Years ago, my brother and I were walking up a finger ridge to a high plateau some 700 feet above a valley floor. On a similar parallel ridge 500 yards to our left, two horseback hunters urged their mounts toward the same high ground. Enviously watching from afar, we were certain these men, with their superior transportation, would get to the legal boundaries of the hunting district far more quickly than we would, so we didn’t hurry. Surprisingly, however, they not only failed to gain on us, but they seemed to lose ground.
When I met the two men on top, I noticed lather on the glistening coats of their plump, short-legged horses, and quietly decided that our own two-legged transportation, what old cowboys call “shank’s mare,” wasn’t so inferior after all.
Already a horse lover who worked on ranches each summer, I pined for a horse of my own, but I decided right then that I had little interest in owning a horse that walked more slowly than I could. After all, humans domesticated the horse for improved capability at covering ground. On rough terrain, the only safe, feasible gait is the walk – and the horse, with his four legs, ought to be able to out-walk my two. Recalling the ranch horses that broke into a bone-jarring trot at the slightest cue for more speed, I swore I’d own a different sort of horse.
Surefooted & Smooth
The walk is your trail horse’s most important gait. Yes, you can enjoy an occasional lope across a meadow, or a trot or running walk down a groomed trail, but the walk is your horse’s bread-and-butter, trail-covering gait.
First, the walk’s superior contact with the ground makes for surer footing. It’s a four-beat gait that keeps three feet on the ground at any one time. Specifically, the walk sequence is left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. Secondly, the walk is smooth. You feel little jar, because the movement is broken into four steps close to the ground, with little elevation between them.
By contrast, the trot is a two-beat diagonal gait, with suspension. Your horse’s diagonal pairs of feet hit the ground at the same time. The sequence is right hind/left fore (left diagonal), a moment of suspension, then left hind/right fore (right diagonal). During the moment of suspension, your horse lifts upward then comes down hard on his two opposing legs, which can jar you in the saddle.
Gaited horses retain their smoothness because they replace the trot with a running walk – or another four-beat cadence – as they increase their speed. They also frequently take longer strides than nongaited horses do, their back feet hitting the ground well in front of the tracks left by their front feet. This is called overstriding or overtracking (not to be confused with forging, when the toe of the hind shoe strikes the heel of the front shoe).
A Lost Gait
Equine physiologists say that all horses, gaited or not, are physically capable of walking 5 to 6 miles per hour, a significant improvement over the 3 to 4 miles per hour of the brisk human. Then why do many horses break into a trot at much slower speeds? Breeding, conformation, poor riding, and training are responsible. Here’s a bit about the first two; we’ll discuss riding and training a little later.
• Breeding. Genetics in domestic animals reflect human priorities. All horses are domestic animals; horses we now call “wild” are really feral – domestic animals that have reverted to the wild. Today’s horse was developed by humans to meet the needs of the times. When horses were primarily used for transportation over rough ground under saddle, fast-walking animals were the rule, and gaited individuals were extremely common. As roads improved, more people used buggies or wagons. The trot in harness was efficient and didn’t affect passenger comfort.
Once horses were no longer needed for transportation, racing, polo, and horse showing advanced, none of which require a brisk walk. Again, there was little incentive to rate a snappy walk as a breeding objective, except in gaited breeds. [One exception: Dressage horses are trained to execute an extended, ground-covering walk. – Ed.] Today, with trail riding becoming the number-one use for horses in America, we’ve come full circle – and have ended up on horses that aren’t made for walking.
��� Conformation. We all brag about our “all around” or “versatile” horses, but the truth is that no bulldog Quarter Horse will keep up with a skinny endurance Arabian over a 50-mile course. And that same Arabian won’t hold a steer on the end of a lariat rope as effectively as the Quarter Horse will. Certain conformational features seem to enhance walking ability. (See “Made for Walking,” above.) I say seem, because conformation is an imperfect predictor of performance, and you can always find plenty of exceptions.
However, if I were anticipating a long ride over rough country on which a good walk and solid endurance would be necessary, I’d look for a horse with a short back, sloping shoulder, and croup that slopes down toward the tail. These traits often
go with the ability to reach forward with the hind legs, resulting in a longer walking stride.
I’d also look for high withers and an “uphill” build (withers higher than croup, which seems to point toward freedom of shoulder movement, essential for a good walk); and a moderate or even slightly narrow chest when viewed from front, but an extremely deep chest (withers to sternum) when viewed from the side. A deep chest goes with endurance, as does moderate muscling. Pasterns set at a moderate 45 degree angle suggest shock-absorbing ability, while retaining strength.
A head nod is always present during the walk (and during the running walk of gaited horses). A moderately long neck and reasonably large head seem to pump like a pendulum and aid the stride of fast walkers.
So, if you have a long-backed, wide-chested, heavily muscled horse with a short neck, small head, downhill build (croup higher than withers, more efficient for running than for walking), and steep pasterns, odds are he’s not a fast walker.
If your trail horse isn’t conformed to step out naturally at the walk, you can work on this gait with improved riding and training. But first, let’s look at an enlightening walking experiment I performed with trainer Travis Young.
Trainer Travis Young and I decided to find the exact point at which several horses broke into a trot. To do so, we measured walking speed with a global positioning system (GPS), which not only can tell you where you are, but can also measure speed.
Travis volunteered two Quarter Horses. One, a sorrel, he’d found to be a very fast walker for his breed; the other, a bay, was the opposite. First, however, we decided to measure the exceptionally fast walk of Razzy, my 10.2-hand Miniature Horse gelding. Razzy carries and carts grandchildren when they visit.
Leading Razzy briskly with GPS in hand, Travis confirmed the little guy went an honest 4 miles per hour before breaking into a trot. Many full-sized horses can’t do as well. Further, Razzy walks at this snappy pace without being cued.
Conformation doesn’t explain Razzy’s fast walk, though he’s built slightly uphill. He simply moves his legs very rapidly. His early training may be partially responsible – he was raised by a no-nonsense ranch woman who required the same level of behavior and performance from her Mini as from her ranch horses. But genetics are the more likely cause. Although Razzy isn’t gaited, he probably has some gaited blood. Gaited pony breeds past and present include the Icelandic (actually a small horse), Galloway, Hobby, Jennet, and Connemara. Further, Razzy has a “let’s get with it” disposition. He seems happiest when he’s working hard.
Next, we timed the Quarter Horses, starting with the sorrel. His back is level (that is, his croup and withers are the same height) and his croup is sloped. His chest, while muscular, is slightly narrower than the bay’s, and he’s somewhat shorter. At a slow saunter, with the rider slumped like a sack of potatoes, his walking speed was 3.5 miles per hour. When the rider sat up in the saddle and cued the sorrel forward, the horse stepped up to 4.6 miles per hour, and gave a nice head nod. After a little work, his best speed before breaking into a trot was 5.2 miles per hour, an excellent trail walk.
The bay Quarter Horse is built slightly wider than the sorrel. His back is slightly longer, and his croup is a half inch higher than his withers. He had a much slower walk – if allowed to saunter, he walked between 2.5 and 2.8 miles per hour. A nice, relaxed walk was 3 miles per hour. His best speed before breaking into a trot was 4 miles per hour – no better than little Razzy’s. (Note: The bay has an exceptionally smooth trot, so many of his riders allow him to trot at walk speed.)
I was amazed at how Travis improved the walk of each of the two Quarter Horses in a very short time. Reared on this breed, Travis’s current work with me as a Walking Horse trainer has kicked up his consciousness regarding quality of the walk and its importance on the trail. By sitting well, by telegraphing to the horse that he was at work, not at rest, and by not allowing the horse to cross that threshold into a trot, Travis gained that added increment between “dog walk” and “best walk.” To get this result in your own horse, see below.
Virtually all horses can be trained to improve their relaxed trail walk – that easy, loose gait that covers ground on a light rein. Training for an improved walk starts simply: Prioritize it! Make a better walk a top training objective. (Note that by doing so, you’ll also condition your horse’s walking muscles, which are different from those used in the faster gaits.)
When you longe your horse, give the walk equal time. Under saddle, spend much of your arena time in a snappy walk. Horses trained in the Western neck-reining tradition should respond to slight relaxation of the rein accompanied by a tightening of the seat and legs, and the use of the heels if necessary to encourage stepping out. Use whatever cues for impulsion your horse has been taught. At the very point he feels ready to break into a trot, ease back. Collect a Western horse by tightening your reins and leaning back slightly.
To find your horse’s break point, watch his ears. If he’s walking up to his potential, he’ll be nodding his head. When he stops nodding, he’s trotting. (Note: You might notice the lack of head nod even before you feel a shift in gait.) Hold him just shy of that break point. You may find yourself alternating between impulsion cues and collection cues, but that’s okay. The point is to keep him walking fast without allowing him to trot. Make it clear to him that he’s working, not at rest simply because you aren’t trotting or loping. Keep pushing the envelope.
If your horse breaks into a trot despite your efforts, bring him back down to a walk: Relax into your seat bones, apply steady, even backward rein pressure, and say “walk!” Then immediately cue for more speed: Squeeze with both legs, relax your rein pressure, and repeat your impulsion cues. The idea is to keep your horse at the top end of his walking speed and to keep him there all the time. He’ll soon learn that at the walk, he’s still at work.
Next, ride your horse on difficult (but not dangerous) footing, such as snow or mud. Sensing that his footing is uncertain, your horse will prefer his surefooted walk to a trot.
On the trail behind others, your horse might break into a trot because he’s anxious to keep up. If your horse has developed this habit, ride with a few understanding friends. Ask them to allow your horse to lead. You may find that he relaxes and walks out, setting a good pace for the group. Then drop back behind another horse. You might find your horse stays in a good walk, satisfied that he won’t be left behind.
Made for Walking
This Tennessee Walking Horse stallion, The Pride Piper, exhibits most of the conformational traits that seem to go with a rapid walk:
1 A short back and sloping shoulder, which seem to help him reach forward with his hind legs for a long walking stride.
2 A croup that slopes down toward his tail, which also seems to help him reach forward with his hind legs for a long walking stride.
3 An “uphill build,” with his withers higher than his croup, which seems to point toward freedom of shoulder movement, essential for a good walk.
4 A moderate or even slightly narrow chest when viewed from front, and an extremely deep chest (withers to sternum) when viewed from the side. A deep chest aids lung capacity.
5 Pasterns set at a moderate 45-degree angle, which absorbs shock while retaining strength.
6 Moderate muscling, for endurance.
7 A moderately long neck and reasonably large head, which act as a pendulum for balance and rhythm. (Note that a head nod is always present during the walk and during the running walk of gaited animals.)
Dan Aadland (http://my.montana.net/draa) raises mountain bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are The Best of All Seasons, The Complete Trail Horse, and 101 Trail Riding Tips. Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir is now available in a new Bison Books edition.