Today I am going to wax philosophical on the concept of the horse’s walk. It is an often said adage amongst dressage trainers that the walk is the easiest gait to ruin with horses, and the most difficult to fix. But why is that? It paints a picture of the walk being a nebulous thing, veiled in mystery. But there are clear reasons why the walk as a gait is more delicate and thus more easily corrupted than, say, the trot or canter.
First we must understand the basics behind a correct walk. The walk is unique amongst the gaits in that is has no suspension phase – aka no hang time or air time. That is why you do not feel like a sack of potatoes while riding a horse’s walk, as opposed to the sitting trot or extended canter. When a horse is walking correctly each of his or her hooves will pick up off the ground at different points in time. This is different from the trot, where a horse’s diagonal pairs will act together to push off (the BOING part) or land. At the walk, each of a horse’s legs move at a separate moment from the leg previously. An example of one walk sequence is – inside hind, inside fore, outside hind, outside fore. Notice I am not saying inside hind AND inside fore. They act one AFTER the other, not one simultaneously to the other. This creates a four time beat. If you were drumming on a set of bongos while watching a horse’s correct walk, you would drum out: bum, bum, bum, bum! That would be one complete walk phase because each of the four hooves would be moving one after the other. A good way to visually indicate whether a horse is walking correctly is to look for the ‘V’. What is the ‘V’, you might ask with baited breath? Well take a look at the image below:
If there is no ‘V’ point present then that means that the walk is “lateral”. That means that the horse’s legs are working as lateral pairs. Remember how we talked about in the trot the horse’s legs move in diagonal pairs? Lateral pairing is a touch different. It means that the right side front and hind legs move at the same time and then the left side front and hind legs move at the same time – aka lateral pairs. This equals a corrupted walk as the rhythm is distorted from its natural state. This will also equal a much lower walk score on your dressage test.
Now let’s go a little further down the rabbit hole – why is it that the walk is so easily distorted, as opposed to the trot or canter? For that I will refer you to this AMAZING video made by not a horse person but an animator. He describes the walk more exactly than most seasoned professionals.
Notice one of the main things this gentleman refers to is the up and down undulation of the horse’s forehand and hindquarters. This occurs not only from front to back but also from left to right. If you spit your horse into four quadrants, each time a hoof lifted or dropped so would the corresponding piece of their back and leg. This is a very subtle and soft rhythm that flows underneath, so soft and so subtle that it is very easily influenced and changed. If your seat drops onto the horse, say when you are picking up the reins or bringing him back to a collected walk, and the force of your seat downward is not sympathetic to that natural rhythm and up and down undulation, then the power of your seat will affect the way his back moves, which will then radiate outward and affect the way his feet fall. Returning that natural rhythm after a horse has learned to drop his back and distort that undulation is a long and arduous journey.
Hopefully this will take away some of the mystery of why the walk is so easily corrupted, what a lateral walk actually is and the biomechanics of how the walk functions. Until next time, gentle readers!