It would be safe to say that while there have been gait horses, there has been confusion as to what the 4-stroke lateral gait is. What does the term “gait horse” mean? All actions of the horse are called steps. The walk, the trot, the trot, the canter and the gallop are all steps. The walking horse has an additional gait. This step is a smooth, non-discordant action of the horse’s leg. The “side step” refers to the legs on one side (lateral) that move together, as opposed to the “diagonal step” where the opposite legs work together. The trot is an example of a diagonal step. However, in some steps Like the fox trot, the action is diagonal but is still a 4-beat step, making this step smoother than the 2-beat step. A 4-beat step is when each foot hits the ground independently
Much of this confusion comes from trying to define the steps and trying to judge them. The names of the airs are used loosely and interchangeably. Different breed associations call the airs by different names. It is difficult to accurately describe the gait, because it is difficult to see what the horse is doing with each foot as it goes. The gait will have a variety of aspects, depending on the collection, speed, stride length, skill of the horse and rider, as well as the breed of the horse. It is not the general appearance of the horse in action that determines the stride, but the specific pattern of the stride, as well as the cadence that defines the stride. The graceful-looking fast-moving horse often outshines a quiet, gentle horse that performs its gait well. Often the classy horse will determine the standards of the breed, regardless of how well or poorly he performs the gait or the smoothness of the gait.
This smooth, moving gait has been around for a long time. Archaeologists have found fossilized footprints showing a 4-stroke lateral passage. Images drawn on the cave walls have shown the horse in the same side step. These fossils and images date back 3.5 million years (or so they say!). The “evolution” of the walking horse is not as new as many believe.
The American marching horse dates back to the early 17th century and is found primarily in the northeastern section of the US These horses were brought to America from Ireland and Scotland. They were originally Galloway and Hobbies. The first settlers were attracted to the moving horse, as horse riding was the main form of travel. The smooth ride and gentleness of the horse made them the popular horse of the day. The exact action of these early walking horses, called Palfreys, is unknown, as history refers to any lateral step simply as a “roaming” step.
From these races arose the Narragansett pacemaker. This breed of horse became the basis for many of today’s gait breeds. These include the American Saddlebred, Tennessee Walker, Gaited Morgan’s, and other smooth-walking saddle horses, such as the Kentucky Mtn. Saddle Horse, Mtn. Pleasure Horse and Rocky Mtn. Horse. Many of these breeds also descend from the Spanish Barb or the Spanish Jennet.
The Narragansett Pacer was a smaller horse and did not last long as an American breed. Many were exported to the Caribbean, Africa, and Canada. They were crossed with thoroughbreds. Pacemaker lineages are evident in many of the modern breeds. Some people believe that the Canadian Pacer and the Narragansett are the same horse.
It appears that the pacemaker was on the lateral end of the scale, in action, and had a pair of rhythm / rhythm genes. When crossed with trotting horses, tot / trot gene pair, the gait began to move toward the diagonal end of the scale. That’s when the Fox Trot appeared. This is one of the reasons why rearing should be a major problem on the walking horse. We need to find the combination that produces a truly comfortable ride, thereby reducing some of the frustration of finding the desired smooth consistency.
The southwestern corner of the US, dating back to the late 1400s, brought the Spanish Barb and Spanish Jennets. These horses, commonly called Palfreys, were considered the finest and most beautiful horses in the world. A common belief is that the Paso Fino and Peruvian breeds continued to be produced. This Spanish influence is believed to have also been involved in the development of the mountain horse in Kentucky. Tradition has it that the base cattle for these horses came from the Colorado and New Mexico areas.
The Icelandic horse has been confined to Iceland for almost a thousand years. This practice of isolation has preserved the appearance of the original Celtic horse and is one of the oldest breeds in the world.
A great deal of crossbreeding, inbreeding, and selective breeding has brought modern horses to where they are today. It is difficult to draw the exact lines of a particular breed of gait horse. Regardless of the origins of the lateral gait and the differences between breeds, the smoothness of the marching horse is highly prized and has once again come to the fore in American society. Most American horses exhibit beauty, a smooth disposition, a willing mind coupled with a natural 4-beat gait.