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.
Calm, Forward, Straight said:
Right on time with this post. Our footing is so deep at the moment that walking is the only safe option. Thanks! 🙂
Oh no, I’m sorry about your footing. The post I’m planning for “Work at the walk – for the horse” should have some additional practical suggestions. As I always say, “there’s a lot you can do at the walk.”
Calm, Forward, Straight said:
My arena is just straight sand, so when we have extended hot / dry spells it gets really deep. I can barely push the wheelbarrow through it. *whining*
Looking forward to the next installment.
I am guilty of having a constantly driving seat to keep him walking nice and big (nag nag nag) but I’ve been consciously working on NOT nagging him until he dribbles down to a barely moving walk…that way he can respond and I can reward. It’s working!
Excellent, Jenn! That’s great for both of you.
One of the things I’m not looking forward to about getting back to riding – again, after another few months’ layoff – is that we had done some good work on walk, (lots of quiet transitions, half halts and varied circles and direction changes,) but I hope Pom doesn’t go back to his default tendency to jog, particularly downhill when riding out. Watching videos of Ferias I suspect PREs in Spain are encouraged to jog and I guess I am either sending the wrong signals or tensing up – so I look forward to consciously putting your thoughts into practice. Pretty sure it’s not a saddlery or discomfort thing, and I’ve changed him from a Goyo Spanish bit, like a Kimblewick, into a snaffle and encourage him to relax his head and reach down. We’ve also done so much just being together on the ground that he’s much more attuned to us being relaxed and in harmony….. Ah well, maybe I’m worrying unnecessarily – but I should finally have time and energy to find out later next week!
It sounds like you’re well prepared. Best of luck, not that you need it! Let us know how things go…and if you blog about it!
I always find walk discussions interesting, especially given how much they can vary from horse to horse. My TB has an international quality walk. Because of this I have done far less at the walk than I have with other horses; it took strength to collect at canter and trot before he could truly shorten his walk and stay comfortable. I simply didn’t want to mess up his walk, so we never walked long enough on contact for the walk work to make him start to tense, and of course taking up any kind of contact at the walk was a gradual progression. He is now finally capable of a medium walk at a nice tempo and keeping good rhythm, while remaining comfortable and soft in his body. It seems as if it would be easier – but in his case, the massiveness of his normal walk means any attempt at shortening is just tough! At the same time, when there’s no tension 9s at the walk are pretty normal for him even from judges who don’t have the experience/confidence in themselves to give that kind of score most of the time. Also, free walk on my horse is the single best thing which has ever happened to my back! He flows, and helps my body feel like what that is as well. Talk about a good way to learn to release your own tension!
You get an idea here – this is a relaxed stroll for him: http://www.flickr.com/photos/netg15/5072672879/
The Friesian cross has a tendency toward lateral gaits, and typically has a tight walk with no hoofprint overlap even. In her case, walk work was crucial to improving everything else, as well as hours on trails getting a nice forward, swinging gait going. She now actually has a slight walk overstep, and that looseness has extended into her other gaits a bit as well. It’s funny how much more training I can do on a horse who has a much lower walk quality to improve it!
Thanks for sharing your experience with walk work on two such different horses. Great information on how to improve — and not ruin — a horse’s walk. And how cool to be getting 9s on your TBs walk, even from judges that are conservative. Wow!
I think everyone should get to experience the joy which is my horse’s walk! It is like no other walk I’ve ever been on, and just incredible to ride. Someday after he gets more relaxed about showing in general, I think he’d probably make an incredible paralympics horse for the levels which only perform at a walk, because it’s just such an incredible gait. Despite his rambunctiousness, he also just really takes care of his riders – maybe it’ll be something for him to do in his 20s. 🙂
I think I’m glad his canter is nice but not THAT good – it’s much more easily adjustable, and is the basis from which we have improved his trot and the first gait we can really learn things on because he just controls it so easily.
Just returning to your very inspirational post, Katie, having had a fill-up/fillip of Olympic eventers doing their fab. dressage tests today and yesterday.
Having memorised the test, dashed out to try it with my boy. Er, not quite, but just had to try riding better, feeling like I’d attended an intensive weekend dressage clinic!
Pom and I are still all about getting more tlme to practice and working back towards calm, balance and rhythm in walk and trot and wanted to look back to remember your sound advice.
Miss your regular posts but hope you and your YIHB are ok and able to enjoy watching the Olympics. I’m sure all your regular readers look forward to your comments on the five-ring-circus if and when you have the time!
Hello, hello! It’s so nice to hear from you! I have missed blogging and talking to my friends here. I’ve been VERY busy but hope to get back in full swing on the blog later this fall.
It’s great to hear you’re back in the saddle and working on the most important things — calm, balance and rhythm. All good things will come from that.
I did manage to watch yesterday’s eventing dressage…now tonight’s! Even though I know I owe everyone the promised blog post on Work at the Walk – for the Horse. Soon!