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Beyond The Basic Gaits
 By Winniefield Park   •   13th Oct 2017   •   642 views   •   0 comments


So horses have three basic gaits: walk, trot, and canter or lope. But some horses, often called ‘gaited’, have extra gaits. Most of these are what are called ambling gaits and there is what's called the pace. We don't think of these gaits as natural. But, some sources claim that a long time ago, most riding horses were gaited. If you observe wild horses such as the Przewalski's Horse, you’ll see that they have the three standard gaits. But, there are feral and domestic horses, such as the Mustang that may be gaited.

The reason is in their genes. According to an article about the Pryor Mountain Mustang by Rhonda H. Poe which can now be accessed through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, these horses are gaited. The Pryor Mountain Mustang’s DNA clearly shows it descended from Spanish horses brought to North America in colonial times. Those European horses were gaited and passed the trait on to many of their descendants.

Why are there fewer gaited horses in the wild if the Spanish horses were gaited? The ability to have explosive speed is the most important factor. It is much easier for a horse to accelerate from a walk or standstill to a gallop than it is from an ambling gait. So, gaited horses have a disadvantage when it comes to escaping from predators. And if you’re caught and eaten, you can’t reproduce. Clearly the Pryor Mountain horses had to do some fancy footwork to survive.

Horses who have different gaits have a mutated gene called DMRT3. DMRT3 makes a protein used by the neurons, the cells that transmit messages from the horse’s brain to its body, in the horse’s spinal column. In horses that carry mutated DMRT3, the gene is shorter than normal. And this affects how the horse can organize its legs while traveling. Some horses will have two copies of this mutation, and some will have one. Those who do not have the mutation will have the standard three gaits with no variations.

Some horses may have the inclination to gait, thanks to their genetics, but only do so through training. Horses that don’t have the genetics will not gait naturally, or with training.

So what are those variations in gaits like? Again, many are called ambling gaits, and the footfall pattern and rhythm is the same as the walk. One of the exceptions is the pace, which is a gait common to Icelandic Horses and Standardbreds, although some others, like the Morgan may be able to pace as well. The pace is a two-beat gait. The legs on one side of the horse reach forward, while the legs on the opposite side propel the horse forward. Depending on the horse it can be quite rough to ride, although some people claim otherwise. It will depend on the horse. The flying pace of the Icelandic is a racing gait, while it is the fastest gait of Standardbred racing compared to trotting.

The ambling gaits include the tölt done by Icelandic horses and their relatives, the four beat ravaal of the Marwari, Kathiawari of India, the rack done by the Saddlebred and running walk of the Tennesse Walking Horse, the many variations of running walk done by breeds like the Paso Fino and other South American breeds, and the foxtrot done by the Missouri Fox Trotter.

All of these variations are very smooth to ride. They may be very slow, like the amble or singlefoot, or they can be very fast, like the tölt or the Paso Fino’s paso largo.

Who used gaited horses and why do we keep them around? The horses developed in South and North America were bred to give those working in agriculture a smooth ride during long hours supervising their fields. The Standardbred, of course, was developed for racing, although many make fine riding horses. Icelandics are sturdy, reliable mounts over rough ground and still make great pleasure horses. So anyone who enjoys a comfortable ride will appreciate the ambling paces of these horses. People with bad backs and other physical issues may find it more comfortable to ride a gaited horse, although not having to learn to trot or canter doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn equitation. It’s worth it to try a gaited horse, just for the experience, one that could lead to new adventures and fun.
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