There's the walk, and then there's the WALK. Let me explain.
If you've ever ridden with endurance riders, you'll know what a walk really is. That's because they do it - a LOT!
I learned all about the walk when I had the good fortune of spending a week with some of the top competitive trail riders in our area (many years ago now), when I was a newbie distance rider. You'd think that the horses and riders that do 50-100 miles in a day would spend their practice rides galloping across the fields for hours on end, working harder at home so they were better prepared for competition day.
As I was about to learn from the riders that took me under their wings, nothing could be further from the truth. It was quite the opposite. While there were times during each ride that they'd go for extended trot and canter sessions, they would spend hours on end simply walking their horses to ultimate condition.
You can imagine my disappointment to discover that my first extended conditioning ride was going to be spent mostly at the walk. You'd probably think (as I did): walking can't possibly make that sort of athletic impact for a horse (or rider).
I think it took only that first ride for me to have a much deeper appreciation for WALKING (not just walking). As it turned out, we weren't going to go on a dilly-dallying, sauntering, swinging to the left and right kind of meandering thing. It was quite the opposite.
Lucky for me, my mare, Kayla, already had a supremely active natural walk. All I had to do was let her go, and learn to ride the gait she offered. We worked at keeping up with the others ahead of us, truly "warming" up as time passed. You know, you can break into a substantial sweat this way.
The riders taught me that the walk is physically low impact, but can play a large part in conditioning the horse - something that was key to success in long distance trail. They called it "LSD" - long, slow distance.
I learned the WALK kind of walk on the trails, but never really transferred the concept to ring riding until I began my dressage lessons years later. As I was literally re-learning all about each gait (and specifically, impulsion), I began to connect the dots when it came to walk.
In dressage, we want the walk to be active and engaged. We want the hind legs striding underneath the body. We want a "swinging" back that feels more like a trampoline and less like a rigid board. We want the horse's shoulders flowing freely and reaching straight ahead.
(Just like we did it on the trail.)
This working walk is the foundation for the other gaits, and serves once again as a low-impact way to reach the horse's hind legs, the back, the poll - in fact, the whole top line that should release tension.
The clincher is that we are not on the trail when we're in the ring. The horse might not be as inspired to reach and engage while walking from one end of the arena to the other. This is when it becomes our job as the rider to teach the horse to move with better freedom and regularity, to march like there's somewhere to go.
In the beginning
At first, all you want is the enthusiastic forward-moving response of the horse. You might leave the reins long while you encourage a stronger, deeper stride from the hind end using your leg and seat aids. Any forward response is good and should get a quick "yes" response from you.
Your job, after you've initiated (allowed) the increased energy and movement, is to ride it. But be sure that you move with the horse, and resist swinging heavily on his back. Swing through your lower back but hold yourself through the core to keep your upper body as quiet as possible.
Eventually, especially if you ride dressage or other disciplines that require a more collected movement, you will need to shorten the reins enough to keep the horse round and less strung out.
If you want to add a little challenge, try this awesome walk warm up exercise.
The trick at this point is to try to keep the walk as active and engaged as above. It takes a fair amount of skill and strength from the horse to maintain a free-flowing walk with a rounder body outline. But it feels amazing when the horse is "on the aids" and still moving freely through the body. Your horse will like it too.
If you do ask for this WALK consistently, it will get easier for both you and your horse. Your horse will expect to move with purpose.
If you have a sluggish or tight-moving horse, and you have access to trails, you can develop the walk in the great outdoors. Later, you can transfer it back to the riding ring.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, warming-the-body kind of WALK!
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