The Fox Trot Gait
and it's value

By Dyan Westvang

Archaeologists have proven with recent discoveries that soft gaits have been an integral part of the equine since prehistoric times. Footprints dating back more than 35,000 years have been analyzed by experts who through careful comparison to footfall patterns of modern horse, were able to identify the gaits of a prehistoric mare and her foal. The mare was performing a running walk while the foal gamboled around her….much the same as today's youngsters do while traveling with their dams.

In ancient Europe most riding horses were in fact soft gaited performing an array of midrange gaits. Horses who could only perform the three basic; walk, trot, canter gaits were in the minority and generally these animals would be the heavier drafty types of horse. This was the case until the advent of improved roads and wheeled transport which necessitated the speed and strength of a hard trotting horse. From that time forth the soft gaited horse lost favor and were almost systematically eradicated. By the end of the 19th century there were basically no more gaited horses in all of Europe. They vanished as though they had never been.

In America, however, there was still a need for soft gaited horses. Fortunate it was indeed that even after the advent of highway systems in this country, there were those who yet prized the easy way of traveling possessed by a soft gaited horse.

All through this evolutionary period a number of gaits were natural to the horse which included the intermediate gaits of running walk, stepping pace, rack and fox trot. Why one may ask were these gaits natural and how did they come to be.

Basically it is a simple question of survival. Since the prehistoric ancestor of the horse climbed down out of the trees and had to find it's food on the forest floor it's only true method of defense was it's ability to scurry or flee from it's enemy. As climactic changes were wrought upon the earth equine foraging was from necessity adapted from the eating of fruits to consuming leaves and then finally grasses. It became necessary for the horse to travel great distances to find food and/or water, to flee from such threats as fire or predators much larger and stronger than itself.

One need only look at the mechanics of the intermediate gaits to see why it would be practical for an animal such as the horse to be able to travel in this manner. Most intermediate gaits do away with free fall. Free fall is caused when a horse leaves the ground during the forward propulsion of a stride, then lands with impact to the hoof. This impact jolts all the joints up the leg assembly and causes wear. Additionally, this impact causes stress and strain to muscles, ligaments and tendons. In short, impact gaits such as trot, canter and gallop consume great amounts of energy...first by having to thrust the full body weight of the animal airborne off the ground, and then by having to absorb the concussion and weight bearing upon landing.

In the four beat gaits of rack, stepping pace, running walk, and fox trot as well as some other less common intermediate gaits, there is always one or two feet on the ground at any given time which eliminates free fall. Because the intermediate gaits are better supported, there is no need to thrust the body into the air nor to absorb the impact upon landing! The result is forward motion which is much more efficient, less wearing and therefore far more enduring. The horse can cover much greater distances without tiring.

Compare this with the difference between a human walking and one who runs. The impact of the runner is greater than that of the person walking because the runner actually leaves the ground during the forward motion while the walker transfers weight from one foot to the other while still supported by the grounded foot.

The middle gaits as they are called, are divided into three groups; lateral and diagonal and neutral. By far and large the lateral gaits have the largest ranges of speed and timing, but the diagonal soft gait and neutral gaits are the most balanced and sure footed. Why then were all these gaits needed? Survival.

Lateral gaits of pace, stepping pace, and even the lateral rack (there is also a diagonal rack) allow for the forward motion of both hind and fore leg to be maximized without interfering. As the front foot moves out in front, so can the hind leg come forward . The hind leg can take a longer stride because the front leg is now out of the way. This long, fast-striding way of traveling is good on terrain that is not fraught with too many obstacles or deep footing, but is not balanced enough for travel over broken ground, steep inclines, deep footing such as sand, tall grass or mud. Of the lateral gaits the lateral rack is the least efficient because it's timing allows for a 1-2 pattern. That is the balance goes from one foot to two feet on the ground and then back to one foot. The stepping pace goes from one foot, two feet, three feet and then back to one. Therefore there is a stronger support system. The hard pace goes from two feet to two feet on the other side of the horse with free fall in-between. Therefore it is not as efficient as either the stepping pace nor the rack, but of the three gaits is generally the faster.

In the diagonal soft gaits there is basically only one, the fox trot. The square running walk has been lumped here with the fox trot because it is neither lateral nor diagonal but is both equally. Since the common walk and flat walk are gaits that spend 50% of the time lateral and 50% of the time diagonal during each stride sequence, the running walk is also balanced in this manner. All three of these gaits are really the same with only speed to differentiate between them. The running walk is the fastest of the three gaits and can achieve speeds in excess of 20mph in some horses.

In the old days the square running walk gait was used extensively, however today's gaited horses are more prone to performing a gait that is called a running walk when in fact is not truly a 50/50 gait. It is lateral and not the same balance or transfer of weight at all. It is much less efficient and sure-footed than is the true neutral running walk or square running walk as it is called in the industry.

The only true diagonal soft gait is the fox trot. In different breeds it is given different names but in essence it is the same gait with little variations to the pause between set down of the opposing pairs of feet. The fox trot is the most balanced of the soft gaits because the horse always has at least one front foot on the ground at all times and one diagonal hind is touching as well. The pattern is 2-3-4, in that there are always at least 2 feet touching the ground at all times. Though the fox trot is generally a bit slower than the lateral gaits it is the most enduring gait for rough footing, steep work or footing that is deep such as sand or grass.

This enduring gait can achieve speeds in excess of 18 mph in some few horses, but generally the horse will gravitate to speeds more in the range of 8-12mph naturally. A rare few horses can actually foxtrot consistently at speeds between 12 - 15 mph on good footing. This intermediate gait was in the past used as the slow gait for the American Saddle Horse and the Tennessee Walking Horse in the show rings of America until the two breeds stopped competing against each other, each adapting to it's own slow gaits. The Tennessee Walker is now generally asked to do a stepping pace and the American Saddlebred is now asked to do a slow rack as their slow gaits although in some show rings the fox trot will still be seen.

The fox trot is what is called a "flat gait". There is very little knee action in a good foxtrot. The horse extends it's leg from the top of the shoulder to the toe of it's foot in one straight line without much lift at all. The head will naturally be carried just a bit above wither height and the back and neck will generally be in a rather flat straight line. This allows for efficient movement with no wasted effort going into lift. There have been documented cases of horses carrying this gait nonstop for hundreds of miles .

Though not thought of as a speed gait, the fox trotter will often outwork a faster laterally gaited horse over distance. Today with the advent of long distance and endurance riding and competitive trail competitions, the Missouri Fox Trotting horse is beginning to make a name for itself. In 1999 and 2000 the few Missouri Fox Trotters who had so far entered the competition of this sport, distinguished themselves by placing in the top 4 positions in the 5 districts of competition in CTR . As more of these fine animals enter the sport there will no doubt be even more championships awarded to this breed as they systematically take the crowns from the Arabian who has led the field in the sport for so long.

Missouri Foxtrotters are breaking into endurance with wonderfully promising results. The more people begin to realize they can have a functional, athletic horse AND a smooth ride, we will be seeing many more Missouri Foxtrotters winning at these sports.

Missouri Foxtrotters are also breaking into versatility competitions such as reining, cow penning, cutting, gaming and such with very promising results. They are competing well against other breeds in open competitions and show great potential for these sports.

The more gaited horses that enter competitions the more we will hear of their accomplishments. The Missouri Foxtrotter as a breed is highly suited to many of these areas of competition. They will help dispel the notion that gaited horses cannot be athletes!

© Copyright Dyan Westvang ~ All Rights Reserved~ No portion of this article may be reprinted or distributed electronically or by other means without the written consent of the author. Foxvangen Farm




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