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Friday, June 19, 2015

And the Horse You Rode in On

Horses are a staple of western fiction. When writing or reading about them, it’s helpful to understand common terms about the way they move. Whether or not experienced horsemen can see the horse, he or she can tell how fast the critter is moving by the distinctive sound of hooves striking the earth.

Draft horse moving at a walk.


A walk is a four-beat gait, meaning three hooves remain on the ground while the fourth moves. The walk is a very comfortable gait for riders. It’s smooth, producing only a slight swaying motion. At a walk, riders have no trouble keeping their butts in the saddle.

Horses can walk all day, even under saddle, but they don’t move very far very fast. The average horse will cover three to four miles an hour at a walk; some move as slowly as two miles per hour.

Trot and jog

Technically, a jog is slower than a trot, but practically—at least in western riding—both gaits are referred to as jogging. Jogging is a two-beat gait in which diagonal pairs of legs move together: left rear with right front; right rear with left front.

Jog (western) or trot. This woman knows what she's doing,
but her bones are still taking a beating.
See how much her legs bounce?
Trotting primarily is associated with horse shows (during which judges want to see that a horse can move at variety of speeds on command) and harness racing. Racing trotters often cover as much ground as quickly as other horses gallop. Some harness races require horses to pace, in which the legs on each side move together while the legs on the other remain on the ground.

The jog is a horse’s natural working gait. If left to his own devices (and not escaping a threat), a horse will move at a jog when he wants to cover distance quickly. Horses can jog for a long time without tiring, but many riders can’t take the pace. With a few notable exceptions, a jog can be extremely jarring, because it puts enormous strain on the muscles in a rider’s legs, back, and abdomen. Working cowboys who spend a good deal of time in the saddle may move their horses at a jog, but pleasure riders generally try to avoid the gait if they value their butts, which slap the saddle with each step until the rider learns to “move with the horse.”

At a jog, horses cover an average of about eight miles an hour. So-called “gaited horses” like the Tennessee Walking Horse and the American Saddlebred don’t jog or trot. Instead, their natural middle gait, a “running walk,” can cover as many as fifteen miles in an hour. Because all four hooves move independently, a running walk is a comfortable gait for riders. Both breeds are primarily pleasure, not working, horses, although one rescued Tennessee Walker of my acquaintance pulled a carriage in Galveston.

Lope. Note how the rider's "seat" differs from the jog, above.

Lope or canter

Lope and canter are essentially the same gait, a three-beat movement in which three hooves are off the ground while a rear leg supports the horse’s weight. At a lope, horses can cover about 10-15 miles in an hour; some can reach speeds of up to twenty-seven miles per hour.

Note: Horses under western saddle lope. Canter is an English-riding term, possibly derived from Canterbury.


The gallop, a four-beat gait, is the horsey equivalent of run and averages about thirty miles per hour. Horses bred for speed, like Thoroughbreds and racing Quarter Horses, can gallop as fast as fifty miles per hour.

In the wild, horses gallop in order to escape a threat. Most horses can gallop for only a mile or two without risking serious injury or death. (Yes, some horses will run themselves to death at the urging of a rider.)

Gallop. Note the moment of suspension, when
all four hooves are off the ground at once
as they converge beneath the horse's body.

How far can a horse travel?

How far a horse can travel in a day depends on the horse’s condition, the availability of food and water, and the terrain he is asked to cover. At a combination of lope and walk, a young horse in optimal condition can travel fifty to sixty miles a day in good weather over flat terrain, as long as he is allowed to drink and graze every couple of hours. The faster a horse moves, the more often he will need to rest, eat, and drink.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the longer a horse moves fast, the shorter the distance the animal can cover in a day. Pony Express riders galloped about 10 miles (or about half an hour) before changing horses and usually covered 60-70 miles a day, but that was an exceptionally grueling pace for the rider. A good average pace is about 40 miles per day, which is the speed the U.S. Cavalry aimed for during the nineteenth century. Over uneven terrain or in bad weather, a horse and rider would do well to cover twenty miles per day. In the mountains, ten miles per day would be a good pace.

Many cowboys carried grain—usually corn or oats—in order to get more out of their horses. Grain provides increased carbohydrate-based energy. Sweet feed, which contains molasses, was not as common unless a horse was stabled. Horses love sweet feed, but it’s not good for them except as a treat.

Remember, too, that most working cowboys preferred—and still prefer—to ride geldings over mares or stallions. As a rule, geldings are much more tractable than either stallions (which can be a handful at best and a nightmare if a mare anywhere in the vicinity is in season) or mares (who naturally establish a pecking order within a herd and can be cranky). In the wild, a mare runs the herd; stallions are tolerated only for breeding and protection.


  1. Well of course the cranky mares run the herds! No one else wants to try and buck her reign! Very interesting and informative post on gaits, Kathleen. Love the video clips. I used to ride all the time when I had my Quarter horse, and was also lucky enough to live within riding distance of a Paint farm. I definitely prefer what I call the "canter-lope" - feels more like a smooth, rocking gait than the trot, which will jar the tar out of a gal! I learned from experience, you can suffer a bad fall from a slow-gaited horse (walking) and ruin your mother's day by taking another little ride (in an ambulance) just as easily as you can a fast gait. Completely worth it - I sure miss riding.

    1. Ouch! Now if you'd landed on your head... ;-)

      Give me any gait besides a jog/trot. I like my bones right where they are, thank you. :-D

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Shayna!

  2. Nice to have the information all in one place. I'ee read bits and pieces here and there, but like having it together. Thanks. (And by the way, the mare has it correct, they know what needs to be done and get it done ) Doris

    1. Of course the mares are correct, Doris. And if the stallions are smart, they keep that in mind. ;-)

      I hope the images and text will be helpful. Thanks for coming by! :-)

  3. Since I know zip about horses except from research, this was a most interesting and informative article. Some of the things I thought about distance a horse can travel in a day turn out to be wrong--so good thing I read this. Loved the videos!

    1. Glad the post is helpful, Sarah! I thought the moving pictures might be nice. It's always easier for me to get an idea about something if I can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, or whatever for myself.

      With the speed at which everything moves today, it's difficult to imagine travel when horseback was the fastest thing going, isn't it?

      Thanks for dropping in today. You always make me smile. :-)