Jenny Richardson BHSAI shares her advice on working on our horse’s paces, and in particular, on the walk.
Did you know that as a rider, you can have a huge influence on your horse’s walk? Not all horses naturally walk well, and for those horses that are destined for the dressage arena, improving the walk is a critical part of training and ensuring top marks in future.
The walk is the foundation of all smooth gaits. If your horse doesn’t walk properly, it is difficult to improve the other gaits as well. In order to use their bodies well, horses should be flexible, balanced and work with impulsion, engaging the hind end. Horses should also be as symmetrical as possible, and if they have a clear, stronger side, and a weaker side or stiffer and hollow side, this should be worked on through bending, stretching, lengthening and shortening the walk.
Ask the horse to relax and walk out freely for about 10 minutes. Ride the horse on a loose rein, walking freely. The head should be low with the strides long and relaxed, whilst encouraging the neck to be forward and down; this will help the horse to stretch. This isn’t time for your horse to ‘fall asleep’ and switch off; keep the walk forward, active and swinging. Start building in some transitions; walk to halt and halt to walk.
Test out your straightness by riding off the track. Straightness is key, so if your horse is not travelling straight, it is the rider’s role to correct them. Take note of the position of the horse in relationship to a true straight line of travel. If the horse is carrying his quarters to the right, they are most likely stiff on their left side. If they are carrying his neck or head to the left, they are most likely stiff to the right side. Work with an equine therapist such as a physiotherapist, massage therapist or equine osteopath, who can help alleviate muscle tension blocking the horse from moving straight.
To best achieve straightness when riding, use your legs to encourage the horse to straighten his body, while keeping your hands soft with medium contact. Check your own weight distribution and assess that your position isn’t part of the puzzle; i.e. are you putting the same amount of weight on each seat bone and in each stirrup? Remember you must be a balanced rider to encourage the horse to achieve a straight walk!
Once warmed up, pick up a contact and ask your horse to work in a rounder, more collected frame. Horses naturally travel on their forehand; you want to improve the distribution of weight from the forehand to the stronger hind end. Without leaning forward, take note of the action of the horse’s shoulders. As the shoulder is moving forward, squeeze and release the leg on that side firmly against the horse, slightly behind the girth. This will ask the horse to engage the corresponding hind leg. By alternating the leg application with the shoulder movement for 4 or 5 strides, the horse should begin to engage its hocks and stride out more purposefully. You can build in shapes such as circles, loops and serpentines, encouraging the horse to collect and engage.
Finally, to fully work on the walk, why not experiment with riding your horse in an extended walk; but bear in mind this can be harder to achieve! The extended walk is not quicker, but covers more ground with the same rhythm and tempo. The rider should allow the horse to stretch the head and neck with a slightly longer rein whilst keeping a soft contact. Again make sure that your horse stays soft and off your leg during this movement without tension creeping in. Keep a steady contact but allow your horse to nod their head with the movement as they stretch down. When you push forwards remember to not allow the speed to increase but keep them walking up to the rein contact. Try walking over poles to help increase the stretch of the stride. If your horse lacks energy in his walk in the sand school why not play with the walk whilst out hacking?