The Walk - An Underestimated Gait and 20-minute Exercises
Working at the walk is highly fruitful for conditioning and developing the horse’s body. Horses are creatures of movement. In the wild, horses will be on the move for 12-18 hours a day covering hundreds of acres. This lifestyle is very different from the life of most domestic horses. The consistent movement throughout the day of wild horses conditions their body to promote the development and maintenance of various tissues.
Because the walk does not require much physical effort for riders, it is often overlooked as part of the daily conditioning of their horses. However, many classical Dressage masters from the past recognized the importance of long schooling sessions at only the walk. Additionally, walk plays an integral role in the early stages of conditioning or for rehabilitation. Traditionally, field hunters and polo players will begin walk conditioning for up to two hours a day for the first month or so when bringing horses back from break.
Biomechanically speaking, the walk is the gait that has the biggest influence on conditioning. Due to the various phases of the horse’s walk, there is always one limb in contact with the ground at every point in the stride. Therefore, at every point in the stride, the horse is using some sort of muscular effort. Further, walking recruits a greater number of small postural muscles that stabilize the spine. Comparatively in faster gaits, like the trot, the horse relies in part on momentum and thrust to help propel them forward.
Now before you sigh and resign yourself to "boring" 30-minute walk training rides, check out these varied and fun ideas that can be used in all disciplines to help improved your horse’s strength, symmetry, suppleness, and reaction to the aids all through the walk.
Transitions – Reinforcing the Aids
Ride transitions within the walk speeds and halt. What do I mean by walk “speeds”? Well, there is the collected walk, the medium walk, the free walk, the extended walk, the halt, and the back. Practice transitions between each speed of the walk. Every few halt transitions, ask the horse to back up 4-6 steps and then carry on. Make sure your horse remains adjustable, supple, and reactive to the aids.
Lateral Work – Yoga For Horses
There’s plenty of lateral work that can be performed in walk either to lay a foundation for performing it at trot and canter, or which can be used to help straighten and supple your horse. Lateral work is what helps create symmetry and straightness.
Don’t limit yourself to just leg yields or turns on the forehand, there are unlimited lateral exercises that are often best taught in the walk so horses can understand the aids and become supple and strong enough to eventually do it in the trot and the canter. Shoulder-in, travers, turn on the haunches, renvers, half pass, walk pirouettes are all movements that aid in making the horse more supple and flexible.
Lateral exercise examples in walk:
Leg yield to quarter line. Shoulder-in for 10 steps. Half pass back to rail.
Shoulder-in down the long side. 8-10 M Circle at E or B. Haunches in on the remaining long side.
Shoulder-in down the long side. 8-10 M Circle at E or B. Half Pass to center line.
On long side, turn-on-the-haunches or walk pirouette toward the centerline at H. Then, straight down the long side and turn-on-the-forehand at V. Repeat.
Renvers down long side to E or B. Leg yield to center line.
10 M circle. Spiral in to Walk Pirouette. Spiral out
Cavalettis - Longitudinal strength
Cavaletti or pole work encourages the horse to engage his hind leg while lifting his forehand. Ultimately this teaches the horse to work in self-carriage without relying on the rider for support. Cavalettis can be extremely helpful in developing longitudinal flexibility in the joints. They additionally encourage the horse to lift and stretch their back and topline. They can be practiced on the lunge or under saddle.
What are Cavalettis?
Cavalettis are essential raised poles. The poles are usually 6 inches to 1 foot off of the ground. However, you can adjust them to where your horse is comfortable. Always remember to warm-up your horse by walking your horse over a single cavaletti at its lowest setting. At the walk, multiple cavalettis in succession should be approximately 3 ft apart. However, the distance between each pole should always be adjusted to suite the natural stride of each horse.
Cavaletti exercises in the walk:
Put 4 to 6 cavalettis approximately 3 ft apart. Take up light contact and allow your horse to stretch through their back and down into the reins.
Layer several poles in a straight line. Do a 10m serpentine pattern over the poles.
Create a square with 4 cavalettis. Do a figure 8 pattern over the square with halts at each outside tip of the 8.
Working horses up and down low-grade hills is a great way to build hind end strength and to engage your horse’s core. Long term benefits include engaged hind quarters, strengthened tissues (tendons, ligaments, and muscles), improved topline, and overall increased fitness level. Consistent hill work naturally improves your horse’s cardiovascular fitness. Think, running on an incline on a treadmill! Hill work should be introduced slowly. Remember not to overdo hill work initially, as this can be quite taxing for horses who aren’t used to it. However, there are many fantastic benefits if included in your horses training schedule regularly.
The Counted Walk is an “old school” term and Dressage exercise. The counted walk is more of a balancing and engaging exercise than a walk speed. However, this exercise gives the rider the opportunity to fine-tune their feel and control of the horse's cadence and rhythm while counting their horse’s steps. First, start by softening your horse’s jaw in the connection. While your horse is walking, encourage them to raise their head and shoulders. While maintaining the horse’s energy, you encourage the slowest possible walk you can do without halting and with the smallest number of steps possible.
Whether you have been busy competing your horse all winter or are just now getting back into your riding routine, the walk is an essential low impact way to bring your horse’s fitness level back, increase your horse’s current fitness level, or recover between sets of more difficult work. I have learned with my own horses that adding a walk-only training day and increasing my daily riding routine to include 20 minutes or more in the walk has increased their overall relaxation, fitness level, and flexibility.