The Origins of Gait
by Rhonda Hart



A HUGE PLUME sulks silently overhead. The volcano, eventually to become known as Sadiman, has erupted and covered the plains with soft volcanic ash. Now come the rains, moistening the volcanic fallout into a muddy paste. Elephants, giraffes, birds, and other creatures bearing only slight resemblance to any to be known in later times, cross the plateau as they always have. Some dally. Some hurry along. Some walk erect.

The boisterous bounce of a young four-legged, three-toed animal, barely three feet tall catches the attention of another passing creature. Standing upright and ever alert, the two-legged creature pauses to observe the frolicking youngster. As Hominid watches Hipparion, a smile steals over her craggy face. This is not the first time a human-like creature will pause to admire a horse-like creature - nor will it be the last.

The foal crisscrosses in front of, then behind, her dam, leaving distinct tracks in the damp ash. The two-legged Hominid turns and continues on her way. The footprints they leave behind are set into permanent molds as the damp ash dries quickly under the equatorial sun. Unbeknownst to them, they have left a great legacy to a future that they could never imagine. Over 3.5 million years later, other curious creatures will track these footprints to some remarkable discoveries.

Open the Gait

NARY A HORSE LOVER worth his salt is unaware of the classic example of evolution the horse represents. Evolutionary success is measured in survival, and as such the horse is an odds on favorite. It has made every adjustment conceivable to fulfill its niche in the world.
 

Hipparion, three-toed ancestor of the horse.
From a body designed for incredible speed and endurance, to an engine designed to propel that body on the humblest of fuels, the horse has stayed the course. He is a master adapter. We know so much of his incredible journey through time because of the prolific amount of fossil record he left behind. Hundreds of equine fossil remains have been documented, each answering - and posing - new questions. 

The scene described above, was uncovered  in 1979 in Tanzania, by a team including renowned paleontologist Mary Leakey. It is still considered an amazing find - literally one in a million - because of the unique circumstances that provided it. Among the mysteries this site unveiled, the tell-tale tracks answered a question that horsemen had pondered for generations, when did gaited horses originate?.

The tracks left in that ancient volcanic ash depicted a distinct equine footfall pattern. But this was no walk, trot or gallop. There was no flight phase of the gait - meaning that at no time were all four feet in the air. Diagrams made from the site reveal a pattern almost identical to that left by certain horses of today. These little feet had been planted in the same support sequence as a running walk. This critter was gaited!

Evolution of Gait

WHAT ACCOUNTS for this type of gait? Consider the environment of the creature in question. She roamed vast plains in search of food, probably covering great distances over varying terrain. Evolution places great value on economy, and as a result, this early horse had adopted a gait that allowed her to travel quickly and with a minimum of effort. Just how far she traveled and the consequences of his continuing evolution are nothing short of amazing.
 
Paleontologist Bruce McFadden, an expert in the fossil remains of horses, explains that Hipparions lived from 15 to 2 million years ago throughout the northern hemisphere. The dispersal route for these animals between Eurasia and North America was via the Bering land bridge, a region of shallow water between Alaska and Siberia that became a land bridge when sea levels were lower during the ice ages, he says. An intermediary stage of horse, Dinohippus, used this route to eventually spread into South America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Further evolution led to Equus, the modern-day form of horse, somewhere around two million years ago. All are direct descendants of Hipparion. 

About 50,000 years ago man learned to appreciate the horse. Sort of.

Fossil and archaeological evidence reveals that by this time the horse a staple in the diet of Cro-Magnon man. Considering what else is around, rhinos, wooly mammoths and the like, we can hardly blame him. 
 

Horse in world's oldest painted prehistoric cave, 15,000-10,000 BC Lascaux, France
Stone Age cave paintings dating back 31,000 years provide insight into early man's perception of horses. The most famous of these paintings, uncovered at Vallon Pont d'Arc, Lascaux and Pech Merle in France and Altamira in Spain, portray the horse as both the spoils of the hunt and an animal greatly revered. They portray an animal similar to Przewalski horse, the small, stocky wild horse of Mongolia. With a twist.
Most paintings portray characteristic colors – line backed duns, a black/bay with a long flowing mane and even a decidedly golden colored horse. Some, curiously, also appear to portray these prehistoric horses in lateral gaits. 
Many ancient carvings and reliefs, dating back thousands of years and covering many cultures, illustrate similar gaits. Can we take this as a serious depiction of gait? 

Probably not. It is exceedingly difficult to differentiate the sequence of footfalls by watching a moving horse, probably more so in the heat of the hunt. Modern man produced no accurate study of horses' gaits until 1877, when Eadweard Muybridge revolutionized the study of animal locomotion by arranging a line-up of still cameras that were tripped in sequence as a running horse passed them. The world in general, and equine artists in particular, were no doubt embarrassed at the results. Never again were horses portrayed in the traditional, yet physically impossible, gaits of early equine art. (And it takes all the fun out of speculating whether or not the ancient artists were adept at recognizing lateral gaits when one realizes that many other animals were similarly depicted.)


Animal Locomotion Plate 576 Muybridge

Evolving Roles

THE PATHS OF MEN and horses seem predestined to cross and coincide. Domesticated roughly 6000 years ago in Ukraine, the horse may owe its very existence to human interference. Hunted, both by man and other predators to near extinction, it was through association with humans, in this limited geographic region, that the modern horse began to flourish. Stephan Budiansky, author of The Nature of Horses, cites that the overwhelming evidence suggests that all horses may trace back to those few survivors captured and bred in Ukraine.

Eventually humans got around to finding better things to do with horses than eat them. One of the earliest recorded training regimens for the horse was literally carved in stone (okay, clay tablets) by Kikkuli, a chariot horse trainer for the Hittite King Supiluliumas around 1,350 B.C. Many of his methods are still recognized as sound. Among the many recommendations he makes are specific instructions to run and pace the trainee over various distances. Were chariot horses, like some of our fastest harness horses, pacers?

The dispersal of horses throughout the world fell, of course, upon their now constant companion, man. From Viking ships to Spanish galleons to the thousands of miles covered overland by Moors, Mongols and Crusaders, wherever men went, they took their horses with them. By the time man began to use the horse extensively, he had already established somewhat controlled breeding practices to select for the qualities he regarded most useful in his equine companions.

Early on, gaited horses were considered the only suitable mounts for the weak or infirm. By the middle ages, only peasants and commoners were so disadvantaged as to ride a trotting horse. The elite were well mounted on the smoothest gaiting steeds. Over time many strains of gaited horses were recognized not only for the comfortable ride they afforded, but for their endurance and hardiness. It is easy to deduce that they were often sought out by those exploring vast distances or conquering new worlds.

The Trait of Gait

GAIT IS a matter of genetics. It's so basic, so instinctive, Stephan Budiansky points out, when a foal can be up and doing a running walk within a couple hours of birth, this has to be something that is hard-wired into the horse's brain. The mechanism behind that genetic link has been under scrutiny by scientist and horsemen, alike.

Dr. Earnest Bailey, a leader in equine genetic research and chairman of the International Equine Gene Mapping Workshop, agrees, Certainly there is a genetic component to gait. Gait is an aspect of behavior, and behavior has a strong genetic component. The gene map makes the genetic side of gait easy to study. However, the difficult part would be to characterize the trait. He points out that inherited traits are generally “yes”, “no” or “maybe”. Either you have brown eyes or you don’t. The many different types of gait that can be inherited complicate the issue as far as quantifying the genetic component. So while “gait” may be inherited… is the running walk? Is the rack? Is the fox trot? Or are just specific precursors to the gait inherited, such as conformation, nervous system, etc.?

A tendency to perform certain gaits definitely runs in families, or breeds, and is generally present or not present, and fairly predictable, along bloodlines. It just makes sense, Mr. Budiansky comments, the fact that the various gaits are associated with certain breeds suggests a large genetic component.

He points out that genetic fingerprinting of blood factors between various breeds revealed that trotting and pacing lines of Standardbreds are as diverse genetically as horses from two entirely separate breeds. In other words, the ability to trot is dictated by specific genetic information, as is the ability to pace. 

But what about horses that neither trot, nor pace? The Paso breeds, for instance, do neither. Their gaits that fall between the two. And what of horses that do both? Icelandic Horses are cherished for their ability to perform gaits which many consider to be on opposite sides of the genetic spectrum - both the trot and the pace, as well as an intermediate, 4-beat gait, the tolt. 

Obviously, the genetic code which endows one or the other, neither or both, is complex. It is likely that several genes are involved. As Dr. Bailey, theorized, the most difficult aspect of determining the genetic transmission of the trait of gait is quantitatively defining the gaits as inherited traits in the first place.

Stage of Gaits

FOALS HAVE BEEN literally born gaiting, executing a running walk right alongside mama the day they are born, only to gradually lose the ability. Trainers attest that these foals generally do not regain the ability to gait later in life. 
 

The science of equine genetics has only recently begun to receive the attention and funding necessary to unravel such mysteries. And the hard reality is that research tends to focus on those aspects of the horse industry that will make money. More funding is available to cure devastating disease or build a better racehorse than to figure out the mechanisms by which one horse inherits the ability to trot, pace or rack and another doesn't.

Not all gaits are 100% natural. Training can effect a horse's natural gait, however, it is doubtful that man can impose that which nature has not already endowed. Proponents of virtually every gaited breed are proud to point out that the gait, be it a paso llano, a runningwalk, tolt, or fox trot, etc. is inborn and natural. However, all breeds have their exceptional movers and their not-so-great-gaiters.

Many horses tend to be pacey or trotty when performing their version of the 4-beat gait, but even so, the potential for gait in indisputably present even in lackluster performers. Often the fault lies not with the horse, but with training, the rider, equipment or some undetected health or soundness issue, not the horse's inherent ability to perform the gait. Whether they perform these gaits correctly (to human standards) or not, some ability is inborn.

Dr. Bailey believes that all gaits can be taught to all horses, but that the individual's ability to learn them is part of the inheritance of gait. He notes, Although some gaits may be learned, I suspect that some horses are easier to train than others and that the (learning) trait is likely to be inherited. The issue is the ease with which they can learn and perform. The intriguing question becomes, do all horses, to one extent or another, actually possess some inborn ability to perform all of the gaits?

Critics from non-gaited breeds have long accused trainers of gaited horses of resorting to extremes to force their horses into what appears to be unnatural gaits. Mr. Budiansky suggests a semi-scientific experiment in which horses of non-gaiting breeds would be subject to the same training methods used on gaited horses. Can horses with no obvious genetic pre-disposition to perform lateral or 4-beat gaits be taught to do so? The question becomes all the more intriguing when one considers individuals from non-gaiting breeds that perform some version of a 4-beat gait. There are Arabs, Quarter Horses and Morgans that, despite their trainers sincere attempts to make them stop, gait with impunity!

The Gait Keepers

SO IS GAIT A MATTER of environment, genetics or training? Obviously all play a part. Evolution in an environment that selected for ground-covering, economic gaits led to that trait being genetically passed on to offspring. Exactly how the gaits are transmitted genetically is still being studied. Meanwhile, practical experience by innumerable horsemen substantiates that training has a definite effect on gait, but the limits of that effect have yet to be determined. 

The study of the genetic transmission of gait depends on quantifying gait for statistical analysis. If and when a rating system is devised, it must be adhered to as definitely as “brown eyes” – “no brown eyes” for several generations. Only by analyzing reliable information that covers several generations can geneticists derive a reasonable explanation of the heredity of gait. 

 

From The Gaited Horse Magazine, April 1998

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©Rhonda Hart 1998
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