The walk is a pace that is often forgotten about.
Very few riders spend time in their regular schooling sessions actually training the horse to walk well.
This is a very costly omission given that the walk movements during a dressage test are often worth double marks!
So, in this in-depth article, we take a look at what makes a correct walk, how to ride the walk, and how you can improve it.
About the walk
The walk is a low-impact pace.
When ridden frequently and correctly, the walk can offer the following benefits:
- Helps to release tension and encourage relaxation.
- Improves the horse’s stride length.
- Improves the range of movement in the limb joints.
- Increases the range of movement and flexibility of the horse’s back, pelvis, and hip joints.
- Improves all-around suppleness and athleticism.
On top of those benefits, the walk is also useful for warming up, cooling down, and when introducing the horse to new movements and exercises.
Lastly, the free walk can be used in between bouts of more strenuous and collected work to provide the horse with an enjoyable stretch and reward, as well as prevent his muscles from becoming stiff and fatigued.
Proof of correct training
The walk is the hardest pace to improve upon and the easiest pace to ruin.
If there are any fundamental flaws in the horse’s overall way of going, more than likely, they will be highlighted during the walk. Therefore, when a horse and rider combination can execute a high-quality walk, this is proof of correct training.
The correct walk
Before learning how to ride and improve the horse’s walk, it makes sense that we first understand what it is that we are trying to achieve.
Here is what’s required.
The rhythm and sequence of footfalls
The horse’s walk is a four-beat gait. This means that if you listen to your horse walking along a road, you should hear four distinct footfalls with evenly spaced gaps between them. In other words, what you should hear is 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4.
To create that clear four-beat rhythm, the sequence of footfalls should be:
- outside hind
- outside fore
- inside hind
- inside fore
Each leg should move after an even and unhurried interval from the preceding one.
Each front hoof should appear to wait for the hind hoof on the same side, rather than lifting, until just before the hind hoof comes to the ground. Viewed from the side, you should be able to see a distinct ‘V’ shape formed by the hind leg and corresponding foreleg just before the fore hoof lifts.
Finally, the walk is a pace without suspension, i.e. there will always be at least two hooves on the ground at any given point in the sequence. Therefore, the walk is a gait that cannot be said to have cadence.
The walk variations and requirements
The four walk variations are:
- Free walk on a long rein
- Medium walk
- Collected walk
- Extended walk
Regardless of which variation you are riding, they should all show the following qualities.
- A clear and regular four-beat rhythm with the correct sequence of footfalls (as listed above).
- An equal length and height of steps on both sides of the horse.
- Mental and physical relaxation so the horse’s back can fully swing.
- A good amount of activity. (This is measured by bending of the hind leg joints and briskness of the hind leg step – not a quick tempo.)
- The purpose of the walk. (A walk with purpose should have the appearance that the horse is marching with a tempo akin to drilling soldiers, and shows an eagerness to arrive somewhere.)
On top of those listed above, each variation of the walk has its own set of requirements. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
1 – The free walk on a long rein
This is a pace of complete relaxation.
The additional judge’s requirements are:
- As the rider allows the reins to slip through the fingers, the horse should follow the contact forwards and down, with his mouth reaching inline with his shoulder while the contact is still maintained.
- The horse should clearly over-track, i.e. the horse’s hind feet should travel past the prints left by the horse’s forefeet.
- The horse should cover maximum ground and demonstrate complete freedom of his shoulder.
- Although the horse should be relaxed, he should walk purposefully and continue to work forwards.
- The transition out of the free walk should be smooth, with no loss of rhythm or signs of tension as the rider retakes the reins.
Related Read: How to Improve the Free Walk on a Long Rein
2 – The medium walk
The medium walk is the first kind of walk that you will be asked to produce in dressage tests that requires a contact.
The additional judge’s requirements are:
- A soft, steady, and elastic contact, allowing the horse’s head and neck to move naturally.
- The horse must stride forwards to seek the contact through a swinging back and free shoulder.
- The stride should be of a moderate length that is comfortable and natural for the horse.
- At the very least the horse should track-up, i.e. the horse’s hind feet landing in prints left by the horse’s forefeet. But ideally, the judge wants to see the horse over-track, i.e. the horse’s hind feet should travel past the prints left by the horse’s forefeet.
Related Read: How to Ride Medium Walk
3 – The collected walk
This pace requires the horse to shift more weight to his hindquarters in order to produce shorter and taller walk steps.
The collected walk is not an easy pace to ride and train because it is very susceptible to rider-induced faults. To help avoid these issues, remember that the collected walk should be ridden from the rider’s seat and leg, and never from the hand.
TIP: Be careful not to collect the walk too soon, especially if your horse naturally has a big ground-covering walk. Wait until your horse can confidently collect his trot and canter before you begin training the collected walk.
The additional judge’s requirements are:
- The hind legs engage further with increased hock action that clearly demonstrates an increase in carrying power.
- The stride length is shorter than the medium walk but the stride height is taller and the steps are more elevated.
- The horse should show clear self-carriage through a raised and arched neck and with the poll as the highest point.
- The horse continues to work forwards with good activity into a light contact, with the nose coming onto the vertical.
- The horse’s hind feet should touch the ground either just behind or in the prints made by the front feet.
Related Read: How to Ride Collected Walk
4 – The extended walk
The extended walk is very similar to the free walk, except that it is not ridden on a long rein.
The additional judge’s requirements are:
- The horse should move forward through a swinging back and free shoulder to cover the maximum amount of ground he is physically capable of.
- The hind feet should clearly over-track the prints left by the horse’s forefeet.
- The horse should reach forward to the contact, extending his neck and putting his nose in front of the vertical as he reaches for the bit.
Related Read: How to Ride Extended Walk
How to ride the walk
When riding the walk, the two main qualities that you must always maintain are:
It’s very rare to find a horse with a naturally incorrect walk. Usually, the walk has been corrupted by tension (physical or mental) and/or incorrect riding and training.
So, if at any point during your training your horse becomes tense, stiff over the topline, and/or the rhythm starts to show some irregularities, stop what you are doing immediately. Allow the horse to walk forwards on a long/loose rein until the rhythm and relaxation have been reestablished, and then continue.
Maintain a soft and elastic contact, follow the horse’s movement with your seat, and allow your horse to walk freely forwards. This will help ensure that the rhythm and relaxation are maintained throughout all of your walk work.
If you take moment to notice how the horse’s walk feels whilst you are in the saddle, you’ll notice that the horse puts you on alternating seat bones.
This is because as the horse walks his ribcage swings from side to side each time he takes a stride. So, as the horse’s right hind leg swings forward, his ribcage swings to the left, and vice versa.
There’s a technique that takes advantage of this natural movement and it’s called ‘pedaling.’
Pedaling requires you to use your legs alternatively during the walk, as though you were pedaling a bike. (Hence the name.)
- You use your left leg as you feel the horse’s ribcage swing to the right – which is when the horse’s left hind leg swings forward,
- and you use your right leg as you feel your horse’s ribcage swing to the left – which is when your horse’s right hind leg swings forward.
Here are the benefits of using this technique.
1 – Maximize stride length
If you struggle to get your horse to track-up or over-track when required, pedaling is a great way to help you maximize the horse’s stride length and to encourage him to take bigger steps.
This is because you are using your left leg as the horse’s left hind leg swing forwards (and vice versa) which stimulates the horse to reach further forward with that leg.
2 – Encourage the horse to relax through his back
By using your legs alternatively as your horse’s ribcage swings, you’re contributing to the constant lateral flexion (left and right) that is happening through your horse’s back as he walks.
This encourages the horse to loosen his long back muscles, therefore helping to produce maximum ground cover and enhancing the purity of the pace.
3 – Prevents anticipation and jogging
Once your horse understands your pedaling aids, he will identify them with the walk pace.
This will allow you to maintain a clear four-beat walking rhythm which will, in turn, prevent jogging and anticipation because the horse will know that he is required to walk.
Common problems seen in the walk
As you are training the walk, you need to be aware of some of the pitfalls.
Here are six of the most common problems.
1 – Tension and lateral walking
In order to maintain the correct walking gait, the horse must alternately relax each one of his long back muscles. If the horse becomes tense through his back, then the natural walk sequence can become disrupted.
Instead of the walk being an even 1-2-3-4, it turns into a 1-2…3-4. This latter rhythm is called ‘syncopated’ or ‘lateral’ and is how a camel walks.
To the observer, a lateral walk appears as if the two legs on one side of the horse move almost at the same time, followed by the two legs on the other side.
Sadly, once the natural sequence of the walk has become damaged, it’s almost impossible to recover once the horse has become used to tightening through the back. Therefore, riders should always prioritize relaxation in the walk.
Related Read: How to Reduce Tension and Get Your Horse to Relax
This is why the advice is often given not to work young horses for a long period in walk on a contact. If, on the other hand, a young horse is relaxed in the walk, the length of time spent at that pace under saddle is irrelevant.
If the horse is not a tense character, then this disruption of the rhythm is most often seen when the first steps of collection are asked for and any attempt to incorrectly shorten the outline by taking a tight rein contact will have this damaging effect. To collect correctly, the horse must be supple enough over the back to compress the frame, without becoming tense or tight.
Related Read: How to Correct a Lateral Walk
2 – Jogging
Jogging can be caused by a number of reasons, including tension, anticipation, and excitement.
Also, some horses lack confidence when taken to events or when they are ridden in unfamiliar environments, which can cause the horse to jog during the walk.
To help fix this problem, first, make sure that you are relaxed and you are not causing the horse to jog by having a tight seat and/or tight rein contact.
If you are not allowing with your seat and following the horse’s natural movement, then the horse will be unable to swing through his back and walk freely forwards. So, take a deep breath and try to relax as much as possible. Let your seat sink deep into the saddle and swing along with the horse’s strides, whilst allowing with your hand so that the horse can walk calmly forward.
Secondly, if you intend to compete, it would be beneficial to take your horse to lots of different places. Hiring an arena away from home is a really useful and effective way of helping your horse to relax and become accustomed to working in a strange environment, and preparing him to keep a level head when away at competitions.
By familiarizing your horse with different environments, revisiting the aids for the walk and free walk, and keeping yourself relaxed, you can overcome this problem.
3 – Overuse of the seat
In an effort to try and encourage their horses to take bigger steps during the walk, many riders aggressively drive their horses forward with their seat, especially during the free walk and extended walk.
Not only is this excessive grinding inelegant, but it can also cause a lot of problems.
Remember that the walk pace does not have a moment of suspension. Therefore, by pushing too much with the seat, you can cause the horse to hollow his back away from the pressure, creating tension and problems with the rhythm.
Instead, allow your hips and seat to relax and swing freely with the horse, following his natural movement. If you want your horse to take longer steps, use your legs! The legs ask the horse to go forwards, the seat allows the horse to forwards.
4 – Micromanaging
Because the walk is the slowest pace, it’s very easy for riders to fall into the trap of trying to micromanage each stride.
You often see riders fiddling with the contact, swinging their horse’s heads from side to side, creating too much neck bend through turns and corners, and generally hindering the horse’s walk as opposed to helping it.
Although this is not the time for you to relax and take a break, you must still allow the horse the freedom to actually walk forwards and straight.
So, keep your contact steady, light, and even, and let the horse do the walking.
Related Read: How to Keep Your Hands Still
5 – Horse curls up
This is where the horse stops working through his back into the contact and instead, curls up his neck, drops his poll, brings his nose into his chest, and ducks behind the contact. This leaves the rider will no contact at all in their hands and very little ability to maneuver and position the horse.
Curling up can be a result of tension and/or stiffness over the horse’s back, but it can also be a result of problem number 4, micromanaging; the rider’s fiddling or backward-thinking hands causes the horse to duck behind the uncomfortable pressure being placed on his mouth.
To help fix this issue, first, make sure that you are not the problem and ensure that you are offering your horse a still and pleasant contact to work into.
Next, walk the horse on curved lines and circles, and use exercises such as figures of eight, serpentines, and loops; exercises that require you to change the bend. This will encourage the horse to stretch through the outside of his body and his outside back muscles, helping to release some of the tension and stiffness.
Walking over ground poles will also be beneficial as they will encourage the horse to look down, stretching his head and neck forward as he does so.
Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Dropping Behind the Contact
6 – Hurrying in the walk
Knowing that the walk must be purposeful and ridden forwards, many riders fall into the trap of hurrying the horse along.
This is especially damaging to horses that naturally have big ground-covering walks. The walk tempo may seem as though it’s too slow on these types of horses, but that’s just because it covers a lot of ground.
Asking for too much and hurrying the walk can cause tension and rhythm problems. This results in the steps becoming shorter, tighter, and choppier.
Yes, the walk should march purposefully forwards, but the horse must also maintain suppleness and relaxation over the back if his legs are to swing rhythmically forwards in the correct sequence. Therefore, the tempo must be comfortable for the horse to maintain.
Here are six exercises that you can use to help you train and improve upon your horse’s walk.
Exercise 1 – Poles
Walking the horse over ground poles and/or cavaletti (raised poles) can help benefit the walk in the following ways:
1 – Helps to correct rhythm irregularities
If you are experiencing a lateral walk or problems with the rhythm, such as jogging, walking over poles will be very beneficial because they will make the horse lift his legs in the correct sequence and can, therefore, help to aid recovery.
2 – Helps to increase the length of stride
Poles can be used as a helpful method for encouraging increased ground cover and opening of the shoulders.
Start with the poles at a comfortable distance apart for the horse to walk over them with ease, and then increase the distance little by little until he must stretch to reach them.
3 – Helps to improve straightness and symmetry
Due to the set distance of the poles laid out on the ground, the horse is forced to cover the same distance with each leg.
This promotes equality in the horse’s stride length which helps to create a more symmetrical and straighter horse.
TIP: Ensure that you are using an even number of poles so that you are indeed working both sides of the horse’s body equally.
4 – Helps to strengthen the horse
Since the walk has no moment of suspension, when the horse is asked to walk over raised poles he cannot use the momentum and cadence that he would do if he were asked to trot or canter over them.
Instead, the horse must physically lift each of his legs individually to clear the obstacle. This strengthens the horse’s back and core muscles, as well as improves the horse’s balance and flexibility.
5 – Helps to encourage a raised and rounded back
In order for the horse to assess where to place his legs when going through poles, he will naturally lower his head. This should be encouraged and the horse should have the freedom to do so.
As the horse lowers his head, his back will raise and his abdominal muscles will engage. This will help to stretch out the horse’s topline muscles and improve the horse’s posture along with suppleness and relaxation over the back.
TIP: For maximum lasting benefits, pole work must be repeated on a regular basis, either ridden or in hand.
Exercise 2 – Walking in water
This can be done by using a water treadmill, the sea, or in deep puddles. (Walking in shallow water is very similar to the horse walking over raised ground poles.)
The drag of the water against the horse’s legs causes them to be lifted at evenly-spaced intervals. This helps to recover the normal sequence and promotes an even rhythm and tempo.
It also helps to improve the horse’s stride length along with full body strength and suppleness.
Exercise 3 – Transitions
One of the best exercises to help improve the horse’s relaxation and throughness in the walk is to ride several transitions from free walk to medium walk back to free walk.
Although these seem like basic transitions, they help the horse relax both mentally and physically, work over his back and stretch his topline, strengthen his muscles, and develop a longer swinging stride.
These transitions can also be ridden on a large circle for additional benefits.
Remember that transitions are the building blocks of dressage!
Related Read: How to Progress With Transitions
Exercise 4 – Hill work
Walking the horse up and down hills is a great low-impact cardiovascular exercise that will provide the horse with a full-body workout.
It will strengthen and condition the horse’s hindlegs, encourage more pushing power, and improve the horse’s topline, balance, and coordination.
All of these qualities will help encourage a freer shoulder and a more swinging back.
Exercise 5 – Hacking
If you have a horse that takes short shuffling walk steps or doesn’t have much over-track, one of the easiest ways to improve the walk is to take him out hacking.
Most horses will offer up a much higher quality walk when out hacking than compared to walking around an arena.
Allowing the horse to march purposely forward under his steam on a long rein in the great outdoors (if safe to do so) is a fantastic way to open the horse up. This encourages the horse to take longer strides, push and engage more with the hind legs, and improves the lateral flexion and swing through the horse’s back.
Exercise 6 – Lateral movements
Although all lateral exercises will be beneficial, arguably the best exercise to help improve the walk is the shoulder-in.
During a walk shoulder-in, the horse has to engage his inside hind leg, which helps to improve the pace and correct any faults in the walk sequence.
Also, if you have a horse that tends to jog or run away from the leg, riding movements such as the shoulder-in and leg-yield will help you to control the pace. This is because it teaches the horse to accept your leg because it’s much harder for the horse to run away from it when he is traveling sideways.
Overall, lateral work is the gateway to developing suppleness and higher levels of collection and self-carriage. You will need all of these qualities as your progress your horse through the different walk variants.
Related Read: How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)
As the slowest pace, the walk is often neglected and forgotten about.
Although it’s a difficult pace to ride well and it can be easily corrupted, the walk can also be improved through regular practice and the use of the pedaling technique.
During the walk, you should prioritize relaxation and ensure a clear 4-beat regular rhythm at all times.
Exercises to improve the walk include ground poles, transitions, walking in water, hacking, hill work, and lateral movements.
It can be helpful to have someone video your horse’s walk. You can then assess it yourself using the guidelines above, and work on ways in which you can improve it, using the exercises described.
And remember that a good quality walk is proof of correct training.