Horse Riding With Back Pain

The 8 best breeds for riding if you suffer from back pain

Gaited horses are horses that have, either due to selective breeding or due to their genetics, a natural, smooth way of traveling, as well as the usual walk, trot and canter (and sometimes gallop) they also have at least one extra gait. There are a number of different gaits and some breeds have different names for each gait but as a rule, they always have one foot on the ground at any one time. This means that the horse’s movements are much smoother and use less energy.

Some gaited breeds, such as the Standardbred and the Hackney Horse, are primarily used for harness racing but there are still dozens that are breed for riding, the most popular ones being:

Icelandic Horse

Known for its hardiness the Icelandic Horse is the perfect gaited horse and is popular, not only for its gaits but all for its sure-footedness. On top of the walk, trot and canter the Icelandic Horse has two lateral gaits, the tölt and the pace. The tölt (or tølt) gives an extremely smooth ride because there’s no suspension between strides. The horse moves in a with a four-beat lateral gait which means that there is always two feet on the ground at any one time with one leg starting to rise as the other leg on the same side is starting to fall.

The pace, on the other hand, is a two-beat gait that is ridden at speed, sometimes referred to as the flying pace it’s often used in pacing races where the horses are ridden and can reach speeds of up to 30mph (48km/h). Unlike the tölt though not all Icelandic Horse’s are able to perform the pace.

Paso Fino

The name Paso Fino actually means smooth step and when you see them moving you’ll understand exactly how they got their name. Like the Icelandic Horse’s tölt, the Paso Fino’s three additional gaits are all four-beat lateral. 

The gait that gave the breed its name is the paso fino (or classic fino) but not all horses can perform this. It’s extremely smooth but doesn’t cover much ground due to its collected nature and is mainly used for show and competition.

The paso corto, or short step, on the other hand, is more extended, in terms of speed it’s similar to the trot but unlike the trot, the rider remains seated. The paso largo, or long step, is the fastest of all of the Paso Fino’s gaits (horses can reach up to 30mph (48km/h)) and has long extended strides.

Peruvian Paso

Despite its name, the Peruvian Paso is only distantly related to the Paso Fino, having both originated from Spanish stock over 500 years ago. All Peruvian Pasos are able to perform two natural four-beat gaits, the paso llano (flat step) and the sobreandando, both of which can feature the termino. This is a unique characteristic of the Peruvian Paso where the front legs graceful move outward as the horse moves forward, rather like a swimmer’s arms.

Both of the Peruvian Paso’s gaits can be performed at different speeds although the paso llano is generally slower (more like a trot) than the sobreandando which is more akin to the canter.

Tennessee Walker

Originally bred as a comfortable mount for plantation owners, the Tennessee Walker (or Tennessee Walking Horse) has three unique gaits as well as a different canter to most other breeds. 

The slowest gait is the trail pleasure walk which is sometimes referred to as a dog walk. It’s a very relaxed four-beat gait but is normally reserved for the show ring.

The flat walk is smoother and slightly faster than a ‘normal’ walk because the horse is effectively ‘sliding’ his hind foot into the same area the front foot has just left. This results in very little movement being felt by the rider.

The Tennessee Walker is famed for its running walk gait which is similar in timing to the flat walk but considerably faster. The running walk has an overstep (where the hind foot steps over the imprint left by the front foot) of between 6 and 18 inches. This overstep gives the rider a feeling of gliding or floating, it also makes this gait extremely smooth. Most horses will also nod their head in time with the running walk.

A Tennessee Walker’s canter is similar to that of other breeds except for the fact that it’s much more relaxed and has a diagonal movement, rather like a trot.

American Saddlebred

Referred to for many years as the Horse America Made, the American Saddlebred is an immensely popular breed across the globe due to its friendly nature and comfortable ride. As well as the ‘normal’ walk, trot and canter, all American Saddlebreds have an extra two gaits, the slow walk and the rack.

Despite its name the slow walk, which is a four-beat lateral, isn’t always performed at walking pace. It’s sometimes called the running walk or stepping pace and is more akin to a fast trot in terms of speed.

The rack, on the other hand, which is also a four-beat lateral gait, is regularly performed with speed, especially in the show ring. The rack is very distinctive due to its high-step action where the horse raises his knee level with (and sometimes above) his shoulder.

Missouri Fox Trotter

Like many other gaited horses the Missouri Fox Trotter (or Missouri Fox Trotting Horse as it’s also known) is able to perform a variety of different gaits, although there are three that every Missouri Fox Trotter is able to perform, the flat walk, fox trot and canter.

Both the flat walk and the canter are similar to the same gaits of the Tennessee Walker but the fox trot is totally unique to this breed. Like the trot it’s a diagonal gait but, unlike the trot, the legs don’t move in a uniformed diagonal. The front leg will move a fraction of a second before the rear leg does which creates a smooth, rhythmic, almost rocking, pace that offers the rider a very comfortable ride. If a horse is ‘fox trotting’ properly then he’ll always have two feet on the ground at any one time. Missouri Fox Trotters, like the Tennessee Walker, also nod their head as they move.

Mangalarga Marchador

Originating from Brazil the Mangalarga Marchador has a two gaits known as marcha (which is Portuguese for march), the batida which is similar to the Missouri Fox Trotter in that the horse moves diagonally and the marcha picada which is similar to the Icelandic Horse’s pace.

The marcha batida has a diagonal gait with a slight overstep and can transition into a canter. The marcha picada, from which the horse can also move into a canter, has a four-beat lateral movement and is smoother than the batida due to its collected nature.


A relatively new breed that is growing in popularity, the Walkaloosa is a gaited horse with verifiable Appaloosa pedigree. Walkaloosas perform a unique gait called the Indian Shuffle which is a four-beat lateral pace where the horse moves each foot separately of the other. Sometimes called an Appaloosa Shuffle, its a known for its rolling motion where the back absorbs the horse’s movement, resulting in a smooth ride. As a side note, the breed registry for the Walkaloosa was co-formed by the same Claude Thompson who established the Appaloosa Horse Club.

Take home message

I know it’s a cliché to say that you should listen to your body but it’s even more important with you’re dealing with back pain. Only you know how bad the pain is and how riding feels for you, if you find that riding eases the pain continue with it, if you find it makes it worse then dismount. Everybody is different and I can only speak from my experience but I’ve only even stopped riding because of my back pain once. I didn’t realize it at the time but I had a prolapsed disc and had lost all of the strength in my right leg. Riding helped with the pain but I realized that, due to the loss of strength in my leg, I was sitting off to one side. This unbalanced me which made the horse very nervous so I made the sad decision to not ride until after my back was better. It was difficult to do but I still believe that was the right thing to do.

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