Muscle function changes to meet the varying mechanical demands of locomotion across different gait and grade conditions. A muscle's work output is determined by time-varying patterns of neuromuscular activation, muscle force and muscle length change, but how these patterns change under different conditions in small animals is not well defined. Here, we report the first integrated in vivo force–length and activation patterns in rats, a commonly used small animal model, to evaluate the dynamics of two distal hindlimb muscles (medial gastrocnemius and plantaris) across a range of gait (walk, trot and gallop) and grade (level and incline) conditions. We use these data to explore how the pattern of force production, muscle activation and muscle length changes across conditions in a small quadrupedal mammal. As hypothesized, we found that the rat muscles show limited fascicle strains during active force generation in stance across gaits and grades, indicating that these distal rat muscles generate force economically but perform little work, similar to patterns observed in larger animals during level locomotion. Additionally, given differences in fiber type composition and variation in motor unit recruitment across the gait and grade conditions examined here for these muscles, the in vivo force–length behavior and neuromuscular activation data reported here can be used to validate improved two-element Hill-type muscle models.