Understanding Gymnastic Walk Work
by David Ventura
I want to talk about what a good walk looks like and why. I'll do that by describing a good walk in the context of three broad elements: overstep, stretch and energy.
Dressage by any definition is a gymnastic pursuit. In other words, we train our horses to be the best athletes they can be. A good measure of a horse's athletic ability in all gaits is the ability to lengthen and shorten their stride. In order to do this, the horse must lengthen and shorten his frame as well. In the walk we look for these same qualities in the extended walk, walk on the bit or collected walk respectively.
Assuming the horses has a pure gait, he will walk in a clear four beat even rhythm. The horse should look as if he is kicking his front leg forward with his hind leg. At the same moment, when looking from the side, his legs should make the shape of an upside down "W."
The horse that covers the most ground has already developed the essential part of a good extended or lengthened walk. The elements of a good ground covering walk are:
The horse should use his whole body from head to hock to move himself forward. All the joints in the hind end (hip, buttock, stifle and hock) should do part of the work, bending to let the hind leg reach as far as possible towards the center of gravity (under the saddle). At the same time the front legs should reach to cover new ground as well. An easy way to see if a horse is covering ground in front is to look at the front of the chest. If you draw a plumb line to the ground in your mind's eye, the forearm knee and hoof should reach past the line of the chest. The farther past the line he reaches the better. A horse that lifts the forearm and knee high in the air but does not reach with his hoof forward past the chest is not covering much ground. This high action is reserved for collected work but does not always mean the horse is collected behind.
The top line plays an important part in ground covering steps by stretching. A loose swinging back allows the croup to swing in harmony with the rest of the joints of the hind end. The neck and head should reach down and forward to facilitate the back, shoulders and hindquarters flexing and reaching for maximum engagement.
Energy is the final ingredient needed for a good walk. A clear active marching rhythm is necessary. This is produced through supple pulsing muscles, a swinging back and joints that open and close without locking in position. The horse that is sustaining concussion from a hoof that hits the ground too hard will lose suppleness. A rhythm that is too fast causes the joints to lose their range of motion. Also, the muscles lose suppleness and the legs don't reach forward as far as they could. Rhythm and energy that is too slow or lazy can never improve the gymnastic qualities of the horse's gaits, it just perpetuates itself. A lazy walk does nothing to recommend to the judge that your horse is willing to give his best physically or be obedient to the driver's wishes by moving forward with a subtle aid.
To conclude, all the different walks can be broken down into the three elements stretch, energy and overstep. If a driver can identify within which of these three elements the problem lies, it becomes easier to come up with the right aids to correct it.