It’s time to talk, because we all do it. We just don’t think about it. And that’s the problem.
It’s what you do when you and your horse have worked hard and earned a break. It’s what happens when schooling is done and you throw away your reins, let your horse flop onto the forehand, and your concentration turns towards chatting with the friend riding next to you.
It’s called ‘the walk’, and we’ve been doing it all our riding lives. But since I started riding Western Dressage, I was amazed to discover that the walk is considered an actual gait. I know! I was shocked too, but it’s true!
I’ve dabbled with reining, played on extreme obstacle courses, even chased a cow or two – but never, before now, did anyone say to me, “You need to improve the quality of your walk. It should look like you’re going somewhere.”
What?! I mean, my horse walks! He walks all the time. But…when the test asks for a medium walk, why do I feel like it’s a never ending torture I have to endure to get to the next ‘good part’? And…could the judge possibly be feeling the same way? Yikes! I asked Cynthia Allen Lapp, CAWDA trainer and Western Dressage judge, to help me with the walk (after all, she’s the one who brought my horse’s toe dragging stroll to my attention to begin with).
We started by making sure my horse is working correctly off my leg. From the halt, I prepared to walk, then gave the typical squeeze with both legs. My horse seemed pretty unconcerned, so I pressed on with the routine second squeeze, the one where I really mean it. He popped his head in the air, hollowed his back, and meandered off as I gave the final, ‘I’m serious now’ squeeze.
Oh. So is this where my problems began?
Cindy had me ride a series of halts followed by a single calf squeeze asking to go forward. If I got no response, I immediately went to a poke (I ride with spurs, but a strong leg or a dressage whip will achieve the same results). It sounds easy, but I warn you: old rider habits are hard to break! The non-response has to be immediately followed with a tougher a cue, one that actually gets a response. Then you have to be careful not to send mixed signals. When I gave my horse a poke, he popped forward indignantly into a trot, which I immediately quelled by snatching him in the bridle and tensing my body to block his forward motion.
Cindy reminded me, “You asked for forward, and you got it. Never punish or restrict when your horse listens. You asked for a reaction, and he reacted. Your response can’t be an over-reaction!”
Following Cindy’s advice, the next time he trotted instead of walking, I allowed the trot for a step or two, then softly returned to a walk. We tested and retested this response, and lo and behold, after a few times of being poked, my horse began to move promptly into a walk from a calf squeeze! From there we continued working the walk, using twenty and fifteen meter circles. Cindy asked me to ride the circle like a baseball diamond, using the inside leg at each of the four ‘bases’ to energize his steps and bring his inside hind leg up underneath him. The outside rein maintained the circle while the inside leg was activated.
As long as I stayed attentive and made meaningful, prompt corrections that got a response (I wasn’t just nagging ceaselessly with my leg and achieving nothing like I
usually used to do) the more forward the walk. And a very strange thing happened at the end – this time when I dropped carefully let my reins out longer, my horse kept that forward walk and stretched his neck into a lovely free walk!
This is an ongoing process requiring constant attention. If I don’t watch what I’m doing, I don’t notice what he’s doing, and old habits creep back in. But I know I can beat this – and you can too. The days of the shameful, dragging walk should be left in the dust.
Now get out there and walk with purpose! The judges will thank us.
By Debbi Sullivan with thanks to Cynthia Allen Lapp for the advice!