Winter is the time of year when training in walk comes into its own. Dressage rider and trainer Emma Woolley explains why spending time working on the walk is so important — and shares four of her exercises that you can do at home.
Of all the gaits, the walk is the one most often overlooked in training. We use walk to get our horse warmed up and moving, but we’re usually keen to transition to trot as soon as possible, thinking that the faster paces are where all the magic happens.
In winter, difficult conditions, cold muscles, ground that’s too hard or soft and a horse who might not be as fit as he normally is are just some of the reasons to do as much as you can at a slower pace.
The walk is the most difficult gait to train, though, presenting all kinds of interesting problems. It’s also the gait that’s included at all levels of training and competing, from youngsters in-hand to grand prix level dressage.
The walk, therefore, demands attention so that you don’t lose valuable marks in your dressage tests — especially given that, in some tests, the walk movements are awarded double marks.
Schooling in walk can also help to develop and improve your horse’s way of going in all paces.
Exercise 1: Create suppleness
“Riding exercises in walk is a great way to develop your horse’s suppleness,” says Emma. “It also prepares him for whatever is coming next in the session.”
Emma starts by first checking her horse’s reactions.
“I’ll ask him to transition from free walk to a medium walk, then walk to halt,” she says. “Is he reacting quickly enough without snatching the bit or falling onto his forehand?”
Your horse should be even in the hand, with the same amount of bit showing on each side of his mouth. Once he’s moving forwards nicely, sit with your legs hanging loose and let your horse walk on without you nagging him until you ask him to change what he’s doing.
“When I transition to trot, I want the first stride to give me a good feel. If I’ve done the work in walk, this is usually the case,” says Emma.
‘If not, I go back to walk and work on it some more. If you don’t do this the trot can take too long to come together.”
Exercise 2: Improve stiffness and hollowness
“This exercise is ridden on a 15m or 20m circle, depending on what your horse can cope with,” explains Emma.
“Use your inside rein to softly flex your horse so that his nose comes around towards your toes. It’s not a forced movement — don’t take him further than he’s capable of.”
Hold your horse in this position as you walk until you feel him melting into a soft outline and accepting the bit.
“Once this has happened, release him into a long, low stretch,” adds Emma.
This exercise creates softness and suppleness in horses of any age and all levels of training.
Exercise 3: Lateral work in walk
“I train all lateral work in walk first to ensure my horse understands what I’m asking, and to give him time to take it all in,” says Emma. “It also develops evenness and flexibility.”
One of Emma’s favourite exercises is to ride a shoulder-in to renvers.
“The long side of the school is a good place to ride this as having the boundary of the arena fence helps your horse to stay on the right line without wobbling,” she explains.
“Ask for shoulder-in first and hold this until he feels balanced, then change the bend into renvers, without halting. It’s a soft change so there’s no need to rush him.
“Your legs are there to keep the sideways movement and forward momentum. Straighten up before the end of the long side and ride away.”
Exercise 4: Random movements to make him listen
Turns on the forehand and haunches create suppleness and help your horse to understand and respect the leg aids. Riding the movements randomly also encourages him to listen.
“I walk in a large square initially and ask for either a turn on the forehand or haunches in the corners to put us onto the next straight line,” explains Emma.
“Sometimes I make this a 180-degree turn to change the rein.”
Keep your horse interested by mixing up the exercises — go large and make the turns in the corners, for instance, or ride on a circle.
“To add to the suppling effect I’ll sometimes ask for a bend in the turn, and then other times I’ll keep him straight. There are no rules to this,” she adds.