The History of the Gaited Horse

    HFAdmin | June 2, 2010

    By Dennis Quilliams

    It would be safe to say that as long as there have been gaited horses, there has been confusion as to what the 4-beat lateral gait is. What does the term “gaited horse,” mean? All actions of the horse are called gaits. The walk, trot, lope, canter and gallop are all gaits. The gaited horse has an additional gait. This gait is a smooth, non-jarring action of the horse’s leg.   The “lateral gait” refers to the legs on one side (lateral) moving together, as opposed to the “diagonal gait” where opposite legs work together. The trot is an example of a diagonal gait. However, in some gaits, such as the fox trot, the action is diagonal but it is still a 4-beat gait, making this gait smoother than the 2-beat gait. A 4-beat gait is when each foot hits the ground independently.

    Much of this confusion occurs in trying to define the gaits and in trying to judge them. The names of the gaits are used loosely and interchangeably. Different breed association call the gaits by different names. It is difficult to describe accurately the gait, because it is difficult to see what the horse is doing with each foot as he moves along. The gait will have a variety of looks, depending on collection, speed, length of stride, skill of horse and rider, as well as the breed of horse. It is not the general appearance of the horse in action that determines the gait but the specific pattern of footfall, as well as the cadence that defines the gait.    The classy-looking fast moving horse often overshadows a gentle quiet horse performing his gait well. Often the classy horse will determine the standards of the breed, regardless of how well or how poorly he performs the gait or the smoothness of the gait.

    The American gaited horse can be traced back to the early 1600’s and found primarily in the Northeast section of the USA. These horses were brought to the USA from Ireland and Scotland. They were originally Galloway and Hobbies. Early settlers were drawn to the gaited horse, as riding was the main way of travel. The smoothness of gait and the gentleness of the horse made them the popular horse of the day. The exact action of these early gaited horses, called Palfreys, is unknown, as history refers to any lateral gait merely as an “ambling” gait.

    Out of these breeds came the Narragansett pacer. This breed of horse went on to be the foundation of many of today’s gaited breeds. These include the American Saddlebred, Tennessee Walker, gaited Morgan’s and other smooth gaited saddle horses, such as the Kentucky Mtn. Saddle Horse, Mtn. Pleasure Horse & Rocky Mtn. Horse. Many of these breeds also descended from the Spanish Barb or Spanish Jennet.

    The Narragansett Pacer was a smaller horse and did not last long as an America breed. Many were exported to the Caribbean, Africa and Canada. They were crossed with Thoroughbreds. The bloodlines of the pacer are evident in many of the modern breeds. Some people believe that the Canadian Pacer and the Narragansett pacer are one and the same horse.

    It appears that the pacer was at the lateral end of the scale, in action, and had a pace/pace pair of genes. When crossed with trotting horses, tot/trot pair of genes, the gait began moving towards the diagonal end of the scale. This is when the Fox Trot showed up. This is one reason, I believe, that breeding should be a major issue in the gaited horse. We need to find the combination that produces a truly comfortable gait, thus reducing some of the frustration in finding the consistency of smoothness desired.


    The Southwest corner of the USA, dating back to the late 1400’s, brought in the Spanish Barb and the Spanish Jennets. These horses, commonly called Palfreys, were considered the finest and most beautiful horses in the world. A commonly held belief is that they went on to produce the Paso Fino and the Peruvian breeds. This Spanish influence is believed to have also been involved in the development of the Mountain horse in Kentucky. Tradition has it that the foundation stock for theses horses came from the Colorado and New Mexico areas.

    The Icelandic horse (shown above) has been kept in seclusion in Iceland for nearly a thousand years. This practice of isolation has preserved the appearance of the original Celtic horse and is one of the oldest breeds in the world.

    A lot of cross breeding, inbreeding and selective breeding have brought the modern gaited horses to where they are today. It is hard to trace the exact lines of any particular breed of gaited horse. Regardless of the origins of the lateral gait, and the differences among breeds, the smoothness of the gaited horse is highly prized and is again taking a prominent part in American society. Most American gaited horses exhibit beauty, gently disposition, a willing mind along with a natural 4-beat gait.

    About the author:

    The Dennis Quilliams method of horse training results from years of experience. Dennis bases his own philosophy of training on the mutual respect of horse to man and man to horse. For several years, he worked as manager and trainer on a gaited horse ranch in Snoqualmie, Washington. While on the ranch, he trained gaited Mountain horses, Tennessee Walkers, Saddlebreds, Peruvians and Paso Fino. Using this philosophy of respect between horse and rider, Dennis teaches the art of HorseManShip. Both horse and rider will develop confidence in each other and compassion between the rider and the horse. Dennis has worked with many different breeds but his specialty is working with Gaited Horses. He has trained and conducted clinics in both the USA and Canada. The over-riding goal of training is QAVAH – to develop connection between horse & rider, to develop confidence in both partners, to install a sense of compassion in the rider and to develop consistency in the training of both horse and rider. Visit his website at


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here