Gaited vs Non-Gaited Horses – What is the Difference?

Saying that a horse is gaited or non-gaited is a bit misleading. All horses have gaits, it’s just that some gaits are specific only to some horse breeds, while other gaits are common for most other breeds.

There’s also a different categorization of horse gaits, whereby some gaits are called ‘natural gaits’ and others are called ‘artificial gaits’, even though artificial gaits are very much natural to some breeds.

Confused yet? Don’t worry! It will soon all make sense.

I’m going to explain the difference between gaited and non-gaited horses, and whether horses can be trained to acquire different types of gaits.

What is a Gait?

A gait is basically the way horses — or humans — move. The motion, style and physics of a horse’s movement are studied by the field of equine locomotion.

Therefore, the manner and style in which horses move is called a horse gait. And just like humans can walk, pace or run, horses have different walking styles too.

From slowest to fastest, we distinguish the following types of horse gaits:

– Walk

The slowest of the gaits, the walk is simply the forward movement of a horse, with the horse landing each foot independently on the ground, hence the determination that a walk is a four-beat gait.

– Trot

A faster gait compared to a walk, the trot, is a two-beat gait with the horse’s feet moving forward in paired diagonals.

– Canter

The canter is a step-up from a trot. It’s a three-beat gait with a pair of feet landing on the ground simultaneously, while the other two land independently. A canter can have a right or left lead, depending on the footfall pattern.

– Gallop

The fastest gait, the gallop, contains four beats, and just like the canter it can be left or right lead.

Apart from these, there is also the ‘back’ gait, which is simply just a horse moving backwards, which is a two-beat diagonal gait, similar in footfall pattern to that of a trot.

In a nutshell, these are the universally recognizable gaits in most horses. They’ve been categorized like this based on the speed and footfall pattern of the horse.

As I will explain below, there are some other types of gaits as well, specific to only a few breeds.

What is a Gaited Horse?

From the gait types I mentioned above, you’d think that a horse that can perform those movement types is a gaited horse. But that’s not actually the case.

Gaited horses have different types of gaits than those I mentioned above such as the running walk, slow gait, pace, and rack.

Sometimes these are referred to as artificial gaits, because horses can be trained to perform them.

But some breeds perform them naturally, that’s why they’re called gaited horses.

Here are some of the movements that gaited horses perform:

– Rack

The rack is similar to the walk gait in that all feet touch the ground independently, but it’s a flashier and showier walk, that’s faster than a regular walk.

– Pace

A pace is a two-beat gait during which the feet on the same side land on the ground simultaneously. It’s a fast lateral gait that creates a side-to-side rocking motion.

– Slow Gait

This gait is also known as the stepping pace or broken pace. It’s a four-beat lateral gait. The legs of the horse from the same side lift from the ground and land at slightly different times.

– Running Walk

The running walk is a faster version of the regular walk with the added characteristic that the hind feet overstep the front footprint by around 18 inches. Just like the walk, it’s a four-beat gait.

Another characteristic of the running walk is that the horse’s head and ears perform a movement that’s in rhythm with the movement of the horse’s legs.

Therefore, horses that perform these movements are called gaited horses. Several breeds naturally perform these.

Gaited Horses Breeds

The horse breeds that are recognized as gaited include the Tennessee Walking Horse and the American Saddlebred, both of which perform the rack gait.

The running walk is characteristic of the Tennessee Walking Horse, while the slow gait is performed by the American Saddlebred. The pace is characteristic of the Standardbred harness racing horses.

The American Saddlebred is a five-gaited horse, just like the Icelandic horse, whose fifth gait is the tölt.

The tölt is close in speed to the gallop with an average speed of 20 mph and during this gait the horse moves both legs on one side forward at the same time.

Other gaited horse breeds include:

  • Paso Fino
  • Peruvian Paso
  • Rocky Mountain Horse
  • Racking Horse
  • Missouri Fox Trotter
  • Old Kentucky Saddler
  • Smokey Valley Horse

What is a Non-Gaited Horse?

Stock breeds like the Appaloosa, Quarter horse, Paint horse, or Thoroughbreds, Morgan, Saddlebred, or Arabians are non-gaited horses.

Mind you, these horses can still perform the regular walk, trot, canter and gallop, but don’t naturally perform the other gaits I described above.

Are Gaited Horses Better?

There are undeniable advantages to having a gaited horse namely:

  • More comfortable for distant rides due to the way they move
  • They conserve energy better
  • They’re great trail horses because of their stamina
  • Calm temperament makes them excellent for novice riders

That said, other horse breeds may be better at other things such as agility, speed or pulling. Therefore, it’s not a matter of a gaited horse being better than a non-gaited horse, it’s more like a matter of preference or being a better fit for one purpose over the other.

Are Horse Gaits Trainable?

Yes, some horses can be trained to perform other gaits that may not come naturally to them. This explains why the gaits of gaited horses are labelled as ‘artificial gaits’. But even gaited horses need training.

Just because some horses are gaited, and certain movement types should come naturally to them, it doesn’t mean that they require no training to perform these gaits correctly.

Some horses, however, may not have the right conformation to perform certain gaits, so they may have trouble performing these gaits as smoothly as gaited horses.

Conclusion

Simply put, a gaited horse is a horse that moves in a unique way compared to other horses. Gaited horses are excellent for riding activities such as trail riding.

Some horses can perform only four types of gaits, others will perform five types of gaits that are noticeably different from the baseline of other horses.

Although gaits can be taught, some horses will perform them naturally, while others may have trouble performing them well because of their different leg structure or general conformation.

Horse Facts

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