I frequently remind people that a gaited horse’s saddle gait is more dependent upon conformation than upon registration. This is equally true of any kind of inherent trait or characteristic. We cannot deny, though, that breeding for a particular type of horse over time does result in overall physical and temperamental differences among various breeds. This may cause one breed of horse to be more or less suited to a particular use than another. Here is a brief overview of some of the characteristics intrinsic to the various gaited breeds. Please keep in mind that these are generalities only. Any individual horse may break some or all of the rules for that specific breed. There may even be an entire subculture within a breed that differs from typical standards.
What may add to the confusion of someone seeking a gaited horse for a specific purpose is that those who own and love a particular breed tend to claim–and believe–that their breed can be ‘all things to all people.’ This is simply not true of any breed of horse, gaited or otherwise. It helps if you know going in what breeds are more suited to your endeavor so that you don’t waste a lot of time trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole.
Tennessee Walking Horse
The Tennessee Walking Horse is bred for its signature running walk, which is an average length, lifting and rolling stride in front and a long, lower stride behind. A good running walk horse can really cover ground efficiently and smoothly! The conformation required to produce this gait includes a neck of medium length, shoulder of average angle, a long sloping croup, high stifles and relatively long hind limbs. In fact a TWH may appear quite gangly behind–in regard to its gait, this is a good thing.
Many of these horses can produce speed either at gait or in a canter, thanks to their length of limb–and temperamentally are happy to do so, yet without getting too hot and difficult to handle. Sports requiring a collected, fast gallop over a short course–as in 1/4 mile sprints, pole bending, etc.–would not be such a horse’s strong suit. A TWH may be able to clear medium height jumps, but be limited by conformation from competing at higher levels of hunter-jumper competitions. A cow horse? Perhaps–but again, mostly on a limited basis. Conformation considerations aside, they simply haven’t had ‘cow sense’ bred into them the way some other breeds have. On the other hand, they tend to be very intuitive and responsive to people–a particularly endearing quality.
Missouri Fox Trotting Horse
If you’re looking for a gaited horse with a lot of cow sense, then you might investigate the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse. These animals were originally bred by cattlemen in the Ozarks. These men required horses as rugged as they were, who were smooth gaited, sure-footed and quick enough to round up cattle from the hills and hollers of the mountains. These horses had to outsmart and out maneuver a wily ‘hills’ cow.
The typical Missouri Fox Trotting horse boasts these characteristics. They often have greater muscle bulk than their TWH cousin–appearing more akin to an American Quarter Horse than to an American Saddlebred, for example. The standard fox trot gait has a long, low stride in front and a higher, lifting and shorter length stride behind . Fox Trotters generally have strong loins, broad chests, low set stifles and hocks, and short cannons. They excel at sports requiring quick spurts of energy, tight turns, and quick thinking. Some lines still demonstrate a lot of cow sense.
The good news is, if it’s endurance you’re looking for, there are plenty of great gaited horse contenders for you to consider. One of these is the Peruvian Horse, with its strong natural innate gait and tremendous stamina. Peruvian Horses are known for possessing plenty of ‘brio,’ which translates literally into ‘controlled fire.’ They generally do demonstrate a great deal of energy, and are willing and smart horses–for inexperienced or timid riders, they may be a bit too willing and smart. Peruvians tend to be very strong for their size, which usually tops out at about 14.2hh. They move with a characteristic ‘termino’ action with their forelegs, each leg swinging out from the shoulder and describing a small circle before the foot sets down. This swinging action sometimes upsets other types of horses in a crowd. One day while riding with someone mounted aboard a Peruvian I saw dozens of horses giving this energetic fellow a very wide berth! This might be a detriment to someone planning to do a lot of big planned trail rides, especially at speed. Termino also limits the horse’s ability to jump efficiently. However, if you’re looking for a fast, willing, strong, brave and exceedingly natural smooth riding horse that possesses plenty of stamina for the long haul, you would do well to consider the Peruvian Horse.
One problem commonly associated with Peruvian Horses is suspensor ligament breakdowns and injury. Peruvian owners will often try to refute this issue, but statistics demonstrate that more than 5% of Peruvian Horses suffer from suspensor ligament diseases, second only to the Standardbred. Whether this is an inherited tendency or the result of traditional shoeing practices which leave the toes much too long and the heels much too low, is a hotly debated issue. There’s little doubt in my mind that the traditional manner of gaiting these fine horses–head cranked into a severe bit, back hollow, at speed–is also a contributing factor. It would be my advice for those considering the purchase of a Peruvian Horse to carefully investigate its background to determine whether either parent suffered from suspensor problems, to have the horse vet-checked with an emphasis on suspensor ligaments, to be diligent in maintaining correct hoof angles–even if it means ignoring the advice of ‘traditionalists’–and to always ride the horses in good form in comfortable tack. Of course, I would make most of these suggestions regarding the purchase of any type of gaited horse.
Though an entirely different breed, the Paso Fino possesses many of the same fine qualities as the Peruvian–not surprising considering their similar Spanish backgrounds. There are actually several distinct types of Paso Fino horses, depending upon their country of origin. Pasos in the United States issue primarily from Columbia and Puerto Rico. The Colombian horses are known for their rugged physical characteristics, but often their gaits–all a variation of the stepping or broken pace–aren’t as reliable as those of most Puerto Rican horses. Like the Peruvian, many of these animals possess ‘brio,’ have great heart, and courage. Because they tend to want to move very quickly in gait, it may be a temptation for riders to allow these horses to rush out with their noses to the sky and their backs hollowed out. It is a smooth, fast and exhilarating ride! But this type of riding ought to be done only after a horse has been worked into good condition over many, many miles in gait in good form–and even then fast all-out gaiting should be practiced in moderation. This kind of riding is very physically demanding on the horse, and will lead to a variety of unsoundness issues if overdone. (This is true of any gaited horse–but especially true of those who have the strongest tendency toward the fast lateral gaits.)
The Icelandic Horse is another animal that comes in a wide variety of types. What most have in common is diminutive size (usually under 14.2hh), with the ability to carry a disproportionate amount of weight for their size. They are generally sure-footed, possess stamina and a hardy constitution. People who enjoy Icelandic horses appreciate their independent nature and love of speed! While Icelandics can certainly jump, their size makes competitive jumping unlikely. This holds true for speed events such as barrel racing and pole bending. While the tolt–which is a type of rack or running walk–is the signature saddle gait for these horses, individual horses vary widely as to gait inclination and ability.
Rocky Mountain Horse
The Rocky Mountain Horse has enjoyed growing popularity for the past decade. While touted for their natural racking gait and laid back attitude, the past several years has seen an increase in the number of Rockies being bred as a ‘hot’ type of show horse. In my estimation this is a shame, since the original Rocky Mountain Horse was hardy, smooth, beautiful–and extraordinarily tractable. There are still many Rockies out there that meet this criterion,which means that a buyer should carefully choose their Rocky Mountain Saddle Horse based on the particular type of horse they prefer to ride.
Rocky Mountain Horses do have a genetic proclivity toward ASD (Anterior Segment Dysgenesis) of the eye. Breeding too many horses with the silver dapple gene to produce the popular chocolate with flax mane/tail horses inadvertently strengthened this. To their credit, the registry has taken intelligent steps to address this problem. Also, recent medical data indicates that ASD is usually not as serious as was first supposed. Most horses with this disease do not suffer serious long-term loss of vision. It is nevertheless something about which a potential buyer would want to be aware. True black horses do not carry this gene.
Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse
The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is very much like the Rocky, but has had a much more open registry resulting in greater diversity in types. Some people consider this a plus, others look upon it less favorably. Whatever the opinion, there are many fine registered KMSH animals that are appropriate for a wide variety of equestrian uses.
Walkaloosa and Tiger Horse
The Walkaloosa, and the Tiger Horse, are essentially horses that boast the unique Appaloosa horse color patterns, strength, level heads, stamina, and also offer a smooth gait under saddle. Most of these have a bit more of a saddle horse, as opposed to a stock horse, conformation and appearance.
Foundation Bred Appaloosa horses
Some Foundation Bred Appaloosa horses perform an old time gait known as the “Indian Shuffle,” a variation of the stepping pace. Most shuffling horses are extraordinarily smooth and naturally gaited, and have a rocking horse canter, to boot. There are people who dislike the Appaloosa coat patterns and temperament–a type of ‘equine racism’ that I’ve never understood. Foundation Appaloosa horse breeders have worked diligently to improve their breed over the past 15-20 years, and have done a spectacular job of doing so. These versatile horses make excellent family mounts that can be used for trail riding, competitions of all kinds, working cattle, etc.
Spotted Saddle Horse
Both the Spotted Saddle Horse and the Spotted Mountain Pleasure Horse are akin to the Tennessee Walking Horse, but with pinto coloration. They tend on the whole toward a natural racking gait, though many do a fine running walk. These horses are sturdy, sensible mounts, and there is such variety of colors and types that you could find a flashy colored, well-gaited horse for nearly any equestrian endeavor.
Gaited Morgan Horse
There’s been increasing interest in the Gaited Morgan Horse over the past several years, which is understandable. The Morgan breed is popular for its beauty, versatility, intelligence, strength and stamina–add a smooth saddle gait to those characteristics, and you have a ‘go anywhere, do anything’ kind of horse. Since Morgans haven’t been bred for any particular gait per se, you might want to ride one to find out if the gait it naturally prefers is to your particular liking.
I would be remiss not to mention the Standardbred horse here, though it is often not commonly viewed as a gaited saddle horse. The Standardbred is, in many ways, the ‘granddaddy’ of many other kinds of gaited horses, and still carries a strong pace gene among most bloodlines. Because of this, the gentle, tractable Standardbred horse can often be trained to perform a wonderfully smooth saddle gait. Some ex-racing Standardbred horses can be adopted or purchased for a very reasonable fee.
Dozens of new gaited horse registries have sprung up over the past several years, some representing actual niche breeds (the Florida Cracker horse, McCurdy Plantation), while others are blanket registries started to bring certain types of gaited horses into a recognizable registry and gene pool. When searching for that perfect horse, don’t be afraid to widen your horizons to include some of these–or even good quality grade–horses. Responsible outcross breeding often results in extraordinarily healthy, hardy animals.
Inherent gaiting and athletic ability is, after all, more a matter of conformation than of registration.