We all know the usual gaits of the horse when showing, they being the walk, jog, lope in the Western pen. Riders may be asked to show their horse with a lengthened stride at all three gaits. Then there is the trot, canter and gallop or hand gallop when showing in English.
As with any gait, cadence is key. A walk has four distinct beats, whether it has an extended stride or a normal step. Keeping that cadence in mind is essential to maintain a true gait. A correct walk should be free-flowing, ground-covering, four-beat walk, with no hesitation or interruption of forward movement. The horse’s topline should be level, his expression bright, and his ears up. He should look as if he’s going places. Incorrect would be like this: The horse’s stride is shortened he will not be rhythmic, won’t have a forward-moving appearance with four-beat cadence. He may have pauses in his stride, he may be travelling with a dropped head and be behind the vertical in the face. When a horse is behind the vertical it won’t say “relaxed and graceful”; it will say “hesitant and intimidated.”
What speed the walk?
- The walk is a natural, flat-footed, four-beat gait.
- The horse should be alert and move straight with a stride of reasonable length in relation to its body.
One thing I like to teach the horse is 3 speeds of walk. The reason why I like to do this and you don’t really give it much thought when you are at home training your horse do you? It’s kind of teach the jog and the lope more-so than teaching the walk. Some riders don’t bother much with finessing the walk on their horses, after all a walk is a walk right – there can’t be too much to it – right?
Wrong, far from it especially when you hit the show pen and you want to show your horse to the judge to the very best of your ability, you want to hold your place on the rail as much as possible, however, there are those times where you need to leave the rail to move around a slower horse or, you may want to hold that place on the rail behind that horse in front that is slower than yours. But you should never sacrifice correctness for holding your position on the rail. Correctness of gait first, followed by quality of gait second, and finishing with degree of difficulty.
Once the judge acknowledges your horse as being correct in his walk, you can then be judged on the graceful, relaxed presentation, you can display consistency, show off your horse’s expression (hoping it is a kind, soft expression), topline to me is very important in all gaits of the horse, if you have a good, level topline on your horse meaning he is not travelling downhill and not too low in the head and neck or behind the vertical, there is no better picture. Softness of movement, and length of stride should then flow naturally giving the overall picture the finesse you’re looking for.
Not to sacrifice correctness of the walk you need to know you can push your horses walk up from a slow walk to either a medium or fast walk and as long as your horse keeps his correctness as mentioned above there is no reason why you can’t move off the rail to overtake then return to the rail as quickly and safely as possible.
Try this at home to teach your horse three different speeds of the walk.
If you have ever had a lesson with me or come along to my clinics or read my book From Go To Whoa you will know that I “sack” my legs out on the horse’s sides. I make sure I start this as soon as the breaker hands the green broke horse over to me for training or, the older horse is also taught my sacking out method. I call it sacking out because it is kind of “sacking” your horses sides with your legs, desentizing his sides. With the young, green broke horses I like to start straight away with sacking my legs out every other stride because it can calm them, let them know that I am still there. If you were to ride quite still on a green horse then come in with your legs suddenly it can give them a fright, if you gently swing your legs away from the horse’s sides and back on again with subtle, rhythmic swings it tends to give your horse more confidence and keeps those young babies calm. For an older horse it teaches them that my leg on doesn’t necessarily mean to get a move on. Usually when my legs go on it means to slow, stop or frame up. I also want the older horse to learn the beat or rhythm of my legs so they learn the different speeds of the walk for example. It can be a lot trickier on an older horse because most of them are trained to change from a walk to a jog or lope when the rider puts their leg on, with me, they need to re-learn the leg doesn’t always mean to change gaits. It certainly can be done though.
If my horse breaks into a jog when I’m asking him to ramp up his walk to a medium or faster walk, I stop him and back up. He soon figures it out it’s easier to move up into either a medium or a little faster walk stride than it is to stop and back every few feet. It takes lots of practice for the horse to associate the leg-bumping or sacking cue with reaching farther in his stride up to a more medium or faster walk, but be consistent and he will catch on.
At this early stage I simply get into a rhythm with the swing of my legs, breaking at the knee and just gently touching the sides of the horse. To help with the rhythm I usually swing onto the horses side when the inside front leg hits the ground so it would be every other stride of your horse (count one, two, one, two), when the inside hits the ground when you have said “two” in your mind, your legs should be coming on to his sides. It’s not meant to be a powerful kick or even a squeeze to keep the horse moving forward, to keep the horse moving forward I just quicken the swing up a tad. At this stage it is simply to show the horse a rhythm to follow and to get comfortable with the rider. Horse’s really thrive on a riders’ rhythm. I liken it to playing music to the horse, they really feel your rhythm. It would be the same if you were taught to thrust your pelvis forward on every stride your horse took, you would find your horse would pick up the pace in unison with your pelvic thrusts so if you sped those thrusts up, your horse would also speed up and walk with some real purpose. Done more in the english riding world. Western horses should not be getting the old pelvic thrust to make them walk, the judge does not want to see you thrusting in the saddle, (some of you may have heard it likened to “humping” the saddle). Over-use of your legs, seat, and upper body at a horse show is distracting to the judge and unpleasing to the eye.
When showing your horse it is better to show with as little visible cueing as possible. When practicing gait extension at home, you can use your body more actively, you can use your pelvic thrusts in the early stages of training in combination with your leg sacking. This can help your horse catch on to your cues. But when you get to the show, it should look easy and natural, and done as “invisible” as possible. You need to look relaxed and smooth, enjoying your ride with subtle cues.
When teaching the horse the change of speed in the walk, begin to alter the swing of your legs to get the speed you want. Note that this swing isn’t going to be very far off the horses sides at all, I am only talking about a 3 or 4 inch swing each time.
When your horse locks into your rhythm try and keep them at that medium walk pace. For this, you may need to give your horse a gentle squeeze with your backside and upper thighs if you feel them speeding up too much. If you find you are swinging or sacking your horses sides to get a medium walk pace and your horse is speeding up through to the faster walk pace, you bring the butt and upper thigh squeeze into play – this is called in my book “Riding the Brake”. So you are in effect pushing and pulling at the same time, you are pushing with your leg swing and pulling with your backside and upper thighs by squeezing them just enough to hold into that medium walk. Monitor your butt and thigh squeeze because if it’s too firm your horse will stop altogether (if they have been taught my leg methods).
If you need to put your horse into a faster walk it’s simply speed your leg sacking up, not to the point where your legs are moving like the clappers and standing out like the proverbial dogs balls! These leg swings/sackings must look subtle, better still be invisible. It is up to you to teach your horse the three different “feels” in your leg movements enough for your horse to feel the difference but kept secret from the judges eyes. Always remember to slow your horse back down to the slow, rhythmic walk come in with your backside and upper thighs, you may find you need to stop your sacking out altogether until your horse slows down, be careful with that also as I have had horses that are so used to being sacked out if I stop doing it they will stop also. Always a fine line.
Remember, anything you teach your horse is a daily lesson for thousands of rides, they love consistency and they love rhythm.
If you would like to read more on training your own horse you can purchase my book From Go To Whoa – Training Your Own Horse.
I would really love to hear your feedback on this and other articles that you read on my site. I would love your comments now and again so that I know to keep these articles coming.
Enter my competition…
To get the wheels moving I am offering the person with the best training question a free book “From Go To Whoa – Training Your Own Horse”! All you need to do is send me an email: email@example.com with your question on training/showing/prepping, the best question will receive a free copy of my book! If you already have my book you could use it to send to a friend for Christmas! You will only need to pay for postage. Now that’s a cheap training session don’t you think? For only $10.00 you could be training your own horse at home the way I have trained horses for over 3 and a half decades, nothing is kept secret nor left out.
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