What Is a Gaited Horse

Gaited horses are pony and horse breeds that have been selectively bred to enhance their natural gaited tendencies. A gait is a specific ability to perform movements that are different from a standard walk, canter, or gallop.

Most gaits are referred to as an “ambling” gait. These movements tend to be a 4-beat gait, creating a smoother ride while being able to maintain speeds that are faster than a walk, but often slower than the canter. All horses have a gait that they follow; however, a gaited horse performs an ambling gait that is specific to the breed.

In a 2012 DNA study, a mutation to the DMRT3 gene in many gaited breeds can be attributed to a single ancestor. This mutation controls the neurological circuits within the spine that are directly responsible for limb motion and movement.

That allows some gaited horses to perform the ambling gait from birth. Others can be trained to perform the gaits. It is not unusual for a gaited breed to trot and pace while having the ambling gait at the same time.

What Are the Different Types of Ambling Gaits?

Every ambling gait has 4 beats. That means only one foot is off the ground at any time when the horse is performing the gait. 

Some ambling gaits are diagonal, which is defined as having the feet on the opposite sides of the horse move forward in sequence. That would look like the right rear leg moving forward first, then the left front, followed by the left rear and then the right front.

Other ambling gaits are lateral, which is defined as having the feet on the same side of the horse move forward in sequence. In this instance, that would look like the right rear leg moving forward first, then the right front leg, followed by the left rear and then the left front.

Unless there is a genetic ability for an ambling gait, it is rare for a horse to be able to learn these gaits. Horses that have coupling in the back tend to perform lateral ambling gaits with greater ease that horses with shorter backs. Having laid-back shoulders and a good stride length can be helpful for some gaited strides as well.

What Are the Different Gaits That Can Be Performed?

Although the ambling gaits are grouped into two general categories (lateral and diagonal), there are several different gaits that can be performed. Each has unique traits and attributes which help it to be identified.

Here are the most common ambling gaits that can be seen in today’s gaited horse breeds.

Aphcal: This is a natural ambling gait that is directly associated with Indian horse breeds, such as the Kathiawari and the Marwari.

Fox Trot: This is the only diagonal ambling gait that is found in English riding. The footfalls are a bit uneven, which causes the beat to sound like a couplet than a 4-beat rhythm. The fox trot isn’t as smooth as other gaits, causing a slight bounce and movement while in the saddle. It is directly associated with the Missouri Fox Trotter, but several other breeds can perform this gait. In some breeds, this gait is penalized when showed because it appears that the horse I trotting from the back, but walking in the front.

Marcha Pacada: This is a 4-beat lateral gait that is similar to a stepping pace that is directly associated with the Mangalarga Marchador. A 4-beat diagonal gait, which is called the marcha batida, can be performed by this breed as well that is similar to some of the paso gaits. The Carolina Marsh Tacky performs a 4-beat diagonal gait that is very similar to the marcha batida as well.

Pasos: There are several ambling gaits that are associated with the Paso Fino and the Peruvian Paso. All have a distinct rhythm, but are performed at various speeds. The paso fino gait is slow and precise. The paso corto is faster, but still slower than a canter, and is much like a single-foot gait. The paso largo is closer to a rack and is the equivalent of a gallop to other breeds. The paso llano is a lateral gait that has the same sequence as a running walk. 

Rack: The rack is a single-foot gait that is found most often with the American Saddlebred. It is a slower gait than some other ambling gaits, but is performed with precision and restraint. The intervals of each beat are rhythmic. 

Running Walk: Walking horse breeds perform this gait, which has the same pattern as a walk, but faster. It creates a smooth riding experience like the walk as well, but at greater speeds. Some breeds, such as the Tennessee Walking Horse, can achieve short-distance speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.

Tolt: This ambling gait is usually found with Icelandic horses. It has good speed, with rapid acceleration, while incorporating the smoothness found in gaits like the running walk. There are uneven versions of this ambling gait that can be seen as well, called the Valhopp and the Pig’s Pace, that are considered to be incorrect. Another version of the Tolt is called the “flying pace” and is a stronger version of the gait.

Trocha: This gait is associated with the Paso Fino. It is a diagonal ambling gait that is similar to a fox trot in style and speed. It is seen more often in the Colombian version than the Caribbean version of the breed. The steps are just a little shorter than the similar gaits.

Which Horse Breeds Have Ambling Gaits?

Horse breeds that are known for their ability to gallop do not possess the gene that is associated with ambling gaits. That means they are unable to perform them.

Horses that live in a semi-feral herd or are wild horses, such as the American Mustang or Przewalski’s horse, do not usually have the mutated gene for ambling gaits, but it is possible. Not all horses with this gene mutation have the ambling gait either, which means there are other traits associated with gaited horses that may not yet be known.

Because there are trotting bloodlines with the Standardbred and the presence of the ambling gait gene seems to inhibit the transition to a gallop, ancient breeding practices may have helped to influence gaits within the foundation breeds of gaited horses.

What is a gaited horse? It is a chance to enjoy a smooth ride on a friendly, but still spirited, horse and that makes it the perfect opportunity for beginners to learn how to ride. It is also a chance to help people who love horses to stay active without a bounce in a saddle that could put their health at risk.