Understanding the difference between a horse's gaits is something all new riders must learn to do in order to be able to adequately control their mounts. The canter and the gallop are both occasionally referred to as "running" by people who do not know how to tell the difference between the two. In reality, they are two distinct gaits that require different motions and movements.
Your Horse's Gaits
The majority of horses, with the exception of some gaited breeds, have four basic gaits. The walk, the trot, the canter and the gallop can be used and changed at will by domestic horses, depending on the task at hand. The canter and the gallop are the two fastest speeds your horse possesses. As a rider, you should be able to cue your horse to go whatever speed you want and control your horse regardless of the gait he is traveling in.
The canter is a standard three beat gait. The term beats means that three footfalls are heard during every stride that the horse takes at this speed. While you are cantering, one foreleg or the other will be coming out in front of the horse further than the other leg does. This is called a canter lead. If the right leg is stretching further ahead than the left front leg, then your horse is on his right lead. If your horse is on his right lead, his footfall will occur with the left hind leg striking down first, followed by a combination of the left front leg and right hind leg at the same time and then the right fore leg will move last. Each footfall is considered to be a beat. Hence, the canter is a three beat gait. The canter may also be called the lope. Lope is the term used during western riding events.
The gallop is a four beat gait and the fastest speed your horse has. When a horse is galloping, each footfall is heard independently during the stride. A horse galloping on his right lead will first move his left hind leg, followed by the right hind, followed by the left front and the stride ends with the right front. A horse on his left lead starts off with his right hind leg, the next beat is his left hind leg, followed by right front and left front. The gallop is a very fast speed and cannot be maintained for long periods of time due to the amount of effort and energy it takes for a horse to gallop.
Uses of Gaits
The canter is more frequently used in regular riding activities than the gallop is. Horses in both English and Western show classes are typically expected to walk, trot and canter on command but the gallop is rarely requested by judges. In competition, the gallop is normally reserved for speed and timed events, such as racing and working ranch horse events that rely on a fast horse catching or herding an animal. Both speeds are adjustable within the gait, which is to say that horses can canter both quickly and very slowly. Some western pleasure horses are trained to canter so slowly that they barely appear to be moving.
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Jen Davis has been writing since 2004. She has served as a newspaper reporter and her freelance articles have appeared in magazines such as "Horses Incorporated," "The Paisley Pony" and "Alabama Living." Davis earned her Bachelor of Arts in communication with a concentration in journalism from Berry College in Rome, Ga.