Too cooked to canter? Why not perfect the walk?

Check out these excerpts from Dressage in Harmony by Walter Zettl:“The walk is…the most difficult gait and is given the least attention.  Of the three gaits, it is the one with the least natural swing, which is why it needs to be ridden with good impulsion and engagement.  The walk is the one gait that is used at all levels of training, from starting the unbroken horse through Grand Prix. It presents different and interesting problems at all levels.”

Zettl continues, “The rider must drive the horse forward without rushing.  This can easily lead to too much tightness in the rein.  As riders try to get the horse in a frame without enough energy, the walk gets poorer and poorer until it results in a loss of rhythm and pacing.  For this reason, one seldom sees a good walk in higher lever dressage.”

“…the transition from a free walk or loose rein walk is made from the hind in first.  The rider generates engagement from the hind leg, which naturally leads to a shorter frame from which the reins are picked up…. We ask for more liveliness in the free walk and more power without tightening the front end…During this work, pay particular attention to rhythm and relaxation and developing the horse’s balance and power.”

“When the horse is ready to accept contact, one has to be careful to maintain engagement and to always think forward.  The walk must be ridden energetically enough so that the next step can be a trot, canter, or halt, and ridden with enough softness that the next step can be ridden on a small circle. Every gait should not be ridden for itself but should be ridden for the next transition or movement. In dressage tests, the transitions come at letters in the arena.  When schooling, one should always be ready for a transition at any point.”

Zettl points out the problems that can arise from the walk.  They include steps that are too short, pacing, strides with too long an overstride, jogging, and the Spanish walk.

For the short walk, it is suggested to improve the length of stride by working over ground poles, beginning with one, then adding more poles one at a time. Suggested spacing is 30-32”. Spacing can be widened slightly to encourage stretching as the horse gains confidence with the exercise. Go on a long rein.

For the problem of pacing, which Zettl claims is often seen in horses with a tremendous overstride when they are asked to collect, he suggests the shoulder-in or haunches- in as the best solution. He emphasizes that the rein contact must not overwhelm the horse since the goal is to activate the hind legs without holding the reins too tightly and states that the problem will resurface as soon as the hand of the rider overpowers the driving aids.

Jogging may be a problem with high strung horses. The hand is not the solution.  Rather, the rider should sit deeply and again employ shoulder-in or haunches-in. Full halts are also useful, as are voltes followed by shoulder-in on the long side. The trick is to get these horses to carry their weight regularly on the hind legs and give up short jogging steps.

The Spanish walk is not natural but acquired. A circus move, Zettl claims that it has “deleterious effects” on the horse and that correcting this “habit,” once acquired is very difficult.  The horse gets tense and stiff because his back hollows. He can’t move freely in the shoulder. His legs go up high, then slam down.  Ouch! Stay away from this one. Again, lots of walk in shoulder-in and haunches-in is advised to correct this artificially induced issue.

Cool your jets and improve your walk this summer.  And if you just can’t pry yourself away from the air-conditioning, sharpen your in-saddle problem solving skills by reading Walter Zettl’s Dressage in Harmony. You’ll emerge refreshed.