gaited horses

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Photo by April Visel

Over the thousands of years we’ve formed a partnership with the horse, we’ve bred a great many varieties to suit our needs, from the hard-charging Thoroughbred, master of the middle-distance race, to the massive, lumbering draft horses used to pull plows and wagons.

Among the most unique types of horses are the gaited breeds. Some call them Cadillac horses because of their smoothness and their elegant appointments.  These are horses built for comfort and style, not top-end speed.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t move out.  When saddle horses were the way to get around, fast-walking gaited breeds were the preferred animals on farms, plantations and Latin American estancias.  They were also the “highway car” of the Americas, adept at carrying riders quickly and tirelessly over long distances.  For that reason, gaited horses excel at the middle-speeds.

Paso Finos trace their heritage to the horses of Spanish conquistadores. Photo courtesy Robin Ratliff.

So, what exactly is a gaited horse? Don’t all horses have gaits?  Of course! But horsemen refer to the walk, trot, canter/gallop as “natural” gaits because nearly all horses possess them at birth. Gaited horses, however, can perform what’s known as an “ambling” gait, a smooth-to-ride, intermediate speed. A horse may be born with an ambling gait or it may have to be coaxed out of the horse through training. Either way, the ability is unique to the gaited breeds.  It’s a trait passed down through generations. A horse that doesn’t possess the proper genes simply won’t do it!

All ambling gaits are faster than the walk but most are slower than the canter.  Anyone who has ridden a horse in a trot knows that this “natural” gait, in which the front leg and opposing rear leg move in unison, requires effort to ride.  When trotting, the horse’s back goes up-and-down rhythmically, requiring that the rider do the same.  It takes practice, proper form, leg muscles and core strength to do it correctly.

With ambling gaits, however, three of the horse’s legs are on the ground at all times.  This smooths out the ride, allowing the rider to stay comfortably seated just as she would in the walk, but at a pace roughly equal to a trot. What varies among the different gaited breeds is the speed, rhythm and timing of the footfalls, and to some extent, the shape of the leg movement in space.  But they’re all quick steppers.

Take the Tennessee Walking Horse, for instance.  Among the most popular breeds of gaited horses, the “Walker” possesses a unique, four-beat “running walk.” An exceptionally long stride combined with a rapid four-beat movement is the key to this rapid walk, which exceeds the speed of most other horses when trotting.  While a normal walking speed for a horse is between four and eight miles per hour, a Tennessee Walker exhibiting his running walk can achieve speeds as high as 20.

So, what makes a person choose to ride gaited horses?  I asked Robin Ratliff, a longtime Florida horse breeder.  She ticked off a variety of reasons, but she said that people who start with other breeds often find by middle age that they want something less physically demanding.

“I think many people reach a time in their riding careers when they don’t want to be jostled around, and gaited horses are a smooth ride,” she said.

Ratliff’s preferred horse is the Paso Fino, which her family has been involved with since 1966.

“We’ve dedicated our lives to the breed,” Robin says.

Her parents bought their first Paso in 1966, when the horses were nearly non-existent in the US.  Robin was 11-years-old. After growing up around them, she became instrumental in raising and promoting Paso Finos in the US, watching them grow from a handful in the early days to one of the most popular gaited breeds in America.

It’s easy to understand why.  The Paso Fino is an extraordinary horse, able to perform its characteristic four-beat walk at birth.  The gait is so much a part of the horse’s identity that its Spanish name means “fine step.”  The steady 1-2-3-4 beat is the same rhythm that drives many popular songs. (Think of Joey Ramone counting out the start to the punk rock classic,  “Rockaway Beach.”)

A Paso Fino rider in a traditional Spanish riding costume. Photo courtesy of the Paso Fino Horse Association. Photo by Cheri Prill.

But it’s the smoothness of the gait that people most appreciate. A popular contest at shows is to put champagne in shallow, stemmed glasses and see whose horse demonstrates the smoothest ride.  Most champagne at the end of the class wins.  (You’d doubtless spill every drop in the trot).

Robin said that when non-riding friends come to visit, she will put them on her horses and watch their expressions.

“The smiles mean everything to me.  People never fail to be impressed by how smooth these horses are.”

But according to Sally Walker, executive director of the Paso Fino Horse Association, one of the misconceptions about the breed (and gaited horses in general) is that their only function is to demonstrate the famous gait.

“We have a lot of recreational trail riders, plus a sport horse program with people competing in barrel racing, trail course, mounted shooting, endurance, pole bending. You name it.  These are still horses, and they can do all the things other horses do,” she said.

Whether they hail from the Caribbean, South America, or the Southern United States, gaited horses likely all share a common origin in the horses brought to the New World by Spanish Conquistadors.  There seems to be a direct line from the Paso Fino and other South American gaited breeds, like the Peruvian Paso, to the now-extinct Spanish Jennet, a smooth-walking horse breed used throughout Medieval times and brought to the New World with Spanish explorers.

Among the North American breeds, delineating the past is more speculative. However, equine historian Annette Gerhard notes that an isolated bunch of mustangs in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and Wyoming carry the ambling gene.  These horses, first described by Lewis and Clark, might well have carried explorers and trappers back to the East, thus creating a foundation of breeding stock with the trait.

A Paso Fino performs mounted shooting with rider Nola Haupert-Keill. Photo courtesy of the Paso Fino Horse Association. Photo by Cheri Prill.

Gerhard does authoritatively say that the Southern breeds trace, in part at least, to Canadian Pacers imported to the South and used to create the American Saddle Horse.  American Saddle Horses were used by both sides during the Civil War.  Confederate General Lee’s horse Traveller (the British spelling is correct) was the most famous of them all and, perhaps not coincidentally, a gray coat.  Like Lee, Confederate soldiers supplied their horses and the vanquishing Union forces allowed them to take them home once truce was declared.

By the late 19th Century, more fashionable Thoroughbreds were replacing gaited horses in America.  Roads made the choppy trotting gait easier to take, especially as well-to-do horse owners went from riding horseback to riding in carriages.  The popularity of horse racing also had breeders clamoring to produce a Kentucky Derby candidate, or out west, a cow horse that could win in the Quarter mile races.  So, gaited horses fell into disregard.

Appalachian Southerners, however, retained the gaited horses in isolated pockets, for the horses were superior for mountain travel. These “mountain saddle horses” often earned geographical names such as the “Kentucky Saddlers,” “Appalachian Walkers,” and “Appalachian Singe Footers.” Regional naming can still be found in gaited horses such as the Missouri Foxtrotter, the Tennessee Walker, and the rare Florida Cracker horse.

Besides the Southern and Latin American varieties of gaited horses, there is also a peculiar gaited horse from the cold northern climes, the Icelandic.  Unlike the rest, this one has no known ties to the Spaniards and likely originated with the mongol horses of the Asian steppe lands.  This often pony-sized horse developed from stock brought to Iceland, an island nation in the nether land between the Old World and the New, by Norse settlers beginning in the 9th Century.

The only equine in the sparsely-populated country, Icelandic horses have spread throughout North America and Europe.  They are hardy, stocky and extremely long-lived, sometimes reaching 30 years of age.

Icelandic horses used for riding are actually five gaited.  In addition to the standard walk, trot and canter/gallop, they possess a four-beat ambling gait, the tölt.  The horse also performs a pace, in which the front and rear legs on one side move in unison, then the front and rear on the other side do so.  Considered a flaw in most other gaited breeds, the pace in the Icelandic horse differs in being unusually fast and smooth.

So is a gaited horse for you?  Perhaps.  Just beware of the hype from breed devotees.  While they’ll all proudly point out that the gait, whether it be a paso largo, a fox trot, a running walk, or a tölt, is a natural tendency of the horse, not every individual performs it well.  Just as some Quarter horses aren’t world beaters when it comes to sprinting and not all warmbloods can be Olympic level jumpers, the gaited breeds have their great movers and their not-so-great ones.

Take a breed expert with you if you plan to take one home. Or better, buy several.  As numerous owners can attest, if your friends all ride Quarter horses or other breeds with “natural” gaits, they may have a hard time keeping up with you!  This is no exaggeration, but a genuine consideration.  It’s no fun to go trail riding and have to constantly circle back to be with your buddies and their pokey ponies!