and potentially serious hock and stifle issues. Therefore, encourage your horse to develop a more evenly timed gait; that is, to fox trot, if that's what he's built and wired to do. Fortunately, teaching a laterally oriented horse to square up isn't all that difficult; I'll discuss training in future issues.
The Square Gaits
Exactly in the middle, between the trot and the pace, are the square gaits, in which each "corner" leg moves independently of every other corner leg. These are the walk, the rack, and the running walk.
The walk. The walk is the foundation for the true, evenly timed four-beat gaits. It's impossible to follow the walk's sequence of motion without the aid of a stop-
action camera, as one foot has picked up and started moving forward just as another sets down and is propelled back - and the other two are doing something altogether different, still! Our eyes and brains can't process all that information quickly enough.
The walk-stride sequence is right hind/right fore; left hind/left fore. Or, since the gait is square and evenly timed, you might perceive it as right fore/left hind; left fore/right hind. It all depends upon where you begin to establish footfall sequence.
The rack and running walk. The rack and running walk are virtually identical to the walk, except they're performed at speed and, ideally, with more engagement from behind, which produces greater impulsion and collection.
The difference between these two gaits is simple: The racking horse has an average-to-short stride length, while the running walk horse has the conformational ability to reach deeply underneath himself with each hind foot. This produces overstride, whereby the track of the hind foot oversteps the track of the forefoot by several inches. The running walk's long, low, sweeping rear stride, combined with its shorter, lifting stride in front, makes it appear as though the horse is "walking behind and trotting in front."
Another signature difference between the rack and the running walk is the amount of head nod produced by each gait; horses use their heads and necks for balance.
Note that when walking or running, we swing our arms for balance. To better understand a horse's nod, try this exercise: Clasp your arms to your sides and take long, sweeping strides. You'll automatically begin using your head and upper body for balance.
Generally speaking, the longer the horse's hind stride, the deeper the head nod produced as each hind foot sets down. A shorter hind stride requires less head-and-neck action. Therefore, a running-walk horse generally has a medium to deep head nod, while a racking horse, with his shorter stride, is likely to produce a shallow head nod.