Some riders keep to the walk, a sweet sashay that’s almost a lollygag. They want their horse to stay calm, they have anxiety about going faster, or they don’t. They think the walk is the safe gait, maybe the kind gait. Hoping to not disturb the horse, the rider would rather not admit it, but they want control. They just walk. It feels warm and connected. They absolutely love riding, just as long as they don’t have to go fast.
Meanwhile, some of us are so bored by the walk that we seem to have a quota. No more than ten walk steps per ride, and then it’s a tight scurry of a walk, the horse practically jitterbugging along. Then mostly trotting, but oh, the canter. They like the thrill of chasing the air and being a little out of control. There is no jump that doesn’t call their name, no mountain trail that isn’t better at the trot, no gallop on the beach that isn’t improved by splashing.
Do you take the walk seriously or is it a default way of going? Perhaps you think the real training work must be done at trot and canter. Maybe the walk is so comfortable that it’s easy to get complacent about it. In dressage, we are pretty serious about the walk. It is scored at a double coefficient at all levels. The walk is respected as the queen of gaits because it benefits both the horse and the rider. It’s fundamental to training; all work is learned in the walk first. It’s the hardest gait to improve but the easiest to damage.
The walk is even deeper than that for horses. Grazing and wandering is the rhythm of life for a horse. Nothing is more natural. He can think during movement forward, finding balance and wellbeing within the rhythm and sway of his stride. In a sense, it’s self-soothing as the movement can have a kind of rolling perpetual motion, one hoof after another. The movement over the ground is joined by movement of all the body systems creating a sense of well-being.
The rider’s position can be quieter at the walk, we can be in more control of our bodies as we give smaller aids. Because it is a slower gait, we can have the best coordination of our movements. We have time to reason what we’re asking and learn how to be effective. The walk is a gait of patience for horses and humans who can each panic quicker than the other would like. At the walk, we have time to be generous with praise.
At the beginning of the ride, both of you are a bit stiff. Even if the rider is an athlete and the horse is young and without injuries. In the most perfect bodies, it still takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm the joints. That means if we want good responsiveness from our horse, he must be warmed up enough to give a positive answer. Slowly the walk improves, the horse’s neck goes long and his stride matches. In turn, that sway gently massages the rider’s sit bones, one after the other, and soon the horse’s rhythm pulls the rider to softness as their two spines work together. One, two, three, four, as the pair of bodies keep a flowing beat, surging forward together.
We want a natural walk, so use a neck ring or keep the reins at the buckle. Leave his head alone so his poll can be soft. This time is only for the beauty of the movement. The rider can gently cue the horse, using only her seat, to take a longer stride. Perhaps the horse answers with a blow, the walk feels even better and he relaxes deeper into its rhythm. Then the rider might as for a couple of shorter strides, again with only her seat and the horse comes to that length of stride as naturally as breathing. In perfect connection with his rider. Dressage teaches that we may get our horse’s attention by doing transitions. A transition is defined as anything you are not doing now. So far, you have asked for three transitions: His natural walk, a longer stride and a shorter one. All done without hands.
Now a long exhale and still your sit bones. As your seat softens, feeling as if it melts into the saddle, the horse will slow to a stop peacefully. Does your horse get fussy with his head now? Is he pushing forward because he has anxiety that the bit will pressure his mouth? As responsive as he was just a moment ago, this is a good time to encourage yourself to ask for a smaller, more peaceful cue.
Use an inhale to energize a horse into moving forward, or to let him know something is coming. Energy is found in an inhale. While walking the rider should focus on their breath. That way they have something productive to do instead of fuss with the reins. An exhale is the cue for a downward transition or a halt. Continue to do transitions in his stride, notice that they are improved with your breathing. Let him feel the strength of his stride matching your sit bones. Without contradiction, he can become more confident.
Any cue from the reins right now will feel like a contradiction to moving forward for your horse. The pressure on the bars of his mouth, metal on bone, will create resistance in his gait. It will threaten the horse’s ability to move on, equivalent to driving with the parking brake on. Again, during this twenty-minute warm-up time, we are building strength and suppleness. Leave his face be. Let him just have one goal: a ground covering walk that is relaxed. Let the Queen be.
If you feel a need to correct something, deepen your breathing by counting to three on an inhale, in time with your horse’s hoof falls, pause a stride, and exhale for three strides, pause, and repeat. If you still really want to correct something, feel your legs long and heavy in the stirrup. Let your shoulder blades, exhale, slide lower on your back. As you walk an arc, use your inside calf to pulse as light as a feather on his flank, allowing his inside ribs to flex and his outside of the arc ribs to stretch. Pulse three strides, in time with a breath. Feel his neck go longer, his balance improves. You might make a small waist turn, and your horse reverses direction as long as you do not break the rhythm you have found together. You can leg yield or do a walk pirouette; the rhythm is all that matters. The horse has been allowed to move freely forward, still without reins or correction. This is the gait that makes him strong. His body feels good. It is as simple and profound as that.
This is an energetic, ground-covering, long-strided walk, without tense scurrying and with no lollygagging. The walk is the price of admission to his world. Default nothing: Let it feel like a jet taking off. Let it feel like a locomotive. It’s the walk he uses at liberty in turnout; our riding cannot be allowed to destroy that beautiful stride. That means our complacency in the saddle is poison to his long term welfare. Let yourself shine with a brilliant focus. Default nothing: Let your seat spark the dance. Let your hands be bored wallflowers.
The walk is the gait we begin with and the gait left at the end. For its regal power, its flawless balance, and its irresistible rhythm, some of us, whether horses or humans, will always love the passion of a slow dance.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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29 thoughts on “Walk, The Queen of Gaits”
The walk has taught me how to listen, now I listen before speaking, our conversations improve when I listen first.
Well done to your horse… they had done their job well. Thanks, Ann
This article has a great feel, just like a good walk!
Thanks, Mary. (that was my goal!)
I couldn’t love this any more than I do ! Thank you so much for your tribute to the walk. I will admit part of my love of the walk these days is related to age and more confidence when going slow, thought I am certainly not opposed to a nice canter and running walk/gait.
Someone (??) said every issue your horse has at trot/gait/canter is quite evident at the walk and should be worked out at the walk. The walk being the foundation of everything else and all other movement. Of course having only owned ‘WALKING horses’ I am especially appreciative of the immense ground covering,loose, long stride walk ….
Great comment, thanks, Sarah. True that some breeds do really rock the walk.
I will read this again and again! Wonderfully descriptive and helpful!
Loved this, Anna! My horse and I are walkers-that’s what we mostly do on our trails. It’s also one of the most misunderstood gaits as some riders feel that, unless they’re tearing along in a fast canter or even a full gallop, they’re not really riding. For them I say, “Let them”, as they hurry past us.
I agree, it took some willingness to understand the value of walk. Not everyone is willing to reframe…Thanks, Susan
Loved this. Reminds me of the work I most need to do.
After I read your books I started working on the walk with my horse. She always felt “lazy” at all gaits. Since starting really concentrating on the walk, we are moving with more energy at all gaits, it feels swingy and easier. We do lots of transitions within the walk and to a halt. Most of the time it’s just on the thought or an inhale/exhale. She halts softly and straight. It’s wonderful.
Thank you for the suggestion. It’s really improving my riding and our relationship.
What a huge improvement of the quality of the ride….for the HORSE. Thanks Jan
Spot on for me. To slow down , note and appreciate feeling my mount and me in rhythm,
Perfect. Thanks, Judi
Having done Endurance for the last 17 years… Warming up at a walk is so important!
I do not do any Hill work before 30 minutes at walking.
Loved your article……
Crucial for long distance horses… Thanks, Lyn
Beautifully written and timelessly true. Walking on the trails is the best to me,
I think we feel ‘allowed’ to let it be the primary gait, let the horse move freely on a loose rein and breathe deep of the woods. Can’t wait to dance the walk this weekend!
Sounds great, thanks, Shaste
Lovely article, thank you <3
Thank you, Anna, for extolling the virtues of riding at the walk. I used to live in Colorado and enjoyed learning from Andrea Datz (Tango With Horses) who emphasized to me how important walk work can be. On a similar note, one of my goals for 2020 was to start a blog about living as a backyard horse-keeper. I often ride alone at home and wrote a blog post ealier this month that includes a section on doing more walk work. https://mallorcajunocom.wordpress.com/2020/02/04/ten-ideas-for-staying-in-the-saddle-if-you-struggle-with-riding-alone/. I look forward to doing more walk work with my horses this Spring!
Thanks, Mary. Good luck with the blog.
Anna, I love how to tie in the riding with the breath –
“Use an inhale to energize a horse into moving forward, or to let him know something is coming. Energy is found in an inhale. While walking the rider should focus on their breath. That way they have something productive to do instead of fuss with the reins. An exhale is the cue for a downward transition or a halt. Continue to do transitions in his stride, notice that they are improved with your breathing. Let him feel the strength of his stride matching your sit bones. Without contradiction, he can become more confident.”
“If you feel a need to correct something, deepen your breathing by counting to three on an inhale, in time with your horse’s hoof falls, pause a stride, and exhale for three strides, pause, and repeat. If you still really want to correct something, feel your legs long and heavy in the stirrup. Let your shoulder blades, exhale, slide lower on your back. As you walk an arc, use your inside calf to pulse as light as a feather on his flank, allowing his inside ribs to flex and his outside of the arc ribs to stretch. Pulse three strides, in time with a breath. Feel his neck go longer, his balance improves.”
I’ve always known it’s good to focus on my breath while being around a horse as well as roding it, mostly to make sure I’m not holding my breath and getting tense, and to stay present. I’ve never before heard it tied in so closely with the riding like that and I love it! Makes so much sense ?
Thanks, Lisa. I think our relationship with our breath is as ongoing as the relationship with horses.
Anna, my first horse “Tango” was an 11y.o. half Arab, half Quarter horse. He had a smooth, rhythmic, far reaching walk. I was a brand new rider, had nothing to do with its development, and simply enjoyed the ride. I’ve since measured every horse’s walk against Tango’s, and never been able to feel that kind of walk again. BUT…..after trying your neck ring recommendation a month or so ago, I felt a more open walk with my little Arab, Raz, than I ever have before. Clearly my inept attempt at connection has been understood as correction and created resistance. I am so grateful for your insight, and look forward to creating a comfortable walk for my horses now and for those to come.
Yay for a wonderful walk… and I think horses always respond to head-gear, bridle, bitless bridle or halter differently than a good ole neckring. Thanks Laurie.