A lateral walk is not a clear four-beat walk. It is a pace in which the legs move on the same side in unison. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the best walks that are most in jeopardy. For example, a horse with a very scopey natural walk may run the risk of developing a lateral or pace-like tendency, especially as you start to collect it. So, many people have been told to leave the walk alone for fear of making it worse. But there comes a time when the walk needs training.
If you haven’t been methodical about making sure that the connection and ahead-of-the-leg requirements, which were trained in the trot and canter, also apply to the walk, then that is the first issue that will need to be addressed.
You need a connection in the walk that is even and accepted. The horse needs to go to either rein from either inside leg, and you should have sufficient neck control, including being able to walk the horse on the bit with the poll at the highest point, in left or right flexion.
If that sounds hard then you are starting to get the point. Establishing a good connection is hard, and it needs to be developed correctly and methodically to maintain a feel that is comfortable for both horse and rider. If the connection is not honest and accepted in the walk, it probably needs improving in all three gaits. The walk is just the hardest place in which to hide any connection or rhythm issues.
When we start to work on the connection in the walk, a common problem is the horse gets tight in his topline and back. For example, when you pick up the reins, the horse starts to back off from the connection or breaks into a jog. This often causes the rider to hold on to the connection in a restraining way, which prompts the horse to back off even more. Add any unevenness of rein or leg pressure and now your horse is not only behind the influence of leg and rein but he is also crooked. These are the things that can lead your horse toward his first lateral steps.
Here’s another scenario. The horse may flatten his back, push his withers down (which will back his shoulders into you) and refuse to accept or go to the connection. This causes the hind feet to be slow in leaving the ground, another cause of the lateral walk. In short, most lateral walks stem from improper connection coupled with a horse who is either crooked or behind the leg. This often happens with horses who have a loose walk with lots of scope. Horses with short, tight backs, may also be predisposed to some lateral tendencies.
Riders often pay a great deal of attention to these factors in the trot and the canter and then let them slide away in the walk–especially when the walk starts to look questionable. The rules of connection, flexion, throughness and ahead-of-the-leg don’t stop when riding the walk. They are, in fact, most vital, and it is my belief that many piaffe irregularities can be traced back to connection problems that show up in the walk.
But what happens when you address these connecting issues and the horse starts to get worse instead of immediately better? When things do not immediately proceed as anticipated, some riders will baby the horse in the connection or become vague about the expected answers. This leads the horse deeper into his problems because he needs step-by-step guidance from the rider with expectations that are continually defined and refined.
For example, you pick up the reins and your horse backs off or takes a couple of shuffled steps. You worry that you are making things worse and give up your connection and your leg aids. Your horse, in turn, learns that he does not have to step through to the rein. Now what? It is up to you to have a clear view of the desired outcome in your mind and then formulate a plan that will lead you to that place. All of the old masters suggest that you ride shoulder-in to correct walk problems. Why? Because the horse has a connection in shoulder-in, he has flexion, and he has to be in front of the leg. These are the qualities that you need to ride the walk well. The three qualities of throughness: connection, flexion and in-front-of-the-leg. If you neglect these issues in the walk, they will eventually catch up with you.
Here are some tips to get you started on more productive walk work.
1. Connection. Take an even, soft connection on both reins with the hands a bit wide. You should have a direct line to the horse’s mouth, meaning that neither rein should be touching the side of the horse’s neck at this point. When you begin this exercise, you may
open a can of worms right away because your horse may think that he doesn’t want to face the bit at all. He may decide to make himself crooked and push one shoulder out. In that case, you may have the urge to use the rein to get him back in line, but it is better not to. Fix it with the leg by asking the horse to step to the rein straight, using your leg at the girth. Push the shoulders back in line and underneath the rein. The horse needs to accept the connection and be willing to go forward toward it in a relatively straight manner.
2. Flexion. Next, you need to define which is your inside rein and which is your outside rein by asking for a little bit of flexion. If you ask for right flexion, keep a soft connection on the left, apply your right leg at the girth and supple softly with your right hand. If the horse steps past your left rein and goes out his left shoulder you need to fix that with the leg. You may need to apply the right leg at the girth first, wait for your horse to start to step out and then apply the left leg, also forward, to remind your horse to connect and go toward the outside rein. So the sequence should be left contact, right leg at the girth, right suppling and positioning rein, left leg at the girth and then a receiving left hand. Be sure when your horse does give on the right that the flexion is at the poll and not just the base of his neck. Reverse everything for the other side.
3. Walk forward. Once you have a connection and flexion, you can ask him to walk forward with this feel. A rider should never pull the horse’s head down with the hand. The horse will become round when he is connected and ahead-of-the-leg. Stay connected and make him walk to the bridle. Don’t over bend his neck at the base because then the horse will start to fall out with his shoulder and lose everything. He should go freely forward with your allowing hand in the flexion that you create and he maintains. That is the big thing. If you feel that your horse is restrained, then it is most likely that you are restraining him. You need to kick him forward without restraining him. You don’t have to say anything with your hand, you just need to stay connected and then follow him.
The horse needs to be in front of the leg with contact. Sometimes a horse will respond by breaking into a jog-like trot because for him it is better to trot behind the leg than walk connected and ahead of it. If this happens, you still have to keep the soft connection. The desired walk is on the other side of those jogging steps, not behind it. When a horse offers jog steps, often riders take their legs off and restrain the horse, therefore missing the opportunity to correct the problem. Your leg should ask the horse to get ahead of you and connect to the rein. If you try to walk a bit more and he trots, he still isn’t really ahead of you. The horse has to accept and answer your leg pressure and go freely forward, unconstrained but connected to you.
If your horse swishes his tail and makes a face at you instead of complying, he is still behind the leg. The leg aid you need to put the horse in front of the leg is not a gouge with the spur. It is more a clap or a thump against the horse’s sides with both legs, which recedes when you get the desired response.
During these exercises, you have to be careful to not contradict yourself by restraining with the hand, but you do need to keep the contact. Be sure you have the balance, skill and timing that you need in order to ride these exercises. Check that your horse is ahead of your leg many times each and every day. For example, everyone thinks about it in a walk-canter transition because that movement won’t succeed if your horse is not ahead of you at that moment. Your walk should be like that all the time–always ready to canter, piaffe or anything you ask. Do not oppose yourself by asking your horse to go in front of the leg and then restraining him with a negative contact. If there is air in the rein, that’s an invitation for the horse to be crooked or stop moving ahead of the leg.
Half halts are in addition to the connection, which should basically be the same in the walk, trot and canter. If the connection feels good in the trot, then it should feel the same in the walk–really taking and going to the rein without air or forced tension. When the horse is connected, flexed and ahead-of-the-leg he will start to give you the desired feeling of being “through,” and that is a wonderful thing.
The neck should fall and relax softly from the withers. I like to think of the shoulder blades of the horse as a door lock with the neck as the key. When everything is straight, the key goes right in–the neck falls into that soft spot and then you can push the horse forward quite easily. If the shoulders and the neck are not lined up correctly, it doesn’t matter how much force you use. As with any lock and key, the alignment must first be correct and then no force is necessary. As soon as the neck and shoulders are aligned and the horse is ahead of your leg and accepting the connection and flexion, he will give you his topline and that, too, is a delightful thing.
If you flex the horse and the key (the neck), doesn’t fall into the lock (the shoulders), then you have to move the lock (the shoulders) to the center and sometimes bump both shoulders more forward to make things work. Sometimes, the connection between the shoulders and the base of the neck is vague because the shoulders do not move freely forward. The neck then waves around at the base like a flag on a pole. This horse needs steadying and forward riding. Sometimes the neck and shoulders are stiff like wood. This horse needs more suppling and needs to be more ahead of the rider with an elastic connection.
4. Test the walk. Now once you have flexion and in front of the leg, ride walk-halt, walk-halt. Can you halt connected without losing flexion? Does the rein go slack or does the horse move the shoulder into or past the rein? Does your horse walk promptly off from light leg pressure while maintaining the connection?
Most horses don’t really believe that they have to be ahead of the leg in the walk. It is your job to teach them. Do an 8-meter circle in walk. Is your horse still stepping forward with purpose? The quality of your circle will only be as good as your connection, flexion and your ahead-of-the-leg responses. The shoulders of the horse should be ahead of you. Get the feeling that you can push the shoulders ahead of you by using both legs right at the girth until you get a response.
You have to monitor these connection issues constantly but with feel. Don’t settle for less than the ideal in your daily rides or you’ll get into a dressage test and find that you cannot negotiate your way through good walk work. Make it a rule that you monitor these connection issues until they become part of your riding habits. In the free walk and the transition from the free walk to the medium walk, keep the connection and ride the horse in front of you. Think, keep walking and keep the shoulders out in front of you. Don’t let the horse change flexion randomly or on his own because everything lines up behind this proper connection.
While this work will help you in the show ring, the benefit to your future training is the real goal. When your connection is secure, you will have better transitions between and within the gaits, and your rhythm problems should disappear.
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Yvonne Barteau is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist and a popular clinician and freestyle rider. Currently, she successfully shows Liberty, a 16.3- hand chestnut Dutch Warmblood stallion, at Grand Prix and Raymeister at First and Second levels. She and her husband, Kim, run KYB Dressage at Indian Hills Training Center in Gilberts, Ill. The parents of four children, their daughter Kassandra won the 2007 Young Rider Championship in Gladstone, N.J. Don’t miss Yvonne Barteau’s four-part series in Dressage Today on horse personalities, September through December 2007. Yvonne is the author of Ride the Right Horse, a book about horse personality types, published by Storey Books.