Fox trotting is a unique horse gait which is most commonly seen in the Missouri Fox Trotter, although some other breeds of horse exhibit very similar gaits, or can be trained to develop a fox trot. This gait is famously very even and smooth, and it is energy efficient for the horse, which means that it can be sustained over an extended period of time. Horses which are not from fox trotting breeds generally cannot exhibit this gait, and while it is a natural gait in some horse breeds, it usually has to be refined.
This gait is one of a family of horse gaits known as “ambling” gaits, falling in speed somewhere between a walk and a canter. In the case of the fox trot, the gait has four beats, and it is diagonal, meaning that front and hind legs from opposite sides of the body are moved forward together. Fox trotters do not exhibit high-stepping leg action, preferring more modest strides which create a very smooth ride and a gentle rocking motion which moves the rider forward and back in the saddle.
When a horse is trained properly, fox trotting has a distinctive 1-2, 3-4 beat, with a pause between the second and third beats. The front foot also lands before the back foot does, cushioning the gait and making it very smooth. From the point of view of an observer, the fox trot looks very relaxed and often effortless, although it can be remarkably speedy. The horse often bobs his or her head along with the gait, a trait which some people find rather charming.
This gait developed among horses in the American South which were bred for plantation overseers and farmers, as well as for pleasure. Southern plantations were often quite large, so it was necessary to develop horses with stamina and smooth gaits to make inspections pleasant and reasonably efficient. The canter is a fast gait, but not a very sustainable one, and while the trot is sustainable, it is not very comfortable; fox trotting is a compromise between the two which blends speed and comfort.
People who have not ridden fox trotters before should use the services of a trainer when they first start out. It is easy for horses and riders to develop bad habits which muddy the gait, giving the horse less power and making the gait much less elegant. A trainer can show a rider how to work with a horse while it is fox trotting, and how to eliminate bad habits before they become a problem.