Ambling. What is it?
The term Amble or Ambling is used to describe a number of four-beat intermediate gaits of horses. All are faster than a walk but usually slower than a canter or gallop. They are smoother for a rider than either the two-beat trot or pace and most can be sustained for relatively long periods of time, making them particularly desirable for trail riding and other tasks where a rider must spend long periods of time in the saddle.
Though there are differences in footfall patterns and speed, historically these gaits were once collectively referred to as the "amble." Today, especially in the United States, horses that are able to do an ambling gait are referred to as "gaited horses." Some breeds naturally perform these gaits from birth, others can be trained to do them. Some breeds, such as the American Saddlebred have individuals who can both trot and amble.
The amble was particularly prized in Horses in the Middle Ages due to the need for people to travel long distances on poor roads. As roads improved and carriage travel became more common, followed later by railroads, riding horses that trotted became more popular in Europe; the dominant uses of riding horses came to include light cavalry, fox hunting and other types of rapid travel across country, but of more limited duration, where the gallop could be used. The amble was still prized in the Americas, particularly in the southern United States and in Latin America where plantation agriculture required riders to cover long distances every day to view fields and crops. Today, ambling or gaited horses are popular amongst casual riders who seek soft-gaited, comfortable horses for pleasure riding.
As a general rule, while ambling horses are able to canter, they usually are not known for speed, nor is it particularly easy for a horse to transition from an ambling gait into the canter or gallop. Thus, in history, where comfort for long hours in the saddle was important, ambling horses were preferred for comfort, surefootedness and quiet disposition. However, if speed and quick action was of greater importance, horses that trotted were more suitable due to their speed and agility. When horses were used in warfare, particularly during the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for a knight to ride an ambling horse to a battle site, then switch to a war horse for galloping into the actual battle.
Types of ambling gaits
All ambling gaits have four beats. Some ambling gaits are lateral gaits, meaning that the feet on the same side of the horse move forward, but one after the other, usually in a footfall pattern of right rear, right front, left rear, left front. Others are diagonal, meaning that the feet on opposite sides of the horse move forward in sequence, usually right rear, left front, left rear, right front. A common trait of the ambling gaits is that usually only one foot is completely off the ground at any one time.
Not all horses can naturally perform an ambling gait. However, many breeds can be trained to produce them, and there are several breeds of horses who inherit the ability to perform these gaits either from birth or with a minimal amount of training. Some, though not all horses without natural gaited ability can be taught an ambling gait by being slightly restrained at a trot or pace. The length of the stride is kept long, but the rider asks the horse to alter its balance to break up the two strides in such a manner to produce a four-beat gait.
Ironically. an ambling gait considered desirable in one breed is often penalized in another. For example, the Missouri Foxtrotter is specifically bred to perform the fox trot, a diagonal gait, while the Paso Fino is bred to perform lateral gaits and can be penalized for a diagonal gait, which in that breed is called Trocha.
Lateral ambling gaits
Lateral gaits fall in the sequence right hind, right front, left hind, left front. They may be "even," with a steady 1-2-3-4 rhythm, or in a slightly uneven 1-2, 3-4 rhythm, where the horse picks up and sets down its feet on each side slightly faster than when switching to the opposite set. While lateral gaits are generally all very smooth, some gaited horse breeders argue that the even lateral gaits are somewhat smoother than the uneven lateral gaits.
The Running Walk is an even four-beat lateral gait with footfalls in the same sequence as the regular walk, but characterized by greater speed and smoothness. The horse retains a regular 4-beat cadence but the running walk is characterized by an extreme overreach of the hind foot (often being placed as far as 24 inches ahead of where the front foot landed) and speeds of up to 10 mph. It is a distinctive natural gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse.
The slow gait is a general term for the classic amble and several slightly different gaits that follow the same general footfall pattern as the walk, in that lateral pairs of legs move forward in sequence, but the rhythm and collection of the movements are different. The common thread is that all are smooth gaits, comfortable to the rider. Terms for various slow gaits include the stepping pace and singlefoot. Some slow gaits are natural to some horses, while others are developed from the pace. All are very smooth; in particular, the stepping pace is said to have been used at times to transport wounded soldiers from battlefields. The amble and stepping pace are slightly uneven lateral gaits, with a 1-2, 3-4 sequence, while the singlefoot has an even 1-2-3-4 rhythm.
The rack or racking is a gait that is also known historically as the "Virginia Single-foot Gait," with many breeds of horses capable of producing this gait, but most commonly associated with the Five-Gaited American Saddlebred. In the rack, the speed is increased to be approximately that of the pace, but instead of being a two-beat gait, it is a four-beat gait with equal intervals between each beat.
The rack, like other intermediate gaits, is smoother than the trot because the hooves hitting the ground individually rather in pairs minimizes the force and bounce the horse transmits to the rider. To achieve this gait the horse must be in a "hollow position". This means that, instead of a rounded back as seen in dressage horses and those that work off their hind quarters, the spine is curved downward. This puts the racking horse in the best position to rack without breaking into another gait. If the rider sits back or leans slightly back, this will cause the hollow back, or the back to curve downward. This allows the legs to trail and makes the rack easier for the horse. The downside of this is that this position weakens the back and makes the horse less able to carry the weight of the rider without strain.
A speed racker can be as fast as a canter. The ride is smooth, and the rider appears to remain motionless as the horse racks. The horse itself maintains a fairly still head and most of the action is in the legs.
The rack is a genetic trait in a breed called the Racking horse. A racking horse can rack as easily as other horses trot or canter. At horse shows, one of the Slow gaits and the Rack are required gaits for the Five-Gaited American Saddlebred, who also performs the walk, trot and canter.
The Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino are two breeds which have smooth innate intermediate gaits.
The Paso Fino has several speed variations called (from slowest to fastest) the paso fino, paso corto, and paso largo. All have an even 1-2-3-4 rhythm. The Paso fino gait is very slow, performed mainly for horse show competition. Horses are ridden over a "fino strip", which is usually plywood set into the ground, so the judges can listen for absolute regularity of footfall. The paso corto is similar to the singlefoot. The paso largo is similar to the rack and can be extremely fast, up to 25-30 mph.
Some Paso Finos, particularly if tired or stressed, may perform a diagonal gait known as "Trocha" or a slower version, "Pasitrote," both akin to the fox trot (see below). Many Paso Fino trainers in the USA discourage their horses from using diagonal gaits, emphasizing the lateral gaits exclusively, though in Colombia, it is more often considered acceptable.
The Peruvian Paso has an even lateral gait known as the Paso Llano, which has the same footfall sequence as the Running Walk, and is characterized by an elongated and lateral motion of the front shoulder known as "Termino." The faster ambling gait of the Peruvian Paso is called the Sobreandando and is a slightly uneven lateral gait somewhat closer to a pace. The Peruvian paso, when tired or stressed, may also fall into an undesired diagonal gait, the pasitrote, as well as a pace-like gait, the huachano.
The Tölt (also, less correctly, Tolt) is a gait that is often described as being unique to the Icelandic Horse. In its pure form, the footfalls are the same as in rack, but the gait in the Icelandic horse has a different style with more freedom and liquidity of movement. The most prized horses have a very long stride and considerable lift with their forelegs. Icelandic Riders will demonstrate the smoothness of a tölt by going at the speed of a gallop without spilling a drink they hold. However, some horses have a tölt that is considered imperfect, and may be described as a "trotty tölt" or a "pacey tölt".
The majority of Icelandic horses can also perform a type of pace called flugskeið or a "flying pace," and are thus called "five-gaited". (Walk, trot, canter, tölt, pace.) Good pacers are held in high regard in this breed, but for a pacer to stand out the horse has to be able to perform the pace at a high speed. Slow pacing in Icelandic horses is considered a major flaw. A horse that goes at a slow pace, or "piggy-pace," is referred to as lullari.
The Faroese Horse and the Nordlandshest/Lyngshest of Norway share common ancestry with the Icelandic horse and some individuals of these breeds have the capacity to tölt, although it is not as commonly used.
Diagnonal ambling gaits
The diagnonal gaits are usually slightly uneven, in a 1-2, 3-4 rhythm that gives the rider a slight forward and back sensation when riding. They are considered physically easier on the horse than the lateral gaits as less hollowing of the back occurs when the horse is in the gait. However, proponents of laterally-gaited horses argue that they are also not quite as smooth.
The fox trot is most often associated with the Missouri Foxtrotter breed, but is also seen under different names, such as the Trocha and Pasitrote of the Paso Fino. The fox trot is a four-beat diagonal gait in which the front foot of the diagonal pair lands after the hind, eliminating the moment of suspension and giving a "no bounce" ride. The foxtrot is a comfortable gait for trail riding and easy on the horse.
Breeds of gaited horses
Horse breeds that have natural gaited tendencies include the following:
- American Saddlebred
- Icelandic horse
- Mangalarga Marchador
- Missouri Foxtrotter
- Paso Fino
- Peruvian Paso
- Racking horse
- Rocky Mountain Horse
- Spotted Saddle horse
- Tennessee Walker
In most "gaited" breeds, an ambling gait is a hereditary trait. However, some representatives of these breeds may not always gait, and some horses of other breeds not listed above may have ambling gaited ability, particularly with training.
From the 1728 Cyclopedia
Historically, as the value of the ambling horse of the Middle Ages gave way to a preference for trotting breeds and the development of classical dressage, training the amble became a topic of considerable discussion amongst horse trainers in Europe. The 1728 Cyclopedia discussed one form of the gait (the lateral type derived from the pace) and some of the training methods used to create it in a horse that was not naturally gaited:
Ambling, in horsemanship, is a peculiar kind of pace, wherein a horse's two legs of the same side move at the same time. The ambling horse changes sides at each remove, two legs of a side being in the air, and two on the ground, at the same time. An amble is usually the first natural page of young colts, which as soon as they have strength enough to trot, they quit. There is no such thing as an amble in the manage, (a riding arena for schooling horses) the riding masters (early practitioners of Classical dressage) allowing of no other paces beside walk, trot, and gallop. Their reason is that a horse may be put from a trot to a gallop without stopping him, but not from an amble to a gallop, without such a stop, which interrupts the justice and cadence of the manage.
There have been various practices and methods of discipline for bringing a young horse to amble. Some choose to toil him in his foot-pace through newly-plowed lands, which naturally inures him to the stroke required in the amble. Its inconveniences are the weakness and lameness that such disorderly toil may bring on a young horse. Others attempt it by sudden stopping, or checking him in the cheeks, when in a gallop; and thus putting him into a confusion between gallop and trot, so that losing both, he necessarily stumbles on an amble. However, this is apt to spoil a good mouth and rein, and exposes the horse to the danger of an hoof-reach, or sinew-strain, by over-reaching, etc.
Others prefer ambling by weights as the best way. To this end, some overload their horse with excessively heavy shoes, which is apt to make him interfere, or strike short with his hind feet. Others fold lead weights about the fetlock pasterns, which are not only liable to the mischiefs of the former, but put the horse in danger of incurable strains, crushing of the coronet, and breeding of ringbones, etc. Yet others load the horse's back with earth, lead, or other heavy substances, which may occasion a swaying of the back, overstraining the fillets, etc.
Some endeavor to make him amble in hand, ere they mount his back, by means of some wall, smooth pale or rail, and by checking him in the mouth with the bridle-hand, and correcting him with a rod on the hinder hoofs and under the belly when he treads incorrectly. However, this is apt to drive a horse to a desperate frenzy, ere he can be made to understand what they would have of him, and to rear, sprawl out his legs, and make other antic postures, which are not easily stopped again. Others think to effect it by a pair of hind shoes with long spurns or plates before the toes, and of such a length that if the horse offers to trot, the hind foot beats the fore foot. But this occasions wounds of the back sinews, which often bring on incurable lameness.
Some attempt to procure an amble by folding fine, soft lists (flanks of pork) straight around his hocks, in the place where he is gartered for a stifle strain, and turn him thus to grass for two or three weeks, and afterwards take aways the list. This is the Spanish method, but is disapproved, for though a horse cannot then trot but with pain, yet the members must be sufferers, and though the amble is gained, it must be slow and unsightly, because attended with a cringing in the hind parts.
In effect, ambling by the trammel (a type of leg restraint) appears the nearest to nature, the best and most assured way. There are diverse errors usually practised in this method, such as, that the trammel is often made too long, and so gives no stroke, but makes a horse hackle and shuffle his feed confusedly. It may also be made too short, which makes him volt and twitch up his hind feet so suddenly that by custom it brings him to a string-halt, from which it will scarce ever be recovered. Sometimes the trammel is misplaced, and to prevent falling put above the knee, and the hind hoof. In which case, the horse cannot give any true stroke, nor can the fore leg compel the hind to follow it. If, to evade this, the trammel is made short and straight, it will press the main sinew of the hind leg, and the fleshy part of the fore thighs, so that the horse cannot go without halting before, and cringing behind.
As to the form of the trammel, some make it all of leather, which is inconvenient, in that it will either stretch or break, and thus confound the certainty of the operation. In a true trammel, the side-ropes are to be so firm, as not to yield a hair's breadth; the hose soft, and to lie so close, as not to move from its first place; and the back-band flat, no matter how light, and to descend from the fillets so as not to gall.
When the horse by being trammeled on one side, has attained to amble perfectly in the hand, it is to be changed to the other side, and that to be likewise brought to rule. When, by this changing from one side to another, with a half trammel, the horse will run and amble in hand, readly and swiftly, without snappering and stumbling, which is ordinarily done by two or three hours labour, the whole trammel is to be put on, with the broad, flat, back-band, and both sides trammeled alike.