The walk, as the slowest gait, can be a powerful tool for riders and trainers. For the rider (and the horse!), the slower pace gives you time to think– time to establish and test a response to the aids. It’s the ideal gait for introducing new concepts, like a new lateral movement, or for re-training an incorrect response to the rider’s aid. Additionally, walk work is an important part of all dressage tests. At the lower levels, the walk movements (typically medium walk, free walk–always a double coefficient, medium walk) are a major contributor to the overall score, and also influence the gaits score. At higher levels, turns on the haunches and walk pirouettes influence how the judge thinks about the rider score as well. A good walk is active and marching without “running”. The horse should feel like he is carrying you somewhere with purpose, but also that he is waiting for you, not going somewhere all by himself! Walk poles or cavalletti can help to establish the activity.
The first step to walk work is understanding the mechanics of the walk. A correct walk is a 4-beat gait, and the horse’s head will nod up and down with the rhythm of the walk. The rhythm of the walk is very important, and the rider must follow with both seat and hand to allow the horse to walk correctly. Often riders, when trying to use the walk to school through an issue, forget to follow the nodding motion with their elbows, and the horse then tightens his back and can lose the walk rhythm. Be careful about asking for collection in the walk too early, and remember that the length of the stride determines the length of the neck in the walk. Asking for a big stride with a short neck can lead to rhythm problems. “Active” and “long” are not the same thing! Alternate between medium walk and free walk (or collected walk to extended walk for a more trained horse) until you feel that the transition is smooth and fluid, and the horse seeks the bit and opens up his stride when you allow the neck out, and doesn’t change rhythm when you shorten the reins.
Here are a few of my favorite walk exercises:
1. Walk-halt-walk transitions: These are a great way to establish both your “whoa” and your “go” before proceeding to trot or canter. As well as obedience, walk-halt-walk transitions can improve the connection and the straightness (do them on the centerline!).
2. 10m figure 8’s in walk: For a greener horse, this improves the bend, steering, and response to the turning aids. For a more trained horse, this improves the symmetry and smoothness of the change of bend. The rider can use this exercise to check their own straightness and determine how their horse feels that day in both directions.
3. Leg-yield zig-zags: Turn up the centerline and leg yield left for 5 strides, then change your flexion and leg yield right for five strides, then repeat. As well as increasing your horse’s sensitivity to the sideways aids, this exercise keeps the horse from anticipating and falling sideways or taking over. It also helps the rider learn to sit in the middle of the horse for the leg yield! A more advanced version is shoulder-in to counter-shoulder-in (change bend and position), or shoulder in to haunches in (keep the bend but change the position), or shoulder-in to renver (keep the position but change the bend), or half pass zig zags.
4. Walk your dressage test: If your horse in on layup, or your footing is muddy or hard, try running your test entirely in walk. Use free or extended walk when the tests calls for medium or extended trot or canter. This is a great exercise for the rider, both in learning the test, and in slowing things down enough that you can think through it. Be your trainer’s voice in your head. As you walk through the corner, think about what needs to done to set up the movement (“shorten my reins, inside leg at the girth, activating aid, remember to sit up, now half-halt inside leg and outside rein before the corner, establish my bend before the half-pass…). You’ll have the time in the walk to get all that into your brain, and it will help when you go to the ride the test with the trot and canter!
5. Turns on the haunches and cavalletti: Set 4 walk cavalletti (I set them at 3.5 of my feet for most horses). Walk the cavalletti (which should give you an active walk with a clear rhythm), then set up a turn on the haunches. Walk back over the poles, then do a turn the other way. Repeat. This exercise also works well with a canter circle, walk transitions and walk the poles, then back to canter.
Katy Barglow is a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor. She holds USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals, as well as the Freestyle Bronze and Gold Bars. She is a USEF “r” Dressage (working towards her “R” license), and she is a National Examiner for the United States Pony Clubs. She trains at Max Ranch in the Tassajara Valley of Pleasanton.