Horses are a staple of western fiction. When writing or reading about them, it’s helpful to understand what they look like in motion and how each gait sounds. Whether or not an experienced horseman can see the animal, he or she can determine how fast a horse is moving by the distinctive rhythm of hooves striking the earth..
A walk is a four-beat gait, meaning each hoof moves independently. The walk is a very comfortable gait for riders because it’s smooth, producing only a slight swaying motion. At a walk, even inexperienced riders have no trouble keeping their butts in the saddle.
Horses can walk all day, even carrying a load, but they don’t move very far very fast. The average horse will cover three to four miles an hour at a walk; some move as slowly as two miles per hour.
Trot and jog
Technically, a jog is slower than a trot, but in the Old West the terms were used interchangeably. Nowadays, at least among the general public, it’s more common to hear both referred to as trotting. Jogging and trotting are two-beat gaits in which diagonal pairs of legs move together: left rear with right front; right rear with left front.
The technical difference between “trot” and “jog” may be observed as equestrians put their mounts through a variety of competitive maneuvers at horse shows. Probably more familiar is the trotting seen in harness racing. Racing trotters often cover as much ground as quickly as other horses do at a gallop. Some harness races require horses to pace, a two-beat gait in which the legs on one side move forward together. Faster than a trot, pacing is not a particularly comfortable gait for riders. In fact, some report “seasickness” as a result of the horse’s pronounced swaying motion.
Jogging and trotting are a horse’s natural working gaits. If left to his own devices (and not escaping a threat), a horse will jog or trot when he wants to cover distance quickly. At a trot, horses cover an average of about eight miles in an hour.
Even under saddle, horses can jog or trot for a long time without tiring, but many riders can’t take the pace. Jogging and trotting can be extremely jarring and put enormous strain on the muscles in a rider’s legs, back, and abdomen. Working cowboys who spend a good deal of time in the saddle may move their horses at a jog or trot, but pleasure riders generally try to avoid the gaits if they value their backsides, which slap the saddle with each step until the rider learns to “move with the horse.”
So-called “gaited horses” like the Tennessee Walking Horse and the American Saddlebred don’t jog or trot. Instead, they “amble” in a natural four-beat middle gait called a “running walk” (Tennessee Walker) or “rack” (American Saddlebred). A horse moving at either gait can cover as many as fifteen miles in an hour. Because all four hooves move independently, the “ambling gaits” are comfortable for riders. Though both Tennessee Walkers and American Saddlebreds were known in the Old West, most were pleasure horses for the gentry.
Lope or canter
Lope and canter are essentially the same gait, a three-beat movement in which three hooves are off the ground while one rear hoof supports the horse’s weight. Here’s the difference between the two terms: Horses under western (or “stock”) saddles lope; horses under English saddles (or “pancakes”) canter. No self-respecting cowboy would sit a horse that insisted on cantering.
At a lope, horses can cover about ten to fifteen miles in an hour; some can reach speeds of up to twenty-seven miles per hour.
The gallop, a four-beat gait, is the horsey equivalent of run and averages about thirty miles per hour. Horses bred for speed, like Thoroughbreds and racing Quarter Horses, can gallop as fast as fifty miles per hour.
In the wild, horses gallop in order to escape a threat. Most horses can gallop for only a mile or two without risking serious injury or death. (Yes, some horses will run themselves to death at the urging of a rider, but the phenomenon is extremely rare.)
As an aside, Eadweard Muybridge created Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (right) in June 1878 by stringing together images captured in sequence by a line of twelve automatically triggered cameras placed beside a racetrack. The moving image and the zoopraxiscope Muybridge invented to play it are considered the “bridge” between still photography and cinematography. The experiment was designed to settle an ages-old debate about whether all four of a galloping horse’s hooves are off the ground simultaneously at any point. The moving image confirmed they are, at the moment the horse collects its legs under its belly.
How far can a horse travel?
How far a horse can travel in a day depends on the horse’s condition, the availability of food and water, and the terrain the animal is asked to cover. At a combination of lope and walk, a young horse in optimal condition can travel fifty to sixty miles a day in good weather over level terrain, as long as he is allowed to drink and graze every couple of hours. The faster a horse moves, the more often he will need to rest, eat, and drink.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the longer a horse moves fast, the shorter the distance it can cover in a day. Pony Express riders galloped about 10 miles (or about half an hour) before changing horses and usually covered 60-70 miles a day, but that was an exceptionally grueling pace for the rider. An average mounted pace is about 40 miles per day, which is the progress the U.S. Cavalry aimed for during the nineteenth century. Over uneven terrain or in bad weather, a horse and rider would do well to cover twenty miles per day. In the mountains, ten miles per day would be a good pace.
Many cowboys carried grain—usually corn or oats—in order to get more out of their horses. Grain provides increased carbohydrate-based energy. Sweet feed, which contains molasses, was not common unless a horse was stabled. Horses love sweet feed, but it’s not good for them except as a treat.
Remember, too, that most working cowboys preferred—and still prefer—to ride geldings over mares or stallions. Although there are exceptions to every rule, geldings usually are much more tractable than intact horses. Stallions can be a handful at best and a nightmare if a mare anywhere in the vicinity is in season. Mares establish a pecking order within a herd and can be cranky. In the wild, a mare runs the herd; stallions are tolerated only for breeding and protection.
What do you find most fascinating about horses? Tell us in the comments, and you could win a KINDLE copy of the four-novel boxed set A Cowboy’s Touch, which includesThe Half-Breed’s Woman by Cheryl Pierson, Spirit Catcher by Livia J. Washburn, Wild Texas Winds by Kit Prate, and Prodigal Gun by Kathleen Rice Adams. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)