Ordinary Walk

The twelve frames below are stills from an animation (the movie is HERE). They show the relation of the head bob to the swing or stance phases of the legs. Dark outlines of the legs indicate the hoofbeat. The walk has a right and left half, recognized by the placement of the appropriate hind leg forward onto the ground. This follows a discussion convention of Milton Hildebrand (1965 Symmetrical Gaits of Horses Science 150:701-708), although the popular literature usually has a rider "key" from the horse's shoulder. Each half of the walk has a grounded diagonal pair and a lateral moment when two legs of the same side make a 'vee' when the "leg swap" to the other half of the symmetrical gait occurs. Each of the frames below is discussed in some detail. A page showing diagonal and lateral moments from 4 walks is HERE.

1 2 3
4 5 6
7 8 9
10 11 12

A good walk is very "busy." It has a head bob, a "pelvis waggle" related to the bend (if seen from above) and a ribcage swing (the right-left bending of the rib cage). The walk is supposed to be the most difficult of the dressage gaits to preserve or to fix, if it has been damaged. There are two general problems with a spoiled walk.

The lateral BEND in the ribcage Frame Six is convex (bulges) toward you and concave from the perspective of a viewer from the left side (the pair of legs in the air are the two left legs: LH, LF) (swing phase). See the discussion below for the way in which riders' lower legs may follow this ribcage motion.

First, riders are not used to a true four-legged gait: they have not really walked since they crawled as infants. The human bipedal 'walk' learned as a toddler and carried into adulthood is really a diagonal gait; a stepping trot. Human 'running' is also a diagonal gait, a trot with a moment of suspension. When riders are seated on a horse walking, they unwittingly interfere with the pure 4-beat pattern of the quadruped walk by making diagonal movements with their bodies (right shoulder, left hip and vice versa). Riders can often go more easily with the trot because it comes more naturally to adult human coordination. Canter is even more difficult for humans, because it is an asymmetric gait which humans do not normally perform. For a discussion of canter, go HERE.

EXERCISES to recover the ability to walk as though you were on four legs (as you were when you crawled). These strategies break up the human diagonal coordination which interferes with the horse's walking movement.

a) Mounted - hold the pommel with both hands and relax your lower body as much as possible. Follow the soft rocking of the muscles under the saddle (lats) as they relax (foreleg in the air, moving forward) and contract (foreleg placed on the ground, horse pulls itself forward over the grounded diagonal pair of legs). If you cannot do this comfortably in the saddle, go to the unmounted exercise.

b) Unmounted - clasp both hands in front of you with elbows slightly bent. Walk while pushing forward and down with your hands exactly timed with the moment you place each foot forward. This is the 'following hand' for riding the walk. In advanced riders, it becomes very subtle. It is not unusual for those trying to walk this way to feel disoriented or even almost unable to move for a moment. Imagine what it must be like for the horse to be asked to walk (4 legged version) while a rider trots (even though unintentionally)!

Second, riders are often unaware of tension in their bodies. This simply shuts down the walk (and the other gaits). When the horse is asked to rearrange its posture for collection (shortens the distance between the grounded diagonal pairs compared to Frame Two of the ordinary gait), a tense rider interferes with the timing of the forelegs by pressing on the lat which is attempting to contract. The horse will pull its foreleg up too soon, so the 'vee' is not formed and the walk becomes lateral. the walk may be lateral more on one side than the other, depending on the rider's stiffest side (more interference with that half of the horse's back muscles).

EXERCISE to help relax and 'go with' the walk is generally to allow your lower leg to swing with the horse's belly swing from side to side. Be careful not to rock hips side to side: that shifts the mass of your upper body away from the center of the horse (drunken walk). Each time the belly swings as far as it can, the 'vee' is formed under the concave side. At that instant, the horse is on two legs of the SAME SIDE (Frames 5/6 and 11/12). Swaying in the saddle will cause the horse to sway as well because your center of mass moves side to side! Your shoulders should remain level (independent seat with shoulder blades sliding softly on your upper back). If your shoulders are unlevel, check your posture in a mirror to see that you stand straight unmounted. If you are unlevel without the horse, then there are exercise strategies (tai chi, yoga, jazz dance, martial arts) which develop a symmetrical body and help with coordination.

The horse can be dead straight in terms of tracking with the feet while the ribcage swings right to left to right. For a photo taken of this moment, look HERE. I am riding Ben Lyn Anchorman in the collected walk. He has just finished a head bob down and that is why you can see his braids. He has also just begun the 'vee' with his two left legs. The position of his ribcage to the right has moved my lower legs to the right to follow his belly swing (lateral bend coupled with axial rotation). My upper body has not swayed with the ribcage, but one of my hips is higher than the other, allowing the lats to operate his front legs without interference. This still image reflects the complexity of motions in walk.

Riding a Walk

Riding is learned by touch (kinesthetic learning). People watching a rider who is feeling the horse move and following the movements think that the rider is not moving very much. A spectator judges the whole image because the rider, in harmony with the horse, LOOKS still with respect to the horse. However, the rider FEELS very active. When your instructor asks you to be a 'quiet' rider, it means that you should make only the motions required to match the horse's gaits.

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