Historically, parades both large and small have featured horses wearing elaborate accessories and gear. It takes a calm, highly trained horse to be able to walk the length of a parade without being spooked by crowds of people, sudden noises, marching bands and all of the other distractions at such an event. Over time, the term "parade horse" has evolved to mean not only a horse decorated to walk in a parade, but also a certain type of Western show horse trained to compete in this discipline.
Horse riders, particularly in the Southwestern U.S., Mexico, and areas with a strong Hispanic influence, developed the type of parade horse we recogonize today — the ones that compete in designated parade horse shows. These types of elaborate Western parade horses are still common in local parades in some areas. Training a horse to walk in a parade is difficult, and parades might not be suitable to very high-strung horses. Trainers sometimes acclimate their horses to parades beforehand by having them walk in "all-horse" parades, and having someone lead them through any possible distractions. Parade horses often start out in small, local parades and work up to larger ones.
According to the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), the organization that sets the standards for different disciplines of equestrian competition in the U.S., the finest parade show horses are flashy, stylish and elegant. The mane and tail are long, natural, and often elaborately braided. The horses are decked out in stock saddles and elaborate silver and gold equipment, which often has a Mexican, Spanish or Southwest flare to it.
A parade horse may be any color, breed, or gender, although appearance is judged more than anything in a parade class, so the horse must be without physical flaws. USEF classes for parade horses include separate divisions for pintos, palominos, ponies, and Golden American Saddlebreds. The rider of a parade horse is often dressed to match in colorful Old Western gear that may include shiny spurs, serapes and ornamental guns.
One of the most important characteristics of a parade horse, aside from its appearance, is the gait at which it moves. Parade horses are trained to walk at the pace of the rest of the parade, so the gait isn't usually faster than 5 miles per hour. In parade horse shows, horses perform two gaits, an animated walk that is a brisk and graceful four-beat movement, and a parade gait that is a square, high-prancing movement. Both are showy gaits appropriate for the festive atmosphere of a parade.