Whether it was the dawdling pony, ignoring our short, five-year-old legs ricocheting off his sides, or the experienced schoolmaster who knew enough to make us earn a forward ride, we have all struggled to put a horse in front of our leg at one point or another. A common mistake when your walk leaves much to be desired, it would seem, is to actually spend time working on the walk. The short of the long is: Don’t do that.
Christoph Hess, FEI “I” judge in both dressage and eventing, gives us these alternatives to developing a good walk in his book BETTER RIDING WITH CHRISTOPH HESS:
A good walk is developed by the rider through correct riding in the basic gaits of trot and canter. This sounds paradoxical at first, but practice shows that a good walk cannot be achieved by always “working” the horse in this gait exclusively. Rather, a good walk is developed by having the horse securely on the rider’s aids, allowing himself to be ridden “through” while stretching and in balance at the basic gaits of trot and canter.
At the walk, the rider can check how rideable her horse really is. She can determine if the horse is supple and relaxed, responding to the driving aids—without the horse being lazy and lethargic—and “seeking” the bit, meaning he is stretching toward the rider’s hand. The rider must always be able to ride forward, and also sideways, at any time. The better and, above all, more responsively the horse accepts the rider’s driving aids, the better the results on the walk will be.
Ride It Correctly
In dressage tests, the walk scores are given a coefficient of two, which means the walk counts twice. For one, the crucial rhythm, fluidity, and ground cover are scored. For another, the judges pay attention to ensure the rider actually rides the walk and does not just go along as a “passive passenger.” This active riding of the walk is an important criterion for assessing whether or not the rider is on the correct path to training her horse. To accomplish this, the rider applies her driving leg aids at the moment the hind leg on the same side is striking off. This is a process during which the horse ideally “picks up” the driving aid himself. The prerequisite for this is a supple hip joint. At the same time, the rider should follow the nodding of the horse’s head and neck with her hands and have the feeling that the horse is framed between her aids. As this takes place, the horse will stretch forward and downward, opening the angle at his throatlatch, and through this, the line from forehead to nose should come just slightly ahead of the vertical. This is the prerequisite for the horse to establish an even rhythm and achieve ground-covering strides.
Though this sounds easy when put into words, it is really not easy to achieve in practice. In the course of her education, every rider must discover for herself the right feel for riding the walk. On the one hand, she needs to allow the horse to walk on without driving him excessively; on the other hand, she cannot become really passive, which can lead to a considerably worse walk.
Doing transitions from trot to canter and canter back to trot is one of the most valuable exercises for effectively improving a horse’s “throughness,” willing cooperation, obedience, and responsiveness to his rider—all necessary for a good walk. I recommend you incorporate these transitions very deliberately into the content of every daily training session. Practice these on a big circle, making sure your horse stays on your driving aids, even as he “shifts up a gear” from trot into canter and then “shifts down a gear” from canter back to trot. On the “downshift,” it is especially important that you maintain the impulsion from the canter as you return to trot, without the trot becoming rushed. You should visualize yourself “cantering into the trot” as you begin to trot. This is only possible when you are supple through your hip joint, following the movement of the new gait, allowing it to carry you along. In order to further optimize your horse’s “throughness,” you should just slightly lengthen the canter strides just before the downward transition to trot, then after the successful transition, just slightly lengthen the first trot strides. As this takes place, the horse must maintain a forward tendency. Under no circumstance, should the transition be from an extended canter into an extended trot (which has a tendency to be a “passage-like” gait). As the actual transition takes place, you must always have the feeling that you could offer a release, typically by moving one or both hands forward along the horse’s neck, or allow the horse to “chew” the reins from your hand.
If you ride the transition from a backward orientation, meaning from short canter strides and/or into short trot strides that lack impulsion, you will not be able to ride a rhythmic, fluid, and efficient walk. At the moment of the transition, take more feel of the horse’s side with your inside calf, which will make the transition so much easier; with a well-trained horse, you will then be able to complete the transition without application of rein aids. You’ll feel, respectively, as if you’re only “listening in closely” to the horse’s mouth with your hands (through your reins). In this way, you will avoid applying inside rein. Doing so blocks the horse’s strikeoff from the inside hind, which leads to a failed transition. The canter-to-trot transition, in particular, has a pivotal significance to harmonious and, thereby, sensitive riding in all three basic gaits.
One more useful tip: a few canter strides before your transition to trot, think leg-yield; if you’re more advanced then think shoulder-fore or shoulder-in. The same applies to the transition from trot to walk.
For more riding and training tips from Christoph Hess, check out RIDE BETTER WITH CHRISTOPH HESS, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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