by Bert Hartog
The walk is one of the horses's natural paces that riders can enhance or spoil.
It is said that the walk is both the easiest pace and the most difficult pace to perform correctly. It is easy because the tempo is rather low and the rider has time to think about what they are going to do when they want to explain something to the horse, however it is difficult because, as there is no upward movement, the rider may think the horse is walking without sufficient impulsion when in fact it is.
In the walk the horse does not leave the ground as there is no moment of suspension, and it is easy for the rider to ’follow‘ the movement. At this pace the rider can feel relaxed and at ease and this is one reason why some collapse in their body like a ‘sack of potatoes’. This is not a good thing to do for any rider, particularly a dressage rider, as aside from the untidy look, sitting on the horse in such a way can encourage the horse to move in the same way. The result will be a horse that will start to drag its feet, drawing lines in the surface of the arena with them. Lazy horses in particular will never develop a good walk with a rider who sits in this fashion.
Many ‘recreational’ riders seem to adopt this ‘sack of potato’ riding style and may consider it shows that both they and their horses are relaxed and calm and for them there is no need for all this serious ‘broomstick up the back’ riding of the dressage rider, as it is nonsense. They lose focus and soon both rider and horse are no longer in this world, daydreaming as they ‘slop’ along....until suddenly, a wallaby crosses their path! It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of this rude awakening to an unprepared rider and half asleep horse!
Some riders see the walk as a rest period, not as another pace that should have the same impulsion and quality as the trot or canter. Certainly the dressage rider will pay the price during competition if they do not perfect a good walk, as in the lower level tests the ‘free walk on a long rein’ has a co-efficient mark that doubles the score for the movement. In the higher tests, the collected and extended walk will always have the co-efficient of two, which can give a horse with a well developed walk the edge in competition. This indicates that the creators of the tests realised the importance of this pace and rewarded a good walk with this doubling of the marks. There is a difference between walking in a relaxed way and walking in a lazy fashion. For a rider sitting on a horse that takes long steps in the walk, it seems the horse is going too slowly, and not surprisingly, the rider will often feel the need to keep on pushing the horse forward. However, they must be careful not to encourage the horse to walk too energetically, which can easily happen with one that works with enthusiasm, as it will step forward with haste but with shorter steps.
And herein lies the difficulty of the walk. The rider must be able to assess if the horse is making quick short steps or roomy steps in a lower rhythm. When the horse is making roomy steps it seems that the horse is lazy, but is not.
In a generous walk, the horse will take the shoulders forward with each step of the front legs. The horse that hurries the walk does not take the shoulders forward very much, but rather takes the legs forward from the elbows, which means the shoulders and the back of the horse are not involved with the movement of the walk. It is important that the horse is never allowed to move only the legs in any of the paces - the whole of its body should be involved with the movement when it is going forward.
An understanding of how the horse’s footfalls occur is important when a rider hopes to influence the length of the stride or quality of the walk. The sequence of the footfall in walk is as follows:
Left hind leg followed by left front leg then
Right hind leg followed by right front leg.
The definition of the walk in the Equestrian Australia rule book, says Section 7: “The walk is a marching pace in a regular four-time beat (left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore). This regularity combined with full relaxation must be maintained throughout all walk movements.”
The rhythm is four beat with all the beats evenly spaced. For example, if the left hind leg moves forward first, the horse is now supported with three legs. Before the horse puts this left hind leg on the ground he lifts the left front leg off the ground (because the hind leg is placed in front of the foreleg). A horse that is free in the spine and ribcage should place the hind leg well in front of the imprint of the front leg in free walk. At the moment that the left hind leg is passing the imprint of the left foreleg the horse is only supporting himself with the two legs on the right hand side. After that the horse has support with three legs until the right hind leg passes the imprint of the front leg on the right hand side. Then again he supports himself with the two legs on the left hand side. It is possible to see this with the naked eye but is easier to see on a slow motion video.
The more the horse overreaches the imprint of the front legs with the hind legs, the more supple it will be in the spine and ribcage. Of course, the length of the stride with the hind legs must be equal to the ones made with the front legs otherwise the horse would overtake itself.
When the horse is ridden on a completely loose rein there are usually not any problems with the freedom of the shoulders of the horse in the walk, the problem starts when contact is taken up. The horse, walking freely, moves the head forward and backward with each step of the front legs. The head also moves a little from side to side to follow the bend of the ribcage, and in fact is known to oscillate ie: make a slight figure of eight.
Once contact is taken up with the reins the rider must be careful to keep an even contact with the mouth when the head is moving forward, as well as when the head is moving back. The problem is that the rider must never work backward with the hands - by pulling - when following this movement of the head of the horse.
Contact in other languages is expressed as ‘aanleuning’ in Dutch or ‘anlehnung’ in German, and the direct translation is ‘leaning on’. This is perhaps a better way of expressing the purpose of rein contact, where the rider and horse are ‘leaning against’ or supporting each other. One without the other will fall over equally.
The rider seeks contact to be able to communicate to the horse matters concerning head position, shape of the neck, length of stride, flexion and so on. The horse needs this support to receive the signals that the rider is giving. Generally horses will feel more comfortable with rein contact than without rein contact, because it is not in their nature to take initiative.
The problem is in the moment the horse’s head changes from going forward to going back, as it is difficult to keep a steady contact at this moment. The rider must be very careful not to work backwards in that moment but follow the head when it moves back.
To develop the length of stride in the walk it is important that the horse takes the bit forward. The best way to explain this would be to say that the horse is pushing its jaws against the bit each stride so it needs to take its head forward. Although the rider should ‘allow’ this forward pushing of the horse with the hands, a certain tension must remain on the reins, making the horse work its neck to move the bit forward.
When looking at the anatomy of the neck of the horse it can be seen that the neck is the connection between the muscles of the cartilage in the tongue, the jaw and the poll at one end and the muscles of the shoulders and forearms at the other end.
By working the shoulders and forearms the horse is more able to put pressure onto the bit. At first, riders may find it a little difficult to keep pressure on the reins when trying this exercise, as they may push their hands too far forward and lose the contact, which gives the horse nothing to push forward against. When the horse has nothing to push forward it will work the shoulders less energetically.
The rider maintains the horse’s forward motion with the legs and seat – and when it loses impulsion, short taps from the rider’s legs, using alternate left and right legs at the moment the hind leg is leaving the ground, encourages the horse to increase impulsion.
This impulsion is only created at the very beginning of the forward movement of the hind leg as it leaves the ground, and then the leg must be left to finish the stride. When the horse has the desired impulsion the rider stops tapping with the legs until more urging is needed.
With this more advanced or active riding the rider’s seat also becomes more important as it can be used to improve the quality of the work of the horse in the various paces.
An understanding of how the horse’s footfalls occur is important when a rider hopes to influence the length of the stride or quality of the walk: Left hind leg is followed by the left front leg, then the right hind leg is followed by the right front leg.
The seat forms the closest connection with the horse, so riders needs to be very aware they are not doing something with the seat unnecessarily. For instance, the buttock muscles are often contracted as a reaction to using the legs to make the horse go forward. Sometimes this may be exactly what is needed and at other times a totally relaxed seat is required. The important thing is that riders know exactly what they are doing with their seat, hands and legs all the time so they do not make a mistake in the construction off the aids.
THE HORSE’S BODY MOVEMENT
The horse has a good walk when the hind legs step clearly past the hoof imprints of the front legs. This overstep can be as much as 30 to 40 cm depending on the size of the horse. When the horse steps forward with the hind leg, not only does the hind leg go forward but also the hip. The forward motion of the hip creates a bend in the spine of the horse and the ribcage contacts on the side that the hip is going forward. Also the hip drops as the horse takes the leg of the ground.
The rider’s hips follow that movement of the back of the horse. The hips can be felt going alternatively down left and right, as well, the rider can also feel a swing of the hips to the right and left when the spine of the horse is bending. To be more precise, when the right hind leg of the horse moves forward the right hip drops a little and the centre of the spine, where we sit, moves to the left.
The horse and rider’s left hips drop when the horse’s left hind leg moves forward and the right hip drops when the right hind leg moves forward.
The spine and ribcage bends a little to the left when the left hind leg moves forward, but the result is that the rider’s seat (in the centre of the spine) moves a little to the right, and when the right hind leg steps forward the seat moves a little to the left.
Improving The Walk With The Seat
The way the seat is involved with the improvement of the walk is by enhancing the bend in the spine when the rider urges the horse forward with the legs.
It is particularly important that the rider stays light and relaxed in the aids when trying to improve the walk, as being too forceful in swinging the seat sideways may throw the horse off balance. Every walk stride has two movements where the horse is only supported with the two legs on the same side and, if unbalanced, it will put its feet down quickly. In this scenario the rider would have achieved the opposite of what was intended; instead of encouraging the horse to take larger strides they have succeeded in encouraging the horse to take shorter, quicker strides. If the legs or seat aids are too strong the horse may also break into trot if it cannot cope with the intensity of the aids.
Each time the walk exercise is practiced, only a little improvement should be expected and, as the training of other movements progresses, the horse will eventually become strong enough to keep on walking energetically with long strides.
So far, only long walk strides have been discussed – however it is important that these long strides should be developed first, before any type of collection is asked for. Suppleness of the back and freedom of the shoulders is developed first.
When a horse is asked to do too much collected work it may lose the desire to go forward, in other words, lose impulsion. The problem with lack of impulsion and too much collection in the walk is that it is easy to create a horse that ambles. This is a walk movement in which the horse takes the left hind leg and left front leg forward almost simultaneously, however in a correct walk the distance in time between the footfalls should be equal.
Teaching the horse first how to make long strides before shortening them is a training philosophy. If the horse knows the full range of movement in the walk stride it is easy to shorten the stride without losing the freedom of the movement. To put it simply; it is easier to ask the horse to do a little less than it is accustomed to than to ask it to do more than it is accustomed to, and once the quality of the walk is spoilt, it is difficult to repair.
EA Level II Dr., Coach Educator, AHRC Level II, Cert. IV Workplace Training and Assessing
Bert and his wife Marion, have owned a number of riding centres. His love for dressage training and his enthusiastic teaching turned many students from dressage sceptics into dressage fans. His uncanny ability to dissect dressage exercises into small parts before joining them together again with a technique called chaining has given many students a deeper understanding of the basics involved in horse training. Presently he delivers instructor training through his company horseridingcoach.com.
For information: www.horseridingcoach.com