As I peruse writing message boards – especially those seeking advice on certain questions – I often see some variation on this:
“How long can a horse gallop?” “How long can a horse go without rest?” “I’ve got my hero needing to ride his horse 20 miles in one hour. Is that possible?”
Nothing pulls a reader out of a book faster than finding something that’s Not Right. If I read that a horse is galloping for an hour straight, I’ll chuck that book straight across the room! So I thought this week, I’d see if I could clarify a few things when it comes to horses and their gaits.
The basic gaits: The way a horse moves is called a gait. Horses have four basic gaits: walk, trot, canter, gallop. (We won’t get into the gaits that some breeds are specially bred for.)
- The walk is a four-beat, flat – well, it’s a walk.
- The trot is two-beat; the horse’s diagonal legs move together as a pair. Human equivalent is a jog. Here’s a link to a short video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkRieNqW56o (There’s also the pace, but unless you’re writing about Standardbred racing, I wouldn’t worry about that.)
- The canter is a three-beat gait; most horses find the canter easy to maintain, and it’s easier to ride than the trot.
- The gallop is the fastest gait a horse has. It’s four-beat, and cannot be maintained for long (it depends on the fitness of the horse, the terrain, etc. but it’s like having a person sprint. They can’t maintain that for long.) Horse racing is the gallop. Here’s a video of the most famous match race in history – Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, 1938. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVT2MPNCqgM Notice how at the end, Seabiscuit’s legs are nothing but a blur? That’s why horse races only last 1-2 minutes. Horse just can’t maintain this pace for that long.
Here’s one of the most fantastic videos I’ve ever seen – this is Edward Gal and his most famous ride, Moorlands Totilas. This is Grand Prix Dressage. Unless the horses in your book DO Grand Prix dressage, they won’t be doing any of the movements you see here – but this will give you an idea of the basic gaits and how they differ from one another. Totilas enters at the trot; the walk is at 3:29; the canter work begins at 4:00. Also – most horses who do dressage work, even at the Grand Prix level, don’t make it look this damn effortless. Totilas is in a class by himself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT6Yn7SLkmQ
How long can a horse maintain its gaits? It depends on a lot of things – are they at liberty? How fit are they? How much does the rider weigh? How much other weight is the horse carrying?
When you see Westerns with the riders galloping their horses hell-bent across the desert – YEAH, RIGHT. Doesn’t happen. Not for long, anyway. The same thing with the stagecoaches and the four-horse teams cantering or galloping down the road – just NO. Maybe for very short bursts, but those stagecoaches were bloody heavy! Mostly, those horses walked and trotted. Mostly they walked. Have you ever seen True Grit? Remember the scene at the end where Rooster Cogburn gallops the pony to death in order to save whats-her-name, the whiny little girl? That’s the reality. That’s what happens when you gallop a horse too fast, for too long.
It also depends on the breed or type of horse you have. If you’re writing a Western, your horses are probably going to be a mix of several breeds. The cavalry had Thoroughbreds, which often escaped and bred with local stock, producing a tough, smaller horse that was more suited to the environment. If you’re writing a medieval history and you have knights, they would have ridden draft or draft-crosses – horses big and heavy enough to carry a rider, his armor, and his incredibly heavy saddle. Here’s a chart that shows some of the major draft breeds – as you can see, there’s quite a bit of difference between them all!
ALSO – if you research this further, you’ll find that many times, Western riders have different terms for the gaits. They refer to a trot as a ‘jog’ and the canter as a ‘lope’. In point of fact, if you show Western, these are the proper terms. ‘Lope,’ however, is often a four-beat, quasi-gait, and not a true three-beat canter, and the ‘jog’ is often more of a shuffle. To illustrate, here’s a video from the 2008 Quarter Horse Congress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stEgqgnbC4M (I’m trying to be fair, but I absolutely despise the way Western Pleasure has gone downhill! When I showed 20+ years ago, proper gaits were still rewarded – ugh.)
I hope some of these videos help illustrate the basic horse gaits, and maybe clarify any questions you might have had. 🙂