Horse Gaits | Terminology & Breakdown of How Horses Move

Last Updated: February 8, 2021

Gait refers to the different ways that your horse can move. There are five main types of gaits, referred to often as the “natural” gaits. Most horses of all breeds can do these basic gaits. Additionally, several “artificial” gates can be learned by some horse breeds, though not all are capable. Let’s take a look at these common and uncommon horse gaits so you can better understand each.

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Terminology

Before we get started discussing the different gaits, it’s important to go over some basic terminology that’s used to describe a horse’s movement more easily.

Lead

man with horse leading left foot

This term is used when describing cantering and galloping, and it’s used to differentiate the foreleg that’s farthest forward. Left lead means that the left foreleg is leading, while right lead indicates that the horse’s right foreleg is in front.


Posting

person riding horse in posting trot

When describing the trot, posting refers to the up and down movement that the rider follows, making the trot more comfortable for both horse and rider. To post, you alternate raising yourself up out of the saddle for one beat and sitting in the saddle for the next beat.


Diagonal

When trotting, the foreleg that moves forward while you’re in the up phase of posting is referred to as diagonal.

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The Five Main Horse Gaits

The five main horse gaits are considered to be natural since most horses are naturally capable of them.

Walk

horse walking

Walking is a horse’s slowest speed; a four-beat movement that always has two or three hooves in contact with the ground. A typical pattern is left foreleg, right hind leg, right foreleg, left hind leg, or a mirror of that pattern beginning with the right foreleg.


Trot

The trot is the next slowest gait, though substantially faster than a walk. It’s a two-beat gait with the horse’s legs working in diagonal pairs. This gait isn’t as smooth as walking since the horse springs between each step. The pattern for a trot is right foreleg and left hind leg, followed by left foreleg and right hind leg, or the opposite.


Canter/Lope

A canter, also called a lope, is an interesting gait since it has three beats. A single foot lands on its own, followed by a diagonal pair hitting the ground together, and the last foot lands independently. A left lead canter’s pattern is right hind leg, left hind leg and right foreleg together, then the left foreleg last. For a right lead canter, the pattern is left hind leg first, right hind leg and left foreleg together, followed by the right foreleg.


Gallop

horse galloping in the pasture

When you want to move fast on a horse, the gallop is your gait. This is a four-beat movement, though it feels more like a canter than a walk. To gallop successfully, you’ll need full control of the horse, plus complete balance in all other gaits. For a right lead gallop, the patter starts with the left hind leg, followed by the rear hind leg, then the left foreleg, with the right foreleg finishing up the steps. A left lead gallop is the mirror; right hind leg, left hind leg, right foreleg, left foreleg.


Back

You can think of the back gait as a reverse gear for horses. When moving backward, a horse’s steps will follow a pattern similar to a trot, so the right foreleg and left hind leg step together, and the left foreleg and right hind leg step together as well.

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Artificial Gates

Though termed “artificial gates,” these gaits occur naturally in specific horse breeds. Several different breeds of gaited horses exist, and each has a distinct gait that’s separate and unique from other breeds.

Running Walk

horse running walk

You’ll see Tennessee Walking Horses exhibiting the running walk gait. It’s a gliding four-beat gait that’s faster than a regular walk. The hind hooves will actually overstep the front hooves during the running walk by as much as 18 inches.


Pace

The pace is similar to the trot in that it’s a quick two-beat gait. However, in the pace gait, both feet on the same side will strike the ground together. So, the right foreleg and hind leg step together, and the left foreleg and hind leg step simultaneously as well.


Slow Gait

This is a four-beat lateral gait that’s like a walking version of the pace. Both legs on the same side step at only slightly different times, creating a broken rhythm. The right hind leg steps first, followed by the right foreleg, then the left hind leg, with the left foreleg stepping last.


Rack

A pompous and attention-grabbing walk that’s quick and flashy, the rack is a gait displayed by both the Tennessee Walking Horse and the American Saddlebred. Each foot steps separately from the others, making for a very exaggerated walk.

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Conclusion

Though there are many different gaits for horses overall, only five of them are considered natural gaits. Other gaits are classified as artificial gates, though they actually occur naturally as well. The main difference is that all horses are capable of the natural gaits; the artificial gates can only be performed by specific breeds.

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