While growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we watched a lot of Westerns on television at my house. Dad, who was an inspired horseman and worked as a cowboy as often as not, got a kick out of them. He more or less saw them as comedies.
The stereotypical characters and guns that never needed reloading and repetitive stories were part of that. But, mostly, it was the horses. While he never said so, he probably believed the casting directors who hired equines must have specified that only two-gaited horses need apply.
A brief explanation: where we come from out West, horses travel with four basic gaits—walk, trot, lope, and run. (Elsewhere, lope and run are often referred to as canter and gallop.)
But if you believed what you saw on the screen, horses have only two gaits: walk and run. Sometimes, a “cowboy” (which, on television, included all kinds of characters who wouldn’t know which end of the cow gets up first) would mount up in town and walk his horse down the street (about the only time TV horses were seen to walk). But more often, he would swing into the saddle and lay the spurs to his horse and race off down the street at a dead run raising a cloud of dust. And he would run his horse nonstop along wagon roads, up mountain trails, across wide deserts, through streams, and everywhere else he went until reining up in a sliding stop at his destination.
It’s likely that horses with stars in their eyes back then rehearsed the walk only briefly and ignored the trot and lope altogether, concentrating on the endless run in order to secure a part in a television horse opera. Real horses, if they watched their on-screen counterparts, probably grinned at their high-speed antics like Dad did.
The lengthy horseback sequences in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit are among many reasons I admire that movie. Endless plodding (at a walk) across the landscape might seem tedious for some to watch. But it doesn’t hurt to give viewers a taste of the monotony that traveling horseback can be.
Of course, folks who know horses know you can (and do) trot or lope at times to change things up a bit—you just won’t see it happen on TV.