This writing was inspired by an interaction with a friend years ago. And in the development, I realized how that interaction has come full circle in many respects. At that time, I was showing a friend the progress a young horse of mine was making. I quickly got to the trot, canter and jumping to show off our ‘progress.’ “What do you think?” I asked. His response, “But does he walk?”
That question has stuck with me through the years, and working with J. Michael Plumb and his emphasis on using the walk to achieve more with training and preparing horses this writing is meant to be a reminder of where we all start. Also, it is okay to return to the start, which is not necessarily starting over.
For most of us, the summer brings on the higher temperatures, and in many areas, increased humidity. What can you do to keep progressing in your horse’s training without over-exerting in the heat? There are 3 benefits of walking that come immediately to mind:
- Relaxation and bonding
Walking for exercise is not only good for your horse, but good for you too. Go find some hills, even little inclines/declines as they can help build muscle and balance. Pay careful attention to your horse’s shape while doing this to ensure he is not inverted; he should not be curled up either.
Walking for relaxation is a great time to bonding with your horse and get to know him (under tack and hand walking). This can help the rider relax too. Taking the time to walk your horse under tack can help you find out what he needs to be prepared to go to work. Are you struggling with getting the relaxation you need from your horse to prepare for your dressage test? Spend time learning how to get him relaxed and tuned into you, with a quiet mind – walking for relaxation. If he does not stay settled, do a little trotting or another exercise, then come back to the walk and grow the amount of time you can spend at the walk with him.
Working in the walk is easily overlooked in training, yet so much can be taught and accomplished at the walk. Just about everything can be taught at the walk. We have all probably heard about teaching ‘footwork,’ whether in human only sports or equine sports. Teaching footwork is easier at a slower pace; that is the walk in most situations.
- Everything comes up slower
- Less likely to be pulling (on the reins) and more likely to be pushing (with seat and legs)
Starting your session at the walk, on a long rein and stretching down – if possible, is a great way to let your horse start to warm up his back. If he cannot do that, no worries, just get what you can and then get him on the rail (fence). You can use the rail to help teach him where to be and what you want. If you do not have access to the rail you can do the same exercises around an object, like a jump.
If you are doing this around an object your primary rein contact will be in the outside rein, and your primary pushing/activating leg will be your inside leg. Still you want a fairly straight horse.
Using your seat and legs ride beside the rail pushing his hips a little to the inside and tip his nose a bit on the rail with your outside rein; however, keep your horse as straight as possible, not bent. Straightness is achieved by forward, so as difficult as it can be sometimes, push with your seat and legs to get your horse straight (the back-end needs to get straight first before the front end can get straight). The rail will slow your horse without you pulling on the reins, so you can keep pushing and not pull. Be conscious of his foot falls – are they quick? If so, use that rail to slow the speed of the feet. This is a time for slow feet. In early stages your horse might carry his head a bit high, that is okay if his hind feet are moving. Allow him to find his balance behind, then the shoulders and neck will ‘fall into place’ with the benefit of him using his back. After he finds his balance behind and can carry it you can allow him to drop his neck and head.
Once your horse finds his balance and starts to maintain contact from the back-end to the reins, your horse will hint at dropping his neck, allow him that reward for a bit.
The next step is to continue at the walk and just bump him with your calf or ankle while he keeps the contact you have with your reins. You want to feel him step up a bit with his hind legs; feel a surge from the back-end, not the front end. If he does not respond, then bump a bit harder. If still no response, then revisit your ‘go forward’ aides. If he steps up with his hind legs but gets wiggly in the bridle, go back to the rail to use the rail to help keep him straight (then you only have the other side to keep straight) and repeat the exercise. You want to feel him step up with his hind feet and get steady and straight contact in the bridle.
Always remember to Push for Straightness!
Once you can ride him fairly straight at the walk without him speeding off, start to take more of a feel – back to front – work toward as steady of a connection as you can get. You may need to take this part back to the rail if you are using more hand than leg, or if your horse speeds up Hold that for only a few steps, then allow him to stretch back down on a softer rein (his reward). Repeating this exercise and building on the amount of time he can maintain the proper contact can take some time; however, it will pay dividends!
Spending more time at the walk helps in many ways
- Low impact/less stress
- Teach it at the walk, then the trot & canter
- Perfect it at the walk, then the trot & canter
- Work on rhythm as the walk is a 4-beat gait with regularity and quality