Horse Rhythms and Movements from Walk to Gallop and in Between

Last Updated on February 28, 2022 by Allison Price

Horses can excel in certain activities like racing, jumping and endurance. The ability to move a horse is dependent on its bone structure. Horses’ athletic ability is dependent on their muscles, tendons, ligaments and conditioning.

Breeding has produced some strikingly different body types… that produce gaits best suited for the job of the horse.

Many authorities have spent years studying horses and observing them closely. They conclude that certain movements and rhythms are hardwired into their brains. A long neck is associated with a longer stride. A moderately long back can be a benefit for a jumping horse, but a shorter back is more desirable.

Horse Rhythms and Movements

Long pasterns can be used as shock absorbers. However, too long can cause a weakening of the leg.

A key conclusion about horses is that horses’ desire can sometimes override their physical limitations. This opens up new opportunities for many horses, trainers, and riders.

A second important conclusion from decades of studying horses is that different functions require different body mechanics. This is why breeding has produced some strikingly different body types which produce the movements and gaits best suited for the job of the horse.

Horse gaits and classifications

There are two types of horse gaits: ambling and natural. Nearly all horses have natural gaits, and there is no special training required to promote this particular movement pattern. These “natural” gaits are in increasing speed order:

  • Walk
  • Trot
  • Lope or Canter
  • Gallop

These natural gaits can be seen in wild horses and are found in all breeds of horse.

A collection of smooth footfall patterns is called an ambling gait. This requires special training for the horse before a rider can control them. Certain horses or breeds may have specific ambling gaits. However, it is possible to train your horse to be consistent and take full advantage of these gaits.

The most common ambling gaits are:

  • The trot of the fox
  • The rack
  • Running walk
  • Slow gait
  • The Tolt
  • The “Paso” gaits

Ambling gaits are generally faster than walking, but slower than cantering. These are easy to maintain and they can be used for long periods of riding. Although not all horses are able to perform an ambling gait but many can be taught.

Another method for classification is to use the categories of:

  • Walking gaits include ambling
  • Running or trotting gaits
  • Leaping gaits

No matter what classifications or categories you use, there is consensus about the various gaits.


Walking with horses

The walk is comfortable with a four-beat pace.

The horse walks one foot at a time and puts the other down the next. This creates a rhythm of four beats, which averages around 4 miles an hour. The hose must always be on one foot and three feet above the ground during a walk. There will not be any weight transfer between the two feet except for a short moment. To maintain balance, the horse’s head and neck move in a slightly up-and-down motion.


Horse trotting

The trot is a two-beat gait that can be awkward for beginning riders.

The trot is a rhythm in which one foot goes up and the opposite foot goes down. This creates a two-beat rhythm. Although the trot can go at different speeds, it averages around 8 miles per hour. Sometimes referred to as a “jog”, a slow trot can sometimes be called a “trot”. Horses in good health can keep a trot for hours.

The trot is a safe and efficient gait that horses can use, so it is essential to learn how to properly ride the trot in all equestrian disciplines.

To avoid being jolted, riders will ‘post’ to the trot, which involves moving up and down with the horse in rhythm. Posting is very easy for the horse and the rider once it is mastered.

Canter or lope

Horse cantering (loping)

The lope is an asymmetrical gait that uses either left or right leads. Although this three-beat gait is enjoyable to ride, it can be a bit scary for beginners.

The canter involves one leg striking the ground first and the other leg striking the ground next. This rhythm creates a three-beat rhythm which is faster than an average trot but slower than a gallop. A canter travels between 10 and 17 miles an hour.

It is easy to identify the distinct rhythm of three beats, followed by a rest, and then immediately after a recurrence (the three beats again followed by another rest) The western term for canter is the lope.


Horse galloping

Gallop is an asymmetrical, high-speed four beat gait. This gait is exciting for riders and feels like flying during suspension.

The basic gallop movement is speeded up to make sure all four feet are above the ground for a suspended time. This is the fastest gait for horses, averaging 25-30 miles per hour. It’s used in the wild to escape predators or cover short distances quickly. After galloping more than one mile, most horses need to stop.


Horse pacing under harness

Standardbred horses and other breeds can pace at very high speeds, making them popular at the race track. You can see the legs moving in tandem.

The pace is a lateral, two-beat pace with both legs moving together. Two feet must be off the ground, just like in the trot. On average, pacers are faster than trotters. As long as the rider is not being pushed from one side to another, a slow pace can be quite comfortable. Because the rider is constantly moving from one side to another, a fast pace can be uncomfortable and make it difficult to sit.

The ambling gaits

Icelandic horse doing ambling tolt gait

This unique gait allows horse and rider to comfortably cover long distances.

These are four-beat intermediate gaits that have different footfall patterns and speeds. They were used to be grouped together, and horses who can walk in a stuttering gait are called “gaited”. These gaits were created by breeders who wanted to make distance riding more enjoyable.

The American Saddlebred horse, which was developed in Kentucky, is the most well-known gaited horse. The Tennessee Walking Horse was created for southern plantation owners who wanted to cover ground in comfort and speed.

The Icelandic Horse, a strong horse with roots in Viking history, has a gait called the tolt, which is very similar to the Tennessee Walker’s running pace. The flying pace is a gait that some Icelandics have. This means that the legs of each horse move in unison.

Missouri cattlemen created the Missouri Fox Trotter to transport riders over rough terrain and work cattle. The Missouri Fox Trotter’s unique trot is distinguished by its four-beat trot, rather than the two that are typical in a trot.

In the 1980’s, Arabians were crossed with American Saddlebreds to create the National Show Horse. National Show Horses can perform the slow gait and the rack which are four-beat gaits that make it easy to ride.

Paso fino performing the classic fino gait

This amazing gait is characterized by rapid-fire footfalls.

Another gaited breed is Paso Fino, which was created originally by crossing Spanish Andalusians and the now extinct Spanish Jennets more than two hundred years ago.

Paso Fino horses are known for their paso fino and paso corto gaits. Each gait is four beats long and each foot hits the ground individually. The legs on each side move in unison. These gaits are extremely comfortable and cover a lot of ground quickly.

Peruvian Pasos, another gaited breed, have three gaits: The paso (also known as the sobreandando ), the hochano and the paso llano . These horses can keep these gaits for hours and have a comfortable four-beat lateral gait.

The Racking Horse, another gaited breed, shares a history and heritage with the Tennessee Walking Horse. Many consider the Racking Horse special because it can perform a four beat racking gait, a walk, and a canter. Racking Horses are great trail horses and popular for easy riding pleasure.

It is no surprise that the rhythms and movements of different breeds of horses attract followers and devotees.

The meaning of Equine Pawing and its actions

Horses can communicate with other horses and humans using their limbs in addition to their gait patterns and rhythms. One of these communication methods is pawing.

Horses paw out frustration and impatience. It is important to be aware of the meaning behind horse pawing.

The horse uses its hoof or paws to communicate with the other horses.

  1. Begging is when a horse needs food or water. The horse’s front foot is raised off the ground and the head is in a low to medium position.
  2. Nervousness, upset or sporadic pawing. The horse’s head is in a neutral position. This type of pawing is common in horses that are tied in a short or trailer.
  3. Expecting something: The horse’s pawing is slow and unevenly spaced, with the head in a low to medium position. This is a common behavior when the horse is fed late or delayed.
  4. You are checking something out: Your paws are soft and deliberate, with your head in a low place. This is a sign that a horse is considering taking a turn and checking the ground condition.
  5. Tool/Weapon: The pawing action is used to move, break, or sometimes hurt someone or something. This may be done by the horse to grab your attention, move feed around, or break ice on water.
  6. This type of pawing is used to show dominance or demand: The horse’s head is raised and the neck is usually arched. The pawing action feels more like a hard stomp and the leg is stiff. This type of pawing is common when horses meet for first time, or when the horse is trying establish herd position with a trainer in early training.

Horse handlers and riders can gain a lot of insight into the horse’s movements and moods, no matter what the activity.

It will also help you decide which horse is right for you. Are you looking for a horse you can enjoy riding, or a horse you can jump with great promise? Are you looking for a horse who can move like the wind or one that can enjoy a slow jog along the trail?

Do you have a horse?

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You can make informed decisions about horses, their movements, and their greatest accomplishments. This will help you to make the right choice whether you’re looking for a horse or just enjoying your current one.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!