The Missouri Fox Trotting Horse
The most important gait of fox trotting horses is the Fox Trot. Within the fox trot many traits need to be considered: rhythm, back end, front end, and animation. Each trait of a fox trot also has finer points that must be considered for a proper evaluation.
The most defining trait of the fox trot is rhythm. The fox trot is a broken diagonal gait that has a defining sound. The sound of this rhythm is produced by one front foot touching the ground a split second before the diagonal rear foot, and then a pause followed by the other front foot and then the other rear foot a split second later. This rhythm has been described as having the same cadence as "a chunk of meat and two potatoes".
Other trots shown in the breed need to be examined. A square trot, which all have seen, is a diagonal gait but it is not a broken gait. A running walk is a broken gait, but it is not a diagonal gait. A flat pace is neither broken nor diagonal.
The real problem is in deciding how much of a break is needed in the broken part of the fox trot standard. While impossible to define in words alone the rhythm is between a running walk and a hard trot. A horse can have a longer break in its trot than the standard, which would make it closer to a running walk or "slick," and still be fox trotting. Likewise, a horse can have a shorter break in its trot, which would make it closer to a square trot or "trotty" and still be fox trotting. Nevertheless, a horse having the ideal rhythm is desired over one that is either slick or trotty.
After the rhythm of the standard we can look at some the fine points of the fox trot. The back end of a horse is the second most important part of the fox trot. When a horse is fox trotting correctly, the hocks will have a definite break over as the foot is picked up. A horse that is not breaking over in the hocks is gaity in the back end. When a horse is setting down the rear foot, the motion should be a smooth sliding action that is low to the ground. A horse that carries its foot forward but hesitates before setting it down either is being trotty or has a tight stifle. The amount of over stride is another consideration, but not as defining. A fox trotting horse should over stride. However, a horse with a large over stride in the trot may be over striding its natural ability. If this is the case that horse is gaity in the rear end and will have a side to side motion in its tail. Nevertheless, a large over stride with all other things equal is a plus.
The next thing to look at is the way a horse handles its front end. The two most important things are shoulder movement and length of stride. A horse should lead its front end motion with the shoulder. The front foot should move forward in a smooth motion and be set down as the completion of an extension of the shoulder and front leg. Horses that do not get a full extension of the leg and shoulder and have wasted up and down motion in the knees are said to be racky. Some horses will have more knee action than others, but the thing to remember is a horse should not have wasted motion and should have a full extension. A horse that is hard trotting will appear to have a "big lick" front end, but such a horse will be penalized for not having the correct rhythm.
Finally the animation of the horse should be considered. A horse's animation is the head shake and tail movement. First, a horse that is shaking its head without regard to the rhythm of its feet is not in time with anything and probably is not even fox trotting. A horse that is fox trotting will use his head as a counter balance to his back end with the saddle setting on the pivot point. This is one reason a fox trot should be smooth. Slow motion film of a horse with the right rhythm, will show that the head motion is in time with the rear feet. The illusion is the front feet and the head are in time together, but that is true only when the horse is square trotting. This is because in a square trot the front and rear feet are moving together, so the head which is in time with the rear feet is now also in time with the front feet. Some horses express their rhythm throughout their body, and others express it with all the motion in the neck and head. While both, if in time with the fox trot, are acceptable, the horse showing rhythm throughout its body gives a smoother ride and should be preferred. Some horses can shake their head harder in the hard trot. Extra head shake is a plus but not if it is at the expense of the correct rhythms of the horse.
The tail carriage of a horse that is fox trotting will bounce when the rear foot passes the break over point. A horse that is to trotty will not have the same bounce in its tail as a fox trotting horse. The tail of a hard trotting horse will bounce with the back end of the horse instead of slightly before the back end. If a horse does not have a pronounced bounce in its tail, check to see if the hocks of that horse are breaking over.
1996 Rick Watson, Watson Stables