by Kristi Johnson
published by the Appaloosa News
Some folks think that the "Indian shuffle" is as much a birthright of
the Appaloosa as
its spots and striped hooves. Others have never heard of
it. Is this Indian shuffle a
skeleton in the Appaloosa closet, or a valuable asset to the breed?
The Indian shuffle, like the pace, is a lateral gait; the
legs on the same side of the
horse move together. In the shuffle, the pace is broken as
each hoof hits the ground
a fraction ahead of the other, which results in four beats as in the
walk. The shuffle is
sometimes called the "running walk", but the true
walk, like the trot is a diagonal gait.
The shuffle, as its name implies, does
not have much elevation. The horse moves
with a rolling motion of the shoulders and hips: the motion
of the horse is absorbed in
its back and loins giving the rider a smooth, gliding ride.
Also, because the pace is
broken, it lacks the side-to-side motion of the true pace.
The Spanish were the first to bring
horses to the Americas. Among their horses
were many the Spanish called “paso fino,” which
simply meant smooth-gaited. These
horses were not a breed but were prized for their natural broken pace
that forced any
other horse to trot or lope to keep up.
These horses are still prized by the
Spanish descendants in South America, where
selective breeding for the gait has been maintained for hundreds of
years. You may
recognize the names: the Paso Fino, the Peruvian Paso, the Columbian
Paso. All are
now true breeds, descendants of the easy-gaited horse brought to the
What happened to the
Spaniards’ paso fino in North America? The Spanish
established settlements in New Mexico, taking local Pueblo Indians to
work as serfs,
farming and taking care of the large numbers of horses the Spanish kept
to herd their
From the Spanish the Indians learned how
to care for horses, and though it was
forbidden, they also learned to
Occasionally a stable boy would run away
with one of his charges, or some of the plains Indians would capture
serfs and bargain with the Spanish for horses. But the
Indians acquired many of their
horses in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Under the leadership of Pope, a deposed
medicine man, Indians all over New
Mexico arose on the same day, killing some 400 Spanish. The
rest of the Spanish
fled, leaving behind their settlements and their herds of
horses. The Pueblo Indians,
being a sheep-herding people, traded most of the horses to the buffalo
hunters of the
Slowly the horses moved northwards and
were eventually claimed by the Nez
Perce and other tribes.
The Nez Perce learned to recognize good
horseflesh and, almost from the start,
practiced selective breeding. Many of their horses were spotted and
many had the
enduring, smooth pace so prized by the Spanish. It is not known whether
Perce bred specifically for the gait. It is known that they valued
horses that could
move out well, and rode with a quirt to urge their horses to take the
shuffle gait. It has
also been said they were pleased with the shuffle because they could
households quickly without shaking things up.
The Nez Perce horse eventually became the horse of the rancher who
unique gait and dubbed it the Indian shuffle. It is said cowboys would
pay up to 5O
dollars more for a horse that had the gait; it saved a lot of wear and
tear on the
cowboy, just as it had on the Indian and Spaniard before him.
Robert L. Peckinpah, in the "Appaloosa Heritage," had this to say:
cowmen are unanimous, today, in praising the remarkable lack of leg
trouble in this
colorful, ground-covering horse. They are quick to point out that his
gait, the Indian shuffle, a seemingly tireless running walk, is a
characteristic of this
clean-legged horse in all but a few animals.”
When the breed registry was formed by
Claude Thompson and Dr. Francis Haines
in 1938, many of the foundation horses came by this gait naturally, as
had before them.
It has been said that Gene Autry used to
show off the gait of his Appaloosa El
Morroco F-18 by putting a roping saddle on him, placing a glass of
water on the horn
and riding off at full speed without spilling a drop.
The closer a breeder stays to foundation
stock, the greater the likelihood that a
percentage of his herd will have the shuffle. The greatest
instance would occur from
strict Appaloosa to Appaloosa crosses.
The paso horses claim nearly 100 percent heritability. Appaloosas with
the gait come
nowhere near that figure, though it appears to be a dominant trait in
Appaloosa crosses where one parent has it.
Crosses to other breeds tend to erase the gait quickly. In fact, as
years go by, it is
increasingly difficult to find the Indian shuffle, and many breeders
have never even
heard of it.
Will the shuffle eventually be lost to the Appaloosa? Perhaps not. Many
breeders find the ride so comfortable that they encourage it in
their stock. One Ohio man, Don Ulrich, is actually breeding for it. He
has chosen the
difficult task of gathering Appaloosas with the shuffle from across the
United States for
this breeding program. Ulrich plans to breed a horse with the shuffle
and long distance riding and has had very interesting reactions to his
One breeder suggested sending such horses to slaughter, while others
enthusiastic about the idea, including those who have ridden the horses
In the show ring the shuffle is not an
asset. A horse that deviates from the walk,
trot and canter is disqualified. Although a horse with the
shuffle can trot, the horse
will often insist on shuffling under saddle. Breeders with
their eyes on the "blues"
would not keep a shuffler for long.
Where does the shuffle belong?
At this moment, not in the show ring. Perhaps
one day it might be allowed in costume classes where one strives to be
the Nez Perce tradition.
Today it appears that this gait was made
for the endurance enthusiast and
pleasure rider. The shuffle requires a minimum effort on the
part of the horse, and
those who ride it say it is the perfect sure-footed gait for hilly
Liability or asset?
It’s up to you to decide.
Everyone interested in the Appaloosa
should be familiar with the Indian shuffle. As
part of our American history, the shuffle could provide extra enjoyment
Appaloosa enthusiasts today.