The gaits

The gaits of the horse: based on the book ‘Equitation Science’ by Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean.


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The purpose of the gaits is to provide speed within the parameters of energy efficiency. A gait can be defined as ‘a complex and strictly coordinated, rhythmic and automatic movement of the limbs and the entire body length of the animal, which results in the production of progressive movements’. Gaits can be classified according to the symmetry. Walking and trotting are symmetrical gaits where left and right footfalls are evenly spaced in time. In contrast, canter is asymmetrical gait, where the right and left limbs move in a dissimilar way. Gaits can also be defined by the presence or absence of a suspension phase. Suspension is the period when all four limbs are in the swing phase. Walking gaits have no suspension phase. Gaits are described as 2 beat (trot), 3 beat (canter) or 4 beat (walk) which corresponds with the number of footfalls or beats that can be heard within each stride. Horses change from one gait to the next because of the increasing metabolic cost of speed and as a result of ground forces on the limbs reaching a threshold force. In the absence of human interference when carrying increased weight, inter-gait transitions occur at progressively lower speeds.

The horse has four locomotory responses: acceleration, deceletarion, turning with the forelimbs and turning with the hindlimbs. They are basis for all movements in-hand and under-saddle. Achieving stimulus control of the forelegs in deceleration and turns automatically results in straightness. This directly contradicts the widely held but erroneus belief that straightness is a result of the hindhooves tracking into the foretracks. The thoracic and lumbar spine of the horse are much less flexible than generally believed.
In optimal training the horse should be in self-carriage and the weight in the rider’s hands should be the weight of the reins plus a light connection to the lips and tongue.
Incorrect training methods that promote concurrent rein and leg pressures used to ‘drive the horse onto the bit’ result in false collection and compromise the welfare of the ridden horse. Such reduction in welfare may manifest as conflicts behaviours and ultimately lead to wastage.