Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Pace of Life

For a cheap thrill, go to the zoo and watch the maned wolf pace back and forth.

I'll explain why, but let me first digress by talking about what happens when you follow a cat too closely.

When our Siamese, Fez, walked down the hardwood floor of our hall, she'd put one foot down at a time.

If I followed her closely, she'd get annoyed and speed up to a trot. At a trot, she'd alternate diagonally opposite feet: right front with left rear, then left front with right rear.

You could hear the change. At a walk, she had a four-beat rhythm: "Click-click-click-click. I am walking. I am walking. I am walking ..." Trotting, she switched to two: "Trot-trot. Trot-trot. Hurry. Hurry. ...."

If that didn't work and I kept dogging her heels, she'd speed up again to a gallop. A gallop sounds like the Lone Ranger theme song -- three beats, then a rest. "Ba-da-DUMP. Ba-da_DUMP. Run awAY. Run awAY. ...." In a gallop, first one front foot hits, then the other, then the two back feet hit together and push off.

These three gaits -- walk, trot, and gallop -- come as standard equipment in mammals. Each is energy efficient at a particular speed. Think of them as three gears. If you're tracking, you can tell how fast an animal was moving by which of these three patterns its tracks make.

Some mammals think outside the box. Obviously, two-legged mammals (humans) aren't confined to these gaits. Neither are some horses.

Some horses are "five-gaited" (or just "gaited"). Besides the usual three, they have two extra gaits: a single-foot (or rack) and a pace. Both are mid-speed gaits, like the trot.

If you know the tune "Uncle Joe" (also known as "Hop High Ladies" and "Miss McLeod's Reel")

Did you ever go to meetin', Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe?
Did you ever go to meetin', Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe?
Did you ever go to meetin', Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe?
I don't mind the weather if the wind don't blow.
you'll know the verse
Is your horse a single-footer, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe?
...
Now you know what it means, too.

The single-foot is a four-beat gait: sort of a fast walk. Each foot lands independently.

Single-footing is tiring for the horse, but very smooth and easy on the rider. My mother said her grandfather rode a gaited mule. "You could ride all day and so could it." When my mother was little, my grandfather bought her a gaited pony, from a circus that was passing through.

Being gaited is genetic. (It's a single-gene dominant.) A single-footer is born, not made. The best-known gaited breed, the American Standardbred, was created to make long rides around the plantation easy.

Nowadays, American Standardbreds are used as harness racers, exploiting their other gait: a pace.

The pace has a two-beat rhythm, like a trot, but instead of moving diagonally opposite legs the horse moves its two left legs, then its two right legs, rocking back and forth from side to side.

Sitting a trotting horse wouldn't be easy. Pacer races are harness races, with the horses pulling little buggies called "sulkies." (Here's a picture.)

A few species substitute the pace for the trot. Camelids -- camels, llamas, and alpacas --are natural pacers. So far as I know, camels are the only pacing animals that anyone rides. (Our local zoo used to have both a camel and an elephant for little kids to ride, but PETA hounded them into stopping, even though people have been riding elephants and camels forever.)

One day, when I'd taken my family down to the zoo, I was watching the maned wolf when I suddenly realized it was pacing. Don't believe me? Look here.

But why would a species pace instead of trot? My guess is long legs.

Like camelids, maned wolves have very long legs relative to their body length. The maned wolf is sometimes described as a "fox on stilts." Its Latin name, Chrysocyon brachyurus, means "golden dog with long legs." These pix underscore the point.

If you imagine a very-long-legged animal trying to trot, you can see the back legs would often hit the front. A pace solves this problem.

If I'm right, giraffes should also be pacers. I've just never been lucky enough to see a giraffe in a hurry.

Maybe I just need to follow them more closely.

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