Soft Gaits Primer
As an intermediate gait, In general, a trot is a trot is a trot. It can extended or collected but it remains a two beat, diagonal gait with a moment of suspension.
The soft gait, as an intermediate gait, is much more complex. It can be collected or extended; be lateral, centered, or diagonal; be with or without head nod; and can have other factors as well.
To get a visual idea of gait, take paper and pencil and draw a 6-8” straight line. Label the right end “trot” and the left end “pace.” Mark the middle and label it “center.” You now have continuum of ways of going between the trot and the pace. Individually defined gaits can be plotted on this continuum.
Gaits from the center to the right will be diagonal in nature. They are well suited to athletic pursuits, such as eventing, stock work, working equitation, dressage, etc. They are also well suited for work in rough terrain.
Gaits from the center to the left will be lateral in nature. They are well suited to work on flat terrain. They can permit fairly high speeds. Then tend to be smoother than the diagonal gaits. They are more energy intensive for the horse.
A centered gait offers reasonable athleticism and reasonable smoothness. It is not a “compromise” between the lateral and diagonal gait as much as it is a middle ground between them.
The majority of soft gaited breeds are defined by some particularly well set way of going on this continuum of gait. Some examples are the Tennessee Walking Horse performing the running walk; the Racking Horse performing the rack; the Missouri Foxtrotter performing the foxtrot; The Paso Fino performing the paso fino. Others, such as the Mountain Horses, perform a single foot which is a broadly defined gait on the continuum. Still others, such as the Mangalarga Marchador, can have multiple points on the continuum (lateral, diagonal, or centered).
This variety means that a person looking at a gaited horse must first define for themselves the task/tasks that they will be performing with the horse. In any given breed or type there will be some variation. Allen F-1, the Foundation Stallion for the TWH, was said to be nine gaited, including the trot. I’ve ridden Mangalarga Marchadors capable of performing the marcha picada (a lateral gait); the marcha batida (a diagonal gait); and the center march (an isochronal four beat gait at the dead center of the gait continuum). Most of the time, however, a given horse will perform within a relatively narrow portion of the gait continuum.
All horses, through their DNA, have a “preferred gait;” or, if you will, a “native way of going.” Timing expressed through conformation will determine what that “native gait” might be. Gait at liberty can often be very different from gait under saddle. Gait is also highly dependent upon the strength and fitness level of the horse.
Just to add the final complication, gait is also highly susceptible to manipulation by human action. Riding practices (saddle placement, rider seat, hand usage, tack usage, etc.) can move the horse left or right a limited distance on the gait continuum. Husbandry practices, particularly shoeing and trimming methods, can also move the horse some distance, lateral or diagonal. A third and often controversial method of gait alteration is the use of action devices (chains, balls, bangles, beads, heavy shoes, stacks, etc.). Combinations of these methods are common.
The advice to ride a wide variety of horse is very sound.
Good luck in searching for a suitable mount. And always keep in mind the famous bit of wisdom from the Princess: You sometimes have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince!!!
P.S.: Shameless Self Promotion Alert: The Mangalarga Marchador can be honestly described as the “Quarter Horse of Brazil” due to its large numbers in Brazil and its high degree of versatility. It doesn’t look like a QH (it’s an Iberian horse) and it doesn’t move like one (it will be a lot more comfortable to ride). But if versatility, a strong conformation, level headed temperament, and easy way of going are what you’re looking for you don’t have to go too much farther!!!