The analysis of terrestrial locomotion over the past half century has focused largely on strategies of mechanical energy recovery used during walking and running. In contrast, we describe the underlying mechanics of legged locomotion as a collision-like interaction that redirects the centre of mass (CoM). We introduce the collision angle, determined by the angle between the CoM force and velocity vectors, and show by computing the collision fraction, a ratio of actual to potential collision, that the quadrupedal walk and gallop employ collision-reduction strategies while the trot permits greater collisions. We provide the first experimental evidence that a collision-based approach can differentiate quadrupedal gaits and quantify interspecific differences. Furthermore, we show that this approach explains the physical basis of a commonly used locomotion metric, the mechanical cost of transport. Collision angle and collision fraction provide a unifying analysis of legged locomotion which can be applied broadly across animal size, leg number and gait.