Walk is a foundation gait for horses and for humans. In dressage, walking is a gait with four phases that are heard as hoof beats. Further, walk hoof beats must be equally spaced in time with deliberate tempo (strides per minute where steps are parts of a stride). In terms of physics, legs of a walk behave as inverted pendulums, as shown by the Morgan Raynyday Maximillian in extended walk, in contrast to the spring-loaded inverted pendulums of the ballistic gaits of trotting, cantering or galloping where there is a moment when all four legs are off the ground. Walking has modifications known as “paces”: collected, medium, extended and free. (see Figure 1 below)
Why should walks be the gait most subject to distortion in disciplines such as dressage that value an active, powerful and true walk? A short answer is that humans have “forgotten” their true walk coordination by the time they are old enough to ride a dressage test. Instead, the standing two-footed gait humans label “walk” is a diagonal stepping trot if all four limbs are counted. And legs have significant weight, requiring work to move you or your horse. If you wish to “remember” your foundation walk, get down on all fours and “crawl” as you did when a toddler. If done in front of a mirror, you will see the four leg sequence that is very close to that of your horse’s unconstrained walk.
We have an important indication why humans create damaged walks with horses: their bodies move with adult two footed sequence of muscles that do not match the muscles their horses use to walk with all four feet. That is, their bodies are trotting while their horses try to walk (see figure 2 below) shows an unconstrained walk with a graph illustrating a feature horses use to get an elastic “biomechanical freebie,” the head bob. There are two head bobs for each walk stride. Its nodding function serves to enhance swing of hind legs, acting through muscles and ligaments of the top line. An active top line is the signature of a powerful, swinging walk. Additionally, the presence of a clear, symmetrical head bob indicates that a saddle fits comfortably and that a rider’s movements are in harmony with the march of the walk.
A head bob is correlated with the swing of the hind legs and is an important piece of evidence that there is throughness from tail to nose in the walk. Regular bobbing of the head is an important part of a dressage walk. It can be variable to measure because horses may alter it to look at something and almost extinguish it for a stride or two in the process. Or a rider’s aids may create differences in walk timing. It is a helpful adjunct during training to video your horse’s walk and to examine its activity and symmetry.
Riding A Walk And A Definition Of Half Halts
Riders need an independent seat, meaning that upper and lower body act differently but in harmony with motions of the horse. The diagonal motion of human “walking” interferes with the timing of equine walking, as does stiffness in shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers. Shoulder blades in an independent seat should be free to “float” on the upper back, allowing hands to be elastically still on the reins. Thumbs are arced up instead of locked flat, so that wrists can flex into a straight alignment with reins to bit without stiffness. As in the next illustrations (see figure 3 and figure 4) core muscles, aided by oblique abdominals, control the pelvis in an exact motion to allow the horse’s back muscles to relax and contract. An independent lower body moves with spiral tracts of muscles, so the pelvis shifts up toward the opposite shoulder as it lifts to free contractions of the horse. Spiral tracking of the pelvis up-in to down-back to its original place keeps a rider’s center of mass from rocking side to side.
Positional half halts with the independent spiral seat depend on a clear set of alignments of weight aids, enabled by a quiet upper body that receives the effects of seat and legs. Again, this assumes the saddle is placed so that it does not pinch the horse’s shoulders and back, allowing aids to go through the horse. This is called “the circle of aids.” (see Figure 5)
Movements of the pelvis independent of rider shoulders are accomplished by the ilio-psoas muscles deep in the body cavity and “tuned” by external oblique abdominals near the surface. Thigh muscles (not shown) control the pelvis when standing. Control of the pelvis when standing is much easier than when mounted! While sitting in the saddle, major muscles that move the seat are internal, while external abdominal muscles plus legs assist these primary movers. Many people find that these internal muscles are unfit and need exercises to make them stronger and more flexible.
Relaxed hip joint musculature permits legs to stay softly against the ribs on either concave or convex side of the bend using the riding muscles. As my mentor Dr. van Schaik said, “Legs are like wet towels.” Riders should take care not to overstretch ligaments around the hip joint (especially the inguinal ligament) as these are painful injuries with slow recovery.
Rotating the pelvis so that its top tips back (see Figure 4 – above) is accompanied by straightening of the lumbar spine and a relaxed iliopsoas system. This “bracing” action is accomplished mainly by abdominal muscles, particularly the abdominus rectus. Elastic stretching of the back is an aid for collection, transitions and halts. It is performed without withdrawing the [Field]seat bones from the horse or without pushing so hard that the horse hollows its back.
A rider becomes an “elastic pillar,” assisting the horse with posture changes creating agility with lightness (collection), rebalancing half halts (transitions between gaits, halts). I prefer this dynamic description to the more static one of “bracing.”
Head bob patterns can also be a part of veterinary diagnosis of lameness. In that case, more than one stride is sampled on a hard surface (to hear regularity of hoof beats) and to help remove variations due to attention changes.
Walks: Developing A Supple Horse
Walks expected of horses in dressage competitions are medium, collected, free and extended. (see Figure 6- below)
Changing the length of stride as well as the stretch of the whole body promotes muscular development in terms of strength and elasticity. Walks are related to purity of ballistic gaits and to advanced forms of their expression. Piaffe is a gait of the high school that repeats the diagonal moment of walk where the forelegs are vertical support and the hind legs are in braking mode. This pairing never appears in the parallelogram alignment of trotting. The assumption that “just because it is diagonal, it is a trot” is easily shown to be false by looking at video frames. For piaffe, a clever choice of tempo for walk in initial stages of training (about 51-55 strides per minute) will go far to prepare for the tempos of piaffe and passage.
Walk tempo is important because it takes advantage of all connective tissues, where even bone can flex slightly. When a tissue is stretched, it loads for a time, releasing that stored energy in a cycle called a “step function.” Think of a rubber band stretched slowly, then released with a quick, springy recovery. If tempo chosen matches the timed behavior of connective tissues, its outward expression is fluent swing.
Timing issues are important because they affect stride efficiency. Energy consumption, mechanical work, energy transfers between trunk and limbs are important features of all walks. This is because gait dynamics include springs (period of cycling depends on mass, energy of motion) and pendulums (cycling period depends on length of body part, gravitational acceleration) as well as real world factors like friction that resist motion. The need for regular, predictable strides depends on good footing.
Identifying Spoiled Walks
A moment of walks can be used as a “search image” for deciding if a walk is pure (See Figure 7 below)
Most commonly, disturbed timing of walks creates a lateral version of the gait. Pacing is a pure gait, but is not allowed in dressage. Lateral timing of pacing limits its tempos to fairly quick striding. Provided its lateral moment of support is not accompanied by too slow a tempo (animal tips over), pacing has an advantage in that its lateral pairing allows overstep without legs of the same side interfering. Although a dressage judge may comment that a horse is pacing, true pacing (usually a stepping pace without suspension) is rare in dressage tests. Horses with lateral walks are likely to have lateral canters. Occasionally, a horse presents a lateral “piaffe” where the horse rocks side to side. Unfortunately, lateral walks are sometimes seen when a test asks for a “collected” walk. An examination of phasing of limbs in a lateral walk shows some of its flaws, its awkward appearance and its differences from pacing. Lateral walking presents serious difficulties for dressage in terms of timing purity of transitions.
- First, a lateral walk is unbalanced with a slightly diminished lateral base of support compared to a dressage walk.
- Second, a lateral walk has stance legs timed so they are relatively ineffective at sending the walk forward (lack of propulsive power). The forelimb of the lateral pair is still braking in the example here, made from tracings of author’s still photos from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics
- Third, the neck is stiff and the back is hollow.
- Fourth, [Field]swing limbs are not phased so that they travel together in a way that keeps their masses symmetrically close to the trunk center of mass. Retarded toe-off timing of the hind limb delays formation of the next triangular (three footed) base of support. This is an problem with balance.
- Fifth, the lateral character of the walk need not be symmetrical. Some horses show almost a normal “vee” on one side and a retarded vee on the other. This may mean that there is injury (old or new) or that the horse is “[Field]rein lame.” In the case of rein lameness caused by a rider, only expert riding* with an independent seat can remedy the posture and timing faults.
“Rope walking” or crossing legs is seen in horses unable to balance steadily from left to right. Usually, this is caused by rider sway in the saddle, particularly in performing a halt. Swaying from side to side in piaffe or passage is called “balancé” and is a fault of the gait.
Bending, Walking and Power
A crucial feature of balance is related to bending. (See Figure 8 – below)
In the upper half of the image, Rosita is bending but not leaning in, meaning that she has learned to place the inside hind leg under the plane of the inside hip (self-carriage). The lower half of the illustration shows that bending on a circle for dressage (no leaning in) involves different work from the hind legs in relation to each diagonal pair. Four-legged animals lean in when cornering because it keeps the alignment work of diagonal pairs the same and addresses the physics of centripetal forces on the body mass. But dressage circles and turns are done at slow tempos compared to other equestrian disciplines and require balance without tipping. Horses resist bending for two main reasons: lack of ability to stretch plus the effort to remain vertical on curves takes substantial muscular strength.
Exercises for bending are ridden by balancing weight aids in the center of the back (inside hip mobile), leg aids (inside leg at the girth sends horse forward, outside leg prevents haunches from drifting out) and outside rein (elastic support for the stretch).
It is important that riders stay relaxed and aligned so that the horse is able to stroke its legs in the selected gait in a fluent manner. While these are not detailed instructions on how to ride circles and lateral work, these images are guides to the ways performance of these exercises can develop gymnastic capacities, especially if they are used with caution and interspersed with relaxation in forward walk and trot on straight lines. Generally weight aids are subtle, made in the desired direction of travel.
Is There Impulsion And Collection In Walks?
With impulsion defined in more than one way, the answer can be “yes,” even though some authors deny the walk has impulsion because there is no moment when all four legs are off the ground (suspension). If impulsion is defined as “thrust” combined with “willingness to move forward,” then an active walk with powerful strides behind fits the combined characteristics of the definitions. The concept of “thrust” encompasses biomechanical processes of ballistic gaits in addition to direction and magnitude of movement, even if that motion keeps a horse in place. Judges are asked to describe walking with adjectives such as active, marching or energetic rather than impulsive.
As for “collection,” it involves agility and mobility based on strength and suppleness with ability to flex joints within their normal ranges of motion. Posture or carriage is adjusted so that the forehand is carried in lightness. All these qualities appear in a collected walk, and its physics partake of some of the elastic character of the ballistic gaits of trot and canter for expression. That is, in a lively collected walk, there is springiness that comes from some inverted pendulum spring of legs. This springiness also appears in a well developed piaffe, highlighting another important connection of walk to the whole training.
In summary, walking in all postures on straight lines, circles, arcs and pirouettes develops suppleness, power and prepares for the high school without the concussive forces of suspension.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR DR. NANCY NICHOLSON