Exercises at the Walk
© Beverly Whittington 2001

Conditioning and training at the walk pays off no matter what gait you prefer. Here are more ways to make the most of the walk, and to improve your horse’s overall flexibility and responsiveness.

You can build timing and muscle memory from the walk that will benefit any gaited horse. Stretching, lengthening, straightening and bending exercises are easiest at an ordinary walk. The following exercises detail instructions to create a stronger, more fluid-moving, more responsive mount. The best-gaited horses are those with suppleness, balance, straightness and ability to collect and extend. The lateral exercises will help strengthen your horse to perform the best gait his genetics and conformation will permit. Although it is best to start these exercises at home, in an enclosure, you can incorporate them into a trail ride too!

Leg Yielding
Both the Shoulder Out and the Shoulder In are lateral exercises that are based on leg Yielding. In shoulder-in and shoulder-out, the rider uses the rein and leg on the girth together to bend and flex the horse. When is your horse ready to start lateral work? You can begin when the horse moves freely forward, maintaining a steady rhythmic walk.

Liz Graves demonstrates the first step of leg yielding. Note that the horse is not looking in the direction of travel, but to the inside. These exercises can be performed in ANY tack, even without a saddle and in bittless headgear as shown here!

Shoulder Out
Walk in a straight line, alongside a fence. With light even contact on the reins, squeeze and release the fingers of the hand closest to the fence (the “outside” hand) until you have positioned the horse’s head toward the fence just enough so you can barely see the horse’s eye on that side. Slide the outside leg (the side of the fence) behind the girth a few inches, keeping your weight on the opposite (inside) seat bone. Your horse should immediately swing its hindquarters to the inside while the forehand stays on track. If not, cue him forward, then ask again. The response should be as if your leg was a cattle prod, the horse should eagerly move away from it! The instant the horse responds, resume the “on the girth position” and go straightforward. It is important that the horse doesn’t loose forward motion, shorten strides or move sideways - only the haunches should move over. Repeat 5 or 6 of these transitions with each side of the horse toward the fence. 
Shoulder In
Once your horse is performing the leg yield, the shoulder-in can be incorporated to loosen the shoulders and strengthen the hindquarters. Begin by walking a straight line with the fence to your left. Using the same soft hand squeeze and release, this time positioning the horse’s head AWAY from the fence. Adjust your seat very slightly so that your pelvis and shoulders are parallel to the angle of the horse's shoulders. Press the outside rein (the one toward the fence) against the neck just in front of the withers to bring the shoulders over, away from the track of the hind legs. Slide your inside leg (on the side away from the fence) back a few inches. Keeping your weight on the opposite seat bone, press your leg into the horse's side, angled toward the outside shoulder. Keep your outside leg just back from the girth, ready to keep the horse from turning.
Shoulder In Note the position of the rider’s shoulders, leg and hands
With the fence on your left, the horse’s left front hoof and right hind hoof should be on the same track.
Do this only for a few strides at first, as this is very difficult for the horse. Eventually increase the distance, but don’t overdo it, as overwork makes horses stiff and resentful. As the horse performs the shoulder-in, his front legs cross one another at every step, stretching the muscles in his chest and shoulders. His weight is shifted to the rear and over the inside hind leg, strengthening the hindquarters and flexion along the back, from poll to tail, which helps to develop the elasticity of the muscles along the spine. The horse should step well underneath himself with the inside hind leg.

The walk is the foundation of all easy gaits.

Rein back
Back up six steps, asking for the back with light contact on the mouth, blocking the forward motion, but NOT pulling back on the reins, while applying leg BEHIND the girth. Proceed immediately forward into the walk without any hesitation. As soon as your leg position changes from behind the girth to on the girth and you release your “blocking hands”; the horse should react by going forward. This exercise MUST be mastered, where the horse is working relaxed and not fighting the rider to perform the exercise PRIOR to beginning the Rein back/flex or Rocking Horse exercises.

Rein back/flex
Back up a few steps and while backing wiggle the fingers of your left hand just enough to bring the left eye into view. Repeat with the right side. Once the horse can continue backing straight and flex to each side, alternate from right to left without stopping the back.

The Rocking horse 
This exercise should be done with continuous motion, no halting from “shifting gears” from forward to reverse. Ask for four steps backward (leg behind girth), then four steps forward (leg on girth), and repeat four steps backward. This exercise will lighten the forehand, strengthen the haunches and increase elasticity of the horse’s stride. This exercise is VERY hard work for the horse and should not be incorporated more than 2 or 3 times per riding session. It is an excellent means to lighten the horse to the requests from the rider, as well as resulting with a higher degree of coiling in the loin in the horse.
Beginning of Rocking Horse, asking for the STRAIGHT Back
The horse is now starting forward, notice the engagement and lift in the hind.
Note the increased stride length in the hind as the horse competes the first step forward.

Varied Walk
Ask for the Extended walk for 10 strides and then come back to a Working Walk for 12 strides, then Collected Walk for 10 strides.  Repeat 5 to 10 times. Be sure your horse lengthens and shortens his strides immediately upon your cue.

Remember that when circling in the direction of the horse’s stiff side, all leg aids must be stronger. 
WHY? Because the horse will tend to throw his haunches out to avoid bending his inflexible side. A strong, outside leg aid, behind the girth, will block the horse’s haunches from swinging out. Apply your inside leg on the girth, to cause the horse to bend his barrel and neck, as well. When traveling to the horse’s hollow side (his weaker, but more flexible side), the horse will often carry his haunches too much to the inside, because it is easier for him than to carry them straight. The horse will want to overbend around the rider’s leg. A light leg cue behind the girth on the inside, just enough to make him straight, will act as a stabilizer. 
It is important in circles that the horse bends his whole body. You can see that “Bubba” has a slight arc to the inside from his head through his tail.

Too much will result in overbending the horse and pushing the haunches in, making the problem worse. The horse’s entire body should bend laterally in a turn, not just his neck or haunches. There should be a slight arc through the neck, barrel and haunches. Include some figure 8’s and small circles to develop some stretching and swing in the rear end.

Walk On!
Challenge your horse to improve on his walk. Include different versions of the walk in each exercise. Incorporate more challenging terrain into your walking workout. Hills, mud or sand, though adding a chance of accidental slippage, offer an additional element of difficulty and require the horse to concentrate on what he is doing. Climbing hills encourages the pacey horse to “square up” by forcing weight towards the back end and making him round his back. Ask your horse to shorten his steps going down a slight hill, and lengthen them going up. Working in mud or deep, loose soil, such as in a freshly plowed field, builds stamina and muscle and improves balance in the horse’s natural walk. Take care not to overdo these exercises, which can easily strain the horses’ tendons.

Remember, a balanced, strong, elastic walk is the foundation for all other easy gaits and will benefit any gaited horse.

Read Also:
Using The Walk To Improve All Gaits. 

PHOTO CREDIT All photos are of Liz Graves of  Shades of Oak - Clear Lake, MN, performing the exercises. Liz has been a very active part of the equine industry for over 30 years. Liz has over 19 Years experience as a multi-licensed and Breed Judge throughout the United States and Canada. She has always trained and shown light shod and barefoot. Starting with good groundwork basics, Liz incorporates these exercises in her training, working to develop and bring out the natural gaits as well as the versatility of each individual.

PRINT Version As published in The Gaited Horse Winter 2001 issue
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