The ‘free walk’ is a movement that appears in all dressage tests up to medium level (British Dressage).
Riders often neglect it in their home schooling sessions, which is a very costly omission given that the free walk is often worth double marks!
Even if your horse doesn’t naturally have the best walk in the world, there are things you can do to improve the free walk and maximize your score.
So, in this article, we’re going to cover what makes an excellent free walk, how to ride this movement, the common mistakes you need to avoid, and exercises to help you improve this pace.
What is the free walk on a long rein?
The ‘free walk’ is a pace of relaxation and freedom.
The horse is encouraged to take the reins forward and down and stretch over his topline while showing a good amount of ground cover and over-track in the walk.
You can also ride the same exercise in the trot, where it’s given the descriptive name of “allowing the horse to stretch” and also the nickname of a “stretchy trot.”
Related Read: How to Encourage Your Horse to Stretch on a Long Rein
Why ride the free walk?
Although many riders view the free walk as just an opportunity for their horse to have a break, it can provide many training benefits when ridden correctly.
Here are a few of them:
- Encourages your horse to relax and release tension.
- Increases your horse’s stride length and range of limb movement.
- Improves the flexibility of your horse’s back, pelvis, and hip joints.
- Prevents your horse’s muscles from becoming stiff and fatigued (which can happen if you ask him to work in the same frame for long periods).
- Promotes full-body suppleness and athleticism.
- Provides your horse with an enjoyable reward for his efforts.
The qualities of a correct free walk
To be awarded top marks for the free walk in a dressage competition, here are the qualities you must demonstrate.
Quality 1 – A correct walk
For the walk to be correct, it must have the correct rhythm and the correct sequence of footfalls.
The correct rhythm
The walk should have a clear and regular 4-beat rhythm.
If you listen to your horse walk down a road, you should hear 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4, with each beat evenly spaced and displaying an equal length and height of step on both sides. So, you should not hear 1-2…3-4…1-2…3-4.
Sequence of footfalls
To create that 4-beat rhythm (as discussed above), your horse’s legs must move in the correct sequence, which is as follows:
- outside hind
- outside fore
- inside hind
- inside fore
The walk pace does not have a movement of suspension, i.e., there will always be at least two hooves on the ground at any given point. Because of this, you cannot describe the walk as having “cadence.”
Quality 2 – Ground cover and over-tracking
During the free walk, your horse should show a clear over-track, i.e., his hind feet should travel past the prints left by his forefeet.
Your horse should also cover maximum ground and demonstrate complete freedom of his shoulder.
Quality 3 – Relaxation
Throughout the free walk, your horse should exhibit complete mental and physical relaxation, allowing his back to swing fully.
This quality is essential because even the slightest bit of tension can disrupt the walk rhythm and prevent your horse from showing a decent amount of ground cover and a clear over-track.
Quality 4 – Stretching over the back, forward, and down
As you allow the reins to slip through your fingers, your horse should follow the contact forwards and down, with his mouth reaching inline with his shoulder with the connection still maintained.
Your horse should engage his abdominal muscles, lift and raise his back, and stretch over his entire topline.
Quality 5 – Purpose
Although your horse should be relaxed, he should continue to march purposefully forward with a good amount of activity.
Purpose: A walk with purpose should show an eagerness to arrive somewhere. The horse should march with a tempo similar to drilling soldiers.
Activity: A walk with activity shows good bending of the hind leg joins and a briskness in the hind leg step. It does not mean a quick tempo.
Quality 6 – Smooth transitions
Your transitions into and out of the free walk should remain rhythmical, straight, and free from tension.
Is the horse required to just “lower his head” in the free walk?
No! This is a widespread misconception.
Although your horse must stretch his head forwards and down, he is still required to work from active hind legs, over a rounded back, and stay connected to the bit.
If your horse is merely walking with a lowered head, his hindlegs dragging along behind him, and your reins swinging in the wind, then this is not a free walk on a long rein.
Why does the dressage judge want to see your horse stretch during the walk?
Quite simply, the free walk on a long rein is a test to see if your horse is working correctly through his back to seek your contact.
It gives the judge information on how well you have schooled your horse in accordance with the dressage scales of training.
If your horse is not working correctly, you will be unable to perform this movement correctly.
NOTE: You can also use the free walk during your training at home for this exact reason; to test that your horse is working correctly through his back to seek your contact.
How to ride the free walk on a long rein
Here are the four steps you must follow to ride a correct free walk on a long rein.
As discussed, the free walk requires your horse to stretch over his topline toward the contact. Therefore, for your horse to want to follow the contact forwards and down, he first needs to be working correctly.
Start by working your horse as usual (in walk, trot, and canter) and ride a variety of school movements, transitions, and circles while encouraging your horse to transmit energy from his active hind legs, over his swinging back, and into an elastic and consistent contact.
If you need help establishing this connection, check out these posts.
- How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”
- How to Get Your Horse into an Outline
- The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact
Ride a smooth transition to medium walk, keeping your horse working forwards.
After a few good strides, allow your horse to “chew” the reins out of your hands and take the contact forward and down by letting the reins slide gradually through your fingers.
Do not abandon the contact, and do not try to fiddle your horse’s head down. You must maintain a steady connection, and you should still be able to feel your horse at the end of the reins. Remember, you should ride this exercise on a long rein, not a loose rein.
TIP: It can be helpful to allow your inside rein to lengthen slightly before your outside rein, especially if riding the movement on a large circle. This technique helps to maintain the connection during the beginning of the stretch.
During the free walk, you must keep your horse working forward and stretching into the contact.
Do not take your leg off, as your horse could drop behind your aids, causing you to lose the connection and your horse lifting his head.
For maximum ground cover, relax your seat and allow your hips to follow your horse’s movement.
Don’t aggressively push with your seat, as that can cause your horse to hollow away from the uncomfortable pressure you create and cause tension in his back. Instead, simply allow your horse to walk freely forward.
To ride a good transition back to medium walk, shorten your reins gradually while keeping your leg on to maintain your horse’s hind leg engagement and connection.
During training, taking extra time with this transition can be helpful, as shortening your reins over several strides allows your horse to adjust his frame gradually, preventing tension and jogging.
As your horse becomes more proficient at transitioning from the free walk into the medium walk, you can begin to shorten your reins over fewer strides, as required in a dressage test.
Here are five faults commonly seen in the free walk on a long rein.
Fault 1 – You abandon the contact
During the free walk, although it requires a long rein, you must maintain a contact.
If you throw the contact away, your horse has no contact to seek, resulting in your horse raising his head and not stretching forward and down.
Instead, simply allow the reins to slip through your fingers while maintaining an elastic feeling with the bit.
Fault 2 – Your horse does not stretch
If you allow your horse to chew the rein out of your hands gradually, but your horse just lifts his head and comes off the contact, then this is an indication that your horse was not working correctly in the first place.
As mentioned, for your horse to stretch and follow the contact, he must first be working over his back and seeking the bit.
When your horse is working correctly, he will find the stretch an enjoyable reward and will stretch every time.
Fault 3 – Your horse loses energy
You will likely experience this fault if you do not regularly practice the free walk at home.
Without frequent practice throughout your training sessions, your horse will associate the walk with a break or the end of a session, causing him to drop behind your leg and come off your aids, resulting in a poor amount of ground cover and over-track.
You can fix this easily by interspersing the free walk into your daily schooling sessions, keeping your horse attentive and working forward from your leg.
Fault 4 – Joggin when transitioning back into a medium walk
This fault can happen for a few reasons:
Reason 1 – Your horse was not genuinely relaxed.
Tension is more likely to show in the walk than in any other pace.
For your horse to move his legs in the correct sequence and rhythm, each of his long back muscles (longissimus dorsi) must alternately contract and relax. If they are held tensely, without the ability to relax, then this can cause your horse to jog.
To correct this fault, you must prioritize relaxation.
Reason 2 – Your horse is anticipating an upcoming transition into trot or canter.
Horses are very good at learning dressage tests! Therefore, if you repetitively practice these transitions in the same place, your horse will begin to anticipate them.
You can avoid this by not practicing the same test too much at home and, instead, riding a lot of free walk to medium walk transitions at different places in the arena, some followed by a trot/canter transition and some not.
Reason 3 – Your horse was not working into a genuine elastic contact.
If the contact you have with your horse is not elastic, when you attempt to shorten your reins, he will resist, resulting in tension and jogging.
The fundamentals of the exercise require you to have already established an accepting and elastic contact.
Reason 4 – You shorten the reins too abruptly.
You must shorten your reins smoothly, giving your horse time to adjust his frame, balance, and strides.
Shortening your reins too quickly and/or harshly can create uncomfortable backward pressure on the bit, causing your horse to tense, resist the contact and begin to jog.
You can correct this by adjusting your contact gradually and politely.
Fault 5 – Your horse curls his head into his chest
When you allow the reins to slip through your fingers, your horse must take the contact forward and down with his nose either on or just in front of the vertical.
Your horse must not curl his neck up, bring his nose into his chest, and position his head dramatically behind the vertical. Your horse may have lowered his head and be working on a longer rein, but this is still incorrect.
If your horse exhibits this fault, usually, this is because he has learned to duck behind the contact instead of stretching forward into it.
You can fix this by going back to basics, teaching your horse how to work over a rounded back with engaged abdominal muscles, and encouraging him to seek a correct contact.
Exercises to improve the free walk
Here are four exercises you can use to help you improve the quality of your horse’s free walk.
Exercise 1 – Poles
Lay out some poles at a comfortable distance apart for your horse to walk over them with ease, and then increase the distance little by little until he must stretch to reach them.
Next, ride your horse in an active medium walk. As you approach the poles, a stride or two before your horse must step over the first one, allow the reins to slide gradually through your fingers, and ride your horse forward into a free walk over the poles.
This exercise has the following benefits:
- The poles will make your horse lift his legs in the correct regular sequence, correcting any rhythm irregularities.
- The distance between the poles will help increase your horse’s stride length and improve his ground cover.
- The poles require your horse to cover the same distance with each leg, promoting equality in your horse’s stride length.
- For your horse to assess where he is placing his legs, he will be encouraged to raise his back, engage his abdominal muscles, lower his head, and stretch out his topline.
TIP: For maximum lasting benefits, you must repeat pole work regularly.
Exercise 2 – Frequent transitions
One of the best exercises to help improve your horse’s free walk is to ride several transitions from the free walk to medium walk and back to free walk.
Although these seem like basic transitions, they will help to improve your horse’s relaxation and throughness, gymnastersize his topline, and develop a longer swinging stride.
They also allow you to train your horse to lengthen and shorten his frame and practice that tricky transition from free walk back to medium walk, ensuring that it remains rhythmical and relaxed.
TIP: You can ride these transitions on a large circle for additional benefits.
Exercise 3 – Spirals
Spirals are a great exercise to help improve your horse’s connection from his hind legs into the contact and to get him securely into your outside rein while enhancing his engagement and lateral suppleness.
- Start by riding your horse in walk on a large 20-meter circle.
- Gradually spiral inwards onto a 15-meter or 10-meter circle (depending on your horse’s current level of lateral suppleness) while maintaining a good rhythm and an active tempo.
- Next, spiral back out to your 20-meter circle and allow your horse to take the reins and stretch into a free walk on a long rein as you do so.
- Ride a full 20-meter circle in the free walk before gradually shortening your reins and transitioning back to a medium walk while simultaneously spiraling back inwards again.
TIP: You can also spiral in and out by leg-yielding.
Exercise 4 – Hacking
If your free walk lacks ground cover with minimal or zero over-tracking, one of the easiest ways to improve upon this is to take your horse out hacking.
Most horses will offer up a much higher quality walk when out hacking than compared to walking around an arena.
Allowing your horse to march purposely forward under his own steam on a long rein in the great outdoors (if safe to do so) is a fantastic way to open your horse up, encourage him to take longer strides, push and engage more with his hind legs, and improve the lateral flexion and swing through his back.
You can also ride transitions between the free and medium walks (as in exercise 2) to further develop your horse’s throughness.
The free walk should show your horse in a relaxed state, being allowed to lower and stretch out his head and neck.
Notably, your horse must take the contact forward and down so that his mouth reaches in line with his shoulder. His back should lift, and his steps should show an increase in ground cover with a clear over-track and demonstrate complete freedom of his shoulders.
Throughout the exercise, you must maintain an elastic connection with the bit and should continue to ride your horse suitably forward.
Although many riders neglect this exercise when training at home, diligent training of the free walk encourages relaxation, promotes suppleness and swing, and is an enjoyable stretch for your horse.
So I have an issue both in dressage tests and in training that when I encourage the long rein on a free walk my horse wants to scratch his face, so he is walking while pawing both fronts up to have a quick scratch, which I am finding very difficult to correct.
So what I do is I push forward when he does this and then he hollows and pushed his head up, I get the contact again and boom he lowers and tries to scratch again.
Any ideas on how I can improve this please?
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First, double-check the fit of your bridle and make sure there’s nothing that could be rubbing or making him uncomfortable. Also, check for any loose straps (such as a flash strap) that could be irritating him. Check the fit of the bit, make sure it’s not pinching him, and that he has no dental issues. Finally, depending on the climate you are riding in, if there are any flies that could be bothering him, make sure he has adequate fly repellant and protection.
Secondly, once you have ruled out all physical reasons, you need to work on keeping his attention during the free walk and maintaining the connection and contact. In training, regularly practice the free walk but keep it short so your horse doesn’t think that he’s having a break or that he’s done for the day. So, allow a small amount with the rein and allow him to stretch (whist still keeping your leg on and maintaining a contact with the bit) and then shorten the reins and continue with his work. Do this several times, and once he starts to stay through to the contact then you can ask for a little more stretch and a few more steps. The goal is to keep his attention, keep him working into the contact, and to get a few good walks steps. Over time, you should be able to build it up gradually so you can eventually ask for a whole diagonal line of free walk without him coming off the aids.
Hope that helps.