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How to Prevent and Correct a Lateral Walk

correct and prevent a lateral walk dressage

If you ever receive the comment ‘lateral walk’ on your dressage score sheet, this should not be brushed aside.

A lateral walk indicates a fundamental issue with the horse’s walk rhythm and, in extreme cases, it can be impossible to correct.

This fault is usually created unknowingly and unintentionally by the rider and can result in a permanently damaged walk pace.

So, in this article, we’re going to discuss the qualities that make up a correct walk, clarify exactly what a lateral walk is, and give you some tips on how to prevent this problem before finally sharing some methods that may help correct a lateral walk.

Why do you need to have a correct walk?

Although very few riders spend time training their horses how to walk well, a fault in the walk can prove to be very costly during a competition.

An incorrect walk rhythm will not only affect all the individual walk variants (such as the free walk on a long rein, the medium walk, the collected walk, and the extended walk) but also other dressage movements such as simple changes, walk-to-canter transitions, and walk pirouettes.

As the slowest pace, the walk will highlight any faults in the horse’s basic training which may not be as visible in the trot and canter. Therefore, a high-quality walk, at any level, is proof of correct training.

And when the walk is trained and ridden well, it helps to improve the horse’s all-around suppleness and athleticism.

What is a correct walk?

Before we look at what a lateral walk is, it makes sense that we first clarify the requirements of a correct walk.

Here are five qualities that we want to see in a horse’s walk.

Quality #1 – The correct rhythm

The horse’s walk has a four-beat rhythm. 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.

Quality #2 – The correct sequence of footfalls

To create that clear four-beat rhythm (quality #1), 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, and the legs on each side of the horse’s body should cover the same amount of ground and be lifted to the same height.

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. Due to this lack of suspension, the walk is a gait that cannot be said to have cadence.

Quality #3 – A suitable tempo

The walk should have purpose and the horse should look as though he is ‘going somewhere’ as opposed to just wandering around.

He should march consistently forwards without rushing.

Quality #4 – A visible ‘V’ shape

Each front hoof should appear to wait for the hind hoof on the same side.

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.

Quality #5 – Throughness

The horse should be working through a soft and swinging back, transmitting energy from his hind legs into a soft elastic contact.

What is a lateral walk?

A lateral walk is one in which the natural sequence of footfalls is disrupted.

As we discussed above, there should be four evenly-spaced steps; not two steps, a gap, and then two more steps.

If you listen to your horse as you walk down a road, you should clearly hear 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4, and not 1-2…3-4…1-2…3-4. The latter is a lateral walk and it’s created by the horse’s legs on each side of his body moving at almost the same time.

The horse’s foreleg does not wait for the corresponding hind leg before it leaves the ground and it, therefore, it does not create that ‘V’ shape.

One of the other terms for this type of walk is a ‘camel walk’. If you watch camels move you will see the two legs on one side of the body move almost simultaneously, followed by the same on the opposite side.

What causes a lateral walk?

Physically, a lateral walk is caused by tension in the horse’s back muscles.

In order for the 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, the correct neuro-muscular sequence cannot take place, causing a broken rhythm.

What causes tension and tightness in the horse’s back?

There are many reasons why a horse may become tense, tight, and hollow over his topline. Here are twelve reasons for you to consider.

  1. Anxiousness and nervousness in the horse and/or rider.
  2. Excitability in the horse and/or rider.
  3. Anticipation from the horse. (For example, anticipating an upcoming transition to canter.)
  4. Poorly fitting tack, especially the saddle.
  5. Riding with a strong and restrictive rein contact.
  6. Not following the horse’s movement with the seat. (For example, using a stiff and stilted seat that prevents the horse from swinging through his back.)
  7. Overusing the seat. (For example, aggressively driving the horse forward with the seat.)
  8. Pushing the horse out of his natural rhythm and asking for a tempo that is too quick.
  9. Trying to collect the walk too soon in the horse’s training, i.e. before he is strong enough to shift the weight onto his hind legs.
  10. Trying to collect the walk incorrectly. (For example, using only the reins to artificially shorten the horse’s frame and strides.)
  11. A lack of straightness and connection, i.e. the horse is not working “through” and stretching into the contact.
  12. General rider interference. (For example, fiddling with the rein contact, sitting crooked, using one rein/leg more than the other, and/or micromanaging each of the horse’s steps.)

Admittedly, some horses are more prone to developing a lateral walk than others, and just the tiniest bit of tension can cause the problem to come to the fore.

How do you prevent a lateral walk?

“Prevention is better than cure,” and that is definitely true when it comes to your horse’s walk; a lateral walk is much easier to prevent than it is to fix.

Here are six tips to help you prevent a lateral walk from developing.

Tip #1 – Prioritize rhythm and relaxation in all aspects of your horse’s life

Rhythm and relaxation create the foundation for a good walk.

Anything that you can do to help release/prevent tension and maintain a good rhythm is going to benefit your horse’s walk.

If you have an especially tense and anxious horse, think about his daily life and routine, not just his work under saddle. For example, consider the amount of turnout he has, his contact with other horses, and the ‘busyness’ of the environment in which he is kept. Often, a horse’s behavior and temperament can change dramatically through simple lifestyle changes and making sure that his natural needs are met.

When it comes to working your horse, whether that be lunging, in-hand, free-schooling, at liberty, or under saddle, still keep your focus on rhythm and relaxation in all three paces. Not only will this help to benefit your horse’s walk, but these qualities also serve as the foundation for the scales of training upon which everything else is built.

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Tip #2 – Don’t over-ride or fiddle with the walk

Out of all the paces, the walk is the one that riders try to micromanage and do too much with.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of constantly fiddling with the horse’s bit and riding more from the reins than the legs and seat.

Here are some tips to help you ride the walk well.

  • Count the four-beat walk rhythm in your head (or out loud), making sure that the steps remain regular and even.
  • Ensure your seat is relaxed and swinging along with the horse’s natural movement. Don’t drive with your seat and don’t block your horse’s topline.
  • Breathe! If you are tense and tight then, more than likely, your horse is going to be tense and tight.
  • Take care not to hurry your horse along, especially if he naturally has a big ground-covering walk. Of course, you don’t want him dawdling behind your leg, but if you push him out of his natural tempo then you do not give his foreleg time to wait for his hind leg (in order to create that ‘V’ shape), so your horse will end up lifting his foreleg too early, causing an unclear rhythm.
  • Keep your contact steady, elastic, and even, allowing your horse to stretch into the end of the reins.

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Tip #3 – Don’t introduce collection too soon

Most of the problems with the walk occur when the first steps of collection are asked for.

Before your horse can correctly collect his walk, he must be supple enough over his back and be able to compress his frame without becoming tense or tight.

For that reason, it’s advisable to first teach your horse how to collect the trot and canter. This way, your horse will build the necessary strength and flexibility to be able to collect correctly, as well as develop an understanding of how to collect and compress his frame, i.e. by stepping under and taking more weight on his hind legs.

If you enter a dressage test that requires collected walk, prioritize your horse’s rhythm and regularity over the degree of collection. Remember rhythm forms the base of the training scale, therefore, you will score higher for a walk that has the correct rhythm but with less collection, compared to a walk with a higher degree of collection but an incorrect rhythm.

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Tip #4 – Manage jogging and anticipation

This is a difficult one, especially if you have a horse that is prone to jogging.

The usual reaction from a rider is to take the leg off and restain the horse with the rein. However, this usually makes the situation worse by creating more tension whilst the horse continues to jog.

When a horse jogs, he is behind the leg and not working through into the contact. Therefore, if you can keep your horse in front of your leg and maintain the connection from his hind legs to the bit then, more than likely, you’ll be able to prevent him from jogging.

You can also manage jogging by preventing anticipation. For example, if you ride the same movements in the same order in the same place, then your horse will begin to anticipate what it is that you want. This can lead to your horse jogging in the walk when he knows that a transition to trot or canter is coming up. So, where possible, frequently change up where and when you ride certain movements to prevent your horse from anticipating.

With all of that being said, if your horse does start jogging, use your half-halts to being him back to walk whilst keeping your leg on and asking him to work forwards into the contact.

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Tip #5 – Train the horse to walk well

Due to the problems that can easily be created in the walk, many riders ignore the walk and don’t touch it at all. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, you can’t ignore it forever; you are going to need to ride and train the walk eventually.

The walk is not always a time for the horse to have a break and look around, and he must get used to continuing with his work during the walk. Therefore, he must learn to walk forwards, in front of the leg, and to stretch towards an even and steady contact.

Whilst you are in the walk, don’t just wander aimlessly around the arena. Instead, ride transitions within the walk (such as medium walk – free walk – medium walk), along with movements that require frequent changes of bend (such as serpentines, loops, and figures of eight). These exercises will help to encourage the horse’s throughness, improve his suppleness, and maintain his focus.

Also, pay attention to straightness during the walk. If your horse swings his quarters and/or becomes crooked, then he cannot work through to an even contact. This lack of throughness can cause jogging and tension, which can lead to walking laterally.

If your horse does lose straightness, correct it by using your legs and positioning the horse in shoulder-fore/in. For some reason, when in the walk, riders are more likely to try and correct straightness issues by using only the reins (which often leads to more problems) instead of correctly using their legs as they would do in the trot and the canter.

But the point here is to spend time riding movements and transitions within the walk to help teach the horse how to walk well.

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Tip #6 – Pedaling

Pedaling is a technique that requires you to use your legs alternatively to match and encourage the natural swing of your horse’s ribcage during the walk.

horse walk movement of ribs dressage

Next time you’re sat in the saddle, take a moment to feel how your horse walks. You’ll notice that 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.

To ‘pedal’ correctly, you would;

  • 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.

You can use this technique to contribute to the constant lateral flexion (left and right) that is happening through your horse’s back as he walks, therefore encouraging him to relax through his back.

Your horse will also begin to identify your pedaling aids with the walk pace, helping you to maintain a clear four-beat rhythm which will, in turn, prevent jogging and anticipation because the horse will know that he is required to walk.

How do you correct a lateral walk?

A lateral walk is an extremely difficult, and sadly sometimes impossible, problem to correct.

Although the best answer is not to allow it to occur in the first place, if you do have this issue, here are some methods you can try.

NOTE: For these methods to be effective and to deliver long-term results they must be repeated frequently.

Method #1 – Walking in water

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.

You can walk your horse in water 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.)

Method #2 – Walking over (raised) poles

Asking the horse to walk over poles is beneficial because the poles demand that the horse lifts his legs in the correct sequence which, therefore, helps to stop the horse from walking laterally.

To gauge where he is placing his legs, the horse will also look down at the poles. This should be encouraged because it involves the horse stretching over his topline and releasing any tension through his back.

When laying the poles out, place them a little bit closer together than you usually would so that the horse is encouraged to lift his legs up higher as opposed to stretching for length.

Method #3 – Lateral movements

Lateral movements encourage suppleness through your horse’s back and help to improve the connection from your inside leg into your outside rein.

Also, if you have a horse that tends to jog or run away from the leg, riding movements such as 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.

If you can gain sufficient relaxation combined with the sideways steps, once again you can recover the correct sequence.

This is also a technique that may help in competition as you can put the horse into a mild shoulder-fore almost anywhere in a test without upsetting the judge! Therefore, if you have an upcoming walk-to-canter transition that you think your horse may anticipate and lose the walk rhythm in, then you can place the horse into shoulder-fore to help prevent it.

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Method #4 – A trail riding and hacking holiday

If your horse walks laterally in the arena, try taking him trail riding for a whole season.

Of course, this option isn’t available to everyone depending on your location and current life commitments, but most horses will offer up a much higher quality walk when out hacking.

Allowing the horse to freely walk forwards under his own steam, covering various terrain in the great outdoors, accompanied by some other horses, is a fantastic way to encourage lateral flexion and swing through the horse’s back.

This method can also offer a mental break for both you and your horse, helping to release tension.

In conclusion

A correct walk has a clear four-beat rhythm with evenly spaced gaps between each of the footfalls.

A lateral walk is when the legs on each side of the horse’s body move at almost the same time, and it’s predominantly caused by tension.

The best advice is to try and avoid a lateral walk from developing in the first place by prioritizing relaxation and rhythm at all times.

Sadly, once a horse has a lateral walk it can be almost impossible to correct but there are some exercises (as detailed above) that may help to recover the horse’s natural neuro-muscular sequence.

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