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An Icelandic horse performing a rapid ambling gait known as the tölt

Ambling is any of several four-beat intermediate horse gaits, all of which are faster than a walk but usually slower than a canter and always slower than a gallop. They are smoother for a rider than either the two-beat trot or pace and most can be sustained for relatively long periods of time, making them particularly desirable for trail riding and other tasks where a rider must spend long periods of time in the saddle.

Though there are differences in footfall patterns and speed, historically these gaits were once collectively referred to as the "amble." Today, especially in the United States, horses that are able to do an ambling gait are referred to as "gaited horses." Some breeds naturally perform these gaits from birth, others can be trained to do them. Some breeds have individuals who can both trot and amble.


The ambling horse was prized in the Middle Ages

The amble was particularly prized in Horses in the Middle Ages due to the need for people to travel long distances on poor roads. The Old High German term for a gaited horse was celtari (Modern German Zelter), cognate to Icelandic tölt. English amble is a 14th-century loan from Old French, ultimately from Latin ambulare "to walk". Horse types with ambling ability included the valuable jennet and the palfrey.[1]

As roads improved and carriage travel became more common, followed later by railroads, riding horses that trotted became more popular in Europe; the dominant uses of riding horses came to include light cavalry, fox hunting and other types of rapid travel across country, but of more limited duration, where the gallop could be used. The amble was still prized in the Americas, particularly in the southern United States and in Latin America where plantation agriculture required riders to cover long distances every day to view fields and crops.[1] Today, ambling or gaited horses are popular amongst casual riders who seek soft-gaited, comfortable horses for pleasure riding.

As a general rule, while ambling horses are able to canter, they usually are not known for speed, nor is it particularly easy for a horse to transition from an ambling gait into the canter or gallop. Thus, in history, where comfort for long hours in the saddle was important, ambling horses were preferred for smoothness, sure-footedness and quiet disposition. However, when speed and quick action was of greater importance, horses that trotted were more suitable due to their speed and agility. When horses were used in warfare, particularly during the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for a knight to ride an ambling horse to a battle site, then switch to a war horse for galloping into the actual battle.[1]

Types of ambling gaits[edit]

Paso FIno performing the "classic fino', a slow, isochronous lateral gait

All ambling gaits have four beats. Some ambling gaits are lateral gaits, meaning that the feet on the same side of the horse move forward, but one after the other, usually in a footfall pattern of right rear, right front, left rear, left front. Others are diagonal, meaning that the feet on opposite sides of the horse move forward in sequence, usually right rear, left front, left rear, right front. A common trait of the ambling gaits is that usually only one foot is completely off the ground at any one time.[2] Ambling gaits are further distinguished by the timing and cadence of the footfall pattern.[3] One distinction is whether the footfall rhythm is isochronous, four equal beats in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm; or a non isochronous 1-2, 3-4 rhythm created by a slight pause between the groundstrike of the forefoot of one side to the rear of the other.

Many breeds of horses inherit the ability to perform these gaits, which may be observable naturally from birth or may present with a minimal amount of training. Some horses without apparent natural gaited ability can be taught to "gait" or amble. However, training usually is not successful unless there is some inherited genetic ability in the horse. Ambling gaits can be taught by slightly restraining the horse at a trot or pace. The length of the stride is kept long, but the rider asks the horse to alter its balance to break up the two strides in such a manner to produce a four-beat gait. Sometimes, this effect is accidentally produced in an attempt to create the slow two-beat jog trot desired in western pleasure competition when the horse cannot sustain a slow jog and falls into a shuffling, four beat gait described as "trotting in front and walking behind," which is penalized.[4]

Some horses can both trot and amble, and some horses pace in addition to the amble, instead of trotting. However, pacing in gaited horses is often, though not always, discouraged. Some horses neither trot nor pace easily, but prefer their ambling gait for their standard intermediate speed.[5]

Conformation also plays a role. A horse with a longer back at the lumbosacral joint or "coupling" will find it easier to perform a lateral ambling gait, though they may also have to work harder to have proper collection. An average length back still allows a horse to perform ambling gaits, though a very short-coupled horse usually can only perform the trot. A well-laid back shoulder and somewhat horizontal hip angle favor a longer length of stride and is helpful in horses that fox trot, while a steeper shoulder angle combined with more sloping croup produce a stride more desirable in some lateral gaits such as the running walk.[6]

A particular form of ambling gait considered desirable in one breed is often penalized in another. For example, the Missouri Foxtrotter is specifically bred to perform the fox trot, a diagonal gait, while the Paso Fino is bred to perform lateral gaits and can be penalized for a diagonal gait, which in that breed is called Trocha.

Heritability and breeding[edit]

In most "gaited" breeds, an ambling gait is a hereditary trait. However, some representatives of these breeds may not always gait, and some horses of other breeds not considered "gaited" may have ambling-gaited ability, particularly with training. A 2012 DNA study of movement in Icelandic horses, harness racing horse breeds, and mice determined that a mutation on the gene DMRT3, which controls the spinal neurological circuits related to limb movement and motion, causes a premature stop codon in horses with lateral ambling gaits.[3][7] This mutation may be a dominant gene, in that even one copy of the mutated allele will produce gaitedness.[3] Horses can now be tested for the presence or absence of this allele.[8]

A number of horse breeds have natural gaited tendencies, including the American Saddlebred, Icelandic horse, Missouri Foxtrotter, Paso Fino, Peruvian Paso, Racking horse, Rocky Mountain Horse, Spotted Saddle horse and Tennessee Walker[5] The two-beat lateral pace is also sometimes classified with the ambling gaits as an "alternate" gait, and may be linked to the same genetic mechanism as the lateral ambling gaits. In order to pace at all, the horses studied were all homozygous for the DMTR3 mutation. But not all horses with the homozygous mutation could pace, suggesting other factors had to come into play for that gait to occur.[3]

Of note is that the trotting bloodlines of the Standardbred, though distinct from the pacing bloodlines, also are homozygous for the DMRT3 mutation, suggesting that it not only affects lateral gaits, but inhibits the transition to a gallop.[3] In the studies of Icelandic horses, those animals homozygous for the DMRT3 mutation scored poorly for their ability to both trot and gallop. Researchers concluded that breeders selected away from the mutation in horses bred for sports such as dressage, show jumping, and racing at a gallop.[3]

Lateral ambling gaits[edit]

Tennessee Walking Horse at the running walk

Lateral gaits fall in the sequence right hind, right front, left hind, left front. They can be distinguished by whether the footfall rhythm is "even" or isochronous, four equal beats in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm; or non-isochronous, a slightly uneven 1-2, 3-4 rhythm created because the horse picks up and sets down its feet on each individual side slightly faster, creating a slight pause when switching to the opposite lateral pair of footfalls.[2] While lateral gaits are generally all very smooth, some gaited horse breeders argue that the even lateral gaits are somewhat smoother than the uneven lateral gaits.[9]

Running walk[edit]

The running walk is an even four-beat lateral gait with footfalls in the same sequence as the regular walk, but characterized by greater speed and smoothness. The horse retains a regular 4-beat cadence but the running walk is characterized by an extreme overreach of the hind foot (often being placed as far as 24 inches ahead of where the front foot landed) and speeds of up to 10 mph. It is a distinctive natural gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse.

"Slow gaits"[edit]

The slow gait is a general term for the slower forms of the classic amble and several slightly different gaits that follow the same general footfall pattern as the walk, in that lateral pairs of legs move forward in sequence, but the rhythm and collection of the movements are different. The common thread is that all are smooth gaits, comfortable to the rider. Terms for various slow gaits include the stepping pace and singlefoot. Some slow gaits are natural to some horses, while others are developed from the pace. All are very smooth; in particular, the stepping pace is said to have been used at times to transport wounded soldiers from battlefields. The stepping pace, sometimes called an "amble," is a slightly uneven lateral gait, with a 1-2, 3-4 sequence, while the singlefoot has an even 1-2-3-4 rhythm.


The rack or racking is a gait that is also known historically as the "Virginia Single-foot Gait," with many breeds of horses capable of producing this gait. It is most commonly associated with the Five-Gaited American Saddlebred. In the rack, the speed of an even lateral singlefoot gait is increased to be approximately that of the trot or pace, but instead of being a two-beat gait, it is a four-beat gait with equal intervals between each beat.

The rack, like other intermediate gaits, is smoother than the trot because the hooves hitting the ground individually rather in pairs minimizes the force and bounce the horse transmits to the rider. To achieve this gait the horse must be in a "hollow position". This means that, instead of a rounded back as seen in dressage horses and others that work off their hind quarters, the spine is curved somewhat downward. This puts the racking horse in the best position to rack without breaking into another gait. If the rider sits back or leans slightly back, this will encourage the hollow position. This allows the hind legs to trail and makes the rack easier for the horse. The downside of this is that this position weakens the back and makes the horse less able to carry the weight of the rider without strain.

The rack, at speed, can be as fast as a canter. The ride is smooth, and the rider appears to remain motionless as the horse moves. The horse itself maintains a fairly still head and most of the action is in the legs. At horse shows, one of the Slow Gaits and the Rack are required gaits for the Five-Gaited American Saddlebred, who also performs the walk, trot and canter. The gait is to some degree hereditary in five-gaited Saddlebreds. The rack is also a genetic trait in a breed called the Racking horse, and a variation, the tölt, is seen in the Icelandic horse.


Icelandic horses at the tölt

The tölt is a four-beat lateral ambling gait mainly found in Icelandic horses. Known for its explosive acceleration and speed, it is also comfortable and ground-covering.[10] There is considerable variation in style within the gait, and thus the tölt is variously compared to similar lateral gaits such as the rack of the Saddlebred, the largo of the Paso Fino, or the running walk of the Tennessee Walking Horse. Like all lateral ambling gaits, the footfall pattern is the same as the walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front), but differs from the walk in that it can be performed at a range of speeds, from the speed of a typical fast walk up to the speed of a normal canter. Some Icelandic horses prefer to tölt, while others prefer to trot; correct training can improve weak gaits, but the tölt is a natural gait present from birth.[11][12][13] There are two varieties of the tölt that are considered incorrect by breeders. The first is an uneven gait called a "Pig's Pace" or "Piggy-pace" that is closer to a two-beat pace than a four-beat amble. The second is called a Valhopp and is a tölt and canter combination most often seen in untrained young horses or horses that mix their gaits. Both varieties are normally uncomfortable to ride.[13] The Icelandic also performs a pace called a skeið, flugskeið or "flying pace".[14][15] The horses with a strong natural ability to perform the tölt appear to be those which are heterozygous for the DMRT3 mutation.[3]

The Faroese Horse and the Nordlandshest/Lyngshest of Norway share common ancestry with the Icelandic horse and some individuals of these breeds have the capacity to tölt, although it is not as commonly used.

Paso gaits[edit]

A Peruvian Paso

The Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino are two breeds which have smooth innate intermediate gaits.

The Paso Fino has several speed variations called (from slowest to fastest) the paso fino, paso corto, and paso largo. All have an even 1-2-3-4 rhythm. The Paso fino gait is very slow, performed mainly for horse show competition. Horses are ridden over a "fino strip", which is usually plywood set into the ground, so the judges can listen for absolute regularity of footfall.[9] The paso corto is similar to the singlefoot. The paso largo is similar to the rack and can be extremely fast, up to 25-30 mph.

Some Colombian Paso Finos, particularly if tired or stressed, may perform a diagonal gait known as "Trocha" or a slower version, "Pasitrote," both akin to the fox trot (see below).[2] Many Paso Fino trainers in the USA discourage their horses from using diagonal gaits, emphasizing the lateral gaits exclusively, though in Colombia, it is more often considered acceptable.[16]

The Peruvian Paso has an even lateral gait known as the Paso Llano, which has the same footfall sequence as the Running Walk, and is characterized by an elongated and lateral motion of the front shoulder known as "Termino." The faster ambling gait of the Peruvian Paso is called the Sobreandando and is a slightly uneven lateral gait somewhat closer to a stepping pace.[9] The Peruvian paso, when tired or stressed, may also fall into an undesired diagonal gait, the pasitrote, as well as a pace-like gait, the huachano.[17]

Marchador lateral gaits[edit]

The Mangalarga Marchador has two lateral gaits: the "marcha picada", a lateral gait ranging in speed from a somewhat pace-like running walk to a pace similar to the Icelandic flying pace; and the "center march", which is very close to the classic running walk seen on flat-shod Tennessee Walkers. It also has a third, diagonal, ambling gait, described below.

Ambling gaits in other breeds[edit]

The revaal or ravaal is a four-beat lateral gait associated with Marwari, Kathiawari or Sindhi horse breeds of India.

Diagonal ambling gaits[edit]

This Mangalarga Marchador is exhibiting a diagonal ambling gait

The diagonal gaits are usually slightly uneven, in a 1-2, 3-4 rhythm that gives the rider a slight forward and back sensation when riding. They are considered physically easier on the horse than the lateral gaits as less hollowing of the back occurs when the horse is in the gait.[18] However, proponents of lateral-gaited horses argue that they are also not quite as smooth.[9] Diagonal ambling gaits are classified as an alternative gait, even though derived from the trot rather than the pace, and the genetic mechanism that allows diagonal ambling gaits appears to be the same gene responsible for lateral ambling gaits.[3]

Fox trot[edit]

The fox trot is most often associated with the Missouri Fox Trotter breed, but is also seen under different names.[2] The fox trot is a four-beat broken diagonal gait in which the front foot of the diagonal pair lands before the hind, eliminating the moment of suspension and giving a smooth ride said to also be sure-footed. The gait is sometimes described as having the horse walk with the front feet and trot with the back. In a fox trot, the horse must keep one front foot on the ground at all times and display a sliding motion with the hind legs.[19]

Diagonal gaits in Latin American breeds[edit]

The Mangalarga Marchador performs the marcha batida, a diagonal gait similar to the fox trot. The Peruvian Paso and Caballo Criollo Colombiano perform the trocha, which is also a four-beat diagonal gait, though it is often discouraged as a gait fault in these breeds. Another version seen in the Paso Fino is called the Pasitrote.

From the 1728 Cyclopedia[edit]

At one time, even horses without natural ambling ability were trained to produce the gait on command. But historically, as the value of the ambling horse of the Middle Ages gave way to a preference for trotting breeds and the development of classical dressage by the time of the Enlightenment, training the amble became a topic of considerable discussion amongst horse trainers in Europe. The 1728 Cyclopedia discussed one form of the gait (the lateral type derived from the pace) and some of the training methods used to create it in a horse that was not naturally gaited:

Ambling, in horsemanship, is a peculiar kind of pace, wherein a horse's two legs of the same side move at the same time. The ambling horse changes sides at each remove, two legs of a side being in the air, and two on the ground, at the same time. An amble is usually the first natural page of young colts, which as soon as they have strength enough to trot, they quit. There is no such thing as an amble in the manage, (a riding arena for schooling horses) the riding masters (early practitioners of Classical dressage) allowing of no other paces beside walk, trot, and gallop. Their reason is that a horse may be put from a trot to a gallop without stopping him, but not from an amble to a gallop, without such a stop, which interrupts the justice and cadence of the manage.

Faulty methods

There have been various practices and methods of discipline for bringing a young horse to amble. Some choose to toil him in his foot-pace through newly-plowed lands, which naturally inures him to the stroke required in the amble. Its inconveniences are the weakness and lameness that such disorderly toil may bring on a young horse. Others attempt it by sudden stopping, or checking him in the cheeks, when in a gallop; and thus putting him into a confusion between gallop and trot, so that losing both, he necessarily stumbles on an amble. However, this is apt to spoil a good mouth and rein, and exposes the horse to the danger of an hoof-reach, or sinew-strain, by over-reaching, etc.
Others prefer ambling by weights as the best way. To this end, some overload their horse with excessively heavy shoes, which is apt to make him interfere, or strike short with his hind feet. Others fold lead weights about the fetlock pasterns, which are not only liable to the mischiefs of the former, but put the horse in danger of incurable strains, crushing of the coronet, and breeding of ringbones, etc. Yet others load the horse's back with earth, lead, or other heavy substances, which may occasion a swaying of the back, overstraining the fillets, etc.
Some endeavor to make him amble in hand, ere they mount his back, by means of some wall, smooth pale or rail, and by checking him in the mouth with the bridle-hand, and correcting him with a rod on the hinder hoofs and under the belly when he treads incorrectly. However, this is apt to drive a horse to a desperate frenzy, ere he can be made to understand what they would have of him, and to rear, sprawl out his legs, and make other antic postures, which are not easily stopped again. Others think to effect it by a pair of hind shoes with long spurns or plates before the toes, and of such a length that if the horse offers to trot, the hind foot beats the fore foot. But this occasions wounds of the back sinews, which often bring on incurable lameness.
Some attempt to procure an amble by folding fine, soft lists (flanks of pork) straight around his hocks, in the place where he is gartered for a stifle strain, and turn him thus to grass for two or three weeks, and afterwards takes away the list. This is the Spanish method, but is disapproved, for though a horse cannot then trot but with pain, yet the members must be sufferers, and though the amble is gained, it must be slow and unsightly, because attended with a cringing in the hind parts.

Proper method

In effect, ambling by the trammel (a type of leg restraint) appears the nearest to nature, the best and most assured way. There are diverse errors usually practised in this method, such as, that the trammel is often made too long, and so gives no stroke, but makes a horse hackle and shuffle his feed confusedly. It may also be made too short, which makes him volt and twitch up his hind feet so suddenly that by custom it brings him to a string-halt, from which it will scarce ever be recovered. Sometimes the trammel is misplaced, and to prevent falling put above the knee, and the hind hoof. In which case, the horse cannot give any true stroke, nor can the fore leg compel the hind to follow it. If, to evade this, the trammel is made short and straight, it will press the main sinew of the hind leg, and the fleshy part of the fore thighs, so that the horse cannot go without halting before, and cringing behind.
As to the form of the trammel, some make it all of leather, which is inconvenient, in that it will either stretch or break, and thus confound the certainty of the operation. In a true trammel, the side-ropes are to be so firm, as not to yield a hair's breadth; the hose soft, and to lie so close, as not to move from its first place; and the back-band flat, no matter how light, and to descend from the fillets so as not to gall.
When the horse by being trammeled on one side, has attained to amble perfectly in the hand, it is to be changed to the other side, and that to be likewise brought to rule. When, by this changing from one side to another, with a half trammel, the horse will run and amble in hand, readily and swiftly, without snappering and stumbling, which is ordinarily done by two or three hours labour, the whole trammel is to be put on, with the broad, flat, back-band, and both sides trammeled alike.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Bennett, Deb. Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship. Amigo Publications Inc; 1st edition 1998. ISBN 0-9658533-0-6
  2. ^ a b c d Lieberman, Bobbie. "Easy-Gaited Horses." Equus, issue 359, August, 2007, pp. 47-51.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Andersson, Lisa S; et al. (30 August 2012). "Mutations in DMRT3 affect locomotion in horses and spinal circuit function in mice". Nature 488: 642–646. Retrieved 19 September 2012. 
  4. ^ AQHA Rule Book, rule 447
  5. ^ a b "Breeds that Gait." Equus, issue 359, August, 2007, pp. 52-54
  6. ^ Imus, Brenda (2006). "Conformed to Perform". Trail Rider (Equisearch publications). 
  7. ^ Agricultural Communications, Texas A&M University System (5 September 2012). "'Gaited' Gene Mutation and Related Motion Examined". The Horse. Blood-Horse Publications. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  8. ^ "Horse Gaitedness: It's in the Genes". 2013-04-05. Retrieved 2013-04-18. 
  9. ^ a b c d Hartman, Karen. "Gait Explained." Web page accessed August 2, 2007 at
  10. ^ Bongianni, Maurizio (editor) (1988). Simon & Schuster's Guide to Horses and Ponies. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc. p. Entry 133. ISBN 0-671-66068-3. 
  11. ^ "Icelandic". Breeds of Livestock. Oklahoma State University. Retrieved 2009-02-21. 
  12. ^ "The Gaits of the Icelandic Horse". The Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 
  13. ^ a b "Buyer's Checklist". United States Icelandic Horse Congress. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 
  14. ^ Edwards, Elwyn Hartley (1994). The Encyclopedia of the Horse (1st American ed.). New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 194–195. ISBN 1-56458-614-6. 
  15. ^ Hendricks, Bonnie (1995). International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-8061-3884-8. 
  16. ^ Hart-Poe, Rhonda. "Staccato Beat! Gaits of the Paso Fino." Gaited Horse, web page accessed August 2, 2007 at
  17. ^ Donald, Mary. "The Mystery Called Gait. Conquistador, March 1992 P.P.7-14. Accessed August 2, 2007 at
  18. ^ Hart, Rhonda. "Ready to Gait?" Equus, issue 359, August, 2007, pp. 55-56.
  19. ^ "Standards of the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse". Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  • Bennett, Deb. Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship. Amigo Publications Inc; 1st edition 1998. ISBN 0-9658533-0-6
  • Lieberman, Bobbie. "Easy-Gaited Horses." Equus, issue 359, August, 2007, pp. 47–51.
  • "Breeds that Gait." Equus, issue 359, August, 2007, pp. 52–54
  • Hart, Rhonda. "Ready to Gait?" Equus, issue 359, August, 2007, pp. 55–56.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al. 

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