To say that horses have only five gaits is a little deceiving, because they do actually have more. The difference, however, is that there are only five natural gaits which horses do regularly, while the rest are considered artificial gaits which must be taught. Here, we will discuss the five natural horse gaits: walk, trot, canter, lope, and back gaits. Then we will briefly cover some of the artificial ones.
The walk is the slowest gait. It’s also the smoothest and most relaxed. It’s a four-beat movement where at least two feet are on the ground at all times. Each foot moves in a rhythmic pace, starting off with the left foreleg, then right hind leg, then right foreleg, then left hind leg, and repeating after that.
When horses trot, they move in a two-beat gait. It’s faster than a walk, but slower than a run. In this gait, the legs work together in diagonals. So the right hind leg and left foreleg move together, as do the left foreleg and right hind leg. The trot usually requires a rider to rise up and down in the saddle (also known as posting the trot) to keep from being jolted with every beat.
The canter is a gait where the hooves move in three beats, and it can have either a right lead or a left lead. The right lead will start with the left hind leg, then follow with the right hind leg and left foreleg together, and then end with the right foreleg. When cantering, a rider stays seated in the saddle instead of posting. And before cantering, it’s important to master balance and posting with the trot.
In a gallop, the horse’s gait is a four-beat movement. It’s a little like cantering, but the legs move one at a time. A rider will rise slightly above the saddle, so this gait requires the most balance and use of leg muscles. The gallop can be right or left-lead. For a right-lead gallop, it will start with the left hind leg, then move to the right hind leg, then left foreleg, and right foreleg. A left-lead gallop begins with the right hind leg, then left hind leg, right foreleg, and left foreleg.
The back gait is when a horse backs by itself with no help from a rider. It’s a little like the trot, except backwards. The feet fall, starting with either the right foreleg and left hind leg, or with the right hind leg and left foreleg.
Natural gaits are gaits which horses perform somewhat naturally, even if they require a little coaxing to do so. But artificial gaits can be taught for particular tasks or riding comfort. The term usually refers to the running walk, slow gait, rack, and pace. And they are usually specific to particular horse breeds. There are also a few more less common gaits. For example, the amble is a gait that’s a little faster than walking, but slower than trotting. This gait is more comfortable for the rider and doesn’t require posting for the rider to be comfortable.
Another artificial gait is the fox trot, which is considered more comfortable for the rider and is a little slower than a trot. The movement for this is diagonally connected, often with a repeating pattern of right foreleg, left hind leg, left foreleg, and then right hind leg.
The running walk is also an artificial gait. Some horses nod their head considerably during this gait and others don’t. It’s a very smooth and elegant gait that is comfortable for the rider, but covers quite a bit of ground quickly. Another version of this is the flat walk, which is just a slower version.