The term “palfrey” was used during the medieval period to classify a particular type of horse with a unique four beat gait which was suited to long endurance rides. Because the gait of a palfrey was naturally smooth and flowing, the horse was a preferred riding horse, especially for women. Men, however, also rode palfreys, especially on long trips, as the horses could move for hours at an even pace. A palfrey was very costly, and only members of the nobility could afford one.
A palfrey is not a specific breed of horse, but rather a type. Today, the palfrey is better known as a singlefooter, a reference to the unique ground covering gait which the horses employ. They move in a four beat rhythm which is extremely smooth, and also highly energy efficient. The gait is comparable to a trot in terms of speed, but far more comfortable, and at a certain point during the horse's movement, only one of its feet will be on the ground. Hence, the name “singlefooter” to refer to these unique gaited horses, which began to experience a resurgence in popularity in the 1990s, when riders found that the gait worked well for disabled and new riders, as well as being pleasant and fun for experienced riders.
In the medieval era, a palfrey of quality was usually owned by a member of the upper class, and peasants and members of the lower classes rode trotting horses or rounceys, common horses which did not have special gaits. Typically, a knight would own several palfreys for use while traveling, and women rode palfreys exclusively. The highly bred horses could be used for hunting and pleasure riding as well as journeys. In all cases, a palfrey had to be beautiful as well as talented, as many medieval paintings of horses and their riders attest.
The unique gait of the palfrey is sometimes classified as an amble, because it is effortless for the horse and smooth for the rider. Many breeds of horse, such as the American Saddlebred and Icelandics, also have unique gaits which can be brought out in naturally talented horses. The amble of a singlefooter is related to these gaits, but requires less effort on the part of the horse. Numerous breeds are crossbred to bring out the unique ambling gait of a palfrey, with singlefooter registration associations awarding inclusion of the basis of merit, rather than bloodlines.