Racking is a specialized horse gait in the family of “ambling” gaits, four beat gaits which fall between a walk and a gallop in speed. Ambling gaits are famously very smooth for riders, and also very energy efficient, and horses which demonstrate these beats are highly prized. A horse cannot be taught to rack; it must be born with the ability to perform the gait, although additional training can refine the rack.
Ambling gaits have been cultivated in horses for centuries. In the Middle Ages, these gaits were extremely popular, because people had to ride horses across great distances, and they wanted a gait which was comfortable and efficient. As other modes of transportation became available, racking and other lateral gaits grew less desirable, and today, horses that can demonstrate such gaits are known as “gaited horses,” reflecting the fact that they have a fifth gait in addition to the classic walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
In racking, both legs on one side are moved together, making it a lateral gait. Some horses can rack at a speed which approaches the canter, although it is also possible to see slower racks on display. This gait is known for being very showy, since horses must arch their necks and pull their forelegs up high to rack well. Some breeds, such as the American Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horse, are known for being big performers at the rack; Racking Horses and Paso Finos are also capable of moving at the rack.
For riders, the rack is a very comfortable gait. Many racking breeds are from the Americas, reflecting the fact that early colonists needed to be able to patrol large plots of land efficiently and comfortably, so they continued to breed racking horses after they largely disappeared in Europe. From the point of view of observers, riders often appear almost motionless in the saddle, illustrating the smoothness of the gait in contrast with the often choppy trot and canter.
Riders must learn some special skills to ride this gait well. While horses can demonstrate racking naturally if they belong to a racking breed, the gait can often benefit from being smoothed and controlled. Riders must learn to cue their horses to rack, and to control their horses while at this gait for the best effect. Many riders like to work with trainers when learning to ride gaited horses, to ensure that horse and rider do not pick up bad habits.