The popularity of gaited horses has surged in recent years, partly because their smooth ways of covering ground make them more comfortable to ride than standard breeds. Their smooth gaits conserve energy and allow them to travel further on less, but their silky way of moving also makes them prone to certain injuries. Depending on the type of gait, these horses may be more prone to muscle and tendon strain or lesions, bone spavins, and locking stifles. They are also more prone to saddle and foot soreness because of the constant pressure they place on the rider’s seat bones, and because most trail classes require gaited trots.
There are a number of gaited horse breeds, each with its own unique style of movement. Some of these gaits resemble the walk, but are done much faster. Others are more like the trot, but are done in a diagonal pattern. Still others are more like a running walk, or a single-foot gait that is called a stepping pace. One rare, but very beautiful gait is the rack, which is typically performed by Saddlebreds and other five-gaited horses.
A few standard breeds, such as the Morgan and the Tennessee Walking Horse, will gait naturally. They produce a four-beat rhythm referred to as the amble, or rack. Some of these breeds are bred for their docility and gentleness of temperament, and they can be ideal mounts for novice riders.
Other gaited horse breeds are bred for performance. Some of these breeds, such as the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse and the Spotted Saddle Horse, will perform a lateral or diagonal gait called the stepping pace. This is a speedy version of the amble, and it can be done with a canter. These horses are used to ride in the show ring and to pull Amish buggies.
Pacing is another popular gait, and this is the type of gait you’ll see on harness racing horses. A study in 2012 found that a single gene controls the ability to pace. Horses that have the DMRT3 gene can pace, while those who do not have it cannot. This gene controls circuits in the spinal cord that directly link to limb movement.
Many gaited horses need a bit of guidance to maintain their smooth movements. For this reason, they are typically ridden with a snaffle bridle. A few gaited horses can be taught to work with a side-pull or halter and lead rope, but most will not gait well if constantly pressured. In addition, such constant pressure can stress a horse’s neck and back muscles and cause them to stiffen up in their gaits. The best way to help a gaited horse keep its smooth movement is to train him with a slack rein, and then switch to the bridle when it’s time for riding.