A Guide to Feeding Gaited Horses

Of all the horse breeds, gaited horses are often considered the most elegant. This is because gaited horse breeds are those that have been selectively bred to perform specialized movements called ambling gaits. These gaits are often considered smooth and easy to ride. Additionally, of the many breeds of gaited horses, some may have specialized nutrient requirements like some of our top equine athletes and, thus, deserve your attention.

The Natural Gaits of Horses

Gaits are best described as the pattern of leg movements horses use to move across the ground. All horses have natural gaits that are broken down into beats. The simple definition of beats are they are the footfall patterns of the horse’s feet (hooves).

The natural gaits of horses are:

  • Walk. A 4-beat gait, with a typical footfall pattern of right hind moves and strikes the ground first (beat 1), followed by right front (beat 2), left hind (beat 3), and then left front (beat 4).
  • Trot. A 2-beat and diagonal gait. This means the front foot is paired with the opposite side’s foot. For example, the front right foot moves with the left hind foot striking the ground as one beat, followed by the front left foot and right hind foot striking the ground as the second beat.
  • Canter. A 3-beat gait that is faster than a trot, but slower than a gallop/run. The canter can be done either as a left lead, or a on a right lead—meaning which front foot reaches out the farthest (or leads). In a left lead, the footfall pattern is right hind leg (beat 1), then the left hind foot and the right front foot (beat 2), followed with the left front reaching out (beat 3). In a right lead, the opposite happens with left hind (beat 1), followed with right hind and left front (beat 2), followed with right front reaching out for beat three.
  • Gallop. This is a 4-beat gait. This too can either be in a right or left lead. For example, in a right lead, the footfall pattern will be left hind (beat one), right hind (beat two), left front (beat three) and right front (beat four). In the left lead, the pattern starts wit the right hind (bet one) and ends with the left front (beat four).

All natural gaits will impact a horse’s energy use and dietary requirements. For example, trail horses usually will only remain in a low to moderate level of activity as they tend to only walk and trot, with infrequent cantering or galloping. At the other extreme, racehorses will utilize all levels of activity and when competing, will be at a very heavy workload. Thus, their diets will need to be balanced for high energy use, including higher levels of required nutrients (i.e., protein for muscle repair and growth).

How Do Gaited Horses Move?

On top of the already known natural gaits, gaited horses are trained to use what is called the ambling gaits. The gaited horse breeds have been selected through the years to have natural tendencies to perform these gaits. Some gaited horse breeds include:

  • American Saddlebred
  • Icelandic Horse
  • Missouri Fox Trotter
  • Paso Fino
  • Peruvian Paso
  • Rocky Mountain Horse
  • Tennessee Walking Horse

These are just a few of the estimated 30 gaited horse breeds out of the approximately 350 horse breeds from around the world.

The ambling gaits are usually done faster than a walk, but slower than a canter. Additionally, ambling gaits can be sustained over long periods of time and make it easier for the rider over long distances. Generally, ambling gaits are 4-beats but will vary by breed and how their feet fall. Some popular examples include:

  • Rack. Like the walk, but performed at a faster pace with flashy leg movements. Thus, the footfall pattern would be right hind (beat one), right front (beat two), left hind (beat three), and left front (beat four). This gait is typical of American Saddlebreds and other racking horse breeds.
  • Running Walk. Again, a gait just like the rack, but at a fast pace and seen in horses like the Tennessee Walking Horse.
  • Foxtrot. The footfall pattern is like a trot, but each foot strikes the ground independent of each other. The pattern would be left front (beat one), right hind (beat two), right front (beat three), left hind (beat four). This if often seen in the Missouri Foxtrotter breed.
  • Paso Llano. Many South American gaited horses have specialized gaits. For example, the Peruvian Paso’s Paso Llano gait is like the running walk.

There are many other ambling gaits, but all are generally 4-beats and can vary in their exercise intensity. As a side note, some often refer to some horses as “five gaited.” This means that in addition to the three natural gaits (walk, trot, canter/ gallop), some breeds like the American Saddlebred, Icelandic horse and a few others can do an additional two ambling gaits.

Do Gaited Horses Require Specialized Diets?

First, when it comes to digestive disorders, gaited horses are at risk, like most other horse breeds. They are not known to have any special genetic disorders that are breed specific. However, they are at risk, like any other horse breed, to disorders like colic, metabolic disease, laminitis and others.

What to feed a gaited horse will depend on their training. Exercise intensity can vary widely on factors such as the horse’s fitness levels, the trainer’s goals, and the type of gaited horse. Examples include:

Light Exercise

  • Activities could include casual trail rides, shorter bouts of riding in the arena or light groundwork.
  • Ambling gait duration is usually held to short durations.
  • Generally, this level of exercise is used for early training, maintaining fitness or recovery from an injury.
  • These horses would need the basic amount of nutrition which should always include, at a minimum, good quality hay with a ration balancer, like Essential K® or Wholesome Blends® Balancer.

Moderate Exercise

  • This involves more strenuous exercise like longer trail rides, basic schooling, or even light gaited work.
  • Ambling gait duration may be for longer durations, but usually not at top speed or with intense physical demands.
  • The goal is usually to develop cardiovascular fitness. However, some competitions may only require this level of exercise.
  • What to feed will depend on the individual horse. For easy keepers, the horse would not require much past good quality hay and a ration balancer. For hard keepers, they would require a horse feed higher in energy, like Kalm Ultra® or Resolve®, in addition to their hay.

Training and Conditioning

  • This could be considered hard/intense exercise focused on developing the horse’s ambling gaits abilities.
  • The level of exercise could include regular gaited work, transitions, lateral movements, and conditioning exercises.
  • Horses could be asked to maintain their ambling gait for long durations with varying speed and precision.
  • What to feed would be very similar to what was suggested in moderate exercise for both easy keepers and hard keepers. A good quality horse feed should include the proper balance of nutrients (i.e., high-quality amino acids) to help support muscle growth and repair.

Endurance Riding

  • This level of exercise can be considered some of the most demanding of gaited horses.
  • Exercise levels are the most intense with horses being condition for rides that can cover up to 100 miles in a single day.
  • Horses would not only require high quality hay but also a feed formulated for athletes. Feeds like those mentioned for hard keepers would be appropriate or even Senior Sport®

These are just general categories, and some gaited horses may go through periods of light work and shift to high intensity exercise, then back down to moderate or light work. At a minimum, every gaited horse needs high quality hay and a good concentrate to ensure they meet their daily nutritional needs.

Take Home Message

The most important thing to remember about feeding your gaited horse is that every horse is an individual. A horse’s metabolic rate and nutritional needs will differ from horse to horse, even in the same breed and discipline. Thus, if ever in doubt, it is worthwhile to speak with an equine nutritionist who can design a feeding plan appropriate for your animals.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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