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.