What makes a horse a gaited horse?
To understand the definition of a gaited horse one must first know a little about the way horses move. The trot is the most common gait of the horse other than a walk. Horses preform the trot as a diagonal gait, moving a front foot and the opposite rear foot simultaneously. This action produces a jarring motion that is found in all non-gaited breeds. A horse that is trotting has two feet on the ground at a time, but is not supported at all almost one third of the time. The jar felt when riding a trotting horse is caused by the free fall of the horse and the rise needed to carry the horse from one step of the trot to the next step. A gaited horse does not have free fall or the jar caused by the trot, because the gaited horse has a broken gait that allows at least one foot on the ground at any given time. This creates the smooth ride of a gaited horse because the horse is always supported and never in free fall.
A gaited horse is much more efficient than a non-gaited horse because there is no energy wasted fighting gravity and free fall. This is one reason the gaited horses seem to have more natural stamina than his rough trotting counter part. The smooth ride produced by the gaited horse is another advantage of these efficient movements.
Some gaited horses have lateral gaits, i.e., they move the front foot and then the rear foot on one side and then the front foot and the rear foot on the other side. The Walking Horse and the Racking Horse are two of the most common gaited horses having lateral gaits. The only diagonal gait of the gaited horses is the Fox trot. The Fox Trotting Horse was developed in the Ozarks because of the need for a sure-footed, smooth-riding horse for transportation. The Fox Trot is a diagonal gait with the leg support on opposite corners and therefore is a more sure-footed movement than a lateral gate.
The distinctive Fox Trot Rhythm is created by the front foot touching the ground a split second before the opposite rear foot. This time lapse between the front foot touching and the rear foot touching is the time that a non-gaited horse trotting at the same speed would be in free fall. A Fox Trotting Horse traveling on a gravel or chat surface can be distinguished by the sound of the broken trot. The sliding action of the rear feet also helps the ride be smooth. The Fox Trotting Horse gives the illusion of a horse walking in the front and trotting in the back.
Before the registry books of the MFTHBA were closed many of the horses were crossed with walking horses to both widen the gene pool and to develop a longer stride on the horses. The Missouri Fox Trotting Horse of today has a longer stride than its ancestors of years ago, but the Rhythm of a True Fox Trot has not changed.
Several people that have been around fox trotting horses for years say they can remember the perfect horse. However, the breed as a whole has not explained the traits possessed by the ideal foxtrotter in a way that a novice or newcomer can understand and relate to. The judges look at the horses and can tell what their weak and strong points are. Nevertheless, each of the great horses that have won in the last ten years had their faults as well as their strengths. An individual should be able to watch the horse show and know why the judge placed each horse. This means more than just saying, "I just like that horse better." If an individual or a judge can’t tell you why he likes the horse, he still needs to be better informed. Missouri Fox Trotting horses have many traits that are desired and bred for.
The walk, trot, canter, and conformation are the main categories, but each of these consists of many subdivisions previously unmentioned in our judging process. Each person can be taught to notice each of these subdivisions.
The Fox Trot
The most important gait of fox trotting horses is the Fox Trot. Within the fox trot many traits need to be considered: rhythm, back end, front end, and animation. Each trait of a fox trot also has finer points that must be considered for a proper evaluation.
The most defining trait of the fox trot is rhythm. The fox trot is a broken diagonal gait that has a defining sound. The sound of this rhythm is produced by one front foot touching the ground a split second before the diagonal rear foot, and then a pause followed by the other front foot and then the other rear foot a split second later. This rhythm has been described as having the same cadence as "a chunk of meat and two potatoes".
Other trots shown in the breed need to be examined. A square trot, which all have seen, is a diagonal gait but it is not a broken gait. A running walk is a broken gait, but it is not a diagonal gait. A flat pace is neither broken nor diagonal.
The real problem is in deciding how much of a break is needed in the broken part of the fox trot standard. While impossible to define in words alone the rhythm is between a running walk and a hard trot. A horse can have a longer break in its trot than the standard, which would make it closer to a running walk or "slick," and still be fox trotting. Likewise, a horse can have a shorter break in its trot, which would make it closer to a square trot or "trotty" and still be fox trotting. Nevertheless, a horse having the ideal rhythm is desired over one that is either slick or trotty.
After the rhythm of the standard we can look at some the fine points of the fox trot. The back end of a horse is the second most important part of the fox trot. When a horse is fox trotting correctly, the hocks will have a definite break over as the foot is picked up. A horse that is not breaking over in the hocks is gaity in the back end. When a horse is setting down the rear foot, the motion should be a smooth sliding action that is low to the ground. A horse that carries its foot forward but hesitates before setting it down either is being trotty or has a tight stifle. The amount of over stride is another consideration, but not as defining. A fox trotting horse should over stride. However, a horse with a large over stride in the trot may be over striding its natural ability. If this is the case that horse is gaity in the rear end and will have a side to side motion in its tail. Nevertheless, a large over stride with all other things equal is a plus.
The next thing to look at is the way a horse handles its front end. The two most important things are shoulder movement and length of stride. A horse should lead its front end motion with the shoulder. The front foot should move forward in a smooth motion and be set down as the completion of an extension of the shoulder and front leg. Horses that do not get a full extension of the leg and shoulder and have wasted up and down motion in the knees are said to be racky. Some horses will have more knee action than others, but the thing to remember is a horse should not have wasted motion and should have a full extension. A horse that is hard trotting will appear to have a "big lick" front end, but such a horse will be penalized for not having the correct rhythm.
Finally the animation of the horse should be considered. A horse’s animation is the head shake and tail movement. First, a horse that is shaking its head without regard to the rhythm of its feet is not in time with anything and probably is not even fox trotting. A horse that is fox trotting will use his head as a counter balance to his back end with the saddle setting on the pivot point. This is one reason a fox trot should be smooth. Slow motion film of a horse with the right rhythm, will show that the head motion is in time with the rear feet. The illusion is the front feet and the head are in time together, but that is true only when the horse is square trotting. This is because in a square trot the front and rear feet are moving together, so the head which is in time with the rear feet is now also in time with the front feet. Some horses express their rhythm throughout their body, and others express it with all the motion in the neck and head. While both, if in time with the fox trot, are acceptable, the horse showing rhythm throughout its body gives a smoother ride and should be preferred. Some horses can shake their head harder in the hard trot. Extra head shake is a plus but not if it is at the expense of the correct rhythms of the horse.
The tail carriage of a horse that is fox trotting will bounce when the rear foot passes the break over point. A horse that is to trotty will not have the same bounce in its tail as a fox trotting horse. The tail of a hard trotting horse will bounce with the back end of the horse instead of slightly before the back end. If a horse does not have a pronounced bounce in its tail, check to see if the hocks of that horse are breaking over.
The fox trotting horse is shown with as many variances in the walk as in the trot. Terms like fox-walk, trot-walk, running walk, and pace-walk, are used to describe the walk of many horses. The flat foot walk is not a broken gait nor is it a two-beat gait. The correct flat foot walk is a lateral four-beat gait of an even cadence.
There are several common mutations of the walk. The pace is a two-beat lateral gait in which a horse moves both right feet and then moves both left feet. In a pace the front and rear foot are picked up and then set down simultaneously making only one beat. A pacing horse will move its head side to side to counter the motion of its feet. The pace-walk is a lateral four-beat gait in which the horse will pick up both the front and rear foot simultaneously, then moves the rear foot faster than the front foot and sets the rear foot down before the front foot. This allows the pace-walker to have an up and down head shake, and have a four-beat cadence. The pace-walk is much closer to a flat foot walk than a pace, having both a head shake and a four beat cadence.
The fox-walk or trot-walk is also a four-beat gait with a head shake. In the trot-walk the horse appears to be trotting in slow motion the gait looks diagonal but may sound like a walk. Again the difference is on the timing, a trot-walking horse will have a snappy back end and will break over in the hocks and have a bounce in its tail.
A true flat foot walk is a lateral four-beat gait in which each foot is picked up and set down in an even cadence. The rear end movement should be smooth and close to the ground without any snap or pop. Each stride should reach forward and slide in as it is set down, over striding the track of the front foot. The tail should set still and flow. If the tail is moving from side to side, the horse is pacy. If the tail is bouncing, the horse is trotty. The front foot should move forward in a smooth motion and be set down as the completion of an extension of the shoulder and front leg. Horses that do not get a full extension of the leg and shoulder and have wasted up and down motion in the knees are said to be racky. The head shake is in time with the rear feet and should be smooth. Again all other things being equal the more head shake and over stride the better.
The canter is a broken three-beat gait, and should be preformed in a collected manner. There are several things that should be considered when judging the canter. The horse should be relaxed and under control, should not crossfire, and should be in the correct lead. The two most common mutations of the canter are a lope and a gaity four-beat canter. In the lope a horse moves with a low flat motion and has little rocking motion. The lope is a faster gait than the canter. The lope is like a slow gallop. In the canter the outside rear foot hits the ground first, the inside rear and the outside front feet hit the ground simultaneously, and the inside front foot hits last. This produces the broken three-beat cadence. Because of the rocking motion of the canter, the saddle should move smoothly without surging or bouncing. This rocking chair canter allows the horse to have a showy head movement as the head is used as a counter balance to the broken gait. The head will reach its highest point when the outside rear foot hits the ground, and its lowest point when the inside front foot hits the ground. The horse gathers itself of the off beat and takes another step. The speed of the canter should be near that of the flat foot walk. The gaity four-beat canter is slower and the feet hit one at a time.
The Missouri Fox Trotting Horse has become one of the most beautiful horses alive today. When judging conformation do not just pick the fattest horse, pick the one that is the most correct. If a horse does not have the correct conformation to be a top performance horse then that horse is not the model of the fox trotting breed. To judge the conformation of a horse one must look at the different parts of the horse before looking at the whole. The parts of the horse that should be looked at are the feet, legs, chest, barrel, hind quarters, neck, head, and the over all proportions.
While being judged, the front leg should be set so that the front of the foot is directly under the point of the shoulder. The horse’s rear leg should be set so the leg will be vertical from the hock down to the rear ankle. The horse’s head should be high enough that the point of the nose is level with the top of the withers. The feet of the horse should be centered under its ankles, and should point straight ahead. The legs should be straight when looked at from the front and the rear. The knees, when looked at from the side, should not be bent nor bowed.
The shoulders of the horse should be well defined with the neck joining just above the points of the shoulders. The slope of the shoulder is measured from the point of the shoulder to the top of the withers, and should be near forty-seven degrees. The neck joins over the shoulders and should have some arch to it. The head should taper and not be narrow and long. The bridge of the horse’s head should not dish nor bow out. The bridge should be straight and the muzzle should be tapered. The eyes should be set wide on the sides of the head, and the teeth should meet evenly.
The chest of the horse should be well defined showing muscle extending down the inside of the legs. The withers should be over the girth and as high as the top of the rump. The back of the horse should be flat with a small crease down the center. The barrel of the horse should be the deepest at the girth and should taper up slowly to the flank. The flank should extend back past the start of the rump. This makes a horse "short on top and long underneath." The hips of the horse should be full, and muscle should extend down the inside of the rear leg. The croup line, measured from the hip bone to the muscle just over the hock, should be long. The rear legs should have some crook, but not so much as to prevent the horse from having an easy break over. If the hind quarters are correct, a vertical line touching back of the hock and ankle will just touch the point of the hip.
On a balanced horse, the neck, from the pole of the head to the top of the withers, the back, from the top of the withers to the start of the rump, and the croup, from the point of the hip to the lower end of the muscle above the hock, will be of the same length. The finer points of proportions can be shown pictures and diagrams.
Contributed By: Rick Watson