Free walk ON a long rein not off it!
The transition from medium walk to free walk on a long rein has a remarkable effect on most riders. For any other transition they’ll sit up, hold the contact and ride forward but when it comes to free walk they adopt the ‘don’t touch the sides’ position and fix their hands. Sound familiar?
This unique way of riding is to ensure the horse doesn’t jog or get tense. But think about it. What’s your horse’s reaction when you sit completely rigid in the saddle? He tenses his back. If you fix your hand? He tenses his back. You stop riding forward? He tens … You get the picture.
Despite their best intentions riders create the problems they face in the free walk. It’s something that needs practicing. When was the last time you warmed up and then got stuck into some serious walking?! You may think it’s boring but it’s one of the hardest things to do well. Try this –
Warm your horse up and then make a conscious effort to spend the next twenty minutes in walk. In medium walk go large, ride 20m circles or serpentines but concentrate on using more leg than you’ve ever used before. Ride forward.
Your horse won’t jog if you keep your contact consistent. If you pull back to stop him you’ll just create more tension in his back. You have to follow his mouth with your hands. They should move forward and back to allow him to use his head and neck BUT if he hollows, as tense horses often do, then stop moving and concentrate on keeping the contact. Follow his mouth, hold your contact and keep your legs pushing him forward. Lose the contact and you lose his attention.
You push your horse to the contact by pushing him from your leg to a ‘holding’ hand. He may hollow and tip his head for a circuit (or ten!) but be patient. If it isn’t an unpleasant feeling he will accept it. You’ll always win in the end.
There’s a big difference between holding and pulling. Holding your contact is like holding a toddler’s hand. You’re there to reassure and guide but not restrict. Your fingers close round the rein but they never tighten. Pulling is like gripping your toddler’s hand so hard you make them scream!
So by pushing on into a relaxed, consistent contact you’ll have created a purposeful walk. You should be able to feel your horse on both reins at all times. Surprising as it may be when he accepts your contact you can push on as hard as you like. You may even find you struggle to get him to trot.
From this walk it’s easy to create a good free walk. Because he’s actually in your hand, accepting the contact, you can lengthen his neck as much as you want. All you have to do is push.
Free walk is a pace. You’ll need to teach your horse the transitional aids for it. You’ll have been using the top of your lower leg to push him into your hands. Now is the time to use both heels. A short nudge and then off again is all that’s required.
(A quick mention here of your hand position. You don’t need to lower your hand to get your horse to lower his head and stretch. Do that and you’ll tip him onto his shoulders. If he’s unbalanced he’ll tighten his back and hollow. Carry your hands, keep them level and push him down your rein, don’t drop him)
The surge forward your horse does as he feels your heels will put him into your hand a bit harder. As you feel him go onto your hand open your fingers and allow him to take the rein forward and down. Allow him to take five inches before you close your fingers again. Now use your heels again. This encourages him to step under with his hocks again and the walk stays balanced. All this happens within two strides.
The only way to teach him to stretch down is by teaching him to accept your hand. How can you ride on a long rein if he was never on the short one? If he comes up push with your leg to put him back in your hand. If he still hollows shorten your reins up until you have a contact and ride him into it. Stay calm and keep trying.
When you come to take up the reins make sure you do it in one swift movement. Put your leg on, lean forward, take your outside rein then your inside rein and walk on. Shuffling your fingers up the reins is guaranteed to create tension.
Walk and free walk sometimes take hours of practice but before you think “forget it” think how long you spend over medium trot or canter transitions. All of these things only affect the marks in one or two boxes but if you can teach your horse to accept your contact in walk it improves everything. And it’s a lot less tiring to work in!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.