Years ago, my brother and I were walking up a finger ridge to a high plateau some 700 feet above a valley floor. On a similar parallel ridge 500 yards to our left, two horseback hunters urged their mounts toward the same high ground. Enviously watching from afar, we were certain these men, with their superior transportation, would get to the legal boundaries of the hunting district far more quickly than we would, so we didn't hurry. Surprisingly, however, they not only failed to gain on us, but they seemed to lose ground.
When I met the two men on top, I noticed lather on the glistening coats of their plump, short-legged horses, and quietly decided that our own two-legged transportation, what old cowboys call "shank's mare," wasn't so inferior after all.
Already a horse lover who worked on ranches each summer, I pined for a horse of my own, but I decided right then that I had little interest in owning a horse that walked more slowly than I could. After all, humans domesticated the horse for improved capability at covering ground. On rough terrain, the only safe, feasible gait is the walk - and the horse, with his four legs, ought to be able to out-walk my two. Recalling the ranch horses that broke into a bone-jarring trot at the slightest cue for more speed, I swore I'd own a different sort of horse.
Surefooted & Smooth
The walk is your trail horse's most important gait. Yes, you can enjoy an occasional lope across a meadow, or a trot or running walk down a groomed trail, but the walk is your horse's bread-and-butter, trail-covering gait.
First, the walk's superior contact with the ground makes for surer footing. It's a four-beat gait that keeps three feet on the ground at any one time. Specifically, the walk sequence is left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. Secondly, the walk is smooth. You feel little jar, because the movement is broken into four steps close to the ground, with little elevation between them.
By contrast, the trot is a two-beat diagonal gait, with suspension. Your horse's diagonal pairs of feet hit the ground at the same time. The sequence is right hind/left fore (left diagonal), a moment of suspension, then left hind/right fore (right diagonal). During the moment of suspension, your horse lifts upward then comes down hard on his two opposing legs, which can jar you in the saddle.
Gaited horses retain their smoothness because they replace the trot with a running walk - or another four-beat cadence - as they increase their speed. They also frequently take longer strides than nongaited horses do, their back feet hitting the ground well in front of the tracks left by their front feet. This is called overstriding or overtracking (not to be confused with forging, when the toe of the hind shoe strikes the heel of the front shoe).
A Lost Gait
Equine physiologists say that all horses, gaited or not, are physically capable of walking 5 to 6 miles per hour, a significant improvement over the 3 to 4 miles per hour of the brisk human. Then why do many horses break into a trot at much slower speeds? Breeding, conformation, poor riding, and training are responsible. Here's a bit about the first two; we'll discuss riding and training a little later.
• Breeding. Genetics in domestic animals reflect human priorities. All horses are domestic animals; horses we now call "wild" are really feral - domestic animals that have reverted to the wild. Today's horse was developed by humans to meet the needs of the times. When horses were primarily used for transportation over rough ground under saddle, fast-walking animals were the rule, and gaited individuals were extremely common. As roads improved, more people used buggies or wagons. The trot in harness was efficient and didn't affect passenger comfort.
Once horses were no longer needed for transportation, racing, polo, and horse showing advanced, none of which require a brisk walk. Again, there was little incentive to rate a snappy walk as a breeding objective, except in gaited breeds. [One exception: Dressage horses are trained to execute an extended, ground-covering walk. - Ed.] Today, with trail riding becoming the number-one use for horses in America, we've come full circle - and have ended up on horses that aren't made for walking.
• Conformation. We all brag about our "all around" or "versatile" horses, but the truth is that no bulldog Quarter Horse will keep up with a skinny endurance Arabian over a 50-mile course. And that same Arabian won't hold a steer on the end of a lariat rope as effectively as the Quarter Horse will. Certain conformational features seem to enhance walking ability. (See "Made for Walking," above.) I say seem, because conformation is an imperfect predictor of performance, and you can always find plenty of exceptions.
However, if I were anticipating a long ride over rough country on which a good walk and solid endurance would be necessary, I'd look for a horse with a short back, sloping shoulder, and croup that slopes down toward the tail. These traits often
go with the ability to reach forward with the hind legs, resulting in a longer walking stride.
I'd also look for high withers and an "uphill" build (withers higher than croup, which seems to point toward freedom of shoulder movement, essential for a good walk); and a moderate or even slightly narrow chest when viewed from front, but an extremely deep chest (withers to sternum) when viewed from the side. A deep chest goes with endurance, as does moderate muscling. Pasterns set at a moderate 45 degree angle suggest shock-absorbing ability, while retaining strength.