About The Horse’s Walk Gait in Dressage
The horse’s walk is a gait that’s often neglected by riders in their regular schooling sessions.
This potentially means that you could lose valuable marks in a dressage test, especially given that some tests award double marks for some of the walk movements!
So, what makes a correct walk, and how can you improve it?
The correct walk
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; not 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 the two legs on one side moving at almost the same moment, followed by the two legs on the other side.
The sequence of a correct walk should be:
- right hind
- right fore
- left hind
- left fore
Each leg should move after an even 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.
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.
Assessing the quality of the walk
When assessing the quality of a walk, the dressage judge will be looking for:
- The clarity of the four-beat sequence
- The length of ground cover with both front and hind legs
- The over-track, i.e. the amount by which the hind hoof oversteps the print of the front hoof on the same side
- The equality of length, height and over-track on both sides
- The activity of the walk. This is measured in the height, (from the bending of the hind leg joints) and briskness of the hind leg step
- 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
Problems in the walk
To maintain a correct walk gait, the horse must alternately relax each of the long back muscles (longissimus dorsi) in order for natural neuro-muscular coordination to occur.
Any tension may disrupt this sequence, so riders should prioritize relaxation in the walk.
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 in that pace under saddle is irrelevant.
If the horse is not a tense character, then disruption of the rhythm is most often seen when the first steps of collection are asked for and any attempt to 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.
Once the natural sequence has been damaged, it is almost impossible to recover. Obviously, relaxation will help, but that is hard once a horse has become used to tightening the back.
Exercises that can help to improve the walk include:
Walking over ground poles
This exercise makes the legs lift in the correct sequence, but will need to be repeated frequently to aid recovery.
Walking over ground poles is also 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.
This will need to be repeated frequently, during regular schooling sessions.
Walking in water, either on a treadmill, in the sea, or in deep puddles
The drag of the water against the limbs causes them to be lifted at evenly-spaced intervals, so recovering the normal sequence.
Riding lateral movements in walk
Shoulder-in is usually the most effective exercise, but other lateral movements such as leg yield (done with sufficient leg crossing), haunches-in and half-pass might all be effective, although individual horses respond differently.
The walk is an often-neglected gait that can be improved by consistent work in the school and whilst out hacking.
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.
- How to Correct a Lateral Walk
- How to Ride a Walk Pirouette
- How to Ride Shoulder-In
- How to use Poles to Improve Your Horse’s Way of Going