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Fox Trotters: Understanding the Fox Trot, Gaits and Gaited Horses

By Dan Gilmore

October 12, 2011

Skid Row Joe's Doc (Doc)
      Exactly how many gates there are is a subject that is open to much debate. I suppose the best way to start is to define the various gates and how they relate to each other. The “hard gaits” of modern Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, etc., consist of the walk, trot and canter.  In the late 19th century and earlier, a trot with suspension (to which most riders post) was considered to be an undesirable defect in a saddle horse. What was desirable to cowboys, cavalrymen and anyone who rode a horse for general transportation was a flat, ambling gait, not dissimilar to the fox trot. Horses that had a ‘hard’ trot were rarely found in use as a saddle horse in Colonial America. This is mainly because sitting to a hard trot or even posting to it can get fairly tiring over long distances. Consider that prior to modern mechanized transportation, it was not  uncommon for riders to cover fifty or more miles in the course of a day’s ride. Hence, horses with ambling, smooth, efficient gaits were the norm. The following is how one old timey breeder and trainer defined the relationship and nature of the various gaits found in Fox Trotters and other gaited horses can be defines:

      There are four basic gaits from which all others are derived: the walk, trot, pace and canter. The canter is a special case in terms of gaits in that it is the only ‘asymmetrical’. The canter is asymmetrical in that the motion of the legs on one side differs from the motion of the legs on the other side. For this reason, the canter is lead from one side or the other.

      “Symmetrical” gaits can be divided into two types: diagonal and lateral. All gaits are defined by cadence and timing. If the order of foot falls is from near hind to near fore, the gait is defined as a lateral gait. If the order of foot falls is from the near hind to off fore, the gait is define as being of the diagonal variety. Hence, the walk and pace (and derivatives of the pace) are considered lateral gaits, the trot (and its derivatives) are considered diagonal gaits, and the canter and gallop are classified as asymmetrical gaits.

      Under this scheme of defining the relationship of gaits, the various types derivatives of the gaits would be as follows:

      The walk: walk and flat-walk.
Dan Gilmore riding Missouri's Outlaw (Jake)
      The trot: hard trot, fox trot, sugar foot, and all other ‘soft gaits’.

      The pace: hard pace, amble, running walk, rack and stepping pace.

      In a true pace, both legs on their respective sides hit the ground at nearly exactly the same time. Each derivative of the pace is called a “broken pace” because the lateral hooves do not hit the ground at the same time. 

      Now, back to the fox trot. In the fox trot, the horse basically (in simple terms) trots in the hind end and walks in the front end. The horse is tracking in such a way that the hind foot steps directly into the imprint of the front foot. In musical terms, the rhythm of the Fox Trot can be described as a “broken four-beat” which translates to something like this: 1-2--3-4. If you can say ‘meat and taters, meat and taters’ in perfect time with the foot falls, then the chances are fairly good that the horse is fox trotting. 

      The fox trot is an amazingly smooth, stable gait that is extremely efficient in terms of energy expended by the rider and horse over long distances. The characteristics of the fox trot and other ‘soft’ gaits were exactly what cowboys, cavalrymen or long distance riders sought in a horse. This is one of the reasons that Fox Trotters are once again gaining popularity amongst trail riders.

Photograph Credits:

Top:  Skid Row Joe's Doc ("Doc") , photo by Dan Gilmore

Bottom:  Dan Gilmore riding Missouri's Outlaw ("Jake"), still from video by Elizabeth Gilmore

All contents copyright ©2011, Dan Gilmore, all rights reserved

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