A Gaited Horse For You?

 I would probably be called a traitor by some because of this article! I am a professional farrier & trainer and a dedicated breeder of the finest Missouri Foxtrotting Horses, as well as other gaited horses. Hearing this you may assume that I'm going to tell you all the reasons you should get rid of whatever horses you now have and replace them with foxtrotting horses. Well, that is not so. I am going to explain the good points and the limitations of a foxtrotting & other gaited horse in an objective manner so you can decide for yourself what horse is best for you. I love well bred and trained horses of every breed. They were all created for a purpose, and each of them can be a true joy to own and use.

I have enjoyed training and doing farrier work for some very fine thoroughbred and quarter horse ranches where speed is the name of the game. I love the way a fine race horse flies around the track or  jumps like a rocket while steeple chasing, and with such power and grace combined!  I love watching the AQHA cutting horse championships each year, where those horses are down in the dirt face to face with the cows. Wow, the way they cut back and forth with such agility and speed is amazing! If you intend to compete in such events, a foxtrotter is not the right horse for that, although they can run quickly, jump logs and fences, and work cows nicely. A foxtrotting horse is able to do these things quite well, but not like the finely tuned athletes that have been bred for generations and highly developed for these specific purposes. As an all purpose ranch horse a good foxtrotter, walker, or spotted saddle horse is hard to beat!  

I have often heard people say that they'd like to ride their gaited horse in the endurance races. Well, that is fine. They can finish in the allotted time and should have a nice comfortable ride. But, if their objective is to win the race they better ride an Arabian. Why? Well, it's a simple matter of oxygen conversion and pulse rate. A gaited horse can go for very long distances with amazing stamina, but not at the speeds required to win the race. If you look up the records of winning times for each distance you will be able to figure out the average speed required. Then you need to apply that to the various gaits of each breed to see what you'd be doing to them health-wise. For example, if a 50 mile race was won with a time of 4 hours then the average speed required to win would be a little faster than 12mph. Let's apply that to the gaits of a foxtrotter. A flat-foot walk, which is a good gait to ride in while resting your horse, will be around 5 mph. A foxtrot, which is the long distance endurance gait that the breed is named for, will be around 8 mph. Loping your horse about 15 mph is your other option on occasion throughout the day. (The other gaits, the running walk and gallop, which are faster I'll not even address due to their extreme energy use that makes them unsuitable for endurance racing. Although, if a horse has a natural running walk that doesn't require collection to stay in gait, it may do as well as a natural foxtrotting horse in long distances.) If you could lope your horse for 4 straight hours over all kinds of terrain then you could win a race, but this is absurd. A foxtrotting horse burns a lot of energy in a lope and their pulse gets way too high and they run out of oxygen within several miles. This gait could be used some of the day between trotting and walking to make good time and ease over hilltops. To go 50 miles straight in a foxtrot is also quite a task for even the best horse. Maybe it could be done, but I've done several 25 mile rides that way in just over 3 hours, and that's all I would want to ask of my horses! Even if you and your horse were in shape to do it, your time would still be over 5 hours! A whole hour too long to win! Anyway, this gives you an idea of what I'm getting at. The foxtrotting horse was created to be a sure-footed, gentle, and also very smooth riding horse on the trail, but not the fastest! There are trail riding competitions where you can excel with a gaited horse, such as the NATRC rides. In these events you and your horse are judged for numerous things such as stamina, training, horsemanship and more.

If you want to win $ racing, buy a Thoroughbred or Running Quarter Horse. If you want to cut or rope cows with the goal of winning the national finals, buy a Quarter Horse from the finest and proven blood-lines. If you want to endurance race, buy an Arabian. But, if you want to be able to do all of these well, yet not on a world-class competitive level, and your main objective is to have a gentle and surefooted trail or working ranch horse with an amazingly comfortable smooth and quick ground covering gait then a foxtrotter, walker, walkaloosa, or other gaited horse may be just right for you.

Now, I'll discuss a more controversial question: What about other gaited horses? There are Tennessee Walkers, Paso Finos, Rocky Mountain Horses, or any of the other 33+ breeds that all seem to claim to be the nicest ride on this planet Earth! Here's where I, in the eyes of some, become worse than a traitor to my breed and digress to an apostate. I recently had a potential buyer looking for a good gelding that I sent away without trying to sell him any of my foxtrotters, as I had no geldings left to sell. I helped him find a nicely gaited Paso that he absolutely loves. I have traveled much of the United States riding gaited horses with the express purpose of analyzing and judging their gaits. I will not discuss the way the horses are usually ridden in each of the breed shows, except to say that they are ridden differently out on the trail. My conclusion is that a nicely gaited horse of any breed can be a real pleasure to ride! I've visited Tennessee Walker ranches where most of the horses were better foxtrotters than any horses on some of the Foxtrotting Horse ranches I've visited, and vise-versa. I've seen and ridden Paso Fino and Peruvian Pasos and even a gaited jack that have a nice "old-style foxtrot" gait. (Now I'm making enemies all over! Paso people sure don't like being told their horses are foxtrotting!) Simply put, a well gaited horse is one that you sit on and have a smooth ride without bouncing up or down (like in a hard trot) or swaying side to side (like in a pace). There are many variations in the timing of the gaits and the percentage of lateral vs. diagonal movement. 70% Diagonal & 30% Lateral is the standard for foxtrotting horses. You can find many horses gaiting at 50% lateral and 50% diagonal. Any more lateral movement than 50% becomes too much of a pace and throws the rider from side to side while riding. Any more diagonal movement than 90% makes a horse likely to be too "trotty" as the gait is approaching a hard trot of a non-gaited breed. It is important for the left rear to hit the ground before the right is picked up, even when trotting. (This is what distinguishes a "gait" from a non-gaited trot.) When I'm looking at a horse, it is not so important to me which breed's specific gait is being performed as it is how well the feet are timed to create a smooth & surefooted ride for me!  I like to see weight placed on the left hoof before the right hoof is picked up, both with the front and back pairs. This is largely what creates the smoothness. Next, I like a balance between diagonal vs. lateral gait which prevents them being too "pacey" or too "trotty" and allows them to be sure-footed in rough terrain.  I look for a horse to move in a relaxed manner without having to be collected tightly or having artificial aids to gait well. (Too often, with all the gaited breeds, people are training them in a manner that requires constant pressure on the bit to keep them in gait. This is not necessary with well bred horses!) Now the question is, which of the gaited horse breeds can do this? I don't claim to know all the answers, but my extensive research and experience leads me to my opinion that SOME HORSES, IN ALL OF THE GAITED BREEDS CAN DO THIS SUPERB TRAIL GAIT! The gait that you will see at the Foxtrotting Horse Shows they are calling a Fox Trot is often not the same gait that the breed was founded upon. It has the same rhythm and basic movement, but many people are trying to exaggerate the stride, head shake, and overall action so much that the ride is far inferior in comfort to the natural "trail gait" that well bred foals are born doing! While riding a foxtrotting horse you may feel a very gentle front to back motion, but no bouncing at all IN THE NATURAL "OLD STYLE" FOXTROT GAIT! But in the show gait they push horses to extremes causing the rider to feel the lift of the hind legs and breaking of the hock action when the hinds are coming up and forward. This creates a definite bump feel in the hind end or back of the saddle, thus the show gait is usually "trotty" and not as smooth as the natural gait. The shows have evolved in a different direction than the pleasure riding market, as has happened within most breeds...The TWH shows and the Paso Fino shows are extreme opposites, but both have gone the way of exaggerating the horses' movement to an absurd level. (You must watch the videos to see what I mean!) A funny side note to this is that we have had horses who won world championship shows years ago performing the "old style foxtrot" that today would be laughed out of the show ring. I have been accused of having "...very poor horses....because they are too smooth....!" Another good example of this is the way that Paso Finos are taught to gait in the "Fino". Many steps are taken and the horse goes almost nowhere because the steps are only a few inches each...but it sure is fun to hear them crossing the boards! The natural trail gait of the Paso Fino is a real pleasure and is very similar to a foxtrot. There are two differences, the first being the Paso gaiting 50% lateral and 50% diagonal and the foxtrot gait being 70+% diagonal and 30-% lateral. The second difference is that the Paso has more action (higher lifting of the knees and hooves) and the foxtrotter will just lift his hooves high enough to skim over the terrain he's traversing and will slide his feet into place rather than set them down in place. Anyway, my purpose here is not to analyze the difference between each of the breeds gaits, but to help you understand that you can find a nice riding gaited horse in any of these breeds. Although there are differences between the gaits of each breed, if a horse is doing the gait for it's breed, and still within the manner I've described, those differences should be of little or no importance to your decision of which breed of horse to purchase as a pleasure riding horse. Furthermore, very few people will be able to feel the difference in the ride I've described regardless what breed of horse they're riding! The "old style foxtrot" that I am talking about can be done by some horses within all the gaited breeds. If you watch the finest gaited horses on the trails across America, you will find that an old-style foxtrotting gait is what many of them are doing....or what the owners are trying to get them to do. It is an easy going gait about 6 to 10 mph that can be performed for several hours at a time and has the comfort and smoothness of a bicycle on a paved road regardless of the terrain you ride in. This gait can be simply described as a "broken" or partly diagonal & partly lateral gait where the right foot is put down before the left foot is picked up. This definition qualifies many other gaits to be called a foxtrot as well, even though they are not considered a foxtrot by modern terms.  When developing the breed, any horse that did a gait like this was accepted as a foxtrotter. I have seen many American Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers, Spotted Saddle Horses, Paso Finos and Peruvian Pasos, Rocky Mtn Horses, and others performing the correct gait for their breed in a manner that would have qualified them for registry as Missouri Foxtrotters in the foundation stages of the breed. For example, the rack by official definition, is today almost exactly the same gait as the foxtrot was back in the early years. (That's why there is such a huge variety in the type of gaits you'll find even among registered foxtrotters.) In the most perfect "foxtrotting form", a horse will appear to be walking in front and trotting behind with the hind legs sliding forward into place, rather than coming downward with a jar. This is often referred to as a "shuffle." The rider will sit nearly motionless in total comfort while zipping along. The less the animation, or lifting of the legs, the smoother the ride and the more endurance the horse will have. The Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed was founded using horses of all the gaited breeds, as well as Arabians, Morgans, Thoroughbreds, and other horses of unknown parentage. This non-gaited crossing was done to increase the percentage of diagonal movement for sure-footedness, as well as athletic ability. The gaits of the foxtrotting horses of today have evolved in different directions depending on the programs of each individual ranch. Some are breeding pacers, others hard trotting horses, and many variations of the gaits found in the genetic makeup of the breed. In a few cases you will find ranches where every foal hits the ground gaiting along side its mother in a beautiful, smooth, correct old style foxtrot or running walk gait! As people have bred and re-bred the nicest traveling offspring, each generation has improved in smoothness, conformation, and temperament, and is still doing so today on those ranches that focus their breeding programs on gait quality rather than color, size, or other preferences. The same is true of other breeds! When shopping for a horse you need to realize that due to the variety of quality within each breed, it is more important to choose a good gaited horse of any breed than to choose a specific breed.

  The Tennessee Walking Horse Breed was founded with several stallions, two of which were Roan Allen and Merry Go Boy, who were both good old style foxtrotting horses. The Walkaloosa is descended from Paso Finos, that the Spanish brought to the Americas, which were crossed with all the various Indian mares. They have had great success improving the breed due to a more recent influence of an unregistered MFT son of Zane Grey who was purchased in Missouri and taken to the North West to breed Appaloosa mares. Legend has it that The Rocky Mountain Horse Breed was formed, in part because of the great temperament and gait of an unregistered foxtrotting horse named Old Tobe, who passed on these traits which are common among both Foxtrotting & Rocky Mountain Horses. Old Tobe was a descendent of two of the horses that were also foundation sires in the MFT horse breed: Old Fox and Ted. He was purchased by Sam Tuttle in Spout Springs, Kentucky from a traveler who had picked up the young colt while passing through the Ozark Mountains on his route eastward from the Rocky Mountain region. If he was happy to turn a quick profit on Tobe, I can't help but feel sorry for him, not knowing what he was giving up! We may never know the complete truth or be able to verify all the pedigrees of the many gaited horses out there, but it is fun to learn what we can. These are a few examples of hundreds of tidbits I've learned in my research that simply points to the fact that these gaited breeds are all related to some extent. This explains why so many of all breeds can do a nice smooth gait. So, which breed of horse is best for you? I'd say the answer is simply: the horse that gives you a glassy smooth ride and is well behaved and trained to suit your needs....OF ANY BREED! 

As I conclude this article, it needs to be understood that when I say "Foxtrotters" I am referring to a small percentage of the horses in the official foxtrotting horse registry, as many are not worthy of the compliment, in my opinion due to their poor gaits. There are also some horses in the other breeds who will fit everything I'm going to describe here, so I'll just call them foxtrotters too....if that upsets you, then you can come ride one of my foxtrotters and try to make me mad when you tell me how nicely you think they're doing a Paso Corto, Llano, Tolt, Llargo, Pasitrote, or a Running Walk. (If you want me to, I will show you the difference between the gaits in slow motion video.) You can call them anything you wish, but I guarantee you will love the smooth ride! 

These are the reasons I choose to ride and breed Missouri Foxtrotting Horses: First, they are gentle and make wonderful family horses. I spend most of my time with my family riding the colorful deserts in the winter and the beautiful and magnificent mountains in the summers! Second, they are so very smooth to ride, even at a nice 6-8 mph gait, that we can ride all day, covering many miles in comfort. Thirdly, their 70% diagonal gait gives them great advantages in placing their feet in rough terrain over those horses that gait more laterally. I like a ride that has no side to side motion, but just a nice forward gliding sensation! Fourth, The athletic ability and versatility of a horse who can do hard ranch work such as working cows or pulling a wagon in harness appeals to me. I like a solid enough horse to carry my 200 and 50+ lbs of saddle and bags full of food all day long! Fifth, the market for Missouri Foxtrotting Horses is growing for all the above reasons. I have more fun working my horses and selling them than I ever had at a job working for someone else. Horses like I've described here simply sell themselves. All I have to do is go for a ride where some horse-people are, and soon I've got more buyers!  One of my customers took the slogan from the MFTHBA's "Not Just A Horse, A Missouri Foxtrotter!" and revised it to say, "Not Just A Missouri Foxtrotter, A DeMille Foxtrotter!"

 My love for the foxtrotter began the first time I saw and rode one at a fair in Missouri. Prior to that I was quite partial to race horses, having been raised with running QH and TB horses. I saw the horse named Casey's Go Yonder moving across a grassy field in a manner I had never witnessed. His speed was so quick for a horse to be moving so gracefully & with such a smooth motion as to keep the rider floating along without any bouncing. I felt something leap within my chest at that moment, much like the feeling I received when one of our racehorses would surge out ahead of the others and cross the finish line victorious! I soon rode a number of foxtrotters and the "friendly virus" was planted in my soul; insomuch, that I have never recovered. I have practically centered my life around my horse business, except for God, family, and country. I feel strongly though, that that day was a gift from Him, and my horse business is in some way serving Him. I wish you all the very best in the pursuit of your dreams. I have shared a little of mine here with you today. Even as you are reading this, there's a good chance I'm out on the trail somewhere, with my children and beautiful wife, gliding under the whispering pines or through a grove of heavenly quaking aspens.

By: Alma DeMille

Comments or Questions: mailto:foxtrotterhorseman@hotmail.com

 

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