"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Friday, April 11, 2014

All The Gaits: Explaining the Movement of Gaited Horses

I was asked by Karen to further explain the gaits of gaited horses, as not everyone is familiar with them. This was kind of a "Doh!" moment for me, as having grown up around Paso Finos and coming from a country where over 60% of the equine population in it is gaited, I do take that knowledge for granted.

Riding Lucero. Long time readers have seen this photo ad nauseum. For 20 years owning him, I don't have that many photos of us riding (this was during a time before cell phone cameras), and this is one of my favorites.
What gait are we doing? This, my friends, is the paso largo. More of that shortly.
A couple of years ago, Equus Magazine published a wonderful article on gaiting where they explained the footfalls of the basic "special gaits" across the gaited horse breeds. I had never thought about it before, but it was true: gaited horses all have the same varieties of "special gaits". What changes is the speed, laterality, and the knee, hock and fetlock action throughout each gait and each breed. The footfalls for each special gait are basically the same throughout.

Just like in your regular walk/trot/canter horses. Note that all of the horses below are trotting and are in similar phases of the trot. But note also how different each trot appears based on the breed, discipline and individual horse's conformation:

Same thing applies to gaited horses.

I will start with dispelling one of the biggest notions regarding gaited horses: "It's unnatural" "It's trained into the horse". Umm, no it's not. Lucero could gait from the time he was born. He'd gait at liberty when I started working with him at 7 months of age.

Lucero was not a freak of nature. Check out these adorable babies:

5 month old Colombian Paso colt, gaiting behind his mother.
At liberty with no training aids.

A 3-day old Colombian Paso Fino foal! Watch his legs when he calms down.

So you have horses that are born moving diagonally (trot) and horses born moving laterally (this type of movement is known by the generic term "pace"). Horses that move laterally, aka are able to pace, are considered "gaited." When pacing, the horse's legs on the same side of the body move forwards at the same time instead of diagonally. This creates a movement that has a side-to-side sway for the rider, as well as having the potential to be quite bouncy depending on the animation of the horse's movement, the speed at which the horse is travelling, and the tension in the horse's body: some gaited horses will be "pacey" when tense, creating a rougher ride for the rider. The pace is considered an undesirable gait in some breeds, but is actually selectively bred for in other breeds. Examples of horses where the pace is cultivated:

Racking horse demonstrating the speed rack. Speed racking horses are close relatives of the Tennessee Walker, and thus this gait is named after one of the 5 gaits that the TWH can perform
Depending on who you ask and what breed they are affiliated with, this is actually considered pacing. The difference between a proper TWH rack and the pace is that in the pace you can have a moment of suspension with all 4 feet off the ground, especially at speed, while in the rack there is always one foot on the ground. The rack tends to be more comfortable than the pace due to the horse always having one foot on the ground, eliminating that moment of suspension. The lateral movement, however, is the same, as noted in these 4 photos. In my own personal world, the two gaits are synonymous when performed at this speed; you can often eliminate that second of suspension of the pace and turn it into a rack-type gait with minor adjustments to your position, allowing for a slightly more collected & organized movement. So basically, what we call a rack in the TWH is a refinement of the pace. All gaited horses can pace from the time they are born but not all of them can rack. Some can rack with no special training, others need to be conditioned to be able to perform the rack. It's very similar to training a trotting horse for that medium trot in dressage.

Icelandic horse performing the flying pace.
They are raced at this gait.
A pacing Standardbred. Note that this photo captured the moment of suspension when all 4 feet are off the ground.
Standardbreds can either be trotters or pacers.
Dom's Ozzy can do both.
Andadura horse demonstrating the andadura gait. The andadura used for racing can be equivalent to a rack or a pace: the smoothness of the gait is secondary to its speed.
Andadura horses are close relatives of the Puerto Rican Paso Fino.
Lucero had fine Paso Fino bloodlines but had been bred to be an andadura racer.
When asked to canter or gallop, this is the gait he performed. His version was more of a pace.
As you can see by the photos, all of these horses are performing exactly the same gait despite being of very different breeds and the same gait having different names. Here they are in motion:
Andadura race in PR. Yes, they ride bareback. I don't know why. And yes, they ride on pavement: you can hear the hoof beats on the pavement, which also allows you to hear if the horse breaks gait and gallops. If they gallop they are disqualified.

This is one hell of an amazing racking horse. Note how smooth he is when he accelerates. Note how he is able to go THAT FAST while maintaining one foot on the ground all the time. Check out the speedometer on the car from which the video is being filmed!

This video shows the flying pace of the Icelandic horse with motion capture. You can see the difference between this, what is considered a true pace, and the horse above that is racking when both horses slow down in the videos.

All the slower gaits that come after the speed rack/pace/andadura/flying pace are basically slower versions of the rack or the pace depending on exactly how lateral the movement of the horse is.

There are different names for the same gait in different languages and different horse breeds. In the TWH, a true rack (not a speed rack) is a four beat gait executed at medium speed. The timing should be even, with the same amount of time between each foot striking the ground. The ability to perform this gait is passed on genetically and can be present in a horse to a greater or lesser degree. Some horses, for example high caliber Pasos that are bred for showing, are so thoroughly bred for this gait that the diagonal and lateral gait are not present at all, and the horse will perform a paso gait always, right from the day he is born. (See the video above of the 5 month old Paso with his mother).

Rack in the TWH
TWH mare and foal, both demonstrating the rack!
Video of a TWH demonstrating the rack.

The equivalent of the 4-beat rack in the Paso Fino horse is called the paso largo. It is exactly like the rack in that it is a four beat gait executed at medium speed. In pleasure quality Pasos, it can be more lateral, aka pace-like.

Video of the paso largo

In the Icelandic horse, this gait is known as the tolt.

Note how the footfalls are exactly as in the buckskin Paso performing the paso largo above!
There's just a lot more animation in the Icelandic's movement.

Video of the tolt
In the Missouri Fox Trotter, it is the fox trot.

Again, same gait. But the Fox Trotter has less animation than the Paso Fino and the Icelandic.

Video of the fox trot
In the rack, the paso largo, the fox trot and the tolt, the footfall pattern is the same as for the walk, being left hind, left front, right hind and right front. As explained above, there is no suspension phase like there is in the trot and pace because there is always at least one foot on the ground at any given time. As there is no suspension phase, the rider does not experience the bounce as in the trot and pace. Listening to the gait, it sounds like pa-ca-pa-ca-pa-ca. In Latin American countries where gaited horses are prevalent it is common to see them ridden on pavement to show off the sound of the gait. Back home on the island we had a couple of barns on our street and in the afternoons after work the owners of some of the horses would take them out for a jaunt. The pa-ca-pa-ca ring of shod hooves performing the paso largo on pavement still reminds me of long hot afternoons feeding Lucero and picking his stall. He'd always blast a whinny as these horses were ridden down our street.

Then we have the gaits that are even more collected. They are also 4 beat gaits with a footfall pattern imitating the walk but the horse glides along at the speed of a slower trot, sometimes even as slow as a Western jog.

In the TWH, this is known as the running walk.

This beautiful gelding demonstrates a perfect running walk during the first minute or so of the video.

 In the Paso, it is called the paso corto.

In most of the other gaited breeds, it's just a slower version of their medium gait. Example: it's a slower tolt in the Icelandic and a slower fox trot in the MFT. When you slow the gait down, you end up with 3 feet always on the ground at any given time during the horse's stride progression.

Show quality Paso Finos can be collected even further: they can do the fino gait which looks almost like a piaffe in manic fast forward. The horse's legs move rapidly with tiny strides, with more or less animation depending on the individual horse and barely any forward progression. Not all Paso Finos can fino-pleasure/trail quality Pasos are more likely to amble along at the paso largo and andadura depending on their capacity for speed while others can do the corto and largo. The fino is trained into Pasos bred for show just like you train the piaffe in an upper level dressage horse: you work on ultimate collection. In the Paso world there is a term called brio, aka "spirit". Show quality Pasos are expected to have tons of brio, which is what also makes them more likely to have very animated collected gaits that will win in the show ring. A horse with a lot of brio will have a really awesome fino. Some trainers create "brio" by abusing the horses and turning them into nervous wrecks. A really GOOD show Paso however can execute with brio on command: you can just as easily ask for a super collected, animated fino as you can get them to move out in a ground-covering paso largo on the trail as you can get them to walk in a relaxed manner with their head down on a loose rein. (The ability to just walk with their heads down is something that is not often trained into these horses but it is something that I will train into individuals I work with - I think this is important that they be able to stretch and relax while having a rider on their back, especially if they are not going to be showing.)

What the fino gait looks like in photos
But to really appreciate the fino gait, you have to see it in motion:


If you want to read more about my own personal experiences with these horses, I wrote a pretty cool post two years ago on my experience with Paso Finos vs Trote Galope horses during a pretty adventurous trip to Homestead, FL, where we got to try out and ride a variety of gaited and "diagonal" horses, from show caliber to trail quality. (The post does start with saddle woes; skip to the 6th paragraph or so to find the story about the Pasos.) It's still one of my biggest blog hits! It also shows the pride that us Latinos take in our Paso Fino horses: we like to show them off. We like to show them off so much that we'll let you ride them so you can see what an awesome ride we have. ;) 


  1. Thank you so much for posting this in detail. I feel like I have a better grasp of gaiting/pacing/running walk. Not only that, but I have access to the information if I ever get confused. :)

    I think the Paso Fino is the most interesting of what you have here, just in watching the horses and riders do the gait. There is no movement from the rider at all and the horse just Finos. Reminds me of a wind up toy, almost. You would think the Fino would jar the rider, because their legs look really braced, almost, but it sure didn't seem that way.

    Thank you!!

    1. You're welcome! I'm glad this helped! It was fun writing it as I ended up doing quite a bit of research: I knew all the gaits are very similar across the breeds but I wasn't sure of the names for some of the specific gaits, like the Fox Trotter and Icelandic gaits. It's fascinating when you start looking up breed histories: most of them have very similar roots. The Pasos are basically the exact same mix of breeds as the old mustang horses: Barb, Spanish Jennett, Andalusian. In PR and Colombia, Morgan blood was also added, which explains why some Pasos look like some Fox Trotters: Fox Trotters have Morgan blood. It also explains why Pasos and Morgans can look VERY much alike too. Show TWHs look completely different because of the Standardbred and Narragansett pacer that originally went into the breed, though they also share Spanish Jennett blood with the Paso...which would explain why pleasure and trail caliber Walkers are shorter with rounder body types more like what you see in a Paso. Like Little Bit and Queenie. I think all that Spanish blood that originally went into the creation of these horses is what makes them so personable, brave, hard working and people loving. These are all common denominators of their personalities; if individuals are not like this, it's because someone messed them up along the way. One of the best times of my life was spent breaking baby Peruvian Pasos to saddle. So easy; they had never been hurt by humans so they trusted me automatically and were happy to carry me around from day 1 while I taught them the basics. :)

  2. Wow, thanks for this -- I didn't realize that so many gaits were actually roughly the same thing!

    Fino-ing videos crack me up. :-p

    1. I find it fascinating how unnecessarily complicated we make it out to be! Hahaha...That Equus article a couple of years ago was so enlightening to me! And yeah, I had someone ask me once if a fino-ing horse was having a seizure. I burst out laughing; I can see why someone would think that. But man, it's the smoothest thing you'll ever ride on a horse! ;)

  3. Great post! I knew that most where a similar footfall pattern, but it was very interesting to see pictures of the breeds all in one spot!

    1. As I was writing it, I realized that I don't think I've ever seen anyone else present it in quite this way...you can find a lot of literature on gaited horses on the internet, but not many people bother to *illustrate* the gaits. It's so much more helpful when you can actually see them!

  4. This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing all the information and videos! I feel like I learned a lot :)

  5. This is so cool...thanks for putting all of this together in one cohesive (and comprehensive!) post! I've had a chance to be around a lot of different gaited breeds -- my dad's first horse was a fox trotter mare, and I've had friends who bred Paso Finos, and another that bred Kentucky Mountain Horses. Definitely all very fun horses and I loved experiencing all the different gaits.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! And how wonderful that you had the opportunity to be around so many different gaited breeds! I love w/t/c horses for the workout, but after a while you really start appreciating the smooth gaits of the gaited ones...

  6. Okay, I can't watch the videos right now, but I look forward to seeing them later!

    And this was super informative. My eyes had a hard time seeing the difference initially, but you offered good opportunity to train them. I've only ever ridden a gaited horse once and I tried my damnedest to post. Old habits!

    1. Hahaha I don't blame you! Wouldn't be surprised if the one you rode was pacing! I would do this weird sideways post with Lucero when he paced - it can be quite uncomfortable when they pick up speed at that gait.

  7. 1) That first baby video was adorable. 2) And resounding yes, pacing STBs do trot and can do it quite well! Aurorapedia the OTT STB that I currently lease was a pacer but she definitely prefers to trot (we got up to 11mph our last trail ride!)

    1. Awesome! I love STBs, especially after reading Dom's blog. I had the opportunity of working with one and I just love their minds. They are such great horses, period.

  8. Ok. I want them all. I blame you for this. I will blame you more if/when I get one for real lol

    1. I continue to be a bad influence on your wallet. ;) Lol