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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