A Brief Guide to Gaits

You might be able to feel the difference when you’re aboard your horse, but can you explain the difference between a lope and a gallop? It can be tough to put into words when trying to break it down. What does each gait look like?

Whoa, what is a gait? This is just the horse’s movement throughout various speeds. A horse has a variety of different gaits, including a walk, trot, lope, and gallop, and even the back. In this article we’re talking about the gaits natural to all horses, although it should be noted that gaited horses have a wider array of gaits not seen in all horses.

How Do We Understand the Movement?

We know much of how a horse moves thanks to a little project from 1872. The former governor of California asked Eadweard Muybridge to photograph a horse during a gallop, to prove his theory correct that all four feet left the ground at some point. Using his own method of stop-action photography, Muybridge found himself immersed in the world of animal movements, and dedicated his life’s work to it. Muybridge captured the movements of a horse in different gaits, in separate images, showing us their true movement slowed down.

Starting Slow

Let’s start with the basics and talk about the walk. Technically this is a four-beat stride, and as the horse strides out laterally each foot hits the ground independently. This gait is usually comfortable and easy to sit. Typically, the pattern of this gait is right hind, right front, left hind, then left front.

As for the trot, this is going to be a two-beat diagonal gait. This is a fancy way of saying that the front leg is paired with the opposite hind leg during movement. So, when the right hind moves, so does the front left, and vice versa. Thus, the two-beat meaning. Many new riders find a trot difficult to sit, which is why posting is often used to provide comfort to horse and rider. This is where you rise and fall in conjunction with his footfalls. The rise of your posting will be in movement with the forward extension of the outside leg of your horse. This is known as being on the correct diagonal. 

[Watch Bud Lyon explain the extended trot]

A moment of suspension at the trot. Ashva/adobe.stock.com

Picking Up the Pace

Moving into the lope means that we will see the horse pick up a three-beat gait. First, understand that a horse will lope in a left or a right lead. If your horse is reaching out further with his front left, and being propelled by his right hind, then he is in his left lead. If his front right reaches further, he is in his right lead.

When the leading leg hits the ground at a lope. Terri Cage/adobe.stock.com

The lope is an interesting gait. During it, your horse will depart with his hind hoof that is opposite the lead he is going into. So if he is starting in the right lead, he will depart with his left hind. Then, the diagonal pair will move together (like in the trot), and finally his leading front leg will hit the ground. This leg will reach out further than the other front leg, making it his leading leg and letting you know which lead he is in. At one point during the lope your horse will have only one foot on the ground, and in another split second, all four feet will be off the ground entirely. The trot, lope, and gallop all have a moment of suspension where all four feet are off the ground at some point.

A moment of suspension at the gallop. Rita Kockmarjova/adobe.stock.com

The gallop is a faster version of the lope, although this gait is considered a four-beat. All four feet will leave the ground during a gallop, but not when outstretched. Instead, when the hind legs swing near the front, is when the horse will achieve a moment of suspension. This is a horse’s fastest gait, and the one you will see racehorses achieving around the track.

When it comes to the back, it will appear in the same manner as a trot except in reverse. For instance, the right front might move with the left hind, the left front with the right hind, and so on and so forth.

Understanding the different gaits of a horse can help you move with him and allow him to use his natural gaits effectively.

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