Paces & Footfalls
If you want to become a really top rider, or even just an effective rider, you need to know your horse’s paces or foot falls. WHY? Well, how can you give your horse an aid to canter on the right lead if you don’t know when his hind foot is leaving the ground? How can you correct an uneven pace if you don’t know what it should be?
To learn these different footfalls and the beat of each pace will take time, however the more you concentrate on it the faster you will start to feel it, then all of a sudden you will understand when to give your aids.
There are three basic paces that you should concentrate on first:
Each of these paces has variations such as: medium, extended and collected walk; working, medium, extended and collected trot; working, medium, extended and collected canter.
A young rider or young horse should only concentrate on the medium walk, working trot and working canter. Until your horse can achieve balance and rhythm in these paces and you can identify and feel the foot falls in these paces you should not expect or try for any of the variations.
Remember your horse’s power and forward movement comes from his hindquarters – if he was a car he would be rear wheel drive – so all his paces start with a hind (back) foot moving forward.
Walk: 4 beat
This is a four beat pace where your horse strides out with his four feet hitting the ground separately and in lateral order. The footfalls should be at regular intervals giving you the sound of four beats – one-two, three-four. (You may get a better idea by watching the animation below and listening to the beats. Just click on the picture to bring it up in a popup window.)
The order of the footfalls is; right back, right front, left back, left front. (This order can also start with the left back and then left front, right back and then right front).
Your horse will always have two or three hooves on the ground at any one time. You will feel when a back foot comes off the ground his hip on that side will drop, his side will dip in and his head will bob to that side. When a back foot hit the ground and starts to push your horse forward, his hip on that side will rise, his side will push out and his head will bob away from that side. Every time a back foot hits the ground you will feel it push you forward – it will feel as though someone has shoved you in the back.
Remember to move with your horse, stay loose and flexible and let your arms move with his striding motion and swinging head.
At a good medium walk your horse’s back hooves will almost, but not quite, step into the hoof print he left with his front hoof.
You can tell the difference between front and back hooves by their shape. Front hooves are round and back hooves are oval (See Hoof Care article in Horse Care menu). Walking over sandy or damp soil will leave a good impression for you to look at.
Trot: 2 beat
This is a two beat pace where the feet move forward and touch the ground in diagonal pairs. There is a moment of suspension when all feet are off the ground. This occurs between one pair of diagonal feet rise off the ground and before the next pair of diagonal feet touch the ground.
When the right front is on the ground it is called the right diagonal and when the left front is on the ground it is called the left diagonal.
At this pace your horse springs from one diagonal to the other, which you will feel as a bounce. A good working trot should have regular footfalls with your horse’s back hoof touching or meeting the hoof mark of the front hoof.
The working trot is also called the hacking pace and is best used for young riders to learn the footfalls and beats. It is also the best pace for riding out in the countryside, training young horses and warming your horse up before work.
Canter: 3 beat
This is a three beat pace with a moment of suspension when all feet are off the ground. This occurs between each stride.
One pair of front and back feet moves further forward than the other pair. The legs that move further forward are called the leading legs. If the leading legs are on the right it is called a right canter and if the leading legs are on the left it is called a left canter.
Right Canter. The order of the footfalls is; left back, right back and left front together, right front.
Left Canter. The order of the footfalls is; right back, left back and right front together, left front.
Remember if you want the right front leg to lead you have to start the canter stride with the left hind. In this case you would give your aid with your left lower leg behind the girth just as the left hind foot was leaving the ground. If you were in trot at the time the left hind would be leaving the ground at the same time as the right front foot. Just reverse everything for the left canter lead.
Gallop: 4 beat
This pace is used by horses to flee danger, so we hope you’re not on board if this happens. It is also used in Racing and you could be asked for an in-hand gallop in a Show Hunter class at a show. The gallop is a faster canter where your horse lengthens stride and stretches forward. When it does this the second beat of the canter stride, which is two diagonal feet together, is broken into two separate footfalls.
Therefore the gallop is a four beat pace with either a right or left leading leg.
Right Gallop. The order of the footfalls is; left back, right back, left front, right front.
Left Gallop. The order of the footfalls is; right back, left back, right front, left front.
Rein Back: 2 beat
Although this is not a pace it is a movement that you will use and be asked for.
This is a two beat pace which is the same as the trot footfalls but without the moment of suspension between the diagonal pairs hitting the ground.
The order of the footfalls is; a back foot and diagonal front together (or almost together), then the other back foot and diagonal front together (or almost together).
Paces video: AQHA Western Pleasure