History for the fantasy buff: the palfrey

I mentioned in a previous post that in the Middle Ages, women riding sidesaddle were perched rather precariously, could not control their own horses (someone else would lead the horse), and could not ride bouncy gaits like the trot and canter.

Thus what they preferred to ride was a palfrey–an ambling horse.

If you’re familiar with the gaits of horses, you probably know the walk, trot, canter, and gallop. These are the standard gaits that all horses can perform.

What you may not know is that some horses can perform an additional 4-beat gait. This gait goes by a number of different names, depending on the type of horse performing it, but it’s essentially an amble. It is extremely smooth to ride and is about as fast as the trot. Thus it was desirable in the Middle Ages for ladies riding sidesaddle and anyone desiring to travel long distances without being jostled.

In the Middle Ages, horses were not named by breed but by their function, and the name given to horses that could perform this smooth ambling gait was the palfrey.

Because it was never a distinct breed, the palfrey did not, to our knowledge, survive unchanged into modern times, but many ambling breeds do still exist, and they are probably descendents of the medieval palfrey. These include the Paso Fino, the Peruvian Paso, the Tennessee Walking Horse, and others. The reason they are less numerous than non-ambling breeds is that amblers are less proficient at the gallop than non-amblers, and the gallop is important for modern sports like racing and show jumping.

If you want to see an ambler in action, here’s a video of a Peruvian Paso performing the ambling gait. It’s probably the closest modern equivalent you’ll ever see to the medieval palfrey. I think the best views are at about 1:45 in.

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4 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: the palfrey

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    This is really cool, Amy. I had never heard of this 4-beat gait before. Thanks for posting a video. I could not have pictured it without. It looks smooth, but I get the feeling the rider has to constantly keep the horse from catapulting into a canter. Probably, this is just because the gait looks so unusal to me, since that would not have been a desirable quality in a palfrey.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you liked. I have ridden a lot of horses from many different breeds, but sadly I have never had the opportunity to ride one of the breeds with this 4-beat gait. I am dying to do it! I would love to know what it feels like. My understanding is that the gait is stable in those breeds in which it occurs. These horses do it naturally and do not have to be taught the special gait.

  2. Erica says:

    Hi Amy! I am breeding American gaited mountain horses, who are descended from the ambling horses exported from Britain to the New World. Come and visit me and you can ride the gait! Some of my horses are silver dapple, the link that proves they are of British rather than Spanish origin.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Erica–very cool! I’m so glad some of these horses have been preserved. I would love to come see them, although I’m in Seattle, WA, so it’s not feasible right now. Maybe someday when I travel to the UK.

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