The Walk Explained

Are you already thinking about skipping this post, because what’s there to explain about the walk? It’s the slow gait, the one you choose before you know how to jog and lope. The gait you choose when you’re tired of going faster or just want to enjoy the scenery, right? Well, that’s all true, but there’s so much more to it. Do you know how to tell a good walk from a bad walk? Do you appreciate and actively ride it like the other gaits, or is it just a means to an end?

The walk is a 4 beat gait with no suspension, meaning there are always feet on the ground. The picture above shows the actual footfalls. As with all gaits there are individual and breed differences, but a good walk should be rhythmic and flowing, with the horse using his hips in almost a rolling motion. Think of a model strutting her stuff!  Watch your horse walk in pasture when he comes up to eat. Do you see Marilyn Monroe? Now watch him under saddle? Is Marilyn still there? Like all the other gaits, the walk is influenced by the rider and if it is shortened consistently the quality can suffer. Always make sure you lengthen periodically, when working in a shortened frame for an extended period of time, in any gait! See my prior post on the free jog for training tips on lengthening the gaits.

If you look at the picture above you can see that the walk footfalls are not alternating left-right-left-right, but that the left hind is followed by the left front and the right hind is followed by the right front. One of the common deteriorations of the walk is that the walk becomes lateral. When pronounced, this is quite easy to recognize as both legs on one side of the horse move almost in unison. This time think Camel! ;)  Some horses have a genetic tendency for a lateral walk, but this is also something that can be caused by the rider! Because of the way the natural footfalls are set-up, you can see why this is an easily acquired problem. Once developed it can be very hard to fix, so don’t treat the walk like an ugly step child. Be aware how you ride it and appreciate the beauty of a good quality walk.

So now that we have talked about the good, the bad and the ugly, let’s address the actual riding part. The easiest way to destroy a good walk is to restrict your horse too tightly with the reins. Again observe your horse walking in the pasture. This time don’t look at his hind-end, instead look at this head and neck. You will notice that they move with every step. Now imagine a rider on the horse’s back that is holding the reins too tight, keeping the head and neck from moving. This will in effect cause the hind legs not to be able to step under and will stifle the swinging, rhythmic flow that you are looking for. An easy thing to check as you are riding, just look down and if the head isn’t moving, give your horse some slack! Maybe not as obvious as the tightly held reins, but a restrictive seat can have a similar effect on the horse. A rider with a tense, unforgiving seat will cause the horse’s back to tighten and again will result in the loss of forward flow of the hind legs. This is true for all gaits, but I hope I have raised your awareness of the walk and your appreciation of the beauty of a good one. If you just imaged Marilyn again, my work here is done! :D







The Free Jog and how to train for it!

After last week’s “free jog in the show ring” we will now concentrate on how to train for it. The free jog, as the name indicates, is a movement of freedom and relaxation, of giving the reins and letting the horse stretch over the top-line and lengthen his stride. Once trained correctly your horse will love it and will be eager to perform this movement when cued.  I use it in every training ride, as a warm-up, a break or reward after difficult work and as a cool down.

These exercises work best in a snaffle and as with any new lesson, consistency in cueing, repetition and prompt reward for correct responses are the keys to your horse’s learning. Start out by playing with your horse’s connection to your hands. This can be done at the walk or jog, depending on where your horse is in his training. Take up the connection carefully and see if you can shorten his neck and stride and then slowly release and see if he will follow and lengthen his neck again. In the beginning the stride length probably will not change, but if he is following your rein aids easily, you have a good base to start from.

Now if your horse is not ready for this yet, go back a step and simplify it more for him. Start with him standing. You can do this either from the saddle or on the ground. Keep a soft connection with one rein (don’t throw it away) and slowly put pressure on the other rein until the horse’s head follows it all the way to where his nose would touch your foot if you are in the saddle. Do this both directions, go slow and don’t fight with him if he becomes resistant. You want him to trust the rein pressure and follow it willingly. If you encounter resistance don’t keep pulling but hold steady at the point where the resistance starts, until he gives, then slowly keep going. Most horses should be able to do this without problem. If you encounter strong resistance it could be a suppleness issue and you will have to adjust and maybe not go all the way to your foot. You know your horse best, remember you want to make this a pleasant learning experience!

Once your horse understands and easily follows your hands with his neck, you can now try and see if he will stretch at your cue. Start with a shortened walk or jog, then squeeze your reins first left then right, then give them forward a bit. If you are lucky your horse’s head will follow. Don’t expect too much in the beginning and give him lots of praise when he gets it! Rinse and repeat until you can position his head and neck wherever you want it. It is important to not throw away the reins, you need enough of a connection to instantly go back to the shortened position if he thinks the extra freedom means he can hollow or dump his head on the ground. If you have to gather up the reins first, your moment of opportunity will be past and he will not be able to connect the dots. So, if his head goes where you don’t want it, shorten him back up and start over. Horses love the freedom of the stretch and once he understands what you are asking, he will be eager to do it. If you’re consistent in your cues, he will know he has to go back to work (shortened position) if he doesn’t do it right, so the easier choice for him is to stretch!

There, now you’re half way there! What? You thought we are done? Judging by how much I’ve written, we should be, but we are still missing an important part of the movement. Yes, the lengthening of the stride. Phew, there is a reason this movement is not as easy as it sounds!

Again, you should start at the walk and then work your way up to the jog and lope. Gather up your reins and slowly shorten your horse’s neck and stride. Go through the corners at the short end of the court and make sure your horse is bend adequately, this should help him to step underneath himself more, generating the extra power needed to lengthen his stride. This is the key! If you just let him plod along there will be no stored up energy to take from and it will be physically impossible for your horse to actually lengthen his stride. When you come out of the corner make the sharp turn, let’s say at H, to point him across the diagonal, squeeze release, left/right and slowly give your reins. Again, use the turn to get him more under himself. If you have prepared him correctly, he should stretch his neck and frame and eagerly step out. If you have trouble recognizing the right rhythm, play some marching music in your head, just make sure it’s not a funeral march! ;-)

The photos above (click to enlarge) show a free walk and a free jog. Notice how the reins are soft but with enough connection to influence the horse immediately should it become necessary. Lots to practice, report back to me with your success stories or questions and don’t forget to share with your friends. As always,

Happy Trails!


The Free Jog in the Show Ring

Often misunderstood and rarely performed correctly, the free jog has many aspects that have to come together. I’ll break it down first from the judge’s view and what we want to see for the perfect free jog in the show ring. In my next blog I will then talk about how to train for it at home!

Let’s say you are supposed to do a 20m free jog circle at B. Here is the hypothetical; all the stars are aligned, perfect free jog:

1. There is a noticeable difference between the working jog and the free jog!                   

2. It is shown right at B and doesn’t take 1/2 the circle to develop!                                 

3. There is a lengthening of stride and a stretch over the top-line!                                     

4. It is consistent throughout the whole circle!                                                                  

5. The circle geometry is correct!                                                                                       

6. The horse is bend and balanced correctly!                                                                          If all those things are there, you should get a very good score!

What do I mostly see in the real world where stars are seldom perfectly aligned?  Worst case scenario, there is no lengthening or stretch and the horse might even hollow. This could be due to show nerves or a lack of understanding of the movement. The judge doesn’t know how you ride at home, his/her job is to score what’s being shown in the ring at that moment and believe me, I would much rather give 8′s and 9′s than 4′s and 5′s! Often I see moments of correctness, but they are not sustained. Still, this is encouraging, because the beginnings are there and the rider just needs to string the moments of perfect together and keep them throughout the circle. I have yet to meet a horse that doesn’t enjoy the free jog once it is taught correctly!

Here are some tips to maximize your score even if you don’t have a perfect free jog yet:

1. Prepare adequately for the transition at B and show a difference starting right at B.

2. If your horse does not have a huge stride make sure your working jog is shortened before you get to B so you can show some difference.

3. Posting is not mandatory, but very few riders can get a correct free jog while sitting. Remember, your horse has to round and lift his back in order to to step underneath himself and lengthen his stride.                                                                                   

4. Do not rush! Your horse will likely fall onto the forehand and take quicker, smaller steps instead of longer ones.

5. Make sure you give him enough rein so he can stretch forward, down and out. I frequently see the horse offering to stretch and not being able to because the rider is not giving enough rein.

6. Don’t throw away the reins either, if your horse hasn’t been taught to stretch correctly the sudden freedom can cause him to speed up, bring his head up or just dump his head down in a peanut roller fashion which will throw him onto the forehand.

The two pictures above show an example of a working jog and a free jog. You can clearly see the difference in stride length in the two pictures and the stretch over the top-line, as well as the open throat latch, in the free jog. If I was to nitpick, I’d say the horse could have stretched even more down, but these photos are a good representation and should give you an understanding of what is expected. I will go more into detailed training exercises in my next blog. Until then, I will be waiting for your comments and questions!

Happy Trails!