I thought I’d already done a blog post about the qualities of a good walk, but it appears that I haven’t.
So here goes, with the help of my little helper of course.
The walk gait consists of four beats, with each leg moving individually. The sequence goes like this: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.
The stride wants to be of an even length, relaxed, flowing and steady. Each leg should flex at the fetlock and knee/hock well, and be purposeful in stride. I often tell young clients to imagine their pony is walking out of maths on a Friday afternoon rather than into maths on a Monday morning. Yep, you’re imagining those teenagers dragging their toes on a Monday and skipping out of school on a Friday!
The hind legs should be placed in front of the prints left by the fore feet, which is called over tracking. I’ve just read that over tracking enables the horse to absorb shock from the hard ground better. A horse who over tracks is also lighter on the forehand, so is more likely to get concussive injuries on the forelegs and less likely to work correctly and develop the correct muscles.
The average speed of a horse’s walk is four miles per hour, and it should feel relaxed, with the back swinging with each stride. The head and neck swings with each step of the foreleg, which is why many say don’t use side reins for too long in walk, because it restricts the natural swing of the horse.
When walking, as with all gaits, the horse should move straight. This means that each leg is pointing towards the direction of movement so propels the horse forward in the most efficient manner.
The frame of the horse should be slightly poll low, rather than poll high because then there is less tension over the back and the horse will stay more relaxed.
The walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve. Carl Hester always looks for a horse with a good walk and canter, as training will improve the trot. But why is the walk the hardest gait to improve?
It’s the slowest and has the least natural energy, and if a rider is too eager to input the energy they will throw the horse out of the four beat rhythm, causing a choppy stride and tension in the body. Which then causes them to inhibit the natural movement of the head and neck by holding too tight with the hands in an attempt to control the new energy. If a horse is pushed out of their four bear rhythm they are liable to start pacing. This is a two beat gait where the lateral feet step forwards simultaneously. Often, riders feel they’ve got an energetic walk as their horse begins to pace because they are covering the ground quicker, but as the four beat rhythm has been lost it is heavily criticised in dressage tests.
A horse who is hurried out of their natural rhythm, will be out of balance. This means that subsequent transitions aren’t balanced. They will struggle to halt squarely, or to push off into a balanced and correct trot or canter.
Horse can also be allowed to dawdle, which is when they’re allowed to drag their toes. Here, they usually still have a four beat gait, but the cadence and length of stride has deteriorated. Consequently, horses are more likely to use their forehand in the transitions and to be stiff through their body.
Next up, let’s see how we can improve the walk. I find the best way to teach a horse to walk with more purposefulness and energy, is to use hacks because a horse is naturally more forwards out of the arena. Then you can focus on channelling the extra energy into quality steps without the horse rushing. Steep hills will encourage the horse to use their hindquarters more efficiently and strengthen their muscles. When they walk correctly up a steep hill you can really feel the back lift and the hindlegs engage.
Other exercises involve collecting and extending the walk, which improves their balance and coordination, but you want to stay focused on their rhythm and only make small adjustments so that they still over track and keep the four beats.
Polework can help increase the horse’s cadence, and circle work will improve their suppleness which will increase their range of movement within each limb so their stride quality will improve.
I also think it’s important to be consistent in what you expect from a horse’s walk. Even when giving them a break mid-session, or cooling them down at the end, you should insist of the purposefulness of the walk, and maintaining the correct rhythm as so often both rider and horse switch off at these times. When the horse knows they have to walk actively and correctly at all times it becomes easier for the rider to influence because there is more natural energy to work with.