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WORKING The WALK
Using The Walk To Improve All Gaits.
By Beverly Whittington
|Walking properly? Don’t all horses walk properly, after
all it is the slowest of the gaits, it is slow and rather boring,,, right?
Neglecting the walk is one of the biggest mistakes a rider of gaited horses
can make. The walk is the foundation of all smooth gaits. If your horse cannot
walk properly it is difficult to improve the other gaits as well.
Many riders do not even know if their horse is not walking correctly. The walk is of such vital importance that in the show ring, Judges scrutinize the walk closely, realizing that the walk is the gait that is most likely to show all your horses training flaws. In order for a gaited horse to use his body correctly he must be flexible, balanced and work with impulsion from the rear. Each horse has a “hollow side” and a “stiff side”.
In the horse, the stiff side is the stronger and more developed side. Sometimes you can SEE this fact visibly. If you compare the musculature of the right and left side of the horse, the side that is more developed is the stiff side. You can more easily understand this if you think about your own body. Do you have more strength in your right or left side? Do you habitually carry things in your right or left arm? Most of the time you stand with your weight on one foot, is it your right or left foot that takes the weight more often? The side that you use the most and therefore the side you can do more work with is your stiff side. The opposite side is your hollow side and the weaker of the two sides.
As you condition your horse to gait, you need to incorporate exercises to develop strength in the hollow side (through lengthening and strengthening it) and flexibility in the stiff side by bending and stretching it. Most exercises to strengthen and to stretch the horse are best accomplished at a walk. Once the horse is walking properly, exercises can be employed.
Even through you will be working mostly at a walk, it is important that you warm the horse up. Initially ask the horse to relax and walk out freely for about 10 minutes. Ride the horse on a loose rein and walking freely. The head is should be low with the strides long and relaxed. When you start to ride the horse, teach him to stretch his neck down and forward. This will stretch and condition the muscles from poll to tail, making them more elastic, which will help the horse round his body later. Vary this low position with a slightly higher, more natural one. Your horse should learn that this is a time to stretch out and not an opportunity to fall asleep. Straight travel is best for this portion of the warm up, not in circles. Then raise his neck back to a natural position and ask the horse to gait in a circle of about 60-foot diameter for about 10 minutes, with transitions from gait to walk in both directions.
Your horse’s head will nod in the rhythm of the hoofbeats as it
walks, soften your arms and follow the movement. Uneven rein contact and
artificiial “Pumping” of the rein can result in loss of impulsion in the
walk. Allow your body to move with the horse, keeping your lower leg slightly
behind the girth. You want your horse to walk briskly, not dally along. It
is important not to desensitize the horse to the leg aids. Give a very light
leg aid to encourage the horse to move forward. If he does not respond, immediately
and enthusiastically, chase him forward with a sharp rap or a firm tap with
a dressage whip behind your heel. Then relax your leg and see how far the
horse will go without a reminder. If he slacks off into a more sluggish walk
“BUMP” him forward, first with a light leg cue, then with the tap of the
whip or rap from your heel. Let him know that this is work and you expect
him to respond correctly. After a few sessions, the horse should get the
message that listening to the leg cue is the better option!
Work on the Straight
If your horse is not traveling straight, you must correct him. As you do, take note of the position of the horse in relationship to a true straight line of travel. If the horse is carrying his haunches to the right, he is most likely stiff on his left side. If he is carrying his neck or head to the right, he is most likely stiff to the left side. Use your legs to encourage the horse to straighten his body while keeping your hands soft with medium contact. Check your weight distribution. Are you putting the same amount of weight on each seat bone and in each stirrup? You must be balanced rider to encourage the horse to achieve a straight walk.
Once he is responding to light leg cues for forward movement, begin to ask for impulsion. 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. Practice with your eyes shut for several strides, you should begin to be able to ascertain which shoulder is coming forward by feel rather than by glancing down. You will notice that your shoulders “move” with the shoulders of your horse, and your hips “move” with the swing of the horse’s hind legs. 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 their hocks and stride out more purposefully. It is important that you are squeezing, not bumping or kicking.
Head tossing, dropping behind the bit or pulling all indicate that
the hindquarters are not fully engaged or the rider’s hands are too heavy.
The Collected Walk.
When properly performing a collected walk the horse will take noticeably higher steps with a bit more elasticity in the hind legs. He will have more roundness in the back, a shorter stride, with a bit more impulsion and energy. The neck is slightly arched and his head will come closer to “on the vertical”, which means that the line from forehead to nose is straight up and down. In a collected walk you want the most collection the horse can give you without disturbing the sequence of the walk. To achieve a collected walk, you want to make your hands “less giving”. Not allowing yourself to pull on the reins, but to use slightly more contact, while asking him to engage his hindquarters more by a slight contact behind the girth, again coordinating with the shoulder movement as in the Working Walk.
You should be able to feel the horse shorten his stride, and begin to use his hindquarters more. You can feel the horse engage his hocks. There should be a decrease in the nod of the head and shoulder roll as the horse begins to collect and work more off the hind end. Lightening of the forehand makes the horse more agile, more supple in his movement, and more able to adjust the length of stride and mobility of the shoulders. True collection will cause a voluntary rounding of the horse's back. (The back raises up into the saddle allowing the horse to drive off the hindquarters.) Teaching your horse self support (carrying himself without leaning on the bit) self-carriage, (the horse’s ability to carry weight on its hindquarters) and then ultimately true collection is a long process. False collection is a frame with no foundation for power and movement.
The Extended Walk
This walk is the opposite of the Collected Walk. You want the horse to stride out freely; the shoulder is lifted and the neck is supple, his head should be just in front of the vertical. You want the horse to take as long a stride as possible, with an overstride with the hind. (The rear foot of a horse passes the track of the same side front foot as it is set down.) . When you lengthen you horses stride, ask him to take larger, longer steps while maintaining the same rhythm, and tempo. Some horses will track up behind naturally and many others will require training and muscling to be able to achieve an overstride of any degree. If the horse forges or over-reaches, often the problem can be that he is not moving his shoulder freely enough. (Usually on his hollow side. A horse that is balanced in his walk will have a longer overstride than a horse that is "strung-out". Overstride is a basic characteristic of the Tennessee Walking Horse runningwalk, but it is important that any horse can be encouraged to do a nice Extended Walk, with a bit of overstride.
As the horse increases the length of stride, he will naturally increase
his head nod. This movement should originate from the base of the neck and
should be rhythmic. As the horse moves out moving his shoulders freely, his
head will rise to allow the shoulder to rotate easily. The shoulders have
to rotate to permit free and efficient usage of the deltoids and trapezes
muscles. A good head nod indicates a balanced animal, working and pulling
with his front end as much as pushing with its rear.
Putting it All Together
It is important that the horse be worked in all versions of the walk. To develop the muscling necessary for strengthening the hindquarters and back as well as conditioning the muscles in the shoulders and chest to stretch. In order for a horse to be able to take long steps, his back muscles must relay the thrust of his hindquarters through his body to his front legs. Alternating work in each of the above walks will develop the muscling that makes it possible for him to lengthen or extend his steps. This will help strengthen his haunches and his back, good extension is a result of strength developed in semi-collection. Lengthened steps develop from shortened ones.
Exercises at the Walk
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