The walk is sometimes called “the learning gait.” I agree, although the reason may be that it is usually the easiest place for riders (rather than their horses) to learn.
It’s also the easiest place for riders to ride, which makes it the easiest place for riders to teach their horses, although I think some things (like collection) and some horses, are better taught at the trot.
Be that as it may (or may not), let’s begin by talking about the advantages to working at the walk for riders.
At the walk, riders are usually the most secure and well-balanced, so it’s easiest to have clear and consistent aids. Recovery of the rider’s position and composure from a misstep or a misunderstanding is often quicker, for the same reason.
It’s easiest to teach something to a horse who is relaxed, and most horses are relaxed at the walk. It’s also easiest for horses to remain relaxed at the walk, so it’s the easiest place to work through problems, protests or resistance (which are most often no more than a misunderstanding on the part of the horse).
Because the horse always has two or three feet on the ground, it’s slow, and horses are usually pretty relaxed, the walk is the ideal gait in which riders can work on their own relaxation. The more nervous you are as a rider, the more work you need at the walk — even if your horse doesn’t.
The walk is also the perfect gait in which to work on your position. There’s less movement to absorb in your body, so you can work on putting that lower leg a little further underneath you…on feeling your seat bones…and on applying the Concepts of Good Use in the Alexander Technique:
1. Allow your neck to release so that your head can balance forward and up (if you put your fingers on the hollow right beneath your skull in the back of your head, see if you can fill out the hollow by lengthening your neck and lowering your chin, without tucking it in). You may feel a stretch in your long back muscles.
2. Allow your torso to release into width and length.
3. Allow your legs to release from your pelvis. This is a conscious thought rather than a distinct action, but should help begin to open up your hip joints and maybe even turn your thighs in slightly.
4. Allow your shoulders to release to the sides. Not up, not back. As you do this, you may find your chest open and your breathing fuller.
Your seat should simply follow the horse’s movement — although “follow” implies that the horse does something first and the rider catches up, which is not the way it is. The horse’s movement and the rider’s movement are simultaneous (unless you’re giving an aid with your seat, such as a half-halt).
It’s not unusual to see riders working harder at the walk than their horses, with their seats moving more than their horses’ backs. Many riders employ a driving seat to create a bigger walk (others use alternate leg aids to do the same thing). Both aids can be quite effective. Unfortunately, both remain a problem…
The problem is that the rider with a driving seat at the walk is giving a never-ending aid. Therefore the horse is never given the time to give the right answer, or to get a reward for the right answer, or to be responsible for his actions.
The horse then relies on the rider’s overactive seat (which will cause trouble down the road when subtle actions of your seat should have meaning) or the horse tunes the rider out. Less is more, here as in the Bauhaus. Horses often have a far smoother walk, with more reach from the shoulders when the rider allows forward movement with a following seat and a relaxed leg rather than when the rider insists on forward movement with a driving seat and squeezing calves.
While you’re at the walk, unless you’re dealing with a very young, disturbed or dishonest horse, you can take a little focus off your horse and put it on yourself. After you’ve checked in with your horse to see how he’s feeling that day, check in with your body. Check your balance and alignment. Check to make sure your seat bones are evenly placed on either side of your horse’s spine, and that they’re evenly weighted. Check that your joints are flexible — your hip socket, your knees and ankles, your shoulder socket, your elbows and your wrists. Lift your legs off the saddle and put them back. When you’re in the saddle, you’re an athlete, whether you know it or not, so be aware of your body and conscious of how you want it to move.
There’s no better place to work on your contact than at the walk. It’s the gait where your horse makes most use of his or her head as a balancing rod, so it’s a real test of your ability to follow, and of your feel (that hard-to-define factor that great riders share).
Can you follow the motion of your horse’s head with the exact same tension (slight) in the reins regardless of whether your horse stretches down, looks around, even spooks? Can you keep that same contact when you put your horse on a circle?
Is the tension on both reins even? Is the bit being pulled to one side or the other? Are your reins consistently taut or does a sag appear in one rein or the other or both, from time to time? The nice thing about working at the walk is that you can violate the principle of always looking where you’re going to check on what your hands and the reins are doing.
Do you have and can you maintain a straight line from elbow to bit? If you can’t, look to your shoulders and upper body and hips for tension and try to release it. A following hand begins in the shoulder socket, so make sure yours feel well-lubricated and as supple as you would want your horse in a canter half-pass. Make sure you’re not holding stiffness anywhere, including in your wrists — double that if you’re carrying a whip. If you don’t need to carry one, and you’re working on your hands and your contact, drop your whip or don’t pick it up in the first place.
Test your own body position at the walk with figures — circles and voltes and turns on the haunches or on the forehand or walk pirouettes or shoulder-in or leg yields or serpentines or any other figures you feel like riding. Make sure you’re straight, horizontally as well as vertically, even if you’re riding shoulder-in (we ask our horses to be straight in lateral work, so we can do the same in our spiral seat). Strive to feel easy in the saddle and supple and strong so you can feel confident asking your horse to do the same.
Working at the walk is not without its perils (for riders and horses). It’s easy for work at the walk to become a too-comfortable habit or even a crutch. Some riders keep working at a movement at the walk, aiming for perfection before moving on to other gaits. Sometimes, perfection never comes, but the drilling and the discord has. If perfection is attained, it can be difficult for riders or horses to make the translation of the same movement to another gait, so ingrained is the movement with the walk.
It’s true that horses can become remarkably fit at the walk — especially if there’s a change in terrain and hill work incorporated — but it takes time. I’m not talking about the passage of time, I’m talking about the time you spend doing it every day. Even if you’re devoted to building strength at the walk (and I’m a huge fan of this for a horse that’s coming back into work), remember that it won’t happen if your “hour ride” involves ten minutes of tacking up and ten minutes of talking to your friends. To make sure you’re walking as long as you think you are, look at your watch when you mount and look at it again when you dismount (and don’t stand around in the ring talking to your friends).
Here’s another sorry truth: your horse won’t get really fit by walking an hour a day. Maybe an hour and a half or two hours. And even that much walking won’t give your horse the same flexibility or suppleness that work at walk/trot/canter will.
Worse yet, you won’t get fit at all. After all that walking, your horse will be ready to move on, but you won’t unless you’ve been doing something else athletically. So use the walk, but don’t live there. Your horse will make a lot more progress than you will as a rider, if you do.
Next — we’ll look at work at the walk for the horse.