UN­LOCK A BET­TER FREE WALK

Dressage Today - - Front Page - By El­iza Syd­nor Romm with An­nie Mor­ris

One of the most im­por­tant fo­cuses as a trainer and in­struc­tor is mak­ing sure rid­ers ac­tu­ally “ride” the walk. I be­lieve if your butt is in the sad­dle, you are train­ing your horse, whether you are tak­ing a walk break, school­ing move­ments or go­ing on a trail ride. You and your horse can use the ini­tial walk of your ride, the breaks and the cool down to re­lax. But if you al­low the horse to walk poorly—with a lack of en­ergy, an in­cor­rect rhythm, hol­low­ness or with­out stretch­ing to­ward the bit—how does he know you want a good free walk in your dres­sage test?

The Free Walk

An ideal free walk is four clear beats, has good en­ergy, over­tracks (when the hind hoof sur­passes the print made by the front hoof) and the horse’s neck reaches for­ward and down­ward with a round, long topline.

Horses need plenty of free walk breaks dur­ing train­ing to let their mus­cles re­lax. Con­sis­tency is the most im­por­tant qual­ity in the train­ing so the stan­dard must not change when you take a walk break. If the free walk has the fol­low­ing el­e­ments, your horse will feel good when you shorten the reins and go back to work. Dur­ing the walk break, ask your­self:

Is my horse in front of my leg?

Is he reach­ing for the con­tact?

Is he us­ing his back prop­erly?

If not, when you go back to work, your horse might be be­hind the leg, dis­con­nected and feel tight, hol­low or stiff in the back. The rider can­not be up­set with the horse be­cause she al­lowed th­ese traits dur­ing the break.

Be­sides con­sis­tency in the train­ing, rid­ing a good free walk is ef­fec­tive strength-build­ing. Think of the dif­fer­ence for your­self if you do a power walk. You are strid­ing down the road with good pos­ture, with your eyes up and your arms swing­ing. Com­pare that to strolling along, drag­ging your feet with your head down. Which one is bet­ter for your body? For a horse who needs to im­prove fit­ness, the walk is the most im­por­tant thing to fo­cus on. Rid­ing a su­per free walk—es­pe­cially if you can do it out of the arena and up and down hills—builds mus­cle with­out putting a lot of strain on joints and soft tis­sue.

Rid­ing the Walk

This en­er­getic walk will move the rider’s body a fair amount. When a horse marches in the free walk with a lot of en­ergy, over­track and stretch, he must use his back and neck a lot. The rider must fol­low to stay with that move­ment.

“Mov­ing with the walk” means your whole body fol­lows the move­ment of the horse’s whole body. When I talk specif­i­cally about

“fol­low­ing,” I am re­fer­ring to the rider’s shoul­ders, el­bows, fore­arms and hands. Most peo­ple are aware that their hips must move with the horse so they don’t stiffen and there­fore tighten the horse’s back. The hips must fol­low the ex­act move­ment of the horse’s back. The leg must fol­low the horse’s rib cage pre­cisely. How­ever, of­ten I find peo­ple have been told to have quiet hands, and they think that means hav­ing hands that are still. In the walk, es­pe­cially a good qual­ity walk, the horse must os­cil­late his neck for­ward and back. If the rider doesn’t fol­low this os­cil­la­tion, then the horse will not feel free to use his topline.

Proper fol­low­ing in the walk will teach the horse that he can use his neck and in­creases the amount he uses his back. He should be able to walk through his whole body. Con­versely, a rider who does not fol­low with the walk makes the horse hold his head and neck still, there­fore hold­ing and tight­en­ing his back, mak­ing the walk smaller or some­times even com­pro­mis­ing the four-beat rhythm of the walk.

In the walk, the rider’s hands should go for­ward as the horse’s ears go for­ward and down, but only as much as the horse re­quires to main­tain a steady con­tact. The hands will come back to a neu­tral po­si­tion as the horse’s ears come back and up. This is op­po­site of the way the rider’s hips move. The mo­tion is like a row­ing ma­chine. The hands go for­ward as the hips go back then the hands come back as the hips go for­ward.

The rider’s pelvis must fol­low the mo­tion of the horse, but I al­ways urge peo­ple not to force this mo­tion. Rid­ers should not push or drive with the seat bones in the walk. If you try to push and shove with the seat to make a big­ger walk, the horse usu­ally drops his back and slows down. In­stead, fo­cus on fol­low­ing with the arms, and the pelvis will usu­ally move enough. As soon as the rider stops fol­low­ing, the pelvis usu­ally stiff­ens.

Find Your Free Walk

First, make sure you are fol­low­ing the walk. Ask some­one to walk along with the horse while you close your eyes. Imag­ine the way it felt to ride a horse for the first time. I ask the stu­dent to to­tally re­lax and let her body feel like a wet noo­dle. Many peo­ple will au­to­mat­i­cally fol­low quite nicely with the arms the first few times they ever sit on a horse be­cause they haven’t been told to “sit still.” Ex­ag­ger­ate how much you fol­low. Think of an old-time

wash­board with your thumbs on top or a row­ing ma­chine and move your arms. Then tone it down slightly. Of­ten, peo­ple think they are fol­low­ing much more than they are.

A com­mon mis­take is a free walk with too lit­tle en­ergy. I ask peo­ple to give the horse all the rein (as­sum­ing it is safe to do so) and ask for more walk un­til they find how much walk the horse can give. This might mean he breaks to the trot for a cou­ple steps. No prob­lem! Qui­etly bring the horse back to walk through the voice and seat and then ask him to walk for­ward again. I use leg, voice and maybe the whip if needed to cre­ate more walk. Again, do not pump and push with the seat bones. The more en­ergy the horse has in walk, the more he will be will­ing to stretch. The more he stretches, the big­ger you can get the walk.

When the rider can stay con­nected to the horse’s mouth this way, with an elas­tic con­tact, he is then ready to use that con­tact to in­flu­ence his horse. Just as a young horse must learn to sim­ply ac­cept con­tact be­fore he learns to yield to it, a rider must first learn to sim­ply find the con­tact at all times be­fore she can af­fect the horse through the con­tact. If the rider learns to ride with hands that cor­rectly fol­low the horse, the horse will be­come more sen­si­tive to her re­quests. For ex­am­ple, a horse who ex­pects a fol­low­ing hand will be very sen­si­tive to the mo­ment when the hand stops fol­low­ing to give a half halt that shifts the horse’s bal­ance.

One of the most ba­sic half halts is to go from free walk on a long rein to a medium walk, where we ask the horse to close the frame and come a bit more onto the haunches in prepa­ra­tion for a tran­si­tion. This tran­si­tion from free walk to medium walk is a hard one for many horses—they ei­ther an­tic­i­pate an up­com­ing tran­si­tion to trot or can­ter and get tight in the back or they lose en­ergy and get stiff through the

The more en­ergy the horse has in walk, the more he will be will­ing to stretch.

topline. As the rider short­ens the reins for medium walk, the driv­ing leg is ready to ask the horse to keep the en­ergy and march he had in the free walk. Then the core of the rider en­gages and the hands close around the reins to re­bal­ance the horse or shift the weight slightly to the hindquar­ters. This is a mo­ment when the rider’s hand does not fol­low be­cause we are telling the horse to shorten him­self from back to front and stay more up­hill, rather than al­low­ing him to lean down and for­ward into the con­tact. Once the half halt goes through the horse’s body and he re­sponds by shift­ing his bal­ance, the rider once again fol­lows in an elas­tic way with this new, more up­hill con­nec­tion.

Prac­tice rid­ing tran­si­tions from free walk to medium walk and back to free walk. This seems like it should be such an easy thing to do, but it isn’t! And if the rider can go from pas­sively fol­low­ing to gen­tly af­fect­ing the horse’s bal­ance, the horse will be ready for a good tran­si­tion to trot or can­ter and lis­ten­ing closely to his rider.

Carl Hester and Nip Tuck demon­strate a world-class walk. Rid­ing a cor­rect walk—even dur­ing breaks or trail rides—will help you main­tain con­sis­tency in your train­ing and help the horse build strength.

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