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.