How to Improve Your Dressage Horse's Collected Walk

An FEI judge gives exercises and advice for riders and judges.
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The walk is a gait during which the legs of the horse reach the ground one after another while coming out of a relaxed back and a free shoulder. Only then can we speak of a clear, four-beat rhythm. A horse’s walk, especially the collected walk, is often described as hereditary and, as such, is difficult for the rider to influence. But many things can impair the walk, particularly the collected walk, and therefore it requires the highest concentration, attention and sensitive feeling from the rider.

The collected walk requires concentration and feeling. (Credit: Terri Miller)

The collected walk requires concentration and feeling. (Credit: Terri Miller)

The trot is a swinging gait and the canter a springing one, and they both have a period of suspension. The walk, however, has no phase of suspension, so there is no impulsion. Instead of suspension, we look for activity. It is important to ride a horse from the start from back to front and not vice versa with too much hand influence. Draw reins double the power of the rider’s arms on the horse’s mouth and incorrectly block the activity of the hind legs. Be aware that imperfections and faults in training will come to light very obviously in the walk, particularly in collected walk.

Criteria and Definition

A prerequisite of a correct collected walk is that the horse must be on the rider’s aids and show a good degree of flow-through or permeability. If this flow-through is lacking, the horse’s back is not free for the needed activity of the hind legs. The collected walk requires the highest balance and equilibrium for self-carriage with the poll as the highest point. It has a clear four-beat rhythm with a vigorous and active lifting and setting down of the hooves in regular sequence. Each step covers less ground and is higher than in the ordinary walk because all the joints are more markedly bent. The horse’s hind hooves touch the ground behind the hoof prints of his forelegs. He moves resolutely forward with his neck raised and arched, showing a clear self-carriage. The horse’s hocks should be lifted energetically up and forward and at any time there are two hooves on the ground.

During the transition to collected walk, the horse should show the inner readiness to accept the rider’s demand for collection, for shortening the steps and increasing activity without getting hurried and disturbing the rhythm. Both same-sided hooves might reach the ground faster, and the walk becomes more two-beat.

The collected walk is easily susceptible to faults. Interference by the rider leads in most cases to a worsening of the collected walk, particularly because the rider uses too much hand influence. Under no circumstances should the horse be pulled back into collection by the rider’s hands. Here is what happens when the rider uses too much hand:

• The contact to the horse’s mouth is too strong and his neck becomes too tight.
• The horse lacks activity. He slows, trails his quarters and is without expression.
• The horse becomes hurried, with an unsteady neck.
• He swishes his tail, grinds his teeth and is not relaxed.
• The horse’s front legs become exaggerated, without bend at the joints (Spanish walk).

To avoid training a faulty collected walk, do not ride collected walk too early in the training or use too strong a rein. This can ruin the walk, particularly in a horse with a good, big walk. Train collected walk only after the collected trot and canter are trained and can be performed without difficulty. The influence of a strong hand (on one side or both) on the horse’s mouth and poll also impairs the correct footfalls.

Be careful not to ride the collected walk too long, because this can tire the horse. When the horse is fatigued he is inclined to shift the sequence of footfalls toward ambling.

The rider must take care to correctly influence the horse with weight and legs. The horse should stay between the rider’s back and steady leg with no rocking motion in the saddle.

Improve the Collected Walk

For a good collected walk, the rider must maintain the existence of safe relaxation and flow-through. Use the following exercises to do this:

• Walk on long or giving reins
• Leg yield
• Transitions between gaits
• Cavalletti work
• Riding collected walk in shoulder-in, because it’s easier for the horse to get the right sequence

What Judges Want to See

Rhythm, activity and scope (covering ground): These must be considered in that order. A judge should not get into the habit of overrating good things in a performance and excusing exercises that are not as good. The evaluation of the collected walk is more difficult than evaluating trot or canter: The difficulty exists in evaluating not only the covering of ground but also the rhythmical, even movement, flowing through the body from back to front.

The collected walk demands the absolute highest attention of the judge, who must concentrate and watch carefully, particularly because it is only shown for a short distance. Here is an optical aid you can use: Try concentrating on the same-sided front leg and hind leg. They should never be parallel but should show, for a moment, the letter “V.” This means the coming hind leg nearly touches the resting front leg, or, to put it differently, the front leg should give the impression that the coming hind leg kicks it off.

Only by watching closely can the judge come to the correct mark. This mark for the collected walk also influences the gait score in the collected marks. The transition from collected walk to piaffe or passage can be successful only when the walk is very correct and active enough.

Dressage riders, trainers and judges need to remember that if the walk gets worse during schooling or in a test, the horse’s dressage training as a whole lacks correctness.

Principles of Classical Riding 

True riding is an endless search for synchrony and harmony. You can achieve it today and lose it tomorrow. This search for synchrony is a progression measured in tiny increments of success in an endless journey of challenge and discovery. We expect from every dressage horse—from beginner to Olympian—an even, ground-gaining, unconstrained walk; a supple, regular, sustained and active trot with elasticity and impulsion, coming from behind; and a united, cadenced three-beat canter. (Cadence is the symbiosis of rhythm, impulsion and flexion of the joints.)

These five points must be the main requirements for the correct training of dressage horses:

1. A straight horse who always shows the desire to move forward
2. Absolute regularity and evenness in all of the horse’s paces
3. The horse’s consistent and confident acceptance of the bridle
4. Correctness of the required movements and figures with suppleness/throughness, which is reflected by smooth-flowing transitions and perfect balance (with properly engaged hindquarters)
5. Collection—the increased carrying of weight on the hindquarters—appropriate for the horse’s level of training.

Adjust your pace of training the horse to the pace of nature, whose secret is patience.
We should beware of annoying a horse, especially a young horse, and choking his charming friendship by rude treatment. For this is like the scent/fragrance of a blossom. Once it is expelled, it never comes back again.

A basic requirement of the rider is a true, sincere love of the horse—a glowing passion and a strong will to reach the highest performance level with utmost correctness. All this you must do without compulsion and violence or false ambition.

Dr. Josef Knipp is a retired FEI judge who has bred and trained horses in Germany for more than 40 years. He has officiated at several international championships and has been a Dressage Today advisor for years. He says it is important to train horses in the classical way.