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As Seen in the Fall 2001 Issue of The Gaited Horse Magazine.

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.

Warm Up

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.

Pay Attention
Begin by working your horse on a strait-away or on trails, not in a round pen or ring. In order to ensure that you can communicate with your horse through the use of leg aids, perform frequent transitions from walk to gait and gait to walk to put the horse mentally on the aids. You are asking your horse to pay attention, not to just move. The horse should respond quickly to your leg for the upward transitions and be quick to respond to the bracing of your back for the downward transitions. (tighten your back and stomach muscles, and stop your body from following the horse to cue for a halt.)

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.

The Working 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 horse should be walking with a regular rhythm (like a marching solder) but not at a hurried pace. This is the walk often referred to as the working walk. The horse should carry the slightly head elevated, slightly in front of the vertical and without looking around or trying to evade the bit. After about two weeks of short training sessions, you should have a horse that now moves out briskly at the walk instead of considering it “break time”.  While you are working on energizing your horses walk, pay attention to how the horse travels. Does he travel in a straight line?  Does he tip his head or neck to one side? When you turn in one direction, does the horse seem to take more weight on the outside shoulder? Most horses will appear to bend more easily to the hollow side. 

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.
Two things determine the stride length of a horse, his conformation and the condition and elasticity of his muscles. Any horse can increase his muscle condition and elasticity through specific exercises to improve his reach and length of step

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. 


To PDF Version as Appeared in The Gaited Horse Magazine 

Also See Exercises at the Walk

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