A couple of months ago, I talked about work at the walk for the rider in this post. I promised I would follow up by discussing work at the walk for the horse.
Given the delay, I’m glad you weren’t holding your breath.
Speaking of holding your breath, you’re less likely to be holding your breath at the walk than any other gait, because of the lack of stress involved, and so is your horse, for the same reason.
That is, unless you’re working on the collected walk, prematurely or incorrectly. As I’ve said before, there are great advantages to working at the walk for riders and horses, but it is not without its perils. Creating a pseudo-collected walk is one of those perils. So if you feel that your horse is behind your leg or stalling beneath you at the walk, it’s time to revisit the post I linked above, which has practical advice that can help you.
We’ve been talking about the negatives of working at the walk (that’s what happens when you start speaking of perils), but let’s move on with some positives.
There, that’s better!
There are so many benefits to working at the walk for your horse:
Relaxation. Your horse can easily relax at the walk. Relax the body and relax the mind. This is the time for your horse to stretch and to look around and to adjust to the fact that it’s time to work and answer someone else’s questions (yours). (It’s not a bad thing to follow your horse’s lead here and answer his or her questions, too).
Work at the walk has far-reaching, positive consequences. A relaxed horse is a horse that is happy and ready to learn, with muscles devoid of tension. That’s the big reason why “walk breaks” are so successful in training.
If you establish walk time as “happy time,” you have another tool in your toolbox to use in your riding. Those who use the walk strategically will find that their horses will use this time to become their own trainers — voluntarily stretching and loosening muscles and taking deep breaths in order to recharge.
Warm, limber muscles before hard work. Your horse can warm up mentally and physically at the walk, readying his or her mind and body for the more demanding work that will follow.
In my travels, I’m often presented with a distressing sight — a horse freshly saddled and put straight into the trot or canter. There are times when this is fine, for example, when you have a very hot horse, it’s very cold weather, or the horse has already warmed up in turnout. Unfortunately, that’s not commonly what I see. Instead, it’s the rider whose chosen to cram 45 minutes’ worth of work into 25, using a short-cut that is likely to shorten the working life of their horses and shorten the length of their partnership.
Simply stated, riders neglecting to warm up at the walk risk injury to their horses. It’s exactly what would happen to you if, in the morning, your horse came into your bedroom, stomped his foot on your pillow and then herded you outside the house and made you run. Two legs or four legs, the risk is similar, if you overtax and overwork muscles that haven’t had a chance to warm up.
They look warm, don’t they? Or some would say, “hot.” That’s not the reason they’re here. I realized I was getting negative, and I thought it was time to return to the positives.
The safest way to fitness. There’s nothing like work at the walk to build equine fitness. It does almost everything (except strengthen the stifle, for which you need the trot, and build wind, for which you need the canter and/or gallop).
It used to be traditional to bring horses “up from grass” in preparation for the hunting season, over a period of three months. The first month was devoted to walking (including on the road). Sarah Pilliner outlines the traditional procedure in her marvelous book The Performance Horse, Management, Care & Training. If you’re an eventer or you think you might ever need to bring a horse back from an injury, this is a book you should have in your library.
An easy way to learn. Even if you have a quick-witted Thoroughbred, introducing movements at the walk will likely be appreciated by your horse. Not only that, he or she will get better at them, earlier.
Bending — the effort that underlies suppleness and all lateral work — is most easily accomplished at the walk, because riders’ aids are clearer to the horse. It’s also easier for the horse to do something new at the walk, because he or she always has one foot on the ground.
Leg yield, shoulder in, half pass. It’s all easier at the walk. Same with pirouettes.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask your horse.
But don’t ask him just to mosey around at the walk. He has to work at the walk. Which means an active walk, tracking up, with shoulders using their full range of motion, with the maintenance of rhythm and tempo and without tension.
Super timing for me! I had my horse at my trainer’s for the last month and a half, and promptly lost 3 weeks of work over a thrown shoe and close nail abscess. However, he got some good work to regain his power he had prior to my back injury.
Now, though, she’s about to be on the road for two weeks straight at competitions, and he’s back home. Walking is going to be one of the key parts of my rides with him, as my back and strength won’t allow me to do much more. (Off horse work such as gym work and handwalking, especially when my filly gets here in early October, will supplement my attempts to rebuild my strength!) My first lesson on him after the nail was about 45 minutes of riding, and over half of that was at the walk. He has finally reached the point he can collect his walk, and it’s AMAZING. I have always felt he had by far the best walk I have ever ridden, and I believe it to be a 10 walk; I have never seen a better natural walk on a horse at any level. Because we waited until he showed us he could collect the walk by gradually asking him to accept contact, and letting him tell us when he couldn’t un-stretch more, he has turned out to have this very good, very correct collected walk as well. I actually got some video I want to clip and post online because it was so nice! At the end of that first longer ride (I hadn’t ridden over 15 minutes in 2 1/2 months by then) when we dropped down to our final walk I let the reins out to the buckle and he let out this huge exhale which seemed to say “YES!!!!!” My trainer and I laughed because she could see and I could feel that there was just this sense of satisfaction from him of having finally had me actually work him.
The benefit of such a light, responsive and honest horse is that if I shift in any way he does something. So I have been playing with regaining control of my seatbones, and he has been responding as he should to whatever I do, whether it’s what I *mean* to do or not. So at the walk we have been practicing leg yields, shoulder in, renvers and travers, turn on the haunches/pirouettes, and just various sizes of circles and voltes. It’s helping his strength, and helping me re-learn how to use my seatbones since for quite a while after the sprained back I simply couldn’t figure them out. We of course also do the famous transitions within the gaits – I am learning to ask him to collect, medium, extend and free walk. It’s amazing how my horse instinctively knows the correct aides, and responds to them as he should, thus teaching me what they are.
Anyway, in this 2 week unsupervised period I expect us to spend many minutes at the walk and only short amounts of time at other gaits. He is back in his acre so he will run and work himself just like always!
Cool! It sounds like you did all the right things with the walk, including having patience, when it’s hard to have patience, and now you get to reap the reward.
It’s so exciting to see (and feel) your horse respond to your seat, isn’t it?
Hope you keep feeling better, Net, and keep sharing with us!
Part of why I love my trainer is she reminds me to have patience any time I might not want to. Today he was back to his phenomenal canter (not as great as his walk by international standards, but way more adjustable!), and we got to practice more walk work as well. Then I got off and hand walked him down the street to the neighbor’s house so he could check out her cattle. He’s funny – they scare him, so he wanted to go see them. You have to love the desire to investigate scary things in a horse!
As far as him moving off my seat – he’s tried to do it from day 1. I’m not even intentionally educating him, it just keeps happening and he keeps getting better and more responsive. Today he decided trot transitions would be off my seat, too, not just canter transitions like usual. That’s something the biomechanics instructor I clinic with has been trying to teach me and I haven’t been able to get. Downward, of course, always has been – though those have improved back to normal now; downward transitions were the #1 hardest thing for me to get back after the back injury. I was doing them from half seat instead of from my seat due to the fact an actual downward from my seat was both painful and impossible!
Something must be wrong with me, I look at those pictures and all I see is CLEAVAGE! Cleavage everywhere! I must be channeling a man…
I think you might have neglected to mention an important factor here- it is walking, but walking like you’re going somewhere, not meandering (see, I learned the lesson, not always great at implementing it but I’ll get there).
Funny that Net should talk about seat aids, my boy also immediately understood seat aids but he’s good at paying attention. My mare is completely oblivious, but as Katie has said before, she’s pretty self-absorbed 😉
Yes, there’s a lot of cleavage. But it’s all enthusiastically POSITIVE cleavage.
Good point about what kind of walk we have to have to constitute actually working at the walk, rather than ambling about aimlessly with no purpose or pay off. I’m going to go back into the post and add something to that effect. Thanks Shannon!
Kate Taylor said:
So wonderful to hear your thoughts again Katie! Working the walk is so essential to all horses, but extremely important to the Gaited breeds.
Hi Kate! Great to hear from you. You have so much to share. I hope you come back and keep sharing your thoughts with me and my readers. I’d love to catch up sometime off-blog.
I hope your work with G. continues to be rewarding and amazing. I was thinking of you just this week, as everyone’s talking about the Equine Affaire coming up. You and he were so brilliant and wonderful there.