Guest Blog: Learning How To Walk

With another entry today we have Blob, and a fantastic post on the most boring – I mean, the most difficult – gait of all. The walk. How many times have I lamented about having to sit and breathe deeply and walk when all I want to do is gallop? But I know it’s important, and you know it’s important, and Blob really makes a statement here about how important the walk is, using her very valuable horse time to teach an OTTB how to walk.

They say that the walk is the hardest gait to ride correctly. A statement, that’s usually met with an eye roll. But Thoroughbreds often seem to prove this true. They’re bred and trained to run, not walk. Asking a green OTTB to walk forward, but calmly, with four distinct beats, in a frame is much, much harder than it sounds. Sure, if you drop the reins at the walk, the universal sign for “let’s take a break,” they walk just fine. It’s the working walk that gets complicated. 

For the past several weeks I’ve been riding an OTTB mare once a week.  She’s part of my ‘make riding work even though you live in Manhattan and have no car or time or money’ effort.  

She’s out of shape and tries to avoid using her back and hind end; she has at least a dozen little tricks. But she’s also a lot of fun. She’s been getting stronger and more on the aids every week (though I still feel out of shape, sigh). But the walk is still a struggle for her.  

If I ask for a forward walk, she jigs, if I ask her to slow her tempo, she gets behind the leg—sometimes so much that she starts to back up. There’s a middle ground we’re struggling to find. Part of it is that she’s still weak and a correct walk makes a horse use their hind end in a very careful deliberate way, without the momentum to help her out. It rebalances them in ways that they’re not usually accustomed to. It’s actually harder for them to use their hind end at the walk than at the trot or the canter. OTTBs, especially, are usually far more comfortable cantering.  In fact, she’s been giving me some of the nicest canter transitions imaginable to avoid getting out of her walk work – too bad I’m not asking.  

On most horses, I’d do walk halts, walk halts, walk halts to get that walk where it should be. But that exercise, is a fast and easy way to fry out your Thoroughbred’s brain. I would do serpentines, but she likes to fall out through the outside shoulder, plus sometimes that bending line is easier than going straight. I remember once working on an OTTB at the walk for 20 minutes just to get him to walk in a straight line. By the end he was lathered—mentally and physically exhausted. I was too.  

A part of me wants to say forget it—let them run long and flat, forget the working walk. But I also know if these horses are ever going to enter a show ring—they need to be able to walk. It also builds up the kind of strength they’ll need for trot lengthenings and lateral work. I’ve convinced myself it’s a necessary evil. Plus training is about patience, right? Walk. Patience.  Halt. Patience.  

I tried doing a mix of walk, halt, and trot last week. I tried to keep her very forward in the trot and used it either as a reward for a couple good strides/halt transitions or if I felt like she was starting to get too far behind the leg or frustrated. She wasn’t as relaxed as I’d like her to be. But I avoided a complete meltdown, just a few head tossing tantrums. It’s a work in progress. On the plus side, her canter work after all that walk work was as balanced and soft as it’s ever been, effortless transitions.  But I’m still hoping to find that walk break through.  

I just wish something so simple wasn’t so hard.

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7 Comments

Filed under Dressage, Training Diary, Training Theory

7 responses to “Guest Blog: Learning How To Walk

  1. Barb

    Difficult topic, well and truly represented! Although Vince and I had a prolonged rocky start, most of what we did was ride out into the fields at the walk with only occasional trotting until we got on the same page. He’s got a great working walk on the way back, which we’re working to transport into the dressage arena. lol

  2. I agree Barb! My last horse, a TB Mare, was soooooo much better, at everything really, outside the arena than inside. It’s getting that work to carry over:)

    • Barb

      Another really important thing I learned with Vince was that some dressage schooling can be done riding out. We never work consecutive days in the arena, and it doesn’t seem to have done any harm.

  3. Fiona

    I’ve found I’m the biggest obstacle to a good working walk when I’m clothes pin tight on the horse instead of relaxing through the hips, back and letting my weight melt, a la Sally Swift, into my feet. I find walking on trails on the buckle develops the muscles, enjoyment and team-ship that makes the time in the ring doing walk-halt, straight lines, curving lines without bulging in or out, much less arduous for both of us. Cheers for hearing from someone else who loves OTTBs who also loves the walk!

    • Blob

      Of course, the problems are usually with the rider and not the horse! But building that thrust from behind at the walk can be so difficult but crucial. It’s great for them mentally to learn that it’s ok to just slow down and focus once in a while. It’s also developing the exact same muscles and strength that will be necessary to do the fun stuff like trot lengthenings. Evaluating walk work is also a great way to see when your horse is ready to move up to more advanced movements/exercises.

      But it’s also definitely a test in patience. I have such a love-hate relationship with walk work!

  4. It has taken a lot to get Bar to realize the walk is fun and relaxing. I’m sure we aren’t doing a proper working walk, but he’s relaxed which is a good place for his big brain.

    We aren’t planning to show–which is probably a good thing for the rest of the universe–but the boy knows how to be up and running, so getting him to be low and mellow is quite the learning curve. For both of us.

    • Blob

      It’s definitely difficult to get horses that only know go go go to realize it’s ok to just relax from time to time! I’m glad to hear Bar is coming a long.

      Sometimes I wonder who’s benefiting more from the patience training– me or the horse!

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