Many riders give little thought to this gait. Big mistake. Here’s why.
Reprinted from the September 2017 issue of USDF Connection
By Sarah Geikie
A good walk has very distinct qualities. Most important, it has a clear four-beat rhythm in which the purity of the gait is maintained. It covers ground, with engaged hind legs and good shoulder freedom. The horse’s back and topline move in a relaxed, swinging manner that travels through to the neck and head so that he reaches in a soft, round way into a receiving contact. The best walks have an energetic, marching, purposeful look as well as a “Marilyn Monroe” quality—the horse’s entire body moves.
The walk is a pace that has no moment of suspension (“air time”), and therefore it cannot possess impulsion, although the walk can develop the engagement and activity of the horse’s hind legs. Because the walk lacks suspension, its rhythm is the most easily corrupted of the three gaits. It is difficult for a rider to improve a horse’s natural walk, but it is very easy to do irreparable damage to it.
Not Just “Break Time”
Riders need to change their thinking regarding the walk. In my experience, the majority of riders through Second Level go on “coffee break” every time they come to the walk and take a break during their schooling sessions. The walk is a gait that needs to be nurtured continually, regardless of whether you are taking a break or schooling. Develop mindfulness as to the quality of the walk. As the saying goes, every moment that you are with your horse, you are either training him or untraining him.
Always keep in mind that one of the goals of dressage training is the development of the gaits. At Training and First Levels, the horse is establishing an understanding and acceptance of the aids, pushing power in the hind legs, suppleness, balance, and connection appropriate to the horse’s outline, which is a horizontal balance. When the horse reaches Second Level, we expect to see the positive results of the training as the gaits begin to develop more expression, freedom, activity, and suppleness.
How to Ride the Walk (and Avoid Damaging It)
Always ride the walk energetically forward. Your horse should “march” in a clear rhythm. You want to train him to always offer a nice, forward walk.
Make sure that your own biomechanics are correct when you ride the walk. Many riders lock and stiffen their hips and backs. Instead, work on swinging through your hips and lower back and following your horse’s movement. In other words, your hips should move with your horse’s hips.
As your horse walks, you need to follow the undulating movements of his neck and head with an elastic contact. Some riders mistakenly try to follow the walk by moving their shoulders forward and back. Your shoulders should remain quiet while your supple elbows absorb the natural forward-and-back movements of your horse’s head and neck.
A tight seat and leg will create tension in the horse’s body and disturb the rhythm of the walk (I’ll discuss that cardinal sin, the lateral walk, later in this article). Work to sit deeper into your horse, with a long, draped leg that is loose but also quiet.
Ride lots of curved lines in the walk. The bend will encourage your horse to stretch forward and downward toward the contact with a relaxed, swinging back.
Ride many transitions in the free walk (see “Walks Defined” below), from a normal walk to slightly smaller steps until you can do so from your weight aids only, with no hand. The more the horse knows how to react to your weight aids, the more successful you will be in developing his supple, swinging back.
Some horses are naturally very tight and contracted in their backs and necks in the walk. With such a horse, take care to ride him in a deeper, rounder outline to encourage him to relax his topline. This type of horse very often is behind the leg, giving the rider the feeling that she cannot put the leg on. But that is exactly what you need to do! Use leg-yields and lateral work to help develop better acceptance of the aids.
Other horses tend to get long and “strung out” in their frames in the walk, with their “under necks” too strong and their backs hollow. This horse needs to learn to accept the contact and the bit before you can improve the walk itself. Use lots of transitions, turns on the forehand, and leg-yields to teach him to become more reactive to the aids. Such a horse can get too long in his strides, as well, so he ends up balancing too low over his shoulders. After he becomes more responsive, the rider can then use half-halts to develop better contact and balance.
The purity of the walk and the correct rhythm are of utmost importance. Any deviation of the correct walk rhythm is a serious fault. If it occurs for only a few steps, it is less serious. If it is pervasive, it is very serious and must result in a low score. In addition, an insufficient walk score must also be factored into the gait score. Remember, one of the goals of dressage training is to develop and enhance the gaits.
The US Equestrian rule book (DR 103) explains that “When the foreleg and the hind leg on the same side swing forward almost synchronously, the walk has a lateral rhythm. This irregularity is a serious deterioration of the gait.”
If your horse’s walk becomes lateral, ride some steps of leg-yield in the walk, as a horse cannot be lateral in the leg-yield. Alternate between steps of leg-yield to restore the rhythm and walking straight ahead.
Avoid trying to collect a walk that has a lateral tendency. Focus on riding medium or free walk to encourage your horse to relax his back and topline, and to stretch forward and out to the contact. Take care to stay relaxed and swinging through your own back and seat.
In the Show Ring
Dressage judges are looking for purity of the pace, suppleness of the back, freedom in the shoulders, and an honest seeking of the contact forward.
Tip: The free and extended walks are coefficient movements (x 2). It will pay off to develop your horse’s walk!
The US Equestrian dressage tests include the following walks: medium, collected, extended, and free. Here are the definitions of these paces, from DR 103 of the US Equestrian rule book:
Medium walk. A clear, regular, and unconstrained walk of moderate lengthening. The horse, remaining “on the bit,” walks energetically but relaxed with even and determined steps, the hind feet touching the ground in front of the hoof prints of the fore feet. The rider maintains a light, soft, and steady contact with the mouth, allowing the natural movement of the head and neck.
Collected walk. The horse, remaining “on the bit,” moves resolutely forward, with its neck raised and arched and showing a clear self-carriage. The head approaches the vertical position and a light contact is maintained with the mouth. The hind legs are engaged with good hock action. The gait should remain marching and vigorous, the feet being placed in regular sequence. The steps cover less ground and are higher than at the medium walk, because all the joints bend more markedly. The collected walk is shorter than the medium walk, although showing greater activity.
Extended walk. The horse covers as much ground as possible, without haste and without losing the regularity of the steps. The hind feet touch the ground clearly in front of the hoof prints of the fore feet. The rider allows the horse to stretch out the head and neck (forward and downward) without losing contact with the mouth and control of the poll. The nose must be clearly in front of the vertical.
Free walk. The free walk is a pace of relaxation in which the horse is allowed complete freedom to lower and stretch out his head and neck. The degree of ground cover and length of strides, with hind feet stepping clearly in front of the footprints of the front feet, are essential to the quality of the free walk.
Sarah Geikie, Lebanon, CT, is an examiner in the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program and a former faculty member of the USDF L Education Program. She is an FEI 4* dressage judge and a US Equestrian “S” dressage judge. A USDF bronze and silver medalist and a well known clinician, she has taught and trained many riders and horses through the Grand Prix level. Her website is SarahGeikieDressage.com.