The Horse’s Footfalls in All Three Gaits


By Walter Zettl

Translated by Lynne Sprinsky Echols

The German-born dressage master Walter Zettl wrote this essay shortly before his death in June 2018. The USDF thanks Herr Zettl’s widow, Heide, for her permission to share this previously unpublished work.


The most difficult gait and the one most often neglected, the walk has no Schwung but ought to be calm, with long, ground-covering steps.  The walk must always be tailored to the individual horse. That means that we can’t go past that horse’s limits and end up making the horse anxious, which would lead to tension, something we always want to avoid. Under foot we should hear four beats, equal from side to side, but not simultaneous. For example, the right hind foot lands first. Then, after a brief delay, the right forefoot lands, followed by the left hind foot, and finally, after another very short delay, the left forefoot touches down. This is shown by the following diagram (imagine that the horse’s head is facing toward the right side of this page).

                                                                   LH                         LF        

  1.  Footfall       O     O        2.  O      O         3.   X     O     4.   O     X

                       X     O             O      X                O                  O     O

                     RH                        RF

When riding out of the halt, pressure from the rider’s right calf comes first, together with the toning of the Kreuz in order to motivate the horse’s right hind foot. This in turn causes the horse’s right forefoot, after a brief delay, to step forward. The left hind foot then lands as the third beat, and next, following a brief delay, the left forefoot as the fourth beat.   

The rider’s left leg, which has been passively guarding, now exerts active pressure in combination with the toning of the rider’s Kreuz to urge the horse forward, while the rider’s right leg lies softly on the horse’s ribcage, passively guarding to prevent any deviation of the horse’s hindquarters toward the right. Meanwhile the rider’s left leg causes the horse’s left hind foot to step forward in beat three. After another brief delay, the horse’s left forefoot moves forward in beat four. 

As to rein aids, the horse should be positioned slightly to the right when on the right rein; the reverse is true to the left. Please note that sawing the reins left and right is to be avoided at all costs!


In contrast with the walk, the trot has Schwung, and one will perceive only two hoofbeats. The Schwung will vary with the individual horse and with working, medium, or extended trot. The footfall sequence can be seen in the following diagram (again, imagine that the horse’s head is facing toward the right side of the page):

O     X             The right hind foot and left forefoot land at the same time as beat #1.

X     O

O      O            In the suspension phase, no foot is on the ground, and the diagonal pair

O      O            switches.  

X      O            The left hind foot and the right forefoot land together as beat #2. Then,

O      X            following another suspension phase, the sequence repeats itself.

The pressure of the rider’s calves and the toning of his Kreuz tell the horse whether the rider wishes to proceed in working, medium, or extended walk. In addition, the rider’s contact with the horse’s mouth must give the same message by slightly increasing or decreasing, but without giving up the contact altogether.


In canter, the horse can develop Schwung to the fullest; it’s a three-beat gait in which one can hear three distinct footfalls. In our example of canter on the left lead, the right hind foot lands first in beat #1, shown in the following diagram (again, imagine that the horse’s head is facing toward the right side of the image).


O  O  Footfall is again shown as an X. We count the first footfall after the

O  O  suspension, during which all four feet are in the air,

as the first beat of the left-lead canter.                  

Beat #1      

O  O     The right hind foot lands first in beat #1. All of the horse’s weight is on

X   O     this single foot. In canter, there are two moments when a single leg

bears all of the horse’s weight: beat #1 and beat #3.

                The fact that the canter puts all of the horse’s weight on one leg twice within the course of in a single canter stride is the also the reason that Col. Herbert Wilhelm Aust taught us not to begin working our horses in canter too early. The canter is a very stressful gait for a young horse whose bones, tendons, and ligaments have not yet finished developing. Now, if a young horse offered the canter all by itself out of an excess of energy, we were not to stop cantering, but to sustain it with the rider in a half-seat until the horse broke to trot or to walk. Immediately the trot or walk tempo had to “fit” the individual horse. In this way we always worked within the nature of our beloved horses.

Beat #2      

X   O      The diagonal pair (left hind, right fore) ground themselves in beat #2.

O    X  

Beat #3      

O     X     Next, the left forefoot is grounded all by itself. Not only is this leg more

O     O   heavily weighted as a result of the horse’s Schwung, but here in beat #3                   this single foreleg must push the entire horse’s weight off the ground into the next suspension phase. This is also the moment in which thecanter stride can be driven forward.

Suspension Phase

O   O      Again, all four feet are in the air.

O   O

Beat #1 repeats itself!

O     O      The right hind foot lands again as beat #1 in canter left. This sequence         

X     O        repeats itself as long as the horse continues in canter on the left lead.

The strength of the rider’s aids must be sensitively dosed for the individual horse and for the desired working, medium, extended, or collected canter. It’s important that active and passive aids take turns, so that we don’t run the risk of making the horse dull to the active driving aids. Always drive only as much as absolutely necessary. 


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