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.
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.