|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!
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!
||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
In Note the position of the rider’s shoulders, leg and hands
||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.
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
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.
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
||Note the increased stride length in the hind as the horse competes
the first step forward.
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
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.
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.
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.