When you ride your horse, you want to know that he is moving correctly and efficiently. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced rider, the correct rhythm of your horse’s gaits is essential to learning how to move with him while in the saddle. Knowing how many beats are in each gait is helpful when evaluating your horse’s movement and determining the best training methods to improve his performance.
The walk is the slowest of the four-beat gaits, with each individual foot supporting the body for a short duration before it is set down again. A good walk is symmetrical and a comfortable speed, allowing the horse to cover ground without tiring easily. The trot is the next speed up from a walk. It is a two-beat diagonal gait, meaning the front legs are paired with their opposite hind leg. The right hind leg moves with the left front, and then the other way around. The canter is a three-beat gait that resembles a gallop but is significantly slower. Horses canter on both the right and left lead, depending on their preferred method of travel.
Ambling is a form of intermediate gait between a walk and a canter that varies in speed and footfall pattern. All ambling gaits are faster than a walk, but slower than a canter. Ambling gaits are also smoother for a rider than either a trot or pace and can be sustained for longer periods, making them desirable for trail riding and other activities where the horse needs to travel long distances under saddle.
Horses can also gallop, which is the fastest of the gaits at approximately 30 mph. The gallops are both lateral and diagonal in that the legs on each side step at different times, but at one point during each stride the horse has all four feet off the ground, which is called full suspension. The racehorses you see in horse races are running at a more controlled gallop with four beats that is only sustainable over shorter distances.
A faulty or irregular rhythm in the gaits can be dangerous and lead to injuries for the animal, especially the horse’s back. A horse that doesn’t have a regular beat to his walk can become lame or fall into a less common gait such as a lateral walk or rack, which require special gaited horses to produce. Likewise, horses that canter on the wrong lead can have issues with their balance and be injured. If your horse has a problem with one of these gaits, you should have it checked by a veterinarian to ensure there isn’t an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. This will help your horse to be happier, healthier and more comfortable.