The word "palfrey" is cognate with the German word for horse (of any type), "Pferd". Both descend from Latin "paraveredus", meaning a post horse or courier horse. The German term for a palfrey, meanwhile, is Zelter, which literally means "ambler" and is cognate with the Icelandic tölt.
An amble is achieved by the horse when it moves with a 4 step rhythm, either derived from the two-beat lateral gait known as the pace or from the diagonal trot, with the two beats broken up so there are four. There are several variations, but most either have a lateral sequence of footfalls (left hind, left front, right hind, right front), or a diagonal sequence (left hind, right front, right hind, left front). In either case, only one foot is all the way off the ground at a time. Such a gait can be maintained for long distances, and sometimes at considerable speed.
Ambling horses are now uncommon in Europe. They were effectively replaced by trotting horses for several reasons. The first was that travel by carriage became more common, and trotting horse breeds were generally larger and stronger, more suited to the job at hand. Another reason was the rise of the Thoroughbred and other breeds developed for horse racing and for light cavalry, both of which required horses able to gallop for substantial periods of time. Breeds swift at the gallop also tend to trot rather than pace or amble.
The smooth ambling gaits today have many names, including the single-foot, the stepping pace, the tolt, the rack, the paso corto, and the fox trot. (see ambling) Though ambling horses are less common today than in the Middle Ages, there are still many ambling breeds, particularly in North America where today they are referred to as gaited horses. Some of these breeds include the Missouri Fox Trotter, Tennessee Walking Horse, Icelandic horse and a sub-group within the American Saddlebred. The Paso Fino and the Peruvian Paso, breeds developed in Latin America, perform two or three different ambling gaits of varying speed, and are probably the closest modern descendants of the medieval Palfrey.