by Beverly Whittington

What is gait? 

The gaited horse comes in many varieties, like different flavors of ice cream, so everyone can find one they like! The novice to gaited horse is often confused by the multitude of different names for gait within the various breeds considered gaited horses. 
The term gait is used in describing all forms of forward motion in all horses. The " normal horses' " walk, trot and canter are all considered gaits. But the "Gaited Horse" is an equine that has a very smooth gait that is different from that of most horses. Gaits performed by various breeds run the gamut of a four beat lateral gait to a four beat diagonal pattern, but they all have one thing in common, a comfortable ride! 
Predisposition to gait is genetically inherited, and basically a horse that is strongly gaited has had this strengthened by generations of breeding until the tendency to trot has been replaced by an intermediate gait with a natural four beat rhythm. 
Each individual horse will have a different quality of gait, just as trotting horses of the same breed can have different qualities of a trot!  The smoothness of gait is influenced by many variables, these include genetically inherited predisposition for gait, conformation attributes to facilitate gait and training. 
Why is Gait comfortable? 
The human body will adjust to the movement of a gaited horse much more readily than the movement of the trot.  Most gaits are a derivative of the natural equine walk and the motion perceived by the rider causes the human pelvis to move in the same way it does when we walk.  As the human being lifts each foot off the ground and swings it forward there is a corresponding lift and forward shift of the pelvis on the same side.  The motion felt from the saddle when riding a horse in gait is the same, a slight lift and forward arc.  The trot has a moment of suspension then impact, which has no natural equivalent in the human being. It is also rather hard on the joints and soft tissues of the human body. 
Why do horses Gait? 
Most gaited breeds require that the performance of that breeds unique gait be natural from birth. Most of the breeds have a conformation type that  predisposition's the horse to perform their natural gait. Some of the conformation attributes that are specific for gaiting include: 

  • Neck placement so that the neck rises from the withers at a higher angle than that of non gaited breeds, with the neck " tying in" much lower in the chest of the horse.
  • A steeper shoulder angle than non gaited breeds which helps to produce a smoother ride. 
  • Many gaited breeds are "cow hocked" more than seen in non gaited breeds. This seems to go along with the need to drop the hindquarters, driving from the rear which is necessary for a gaited horse.
Are Gaited horses ridden differently? 
The gaited horse has to lighten the fore hand and engage the hind quarters to gait. Many styles of riding and styles of saddles that are used on trotting horses encourages the riders weight to be forward, over the horses shoulders, as that is the easiest place for a trotting horse to carry the extra weight. It is exactly the opposite for a gaited horse, weight over the shoulders makes it more difficult for them to maintain gait. To assist their horses in maintaining gait, some gaited horse riders will lean back, thrusting their legs and feet forward for good measure. When a horse gaits, you will feel the withers rise, but unlike the trot, the horses back remains concave.  The more vertical, forward weight placement of trotting horse equitation is enough to impair the elevation of the withers when the horse is asked to gait. A rider needs to assume a balanced seat, with the upper body SLIGHTLY behind true vertical (1/2 inch is often enough) and the heels an equal distance in front of the vertical. 
Will all gaited breeds gait naturally? 
A well bred gaited horse will initiate their gait when asked for the intermediate speed. But if  the rider or the saddle are  not conducive to maintaining the gait by placement or weight distribution, the horse will revert to a trot or pace (depending on the horses natural inclination). 
 Copyright © 1998 Beverly Whittington

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