Feel Your Horse’s Feet in Each Gait

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the October 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

If you're like a lot of people who love and ride horses, you have a favorite gait. Many find the walk the most comforting gait because it is the most comfortable. I've noticed many people (certainly not all) like to avoid long sessions at the trot, while more experienced people like to canter their horses.

There is no right or wrong gait as long as you and your horse agree on what direction the horse should be going, where each foot should be placed, and what speed his hooves should be moving. Remember, it's the feet you're riding.

I hope the following explanation of the horse's footwork will encourage you to try and feel each foot in each gait. Once a clear picture of the footfall pattern in each gait is established in your mind, the distinctly different feel of each gait registers in your body, and will no longer a mental process. Hopefully, the importance of allowing a horse to stay straight and balanced, as you experiment with transitions and turns, will become clearer.

The Gaits

In the walk, the horse moves each leg separately in a four-beat stride. The pattern of the horse's footfall at the walk is easy to recognize once you understand the rhythm, or cadence, from the horse's point of view.

This gait is relaxing to the horse and it's the gait he'll use most of the time if left to choose for himself. I call the walk the catch-up gait because his hind legs are continually catching up to a point on the ground that his front legs have just passed. To keep his balance at the walk, the horse, you'll notice, steadies himself twice in the middle of each stride by shifting his weight alternately onto each diagonal pair of legs. This is similar to the way he travels at the trot, but it's more difficult to see at the walk because he sort of rolls from one diagonal to the other diagonal.

It happens like this: When either one of the horse's front legs leaves the ground, it is followed next by an opposite hind leg that reaches forward underneath the belly, creating a diagonal balance point. So the horse doesn't step on the heels of his own front feet with the rear hooves, he moves each foreleg forward out of the way before a hind hoof on the same side of his body hits the ground. You might want to read these last two sentences over a time or two to fully understand the sequence. Better yet, get down on all fours and check it out for yourself, and compare your experience to what you observe about your horse's movement.

The best way to train your eye to notice this is to watch him slip from a fast walk into the trot, back to a fast walk and up to the trot again. You'll see the horse relies on both of his diagonals in the walk and the trot. (Note: Whether the horse walks or trots, each diagonal takes the name of the foreleg associated with it. The left diagonal refers to the left foreleg and the right hind leg. The right diagonal refers to the right foreleg and the left hind leg.)

What transforms the four-beat walk into the two-beat trot is the increased speed of the front feet's one-two walking cadence and the snappier action of the rear legs. In effect, the back feet catch up to move in exact time with the opposite foreleg. This gives the trot the distinctive, crisp one-two rhythm and eliminates two of the walk's four beats.

Notice that the rear legs do not cover any more ground in a single stride of the trot than the front feet have already covered. This is also true at the walk. However, this changes in the canter (lope).

hrs9 2Two gaits are shown. The grey (in front) is at a brisk trot. His right diagonal pair of legs is about to hit the ground. To complete the stride, his left diagonal pair of legs will strike the ground together. The appaloosa canters along behind on the right lead. His left hind leg pushes him forward onto his left diagonal pair of legs which he'll use for momentary balance before rolling onto his right front, or leading, leg.

The Canter

As the horse slips up a gear from a fast trot, he trades the superior balance of the trot for extra speed and greater reach in the canter's three-beat stride.

In a circle to the right he is most apt to pick up his right lead, his natural lead. A horse doesn't need to be taught leads, they are natural. However, he may need to learn to restore lost confidence in his natural lead if he has to routinely accommodate a poorly balanced rider that consistently requires him to switch leads in front--or take the "wrong" or unnatural lead--in order to keep from falling or losing his cargo.

In a circle to the right at the canter a horse will start the stride (from a standstill, walk or trot) with a push from his left hind leg and then will travel forward across his supporting, or weight-bearing, left diagonal pair of legs. He then rolls onto his right front or lead leg. At this point he draws his outside drive leg (left hind) up under himself to start the stride sequence again.

The opposite occurs in a circle to the left. His right hind leg will initiate the stride. He'll find his balance and base of support in the right diagonal and roll onto his left, or leading, leg.

There are two spots in the canter where the horse and rider's combined weight is balanced on about 16 square inches of a single hoof. Don't yank his head around abruptly at the canter, or you could easily pull your horse on top of yourself.

The Transition

When moving your horse from the walk to the trot, you want to make a smooth transition. Put all thoughts about collecting your horse aside for now. The easiest way to do this is to ask for a trot from a fast walk. When your horse is comfortable with this, ask him to trot from a slow walk. In time he'll be able to trot out smoothly--and straight--from a standstill.

A smooth transition is especially important when moving from the trot to the canter. It's best not to pound on your horse's sides when he's at a standstill to get him to canter. At first, he'll move more naturally and comfortably into the lope if you let him slip into it from a fast trot.

Practice moving him from a fast trot into the canter numerous times before asking him to canter from a slow trot. When he's comfortable moving into the lope from a slow trot, then practice moving him up to the lope from a fast walk. When he gets good at this--and is able to canter comfortably without speeding up or slowing down unless you ask him--then ask him to canter from a slow walk.

Eventually, you can ask him to canter after taking just one or two steps at the walk and in time he'll be ready to make the transition smoothly into the canter from a standstill. It's very important not to hurry a horse in the transitions up to a canter. Remember to walk, trot and canter your horse in both directions.

Take as much time as you need to get your horse to make smooth transitions--through feel--down from the canter to the trot, and from the trot to the walk. As you slow your horse from the trot, ask for and reward an energetic walk for a few strides before slowing down the walk and stopping.

It isn't enough to have horse knowledge.

Get a Feel for Your Horse on the Ground and in the Saddle

There is a vast difference between possessing some knowledge of horses and having the feel of a horse. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of being able to understand and respect the difference between the two.

When your horse maneuvers well through feel on the halter rope, and you have learned to direct and support the horse in time with the front and hind feet as they leave the ground, then you have a foundation in place with your horse from which to develop a feel of the horse from the saddle.

Learning the feel of the horse in your groundwork is a prerequisite for good-quality mounted work, no matter your riding type or purpose. Always remember you are riding the feet; not the saddle, not the horse's back and not the horse's mouth. A rider who wants the feel of the horse doesn't pull on the reins to stay in the saddle. Good riders become good riders because they keep on trying until they learn the feel of the horse with their whole body. The balance and rhythm of the horse's entire body should not only be recognized and understood, but felt by the rider. Brute force can never elicit anything from a horse that is comparable in sensitivity, in accuracy and in spirit to what is volunteered by the horse through understanding. When you have presented yourself in a way that the horse understands, he will feel you and your communication with him will be through reciprocal feel. Then your horse will likely work hard to give you the very best of their capabilities.

To fit the horse, to complement the horse, to search until you have determined the best way for each horse to receive and reflect back to you the intent of your message, with understanding...that's the start. That's what you build upon.