Q: When riding a free walk down centerline or across the diagonal, my horse wanders. What is the secret to getting her to walk in a straight line? I ride at Training Level. —Sabine Cook of Towson, Maryland
A: Straightness and quality of the walk are the two directive ideas on the dressage score sheet for free walk, so this is an important question. Always keep in mind that an imperative concept in dressage, no matter the level or the movement, is to ride the horse forward into straightness.
Imagine an arrow that has just been released from a bow. If it is not traveling with enough momentum, it will not move in a straight line, but rather arc and waver, missing its target. So the most common culprit for a wandering free walk is a lack of impulsion. The second most common mistake is not enough support from the rider’s leg, seat and weight aids.
A free walk should show the horse in relaxation as the rider allows complete freedom for the horse to stretch her head forward and downward. Unfortunately, this movement does not permit the rider to completely relax or have a break in the middle of a test. The free walk requires the use of active aids to keep the horse focused, straight, energetic, relaxed and stretching. Your goal should be to demonstrate to the judge that your leg, seat and weight aids are effective and that you do not rely on your reins to guide and connect your mare.
As with every movement, begin preparing for the free walk in the corner prior to it. Gently add pressure from your legs to encourage your horse to take larger steps with her hind legs to fill the space your are going to give her with your reins, thereby connecting her from back to front. With proper preparation, your mare should already be thinking about seeking the contact and stretching her frame as she comes around the corner. Then when you reach your free-walk line, she is ready to stretch her topline and bring her nose forward and downward as you release the reins. Be sure to turn onto your line with room to spare. It is always better to turn early than to overshoot the line, which will put you on the wrong path from the start.
As you ride the free walk also focus on encouraging your mare’s hind legs to take large, ground-covering strides toward your destination rather than concentrate on her head and neck or front legs. Imagine your legs as a channel helping to guide your horse straight toward the desired letter. She should march across the diagonal with purpose rather than meander or saunter. When you ride with these thoughts in mind, you give your mare greater confidence as to your desired line of travel.
You should also be able to help your mare by adapting your seat to what is necessary in the moment. For example, if her walk is relaxed, energetic and ground-covering, make sure that your seat is neutral, moving with her to allow for swing through her back. If she is not forward enough, use your pushing seat, exaggerating the motion of the walk, to reinforce the forward-driving aids from your legs. The rhythm of your seat reassures your horse that even though you may be sending her forward, you are asking for bigger steps in the walk, not for her to trot. If you tighten your seat and lose the swinging rhythm required in the free walk, your horse might jig, so sit straight down with a relaxed seat. Your back should remain tall and strong and your arms should be relaxed downward to encourage your horse to seek the bit. It is extremely important that you do not correct your mare’s straightness with your reins. Rather, do it with your legs. Your hands should be very quiet and steady and your eyes should remain fixed on your destination.
The free walk is a wonderful opportunity to allow your mare to relax and stretch in the middle of your test, rewarding her for the hard work she has already given you. It is also an opportunity for you to take a few deep breaths and to show the judge how correct your training is. Use these tips and the next time you ride a free walk, your mare should be as straight as a correctly shot arrow.
Jessica van Eyck is a USDF gold medalist and a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level. In 2010 she graduated from the USDF “L” Education Program with distinction. She operates Northshire Farm in Vermont. Visit northshirefarm.com