I’ve read books by authors who attempt to write about horses but have clearly never been on one. For example, one book that made a real faux pas was a romance novel I read years ago where the hero and heroine had intercourse (and I’m not talking about conversation) on a galloping horse. Yikes! Maybe there should have been a warning footnote in the book that said: Stunts performed by professionals. Don't try this at home. If you’ve ever been on a galloping horse you know it’s hard enough just to stay on. It’s not like sitting in a rocking chair. I seriously doubt there's even a "professional" who could pull this one off.
Another thing I see a lot are authors who have a character gallop a horse for miles and miles, maybe even all day, oftentimes over rough terrain like sagebrush hills. Rider/Writer Beware: there are rocks and badger holes hidden in that sagebrush. Unless you want to break your horse's leg and maybe your own neck when the horse flips over on you, I wouldn't advise a flat-out gallop in this terrain--unless Indians are after you, of course. Plus, this is not an easy gait for either horse or rider to sustain for that length of time. Even the pony express boys (who were young and very tough) had to change horses every 10-15 miles at relay stations and rode 75 miles on their “workday” before resting at a home station where another rider took the next relay. And we've all heard of cowboys racing after stampeding cattle in the middle of night. They actually did this, but many of them were trampled to death when their horses went down. So be sensible. If you do have your character do some great feat, acknowledge the dangers and the problems that go with it.
Now for a quick run-down of the standard four gaits, plus a few less common ones.
Gait – A distinctive movement of the feet and legs that determines a horse’s speed. A horse has four common gaits–walk, trot, canter, gallop.
Walk – A natural, slow gait of four beats. Each foot leaves and strikes the ground at separate intervals. An average speed is 4 miles per hour but will vary depending on the individual horse, breed, terrain, and even the rider.
Trot – A two-beat diagonal gait. The front foot and opposite hind foot take off together and strike the ground simultaneously. All four feet are off the ground at the same time for a brief moment. This gait can be rough on the rider if the horse doesn’t have a light, springy step. Rising in the stirrups in time to the beats makes it less jarring for the rider. On the first beat, riders raise their body slightly by pushing their feet down on the stirrups. They come down in the saddle on the second beat and then go right up again. This is called posting.
Gallop – An all-out run. The fastest speed for a horse. A leaping and bounding motion. A fast, three-beat gait during which two diagonal legs are paired and strike the ground together between the successive beats of the other two unpaired legs. All four feet are off the ground for a brief interval. Propulsion is chiefly in the hindquarters, but the forequarters sustain tremendous jar as the horse lands. A rider will usually lean out over the horse’s neck for balance with this top speed.
Canter – Sometimes called a lope. A slow, three-beat rhythmic gait. On the first beat, one forefoot strikes the ground. Then the other forefoot and opposite hind leg hit the ground together. On the third beat, the other hind foot strikes the ground. It is comfortable for the rider and can be sustained for long distances. A rider will usually lean back in the saddle for this “rolling” gait. The speed, if sustained, would be 10-12 mph, again depending on the factors mentioned above.
Pace – A fast two-beat gait in which the front and hind feet on the same side start and stop simultaneously. The feet rise just above the ground level. All four feet are off the ground for a split second and the horse appears to float. Faster than a trot but slower than a gallop. It has a rolling type of motion. Not suitable for travel in mud or snow. A smooth, hard footing is better for this gait to be decently executed.
Fox Trot – A low, short, broken type of trot in which the head usually nods. The horse brings each hind foot to the ground an instant before the diagonal forefoot. A slow gait.
Running Walk – A slow, four-beat gait, between a walk and rack. The hind foot oversteps the front foot from 2 or 3 to as many as 18 inches, giving the motion a smooth, gliding effect. The horse’s head will bob or nod. This is easy on both horse and rider. An all-day working gait at a speed of 6 to 8 mph.
Rack – A fast, showy, unnatural, four-beat gait. Each foot strikes the ground separately at equal intervals. It is also known as the “single foot.” It is easy on the rider, hard on the horse. Popular in the show ring.
Traverse – Also known as the “side step.” It is a lateral movement of the animal without forward or backward movement. Often helps a rider in opening or closing gates, lining up horses in the show ring, and taking position in a mounted drill or posse.
In conclusion: If you are an author who wants realism in any story involving a horse, don't make the mistake of assuming riding is like sitting in a rocking chair just because some people make it appear that effortless. At the very least, find someone who has a gentle horse who will let you ride it around inside a corral. You will immediately understand the amount of skill it takes to ride well, and you'll walk away with a greater appreciation for those who have mastered it. You'll also readily understand what would require a stunt rider to perform.
Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net - "White and Black Horses Running"