One of the most important focuses as a trainer and instructor is making sure riders actually “ride” the walk. I believe that if your butt is in the saddle, you are training your horse, whether you are taking a walk break, schooling movements or going on a trail ride. You and your horse can use the initial walk of your ride, the breaks and the cool down to relax. But if you allow the horse to walk poorly—with a lack of energy, an incorrect rhythm, hollowness or without stretching toward the bit—how does he know you want a good free walk in your dressage test?
The Free Walk
An ideal free walk is four clear beats, has good energy, overtracks (when the hind hoof surpasses the print made by the front hoof) and the horse’s neck reaches forward and downward with a round, long topline.
Horses need plenty of free walk breaks during training to let their muscles relax. Consistency is the most important quality in the training so the standard must not change when you take a walk break. If the free walk has the following elements, your horse will feel good when you shorten the reins and go back to work. During the walk break, ask yourself:
• Is my horse in front of my leg?
• Is he reaching for the contact?
• Is he using his back properly?
If not, when you go back to work, your horse might be behind the leg, disconnected and feel tight, hollow or stiff in the back. The rider cannot be upset with the horse because she allowed these traits during the break.
Besides consistency in the training, riding a good free walk is effective strength-building. Think of the difference for yourself if you do a power walk. You are striding down the road with good posture, with your eyes up and your arms swinging. Compare that to strolling along, dragging your feet with your head down. Which one is better for your body? For a horse who needs to improve fitness, the walk is the most important thing to focus on. Riding a super free walk—especially if you can do it out of the arena and up and down hills—builds muscle without putting a lot of strain on joints and soft tissue.
Riding the Walk
This energetic walk will move the rider’s body a fair amount. When a horse marches in the free walk with a lot of energy, overtrack and stretch, he must use his back and neck a lot. The rider must follow to stay with that movement.
“Moving with the walk” means your whole body follows the movement of the horse’s whole body. When I talk specifically about “following,” I am referring to the rider’s shoulders, elbows, forearms and hands. Most people are aware that their hips must move with the horse so they don’t stiffen and therefore tighten the horse’s back. The hips must follow the exact movement of the horse’s back. The leg must follow the horse’s rib cage precisely. However, often I find people have been told to have quiet hands, and they think that means having hands that are still. In the walk, especially a good quality walk, the horse must oscillate his neck forward and back. If the rider doesn’t follow this oscillation, then the horse will not feel free to use his topline.
Proper following in the walk will teach the horse that he can use his neck and increases the amount he uses his back. He should be able to walk through his whole body. Conversely, a rider who does not follow with the walk makes the horse hold his head and neck still, therefore holding and tightening his back, making the walk smaller or sometimes even compromising the four-beat rhythm of the walk.
In the walk, the rider’s hands should go forward as the horse’s ears go forward and down, but only as much as the horse requires to maintain a steady contact. The hands will come back to a neutral position as the horse’s ears come back and up. This is opposite of the way the rider’s hips move. The motion is like a rowing machine. The hands go forward as the hips go back then the hands come back as the hips go forward.
The rider’s pelvis must follow the motion of the horse, but I always urge people not to force this motion. Riders should not push or drive with the seat bones in the walk. If you try to push and shove with the seat to make a bigger walk, the horse usually drops his back and slows down. Instead, focus on following with the arms, and the pelvis will usually move enough. As soon as the rider stops following, the pelvis usually stiffens.
Find Your Free Walk
First, make sure you are following the walk. Ask someone to walk along with the horse while you close your eyes. Imagine the way it felt to ride a horse for the first time. I ask the student to totally relax and let her body feel like a wet noodle. Many people will automatically follow quite nicely with the arms the first few times they ever sit on a horse because they haven’t been told to “sit still.” Exaggerate how much you follow. Think of an old-time washboard with your thumbs on top or a rowing machine and move your arms. Then tone it down slightly. Often, people think they are following much more than they are.
A common mistake is a free walk with too little energy. I ask people to give the horse all the rein (assuming it is safe to do so) and ask for more walk until they find how much walk the horse can give. This might mean he breaks to the trot for a couple steps. No problem! Quietly bring the horse back to walk through the voice and seat and then ask him to walk forward again. I use leg, voice and maybe the whip if needed to create more walk. Again, do not pump and push with the seat bones. The more energy the horse has in walk, the more he will be willing to stretch. The more he stretches, the bigger you can get the walk.
When the rider can stay connected to the horse’s mouth this way, with an elastic contact, he is then ready to use that contact to influence his horse. Just as a young horse must learn to simply accept contact before he learns to yield to it, a rider must first learn to simply find the contact at all times before she can affect the horse through the contact. If the rider learns to ride with hands that correctly follow the horse, the horse will become more sensitive to her requests. For example, a horse who expects a following hand will be very sensitive to the moment when the hand stops following to give a half halt that shifts the horse’s balance.
One of the most basic half halts is to go from free walk on a long rein to a medium walk, where we ask the horse to close the frame and come a bit more onto the haunches in preparation for a transition. This transition from free walk to medium walk is a hard one for many horses—they either anticipate an upcoming transition to trot or canter and get tight in the back or they lose energy and get stiff through the topline. As the rider shortens the reins for medium walk, the driving leg is ready to ask the horse to keep the energy and march he had in the free walk. Then the core of the rider engages and the hands close around the reins to rebalance the horse or shift the weight slightly to the hindquarters. This is a moment when the rider’s hand does not follow because we are telling the horse to shorten himself from back to front and stay more uphill, rather than allowing him to lean down and forward into the contact. Once the half halt goes through the horse’s body and he responds by shifting his balance, the rider once again follows in an elastic way with this new, more uphill connection.
Practice riding transitions from free walk to medium walk and back to free walk. This seems like it should be such an easy thing to do, but it isn’t! And if the rider can go from passively following to gently affecting the horse’s balance, the horse will be ready for a good transition to trot or canter and listening closely to his rider.
Eliza Sydnor Romm works as a dressage trainer and instructor at Braeburn Farm in Snow Camp, North Carolina. She is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and is an active competitor from Training Level through Grand Prix. She specializes in working with young horses. She and her husband, Jonathan, live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with their son and daughter. (elizasydnordressage.com)