The way in which a horse moves its legs is known as a gait. The four basic gaits are the walk, trot, canter and gallop. In each pace, the hooves touch the ground in a different sequence called a gait. Each gait, in turn, produces a different beat.
The slowest pace is the walk. It is a four beat gait in which each leg individually hits the ground. So, when one hoof leaves the ground, the other three remain on the ground and then the next one lifts up and so on giving it the four beat clip clop sound we all love to hear. The strides are of equal distance and the length depends on the size of the horse and its conformation. A walk will cover the ground at a speed of 3-5 mph.
The next gait is the two beat trot. It’s a bumpier gait than the walk and two hooves are off the ground while two hooves are on the ground. During the trot, one foreleg is suspended at the same time as the diagonal hind leg. Some horses learn another version of the trot, known as the pace, in which both legs on the same side move in unison. This is used in horse racing and these horses are known as “Pacers.”
The third gait is the canter. Personally, this one is my favorite because it is described as a rocking chair gait. It consists of three beats and is usually a nice moving gait that is comfortable for both horse and rider. During the canter, three hooves are off the ground followed by a period of total suspension before one hind hoof hits the ground followed by the diagonal foreleg and then the next. A canter will vary between 10-17 mph depending on the stride of the horse. In Western riding, it is referred to as the lope and is slower, usually 8-12mph.
The final natural gait is the gallop. This is the fastest pace of a horse and is a four beat gait in which all hooves hit the ground at different times and a period of full suspension is achieved as well. The speed of this gait is between 25-30 mph, with Thoroughbreds galloping at speeds at up to 40 mph! Quarter horses, named for their incredible ability to sprint a quarter mile, have been clocked at speeds of up to 55 mph!
Since the gaits of a horse have very distinctive beats or sounds, it is easy to close your eyes and guess the rhythm of the horse. Slow, methodical, clip-clop is the walk. The tick-tock sound is that of the two beat trot. One, two, three….one, two, three….one, two, three beat is that of the canter. The heart pounding thunder that shakes the ground with its four beats is the unmistakable sound of the gallop!
Enjoy the rhythm of your horse the next time you are watching them in the field or out on a trail ride.