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Tracks and gaits

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Walking barefoot along sunlit beaches warms us. We enjoy making toe prints in firm damp quartz sand. Waves dampen the shore holding tracks firm. Farther inland, loose sand does not keep footprints well. 

Sanderling shorebirds leave tiny three-toed prints instead of four-toed depressions. The species lacks a hind toe to mark its steps. Some birds walk with one foot in front of the other making a straight row. Watch animal movements to notice their gait. Some birds hop with both feet landing next to the other. 

Photo of rabbit tracks in the snow. 
Photo from Wildlife Illinois.


Mammals such as rabbits and squirrels create similar footprint patterns. The imprint shows the track shape, but placement identifies their gait movement. Rabbits bound with their front feet landing with one foot forward of the other. Their hind feet land in front of the forefeet. The hind feet swing wide of front legs by going around them. Look at the imprint in a light fresh snow that will soon come our way. It appears two small feet are behind two large feet. When a rabbit is standing, we see small front feet ahead of the larger hind feet. When hopping, their gait is different than a standing rabbit by having hind feet landing in ahead the front feet. 

One would expect the front feet to be in front of the hind feet, but their gait creates a different pattern.  

Squirrels move in a similar manner and when the track cluster of four feet is observed, we see hind feet ahead of front feet. Squirrels and rabbits tracks can be difficult to separate when they are nearly the same size. Rather than look solely at the track shape or gait pattern, look where they travel. Squirrels frequently run to a tree and climb so their trail ends. Rabbits go around the tree and continue their trail. This is part of their nature niche movement.

Gait patterns change at different speeds, and feet hitting the ground make varying sounds. 

When horseback riding one hears a comforting clickity click of walking feet. Our hips sway forward and back with each step. On a trotting horse we tend to bounce rapidly, and this is usually the most uncomfortable riding gait. We can post up and down to avoid the pounding on our back or we can relax limply in the saddle to sit more tightly. This can be difficult at various trot speeds. With practice, I have learned to sit a trot, but I am far from an outstanding rider and bounce more than desired.

When the horse changes a gait to a canter, it becomes easier to avoid the jarring bounce but only with practice. At a slow canter one frequently separates from the saddle and lands with a repeated thud. Instead of the rapid pounding that occurs during a trot, a slower and larger pounding occurs. As the canter gait hastens, the rate of pounding accelerates. To eliminate the bounce, one may use leg movement in the stirrups to lift and settle one’s body in rhythm with the horse’s gait. This is the most frequent method used. 

I usually ride with pressure in the stirrups to adjust more easily to the canter bounce. When I do not use stirrups, I allow my body to relax and sit more tightly during the horse’s canter gait. This becomes more difficult when the horse changes canter speed or slows rapidly. I tend to slide forward onto the horse’s neck without stirrup aid. On some horses, it is essential to keep weight in stirrups because of their unpredictability. A favorite horse I rode in the park service would suddenly startle and shy to one side for no apparent reason. If no pressure was maintained in the stirrups, one would end on the ground. 

That horse’s gait provided a most comfortable ride and was always my choice of horses. Other rangers did not like its nervous shying, so they usually rode one the other horses. Getting to know an animal’s gait makes for a smoother ride. It is rare for a horse to break into a gallop. It is like a person running a 100-meter dash. One’s muscles and lungs exhaust quickly. The few times I have been on a galloping horse, the sound changes from the thumpity thump of a canter to the drum roll of the gallop gait. The ride also becomes smooth like a walking gait. It is both exhilarating and frightening to move at that speed. Enjoy observing wild animal tracks and gaits.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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