Retraining the Walk
By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse Training Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)
Before I start I should make one point perfectly clear. If and when a walk is called for in any competition, with any style of performance, the horse should walk. If the gait is not part of the criteria for evaluation, then it shouldn t be called for. Now, if I have put myself out on a limb or under the guillotine, so be it.
Several years ago at a competition here in New England a championship was determined when a free walk was called for. I won t say what kind of riding was being done because it is irrelevant, what was relevant was the walk that the winner had. When the free walk movement was called, the double reins were dropped and the horse walked off calmly and in balance.
Basic conformation such as long vs. short back, base wide vs. narrow is supposed to dictate gait performance, but the fact exists that training can supersede conformation and enhance gait performance or limit it, depending on how it is carried out. The walk is by far the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve, that is my personal opinion, plain and simple. In Horses are Made to Be Horses by the late Franz Mairinger, he states, The walk is the gait where clearness is most easily lost for the simple reason that there is no suspension during the walk. The horse should walk, near hind, near fore, off hind, off fore (or vice versa) 1, 2, 3, 4. This is one complete rhythmic walk sequence, balanced and even in its execution. There should be no coupling of steps 1 with 2 and 3 with 4, that will develop the amble, the pacing walk. The horse should not disunite the sequence with erratic steps, producing the jig. How is the walk ruined? Mairinger states, Because of lack of concentration, or lack of realization of its importance, people don t take enough notice of the walk.
In my experience with horses with ruined walks, they were ruined by lack of time, patience and forgetting the mind of the equine, which reacts to its environment in elemental form. We want the building to be built, the structure to be complete in the shortest amount of time, but we have to have a foundation and a sound one at that, to build upon, or like the foolish person, do you build on sand? You train your equine on a foundation as well, I prefer it to be solid as a rock and it starts with whoa and stand and proceed into walk. If you don t have that now, you already know where I want you to go with your retraining. If you don t have it in hand, how can you possibly truly have it under saddle?
I recently worked with an equine who didn t have a balanced sequential walk and didn t stand still under saddle. I wasn t very pleased to see how the owner mounted or the horse s behavior of not standing to be mounted as well. Everything seemed to be rushed and on some sort of time schedule, that I couldn t put my finger on, but the horse was surely reacting to. I was amused to again have a horse sigh, I know I m being anthropomorphic, but the horse sighed, when after several minutes of handling in hand, the light bulb went on and the horse realized I wasn t asking for a thing except for him to stand quietly alongside me, in his own space, while respecting mine. The sigh was the first sign of the equine relaxing its guard and slowing down the emotional treadmill that it was on. Then the head came down, the body softened under my touch, as I was just attempting to pat and stroke around its body and off we went for a walk, just for a walk in hand, but in full equipment, to reclaim what had been lost in several years of erratic training. I m not going to go into what the owner/rider has been through, but the horse is now standing to be mounted and walking and halting under saddle in a relaxed but forward attitude. They have gone back into the show ring, but with a wee bit of an attitude adjustment. There is also cross training going on, in that the horse has more balance in its life for performance outside of the competitive.
Relaxation is a scary word to use in training due to the fact that for performance we too often focus on the mental and not the physical. We as humans want to be mentally sharp, focused, on and ready for anything. We can separate this thought process from the physical by a good warm-up or by biofeedback or other imaging methods. The horse is too often pushed with only the mental stimuli and if poorly executed, it produces a physical effect that is counterproductive to what we want. The horse gets uptight, both mentally and physically and instead of performance you get shut down. If when you get stressed you suffer a back ache, neck ache or head ache just think what the poor equine must go through when it gets agitated. Physically tight horses don t walk very well and mentally tight horses don t walk very well. Have you ever ridden a horse that is holding its breath? Scary! Slow down the body and slow down the mind and get them working in balance and the solution isn t all that difficult, time consuming, but not difficult.
Although the halt is often referred to as neutral, I would like us to think of the walk as being neutral at some points in training as well. Sometimes, when working with a ruined equine, all you can ask for with clarity is walk. It becomes the time out gait. One of my good friends is a walker, I mean a human, walking, machine! She used to be heavy and she walked her way into better health, both mentally and physically. When I decided I needed to walk, since I couldn t run any longer, she wanted to help and suggested that we could walk together. When I attempted to walk with her the first time, she kept stopping me, straightening me up and getting me to put my shoulders back and stop jutting out my chin. (Did I mention that I had her as a riding student during the years I was immersed in Centered Riding*?) My posture, my walking building blocks, were all wrong, she said. This postural correction went on continually until I was making the adjustments as soon as she slowed, because I knew what was coming. To think about it now, it seemed liked I was constantly being half-halted! Why? I was leaning forward, I was collapsed and I wasn t engaged. Besides not taking a decent stride, I wasn t walking in good form. I was flat foot/ball toe instead of heel toe and my knees were taking a lot of strain because I wasn t standing up with my hips under my torso, supporting my back. If I seem to be comparing myself to a horse on the forehand, I am. It is also amusing to me that once I started using correct posture, my back and feet stopped hurting! I could also talk and breathe better as I walked in better form.
Does the equine walk on its own, when turned out in an indoor or turn out? If the equine can be turned out, and some can t I know, this is a good place to really watch the walk that the horse has . Does the horse have a free walk that looks to be unrestricted, is it a clear cut four step process? You should know if the horse is balanced or not. If the horse can t be turned out, but can be worked on a single or double lines, then try to observe the walk at this point in training. I have spent this year working with a mare that walked on her own when turned out, but got tight the moment she was on the longe. The walk deteriorated and then she jigged. She has learned to walk on the little longe, the in-hand version six to eight feet single line, driving from one side or the other with the rail on the outside. This can take some time just to learn how to accomplish and to get the horse to settle, but here again, you will usually get an equine to relax its body and start to trust with its mind.
If there is any kind of walk in hand then by all means start working over walking rails in hand, even if you have to lead the horse over them and do them yourself. The aforementioned mare was walked over several rails on the ground and then we went into a raised walking grid to slow her down and increase her range of motion. This is time consuming and physically demanding but if the horse has limited range of motion in its shoulders and the back muscles get tight under saddle, you have to start with ground work in hand. From a lot of ground work in hand the training progressed to the same application under saddle. Slow and methodical.
I personally like line driving (long reining) for walk production. If you train you should be able to line drive. Line driving is a stage of training that is classical in its application and keeps a lot of holes from developing later on in under saddle development. However, line driving for relaxation is not the same as bringing a horse out in check. Take the restraints off and allow the horse to find its balance. You may have to find your own balance as well, if you have never tried to match strides. By matching strides I mean that you step with your left as the horse steps with its left rear, you step with your right as the horse steps with its right rear. Learn to walk from your hips, keep your shoulders back and take a maximum stride, its great aerobic exercise and after a few weeks you will be past the huffing and puffing stage.
To help your horse, time your aids with the lift off of the hind feet. That means, if you are using your voice, use your cluck as the right or left hind are finishing the ground portion of the stride and coming into flight. This will motivate the horse to put more effort into that step which will carry over into the front leg on the same side. Have you ever thought about what the mechanics of a lengthened stride are?
Drive a lot of straight lines and slow curves at first, then into big circles and then start the serpentines. I know I push the use of grids, but for walk they can be wonderful to balance a horse back into rhythm and line driving walking grids is somewhat of a forgotten art. If any of the work you do in hand, including the line driving, seems to turn into frustration because the horse is overly excited and keeps breaking into trot, jigs or rushes into an uneven walk, you will need to work the halt transitions.
To attempt to calm the horse down by slowing it down to this point is about your only option. To put on more restraint will only cause more problems and what are you training the muscles and joints to do? Over the years I have worked with many equines considered air heads and have been pleasantly surprised to find that their brain function was far greater than most of their handlers, including me.
If you don t have a walk, the only reason you don t is because of what is presently being focused on. You don t get a walk in one day and you don t perfect it in several, it is always a work in progress. Remember it is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to regain. Here again, for those who have the passion, to put everything else on the back burner for weeks or months may be the only answer.
Return to Horse Training Articles