Friday, October 19, 2018

Travelling in Comfort: The Importance of Horse Gaits in the Past

by Natalie Rose

Anyone familiar with horses and even those not so familiar with them will know about walking, trotting and galloping, maybe even cantering. There are however a pile of other gaits available, and in the past when animals were the only land transport available people really knew the value of them!

A travelling horse was a defined type of animal in the past. You were extremely lucky to be travelling on some kind of level, dry, well maintained road in the past and as such wheeled vehicles were virtually useless in most areas for at least half the year, if at all. Peasants would have been grateful for anything to get their feet out of the mud no doubt, but anyone who was anyone would have wanted a 'gaited' horse to ride. Trotting horses, so familiar today, were dismissed as bone shakers.

A single gene is responsible for producing odd gaits in animals and it tinkers with messages sent via the spinal cord, possibly making the cord itself more flexible. It sounds terrible and chaotic, but in fact the gaits produced are slightly more efficient than the other counterparts and as a handy by product, significantly smoother and more comfortable for humans!

In medieval times 'amblers' were much prized for long distance riding in comfort and most often used as 'palfreys' - light riding horses. What the 'amble' actually was is open to interpretation, as there are many different gaits for a horse to use and some can be extremely difficult for the layperson to identify with the naked eye as the legs are moving so fast! It's possible that any differing gait was termed an amble in order to bump up the value of a horse!

If you are a rider and want to test the theory, probably the closest ride to a medieval palfrey available in Britain today is on an Icelandic. Icelandics are short, hardy horses that can go for hours in a pace called a tolt. A tolt is like a power walk; to the observer it looks like it would feel like riding a sewing machine, but trust me, it is smooth as silk to ride - highly recommended!

"The period from around 1650 to the mid 1830s brought a revolution in British transport...The state of the roads at the beginning of this period was appalling. An Act of Parliament in 1555 holding each parish responsible for the roads passing through it had made no difference. But with the economy and trade expanding, some system for maintenance and improvement was desperately needed. The solution eventually reached was by way of travellers paying a toll, and this was the beginning of the turnpike system." - Brian Houghton, Coaching Days in the Midlands (1997).

The turnpike system was sometimes unpopular, but it did get the job done and wheeled carts and carriages could come into their own. Suddenly the other gaits were less important as the wealthy now wanted to ride in relative comfort, away from the sun or wind, snow or rain and trotting was perfectly acceptable for this purpose.

One of the interesting quirks of all this for a transport geek like me is that thesedays, when riding is such a common pastime, everybody rides trotting/galloping horses and the only strongholds left for a gaited breed in this country is within driving - standardbreds are used for harness racing where pacing is valued as it is ever so slightly faster than trotting.

Another is the Hackney, now a very endangered breed and inextricably linked with carriage driving despite the distinctive high-stepping trot they use having been designed to absorb some of the shock of a trot, to make things more comfortable for a rider. I am lucky enough to live in one of the heartlands of the Hackney breed in East Yorkshire (the other is Norfolk - I suppose long, flat roads were a good nursery for roadhorses).

"The Vale (of Pickering), the Wolds, the Holderness, probably employ a hundred thoroughbred stallions. One hundred mares are considered the complement for one horse: some of them, perhaps, do not get fifty. On this calculation there are from five to ten thousand horses bred between the Eastern Wolds and the Humber." - The Rural Economy of Yorkshire, William Marshall (1788).

I am very close to Howden, which used to host a famous horsefair, now sadly a distant memory, which would bring people flocking from all over the country to buy and sell horses. From the ballad 'Howden Fair':

It's I have been to Howden Fair,
And of what sights did I see there,
To hear my tale would make you stare,
And see the horses showing,
They come from east, they come from west,
They bring their worst, they bring their best,

Back in their heyday Hackneys would be raced, often under heavy riders more than 15st, on ordinary country roads. Although belting hammer and tongs along roads would make some modern equestrians wibble, it seems to have been easier on the horses than the horseracing we are familiar with today as horses were regularly competing at great ages. From Tom Ryder's wonderful 'The High Stepper', an account of 'The Pretender' at 33 years of age from a letter in The Sporting Magazine, July 1821:

"...the horse in question is now serving mares in Westmoreland and Cumberland....was bred by Christopher Rook (Wroot), Long Sutton, Lincolnshire. His first peformance was in that county, when he trotted two miles in 5 min, 54 sec., with a high weight, upon green sward. I well remember his first appearance in a market town in the north. The Johnny Raws smiled at his emaciated form, but the moment room was given for him to get upon his pins every other stallion that was exhibited retired into the shade in an instant....'it is remarkable that trotters, unlike gallopers, do not lose their speed from old age many having been known to trot as fast at 20, and even near 30 years of age, as they did in their prime'. It appears to be the case with this animal."

I'm sure it's always difficult for authors passionate about their time periods to decide when that line has been crossed - when have you put so much detail from your research in that your readers are starting to notice it and maybe even have a little snooze. I must admit, how people get about in my writing probably crosses that line, my characters never merely ride a horse, they pace or amble on a roadster or a palfrey, but I am allowing myself this indulgence in the hope of subtley educating about the fascinating, intricate world of transport before steam.

The High Stepper - Tom Ryder (1997)
Coaching Days in the Midlands - Brian Houghton (1979)
Horse Gaitedness: It's in the Genes - Natalie DeFee Mendik (April 17, 2013) -


Natalie is a farmer from East Yorkshire and raises and trains oxen, some of which go on to perform with stunt team "Les Amis". She has published two nonfiction books about oxen and the Bearnshaw series set during the Wars of the Roses and Tudor years is her first foray into fiction.

Bearnshaw: Legend of the Whyte Doe

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  1. Very informative and interesting! When I read fiction, it's the story that I want to be gripped by, but at the back of my mind I always want to come away having learned something. I think this would be able to fit into stories rather well.

  2. A really informative post, thank you. The sort of details an author should know even if they don't appear on the page. My wip features a horse-crazy hero but in the Pyrenees. If you raise and train oxen, you may be interested by Olivier Courtiade's mule and ox farm in the Pyrenees, La Ferme de Meras.

  3. I think detail adds depth and flavor to the story.

  4. I was enthralled with this post as a retired equestrian journalist still learning valuable nuggets - and nodding at the bits I remembered when covering driving events (my secondary sport after eventing).


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