A Gaited Horse For You?

 I am a professional farrier & trainer & horse breeder, as well as an all breed gaited horse clinician. Hearing this you may assume that I'm going to tell you all the reasons you should get rid of whatever horses you now ride and replace them with gaited horses. Well, that is not so. I am going to explain the good points and the limitations of a gaited horse in an objective manner so you can decide for yourself what horse is best for you. I love well bred and trained horses of every breed. They were all created for a purpose, and each of them can be a true joy to own and use.

I have enjoyed training and doing farrier work for some very fine thoroughbred and quarter horse ranches where speed is the name of the game. I love the way a fine race horse flies around the track or  jumps like a rocket while steeple chasing, and with such power and grace combined!  I love watching the AQHA cutting horse championships each year, where those horses are down in the dirt face to face with the cows. Wow, the way they cut back and forth with such agility and speed is amazing! If you intend to compete in such events, a gaited horse is probably not the right horse for that, although they can run quickly, jump logs and fences, and work cows nicely. Some gaited horses are able to do these things quite well, but not like the finely tuned athletes that have been bred for generations and highly developed for these specific purposes. As an all purpose ranch horse a good Missouri Foxtrotter, Tennessee walker, Rocky Mtn horse etc. is hard to beat!  In fact, if you want a ranch horse to ride fence lines or cover longer distances in shorter times than non-gaited horses can without cantering for hours straight, then a gaited horse may become a favorite on your ranch! I sold one to a guy for his wife to pleasure ride and both he and his ranch hands all laughed at it at first. A year later I got a letter from him telling me that horse was his favorite on the ranch, riding 15 miles of fence line in less than half the time as they were used to, and comfy to boot! He also said that the cowhands all play poker now, with the winner getting to ride the "lady's horse" the next day! 

I have often heard people say that they'd like to ride their gaited horse in the endurance races. Well, that is fine. They can finish a 50 mile ride in the allotted 12 hour time and should have a nice comfortable ride. But, if their objective is to win the race they better ride an Arabian...and get both horse and rider in amazing shape! Why? Well, it's a simple matter of speed, and endurance and oxygen conversion and pulse rate recovery. A well bred gaited horse can go for long distances with decent stamina, but most of them will not travel at the speeds required to win the race, or in the case of Singlefooters, they may win each leg of the race only to be stopped at each check point to meet pulse and respiratory requirements. If you look up the records of winning times for each distance you will be able to figure out the average speed required. Then you need to apply that to the various gaits of each breed to see what you'd be doing to them health-wise, and take out your horse to see what it can do and compare it. For example, I'd consider it a really great race to win by finishing in 10.5 hours, and that is realistic and has been done many times. For getting my point across, let's be a bit absurd and say that if a 50 mile race was won with a time of 5 hours then the average speed required to win would be a little faster than 10mph, to include required check point stops. Let's apply that to the gaits of an average speed MFT, TWH, RMH type of horse. A flat-foot walk, which is a good gait to ride in while resting your horse, will be around 5 mph. A foxtrot or run walk, which are the long distance endurance gaits that these breeds are named for, will be around 8 mph. Cantering your horse about 12-15 mph is your other option on occasion throughout the day. If you could gallop your horse for 4 straight hours over all kinds of terrain then you could win a race, but this is absurd and such a horse only found in Hollywood movies. Horses burn a lot of energy in a lope and their pulse gets way too high and they run out of oxygen within several miles. This gait could be used some of the day between trotting and walking to make good time and ease over hilltops. To go 50 miles straight in a foxtrot, slow rack or run walk averaging 8 mph is also quite an unrealistic task for even the best horse. Maybe it could be done, but I've done several 25 mile rides that way in 3 hours, and that's all I would want to ask of most horses! The thought of asking them to double that distance and maintain such a speed is not reasonable. Even if you and your horse could do it, your time would be over 6 hours to go 50 miles, and your horse would likely die from it. I often ride my Singlefooters at over 20mph, but we only ride 5-10 miles at that speed. I slow them down to 12-15mph to go 25miles, and then do it in just over 1.5 hours! This would absolutely rock in an endurance race, but if I entered them we would not win... You may ask, Why? The answer is that we'd spend a ton of time at each checkpoint waiting for the breathing and pulse rate to go down enough to be allowed back into the race. (From the Endurance Riding web site: "More important is the heart rate. Resting heart rate is 30 to 40 beats per minute. Trotting heart rate can range from 90 to 120 beats per minute. At a canter the rate is typically 110 to 150 beats per minute and up to 200 to 240 at a gallop. Working the horse over 140 to 160 for other than short sprints could be detrimental to his well-being. No matter what rate you are pacing at, the horse's heart rate should drop quickly (within 10 minutes) to 64 beats per minute after a workout, otherwise you are over-riding him. Rapid breathing and heart rate suggest pain, if the horse doesn't recover as described above.") I am not intending to dismiss this information as unimportant or say it's wrong, but it has been my experience that some horses do not fit this guideline. My Singlefooters, for example, will still be breathing hard and have a 150bpm, yet be pawing the earth and ready to take off again...and can maintain a 15-20mph gait for another hour straight without needing to rest. Thus they'd not be allowed to keep riding, even though I know they are capable & desiring to keep going a lot more than the races allow. My horses and I would both be chomping the bit, pawing the ground and going crazy wanting to go before they'd let us. This is because I am not willing to go slow enough to keep their heart rate and respiratory rate low enough to go on through the checkpoints. Were I willing to go that slow on my Singlefooters, then maybe we could compete well, but I'd rather ride fast and have fun...because that is what I enjoy doing! Also, within every gaited breed there are a small percentage of exceptional gaited horses with extremely great endurance, and may have the potential to do well at endurance racing. But, this example gives you an idea of what I'm getting at. The gaited breeds were created to be sure-footed, gentle, and also very smooth riding horse on the trail, but not necessarily the fastest or with the longest endurance. There are trail riding competitions where you can excel with a gaited horse, such as the NATRC rides. In these events you and your horse are judged for numerous things such as a blend of stamina, training, horsemanship and more.

If you want to win $ racing, buy a Thoroughbred or Running Quarter Horse. If you want to cut or rope cows with the goal of winning the national finals, buy a Quarter Horse from the finest and proven blood-lines. If you want to endurance race, buy an Arabian with proven background. But, if you want to be able to do all of these well, yet not on a world-class competitive level, and your main objective is to have a gentle and surefooted trail or working ranch horse with an amazingly comfortable smooth and quick ground covering gait then a gaited horse may be just right for you. If you already own a gaited horse, that you feel has great endurance, and you wish to give it a try, then GO FOR IT and have fun! Just don't go buy a gaited horse for the purpose of winning endurance races...as that's like buying a smooth riding Cadillac for the purpose of Jeeping the rocks of Moab. 

Now, I'll discuss a more controversial question: What about choosing which breed of gaited horses to own? There are Tennessee Walkers, Paso Finos, Rocky Mountain Horses, or any of the other 33+ breeds that all seem to claim to be the nicest ride on this planet Earth! Here's where I, in the eyes of some, become a traitor to my breed. I recently had a potential buyer looking for a good gelding that I sent away without trying to sell him any of my Singlefooters, as I had listened to him explain what he wants to do and my horses were not the best fit for him. I helped him find a nicely gaited horse of another breed that he absolutely loves & that fits his riding style. I have traveled much of the United States riding gaited horses with the express purpose of analyzing and judging their gaits. I will not discuss the way the horses are usually ridden in each of the breed shows, except to say that they are ridden differently out on the trail. My conclusion is that a nicely gaited horse of any breed can be a real pleasure to ride! I've visited Tennessee Walker ranches where most of the horses were better foxtrotters than any horses on some of the Foxtrotting Horse ranches I've visited, and vise-versa. I've seen and ridden Paso Fino and Peruvian Pasos and even a gaited jack that have a nice "old-style saddle gait"...or 4 beat gait. Simply put, a well gaited horse is one that you sit on and have a smooth ride without bouncing up or down (like in a hard trot) or swaying side to side (like in a pace). There are many variations in the timing of the gaits and the percentage of lateral vs. diagonal movement. 70% Diagonal & 30% Lateral is the standard for foxtrotting horses & 50% lateral & diagonal is standard in a rack. You can find many horses gaiting at various percentages of lateral and diagonal movement. Any more lateral movement than 50% becomes too much of a pace and throws the rider from side to side while riding. Any more diagonal movement than 70% makes a horse likely to be too "trotty" as the gait is approaching a hard trot of a non-gaited breed. It is important for the left to hit the ground before the right is picked up, even when trotting. (This is what distinguishes a "gait" from a non-gaited trot.) When I'm looking at a horse, it is not so important to me which breed's specific gait is being performed as it is how well the feet are timed to create a smooth & surefooted ride for me!  I like to see weight placed on the left hoof before the right hoof is picked up, both with the front and back pairs. This is largely what creates the smoothness. Next, I like a balance between diagonal vs. lateral gait which prevents them being too "pacey" or too "trotty" and allows them to be sure-footed in rough terrain.  I look for a horse to move in a relaxed manner without having to be collected tightly or having artificial aids to gait well. (Too often, with all the gaited breeds, people are training them in a manner that requires constant pressure on the bit to keep them in gait. This is not necessary with well bred horses!) Now the question is, which of the gaited horse breeds can do this? I don't claim to know all the answers, but my extensive research and experience leads me to my opinion that SOME HORSES, IN ALL OF THE GAITED BREEDS CAN DO THIS SUPERB TRAIL GAIT! The gait that you will see at the Foxtrotting Horse Shows they are calling a Fox Trot is often not the same gait that the breed was founded upon. It has the same rhythm and basic movement, but many people are trying to exaggerate the stride, head shake, and overall action so much that the ride is far inferior in comfort to the natural "trail gait" that well bred foals are born doing! While riding a foxtrotting horse you may feel a very gentle front to back motion, but NO BOUNCING AT ALL IN THE NATURAL "OLD STYLE" FOXTROT GAIT! But in the show gait they push horses to extremes causing the rider to feel the lift of the hind legs and breaking of the hock action when the hinds are coming up and forward. This creates a definite bump feel in the hind end or back of the saddle, thus the show gait is usually "trotty" and not as smooth as the natural gait. In the TWH world, the show gaits are an absurd variation from the original smooth ride the breed was founded for! (Just look it up online and you'll see what I mean.) The shows have evolved in a different direction than the pleasure riding market, as has happened within most breeds...The TWH shows and the Paso Fino shows are extreme opposites, but both have gone the way of exaggerating the horses' movement to an absurd level. (You must watch the videos to see what I mean!) The TWH breed has gone to heavy weights on feet, and stiving for the longest strides they can get and the Paso Fino has gone to taking as many small, tiny, tiny steps as they can while trotting down a board to make a fast gaiting sound...almost exact opposites! A funny side note to this is that we have had horses who won world championship shows years ago performing the "old style foxtrot" that today would be laughed out of the show ring. I have been accused of having "...very poor horses....because they are too smooth....!" Another good example of this is the way that Paso Finos are taught to gait in the "Fino". Many steps are taken and the horse goes almost nowhere because the steps are only a few inches each...but it sure is fun to hear them crossing the boards! The natural trail gait of the Paso Fino is a real pleasure and is very similar to a foxtrot. There are two differences with them and the MFT's gait, the first being the Paso gaiting 50% lateral and 50% diagonal (like a racking horse) and the foxtrot gait being 70+% diagonal and 30-% lateral. The second difference is that the Paso has more action, also like a racking horse as well (higher lifting of the knees and hooves) and the foxtrotter will just lift his hooves high enough to skim over the terrain he's traversing and will slide his feet into place rather than set them down in place. I could continue and describe the differences between all the different breeds and their gaits, but that would be long and detract from my message I'm trying to share. Anyway, my purpose here is not to analyze the difference between each of the breeds gaits, but to help you understand that you can find a nice riding gaited horse in any of these breeds. Although there are differences between the gaits of each breed, if a horse is doing the gait for it's breed, and still within the manner I've described, those differences should be of little or no importance to your decision of which breed of horse to purchase as a pleasure riding horse. Furthermore, very few people will be able to feel the difference in the ride I've described regardless what breed of horse they're riding! The "old style saddle gait" that I am talking about can be done by some horses within all the gaited breeds. If you watch the finest gaited horses on the trails across America, you will find that an old-style saddle gait is what many of them are doing....or what the owners are trying to get them to do. It is an easy going gait about 6 to 12 mph that can be performed for several hours at a time and has the comfort and smoothness of a bicycle on a paved road regardless of the terrain you ride in. This gait can be simply described as a "broken" or partly diagonal & partly lateral 4 beat gait where the right foot is put down before the left foot is picked up. I have seen many American Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers, Spotted Saddle Horses, Paso Finos and Peruvian Pasos, Rocky Mtn & Racking Horses, and others performing the correct gait for their breed in a manner that would have qualified them for registry in both their breed and other breeds as well in the foundation stages of the breeds. For example, the rack by official definition, is today almost exactly the same gait as the foxtrot was back in the early years. (That's why there is such a huge variety in the type of gaits you'll find even among registered foxtrotters.) In the most perfect "foxtrotting form", a horse will appear to be walking in front and trotting behind with the hind legs sliding forward into place, rather than coming downward with a jar. This is often referred to as a "shuffle." The rider will sit nearly motionless in total comfort while zipping along. The less the animation, the smoother the ride and the more endurance the horse will have. Most gaited breeds were founded using horses of all the gaited breeds, as well as Arabians, Morgans, Thoroughbreds, and other horses of unknown parentage. This non-gaited crossing was done to increase the percentage of diagonal movement for sure-footedness, as well as athletic ability. The gaits of the gaited breeds of horses today have evolved in different directions depending on the programs of each individual ranch. Some are breeding pacers, others hard trotting horses, and many variations of the gaits found in the genetic makeup of the breed. In a few cases you will find ranches where every foal hits the ground gaiting along side its mother in a beautiful, smooth, correct old style foxtrot or running walk or racking gait! As people have bred and re-bred the nicest traveling offspring, each generation has improved in smoothness, conformation, and temperament, and is still doing so today on those ranches that focus their breeding programs on gait quality rather than color, size, or other preferences. When shopping for a horse you need to realize that due to the variety of quality within each breed, it is more important to choose a good gaited horse of any breed than to choose a specific breed.

  The Tennessee Walking Horse Breed was founded with several stallions, two of which were Roan Allen and Merry Go Boy, who were both good old style foxtrotting horses too. The Walkaloosa is descended from Paso Finos, that the Spanish brought to the Americas, which were crossed with all the various Indian mares. They have had great success improving the breed due to a more recent influence of an unregistered MFT son of Zane Grey who was purchased in Missouri and taken to the North West to breed Appaloosa mares. Legend has it that The Rocky Mountain Horse Breed was formed, in part because of the great temperament and gait of an unregistered foxtrotting horse named Old Tobe, who passed on these traits which are common among both Foxtrotting & Rocky Mountain Horses. Old Tobe was a descendent of two of the horses that were also foundation sires in the MFT horse breed: Old Fox and Ted. He was purchased by Sam Tuttle in Spout Springs, Kentucky from a traveler who had picked up the young colt while passing through the Ozark Mountains on his route eastward from the Rocky Mountain region. If he was happy to turn a quick profit on Tobe, I can't help but feel sorry for him, not knowing what he was giving up! We may never know the complete truth or be able to verify all the pedigrees of the many gaited horses out there, but it is fun to learn what we can....and even more fun to ride each of these amazing gaited breed of horses! These are a few examples of hundreds of tidbits I've learned in my research that simply points to the fact that these gaited breeds are all related to some extent. This explains why so many of all breeds can do a nice smooth gait. So, which breed of horse is best for you? I'd say the answer is simply: the horse that gives you a glassy smooth ride and is well behaved and trained to suit your needs....OF ANY BREED! Each individual horse will ride differently and suit one person more than another, so try a bunch until you find one you LOVE! Don't be stuck on one breed, as there are many great horses in every gaited breed.

These are the reasons I choose to ride and breed Gaited Horses: First, if properly handled, they are usually gentle and make wonderful family horses. I spend most of my time with my family riding the colorful deserts in the winter and the beautiful and magnificent mountains in the summers! Second, the good ones are so very smooth to ride, with speeds ranging from 2-30 mph gait, that we can ride all day, covering many miles in comfort. Thirdly, I need a horse that is an athlete to carry me hunting in all kinds of wild country, with great balance and sure footedness. I like a solid enough horse to carry my 200 and 50+ lbs of saddle and bags full of food all day long! Lastly, the market for smooth riding gaited horses is growing for all the above reasons. I have more fun working my horses and selling them than I ever had at a job working for someone else. Horses like I've described here simply sell themselves. All I have to do is go for a ride where some horse-people are, and soon I've got more buyers!  One of my customers took the slogan from the MFTHBA's "Not Just A Horse, A Missouri Foxtrotter!" and revised it to say, "Not Just A Foxtrotter, A DeMille Gaited Horse!"

 My love for the gaited horse breeds began the first time I saw and rode one at a fair in Missouri. Prior to that I was quite partial to race horses, having been raised with running QH and TB horses. I saw the horse named Casey's Go Yonder moving across a grassy field in a manner I had never witnessed. His speed was so quick for a horse to be moving so gracefully & with such a smooth motion as to keep the rider floating along without any bouncing. I felt something leap within my chest at that moment, much like the feeling I received when one of our racehorses would surge out ahead of the others and cross the finish line victorious! I soon rode a number of foxtrotters, walkers, pasos, rocky mtns, and more and the "friendly virus" was planted in my soul; insomuch, that I have never recovered. I have practically centered my life around my horse business, except for God, family, and country. I feel strongly though, that that day was a gift from Him, and my horse business is in some way serving Him. I wish you all the very best in the pursuit of your dreams. I have shared a little of mine here with you today. Even as you are reading this, there's a good chance I'm out on the trail somewhere, with my children and beautiful wife, gliding under the whispering pines or through a grove of heavenly quaking aspens.

By: Alma DeMille

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