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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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