The walk has less natual momentum than trot, canter or gallop, it is a more difficult pace to ride well. In addition, as there is no moment of suspension in the walk, it is difficult to extend or collect it.
Walk is a four-time movement with the sequence of footfalls being:
- Right hind
- Right fore
- Left hind
- Left fore
Check your horse's walk
It's useful if you can arrange to have a good look at how your horse walks. Ask a friend to lead your horse and to walk up and down an arena while you observe the following:
* Look at the steps your horse takes - are they equal, as they should be?
* Is your horse straight - look at your horse's feet as the hind feet should be put down in front of, or at the very least on, the prints left by his front feet.
Go and look at the prints in the arena surface - does your horse move a hind foot consideraby off line? Hopefully not. Look at your horse's body, head and neck - does he move straight or does his hold his head to one side?
* When you watch your horse walk away is his tail relaxed and does his bottom swing easily from side to side?
* Does his stride match what you would expect from a horse of his size and breeding?
If you notice your horse looks stiff, when viewed from behind, or he drags a toe or tilts his head, then he may have a problem. Remember too, that his walk may have been adversely affected through bad schooling by a previous rider.
Types of walk
In the basic walking pace, medium walk, the horse should go forward calmly but freely and energetically. Free walk, on a long rein, is when the horse takes longer relaxed steps, stretching his neck down and consequently raising his back. The rider keeps a light contact on the reins which are lengthened to allow the horse to stretch. If the rider allows the horse to stretch down but does not maintain a contact the horse is said to be in free walk on a loose rein.
In an extended walk the horse's steps are lengthened so that he covers as much ground as possible while remaining on the bit. Collected walk requires greater engagement of the hindquarters and a lighter forehand, with the horse taking higher steps and covering less ground. These last two walks are only learnt once the horse has become very proficient in his schooling.
How to improve your horse's walk
* If your horse has an irregular walk rhythm try slowing him down as this may help. However some horses benefit from being asked to go forward more. It therefore helps to try both approaches to see which one works best for your horse.
* Lateral work can help your horse's walk - for example if your horse tends to rush, using lateral work, where they have to learn to accept the rider's leg aids, can be beneficial. A good lateral exercise to help in such cases would be shoulder-in.
* Lazy horses can also be helped through lateral exercises as this kind of work requires the horse to step under himself more - see photo below.
* For horses with irregular walk steps try using ground poles for him to step over as these will regulate his pace and encourage him to use his hindquarters more. When walking over poles set the distance at about three feet - but experiment a little to find out what suits your horse.
* Think about how you are using your aids - if you alternate your leg aids you can encourage your horse to take longer steps but you must get your timing correct. As your horse walks along you should be able to feel his belly swinging from side to side. If you find this a little difficult at first, ride in a school and let someone lead your horse while you shut your eyes and feel his sides swinging into your legs. When your horse's belly swings away from your leg his corresponding hindleg is being lifted off the ground and this is the optimum time to influence the leg. So, as you feel the horse's belly swing away from your leg, apply your leg aid (using your calf) to encourage the horse's hindleg to come further under his body. You'll be surprised at how quickly you can get into the rhythm of applying alternate leg aids and how easy it is to encourage your horse to take longer strides.
* If your horse finds it difficult to stretch down when asked for a free walk it might be worth getting him checked by an Equine Muscle Release Therapist who can help release his muscles and make everything much easier for you and your horse.
* When schooling, remember to give your horse regular breaks in walk from his work - this has the added purpose of loosening the muscles in his neck and back as well as providing a break from work.
* Be aware that all riders have one side which is the dominant, strong side - remember this when you ride as you do not want to restrict your horse's movement by being stronger in one hand.
* Make use of time out hacking - tune in to your horse's movement so that not only can you feel his belly swing from side to side, but you can feel your horse's hip being raised slightly eg when the left hindleg is on the ground the horse's left hip is raised and you should feel your left seatbone being raised slightly. You can also listen to your horse's footfalls when out hacking - they should have a regular rhythm.
For more flatwork exercises to help you and your horse click here