By Keystone Equine
THE WALK TELLS ALL.We, as modern people, get bored and impatient. We are in a hurry, running late, paying for good riding time or we have only an hour… We make excuses. Worse, relatively few disciplines really celebrate the walk, or put enough emphasis on the quality of this most important of paces. Why is it so key to the quality of a horse or the thoroughness of his training? Because the walk tells all.Dressage scoring gives the free walk a coefficient of 2, which means that the mark of this movement is doubled when calculating the final score. The walk is the basis of all training. It is hugely important as it is all-too-easy to make rushed walks, or pacey walks that do not have a marching footfall of 1-2-3-4—there will be an emphasis on the second and fourth beats, for instance—as well as horses that are not clearly overstepping the front foot prints with the hinds. Horses that cannot swing through the hips and reach down at the free walk are showing holes in their training, where the stretching and building of their bodies have been skimped on, often where the rider’s hands have played too large a part. What can we REALLY do to help? Fixing a walk is not hard, per se. To do so requires constancy and mindfulness, however and that’s what makes it such a challenge. If you’re still skeptical, know that a horse who improves his walk will greatly improve in his trot and canter, too!When I am picking a horse to buy in the first place, I am looking for the horse who swings along at a walk, really overstepping with the hinds, whether loose in turn out or being led in hand. Such a horse is blessed to begin with and my job is then in keeping his walk beautiful, despite all my other meddling! The horse who minces along or gets pacey is a different story. I am going to have to be very mindful in my riding of this horse, allowing him to walk in a slower cadence while stretching to the bit, then when his strides grow regular, teaching him to swing with my legs alternating in rhythm as he strengthens, stretches and understands.When do horses naturally walk best? When they are tired after a day in the saddle and we set them to walking home. This is when we can get them to settle in to the task, to learn to love a free walk with loose reins swinging from side to side. In fact, those swinging reins are a huge sign that the horse is using his entire body to get the very best walk he can. After a few miles of this, he will be rhythmic, swingy, driving from behind, never jiggy or rushing. This, alone, is a good reason to get competition horses out on the trails. Western rail horses who are jogged too much will often show a deadened walk, as well.It interests me to note that certain riders are always mounted on horses who really walk well. They require this of every horse they ride. More to the point, they ride their horses in such a way that the swinging, free walk is possible. Too many of us whose horses struggle with walk do not allow our horses to ‘use themselves’ due to constraints in how rigidly we sit and how we use our legs and reins.Back in the arena, or riding out in the fields, let’s bring our horses soft and round for a few steps until they lighten, then work at lengthening for a few steps, then bring them round again, then REALLY walk out as much as they can on a loose rein… always changing, always challenging, always investigating the walk’s differing degrees. Our horses learn that there are many types of walk, that all are beautiful and enjoyable and that walking well is never a waste of time… When it comes to the quality of our horses and to the wellness of our horsemanship, remember this: the walk tells all.