Today my horses and I would like to celebrate the walk. The walk . . . not that boring part of our riding that we get through as quickly as we can so we can get to the interesting parts - trot, canter, jumping, whatever we do as a riding discipline.
But rather the walk as foundation for everything we do together, as horse and rider. It's also important to remember that if something isn't working well at the walk - softness (vs bracing), connection between rider and horse, connection in the horse from back to front (not ever from front to back), relaxation (vs tension/anxiety) and communication - does the horse understand what you are asking? - then it definitely won't get better at a higher gait and is likely to get worse. With my horses, when we first got to know one another, we spent a lot of (necessary) time at the walk to get things right. It was time for a refresher for all of us.
All of us had had a day off on Thursday. Friday it was warm and humid, so I thought perhaps we would work on some fundamentals - shortening/lengthening at the walk, straightness and bend (including spiral out/in and some shoulder in) and some basic lateral work - turns on the forehand and haunches and sidepass.
Friday it was all walk all the time, with all three horses and I.
Missy, as it turns out, hasn't done a lot of lateral work with me. Her hock issues have led us to have long periods of no riding. She's now reliably soft when traveling straight ahead, and we've done basic walk and trot work and transitions, as well as backing. We really haven't done much lateral work so far, and it quickly became clear that she wasn't too sure about what I was asking her to do. Many horses - maybe most - associate leg cues with forward, not necessarily with moving part of their body away from leg to the side, and this was clearly true for her. She was able to quickly figure out what I was asking in turns on the forehand and haunches, and is also able to do spiral out although it's physically somewhat hard for her. Shoulder in, though, confused her - the idea that she should continue forward while also moving somewhat laterally (not so different from spiral out, but . . .) presented a paradox, as far as she was concerned. I could tell that she was somewhat anxious about it, because some of her bracing/rooting on the bit returned (it's been completely gone for a long time). We went back to some things she understood and left it there for the day - I had an idea of what to do the next time we worked together.
Today all we did was in hand work - she wore her bridle and I worked from either side, standing at her girth area and holding the reins as I would when riding. She was a bit non-plussed when I was on her right side - she's very used to having the person on the left but the right was new. I've found that being able to use my body to cue, by standing at the horse's side and using my hip to cue, often can break the logjam of misunderstanding. She quickly picked up turn on the forehand and spiral out (turn on the haunches is a bit harder in hand and Missy already does it well), and after some more work, shoulder in was also going well. By bumping her barrel with my hip while allowing her to move forward, she was really able to feel us moving sideways together. She also seemed much less anxious - in fact she was relaxed. We'll see how we do in our next ridden session, but I expect she'll have very few problems with it now - she's very smart and picks things up quickly.
Red is a pro at lateral work - the trick with him is to not have him get all amped up. Sticking to the walk helped. I had wanted to work with him only at the walk in our first session - he's been a bit stiff and sticky when starting out in trot work and may have been a bit sore - he's getting up in his teens now. The lateral work - circles, quarter turns on the haunches, full turns on the haunches and forehand, spiral out and shoulder in - really help him loosen up and keeps things interesting during our walk warm up time. By the end of our session Friday, he was very enthusiastically marching along and doing everything perfectly. The only thing we had to refine was his turn on the haunches - he tends to want to offer up the movements of a reining spin - where both the front end and the hind end move around the center of the horse - since I expect that's what he'd been taught - but we quickly got that adjusted. I'm sure he would have been happy to trot, but we saved that for today.
One side note on Red - when I got him, we did no lateral work at all, since he was unable to travel straight and his head was disconnected from his body - an unfortunate (and common) side effect of what was likely excessive lateral flexion work - it took a long time to get him reconnected from back to front and able to travel straight. (Note: you can't have a horse that bends properly unless you already have a horse that can travel straight.) But now we can do lateral work, and he's right on it.
Today Red and I did all our regular lateral work, including some very nice shoulder in, and then we did some trot work which he was very enthusiastic about, showing no signs of soreness. We also did full side pass, which he did beautifully and with no anxiety.
Pie is the pro on lateral work. He came to me as a four year old with good basic ranch horse training, which included gate opening and the required ability to position his body as asked. We did some refresher work, all of which he executed flawlessly and with no worries, including full side pass. Shoulder in is newer to him, but that's fine as well. Today we did a nice warmup with all those lateral pieces and then did a few minutes of very nice forward trot work.
Walk is also very good work for a rider like me - I'm often stiff and sore and going with the walk motion - letting my hips and lower back really relax and go - is great for me as well.
Walk should be celebrated!