The walk is the hardest gait to ride well because it has no suspension and, therefore, no momentum to help your horse keep the rhythm as in trot and canter. At the same time, the highest percentage of your ride time is probably spent in the walk: You warm-up, cool down and walk during all of your breaks. You can use that time to improve your walk or, if you’re not paying attention, the walk can be degraded during that time. Remember, every moment you’re riding, you’re training your horse, so you’re either training the walk to be better or worse.
There are some problems that can occur in the walk. Some horses try to take the rhythm away by going too fast or, more commonly among people who ride warmbloods, the walk may be too slow with dragging hind legs that lack energy. Some may have a lateral tendency, which occurs when two legs on the same side move too close together. You want your walk to have four even beats with enough energy that you feel the thrust from your horse’s hind end flow through his back as he reaches for the bit. The walk should feel like it’s marching, and you want that marching feel in your free walk from the moment you get on. (I’m assuming your horse is safe and you don’t need to have your reins short for safety reasons.) In those first steps you want your horse’s back involved with the muscles moving under you so you can follow with your seat. But your horse doesn’t always give you that. What should you do? If you sit too still, your horse won’t want to move his back, and if you push and shove with your seat, his back will be inclined to hollow and stiffen.
For Rhythmic Suppleness
You can use a basic technique called “pedaling” to help your horse develop rhythmic suppleness in his back. In the walk, your horse’s rib cage swings left and right every time your horse takes a stride. To pedal, you want to let a bit of your energy bounce from your hip down to your heel on the side on which the rib cage is swinging away. For example, when the left shoulder is furthest back, the left hind is pushing off and the rib cage is swinging right at the same moment—and vice versa. So when the rib cage is swinging away from your leg, you want to feel a little pulse of energy bounce down to your heel on that side and in the very next step, your other leg should step down in the same way that you pedal a bike.
When you first try pedaling, it might feel a little forced. Maybe you didn’t notice that side-to-side movement of the walk, but once you’ve learned to pedal, your muscle memory will take over and your leg will naturally fall down. Then it’s hard not to do it because your legs are just following the barrel of the horse the same way your seat and hands follow the movement of your horse’s back and mouth respectively.
Pedaling allows your horse to get his whole body involved in the walk. Your seat does not shove forward and back or shift left and right. While pedaling, the seat moves very little, but the energy bounces through your legs in the same way that it bounces through your horse’s legs in the walk. Maybe when you first get on, your horse is a little stiff and his back is tight. Start to pedal and it will help loosen him up. It will also come in handy if your horse begins to get tense at any time in the walk. Pedaling is my number one way to keep the rhythm, whether I’m doing a relaxed free walk or a collected walk that might invite tension.
To Develop Reach
The free and extended walks, in addition to being judged on the rhythm, are judged on the overstride, or the amount that the hind foot steps beyond the print of the forefoot. Some horses are not so supple in this respect, and you can improve the overtracking by influencing the moment of reach—which is the pedaling moment. Try it in the following simple exercise.
Tracking right in the walk, turn down centerline at C and start a shallow leg yield to F. In this shallow leg yield the horse’s legs don’t cross, but use your right leg on the pedaling moment of each stride to influence the reach of your horse’s right hind. This will encourage your horse’s back to come up as he takes a longer reaching stride. Do this in both directions.
You can also do this shallow leg yield in a frame that is approaching a stretch—as you want your free walk to be. As you drive in the stretch, you ask the back to come up as your horse reaches forward. At a show, you can do this shallow leg yield invisibly on the diagonal line. If you’re tracking right and come onto the diagonal line (M–X–K, for example), point your horse a bit to the left of K and then leg yield invisibly to the right. This will give you a chance to keep the rhythm and involvement of your horse’s back. As a result, you’ll have a better transition to medium walk at K. Even more important, you will have given your horse a complete release of tension. In the test, you should have tension, but it needs to be positive tension, and you want to be able to release that tension in the free walk, which uses all the muscles in his body.
Love the Balance
Finally, pedaling utilizes gravity to stabilize your independent riding position and ground you to the earth. This encourages your horse to come to your balance. If you aren’t grounded, you will forever be in your horse’s less-than-ideal balance. Try pedaling and remember to ride the walk at home exactly the same way you’ll want to ride it at a show. Every time you walk, ride it well.