by Robert M. Liner
When used as a component on the path to advancing your horsemanship, therapeutic movement and building a base of power, strength and agility, the art of walking takes on a new concept beyond being considered a boring, slow, or a beginners gait.
By developing a thorough appreciation and mutual understanding of walking with purpose, you and your horse can become more synchronized. This type of riding for tuning your horse can ultimately lead to more advanced riding on more technical trails at the faster gaits.
The art of walking is a walk with a determined pace. The horse is required to be in harmony with the riders request to be patient, focused and steady on the trail. The rider needs to be sitting upright, not slouched at all, in the saddle. This will be the balance ride posture where it is important that the weight is more over the feet not back on the seat.
When the pressure is over the stirrups the rider's toes will point away from the horse. This helps the round part of the calves become more defined when heels are down. In turn, this is what assists the riders legs into locking on, against the horses groove which is located slightly forward of the girth.
If the legs of a rider are around the horses barrel this creates a loss of balance and true security in the saddle and with the horse. The beauty of the walk is that it offers steady rhythm and pace to help develop these riding muscles and positions over long periods of time.
Because this is done to become a more effective rider you'll learn more without the pressure or stress of hanging on to keep up with others or bouncing up and down at the trot, lope or gallop. Give yourself and your horse a few months of perfecting the subtle nuances of the walking gait.
As you ride, keep your head and chin up and eyes looking out over your horses head, between his ears approximately thirty feet to thirty yards up the trail. Your chest needs to be pushed out and up to keep you breathing deep and full. Your hips will be where you'll notice if you're tight or relaxed.
Strive for feeling you and your horses hips begin to move as one. You may notice a swaying motion, a lifting and lowering of each butt cheek, or a twisty sensation. On gaited horses, if you visualize doing the hula hoop you'll get a better mental picture of the action and undulation of your hips. (Learning to hula hoop is excellent to lean abs and strengthen the need for serious core muscles.) Keep your hands forward and your arms will be bent from anywhere slightly below your belly button to a 90 degree angle.
Rehearsing many different riding scenarios over and over in your mind will help you improve dramatically when searching for ways to have more awareness in the saddle.
During the art of walking exercise your reins don't need to be straight which only sores up a horses mouth, head and neck. Avoid any restriction on the mouth. The goal is to move your hands with the movement of the horses head. This will make more sense at the trot and lope/canter or gallop.
By being mentally and physically engaged with the walking gait instead of tuning out the thought of horsemanship as a drudge you'll offer your horse an opportunity to conserve his energy and also he'll be building power and strength. Be sure to include riding up inclines or down declines and also off camber maneuvers.
The art of walking done on flat terrain at a specific pace will increase stamina, endurance, fortitude and mental fitness. Don't even think this can be achieved on lazy strolls and mindless wandering down the trail. Think of the walk as the physical equivalent to doing Tai-Chi before entering into the arena of kick boxing. Moving at this rhythm is a sort of dance like trance. Waltz first, then the Tango!
For the first 15 - 20 minutes let your horse stretch his legs. Then with light to firm pressure from your hands get your horse to collect by softening his face. If he bumps against the request don't respond with a jerk or quick pull. That would be insulting to your horsemanship as well as painful to a horse's mouth. Work you hands down the reins (this is called concentrating your reins) toward his neck, maybe all the way to the point of touching the base of the crest. If this doesn't seem to be coming easy for the two of you then work on this from the ground. A few minutes of helping your horse get acquainted with the bit pressure will make a huge difference when you do it from the saddle. Don't over think it just help him relate to the bit by standing on the near side, by his head and work your reins little by little until he responds by dropping his head down and collecting.
Tip #1: Please do not resort to tying his head down ever. No respectable horseman would even deem that acceptable.
Tip #2: Always try new exercises or moves in either a round pen or secure area.
Put yourself in your horses place when asking or expecting something new from him. Could you execute an exercise or yoga posture in just a few attempts? You'll really notice the art of walking the most when riding in large groups. The benefits will keep him from being charge -y, pushy, fractious or even aggressive. When this gait is refined it is beautiful to ride because of how soft, responsive and cooperative your horse has become. They know when you know where their hooves are each time they leave the ground and that gives them security.
When you trail ride make sure to practice walking over different types of terrain (sand, rocks, gravel). By walking slow and steady you'll both become more confident in your trail time together and you will both face any trail challenge or obstacle with ability and skill. Both horse and rider will have better equilibrium when faster motion comes into play too. From the art of walking your seat will be more defined and this will be less hanging on the reins for balance.
There are no time constraints to learning the walk. The best part will be the Zen like focus and a safer, stronger bond between the two of you. All of this reduces strain on the legs and hooves. Reduced stress also contributes to increased harmony and enthusiasm. When the rider is willing to explore the art of walking and teaches his horse to respond to it as a specific exercise this leads to advanced horsemanship without risk of injury to both parties.
The walk is designed to serve your horses body and mind and your developing talents as a rider. All new riding exercises have a threshold of learning. There may be struggle and frustration, but the walk and a trail are for enjoyment, so don't fight the lesson. Play with it, experiment and be creative.
The walking gait is often by passed because it doesn't have the rush factor of trotting, loping or galloping. I recommend it for better understanding of advanced movement, balance and cadence. It is also a therapeutic way to strengthen up out of shape legs, backs, shoulders and hips. If your horse is sore or recovering from injury ride your horse to health by utilizing the art of walking. It beats waiting or searching for a chiropractor or message therapist and it can be sometimes just as effective until they can be located.
Use the walk to gain new perspective, it may take longer then a quick fix but you may just be surprised how beneficial the result will be overall. Walking rhymes with talking so think of it as a dialogue with each of your bodies. It is a nonverbal conversation that will eventually speak volumes in the life you share together.
"The Pay-off is the Ride" ~ Robert M. Liner
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