I’m still making my way through Waldemar Seunig’s Horsemanship. I’ve been reading a lot of the old masters over the last couple of years, and I have to admit that Seunig is a bit of a slog compared to most. However, every once and I while my patient reading is rewarded with some gems – and none have been as rewarding (so far) as his section on the walk. So, what is so exciting about the walk? Well, allow us to elucidate …
“Producing collection at the walk is no doubt one of the most difficult jobs a rider is called upon to do. We often see the so-called ‘well-made’ horses, even those that have won high prizes in dressage tests, committing more basic faults at the walk than at any other gait.” Waldemar Seunig
We are all taught that the walk is a four-beat gait, where the hind leg comes near to landing just before the front leg on the same side leaves the ground – thus forming a ‘V’ for just a brief moment. The trouble is, when looking at horses competing at the highest levels, how often do you really see that? Most horses at the highest levels have lost their pure walk – and the reasons for that are covered by Seunig. First, the hands:
“All riders, except those possessing an enviable knowledge and ability, naturally tend to give the hands precedence when combining various controls. This is most serious in exercises at the walk … than at the other gaits, where mistakes or control are partly balanced out by impulsion.”
The walk, lacking a phase of suspension, is far easier to “break” than the trot and canter. Aside from a lack of thrust in the walk, it also has more undulation in the neck, as part of the balance apparatus. If the rider’s hands interfere with this function, by trying to constrain the walk, the effect ripples back to the footfalls themselves.
Impulsion also comes in with regard to your chances of improving a naturally faulty walk.
“As we know, the walk is the gait that is least improved by art (gymnastic training in the riding hall) or education (training on long lines and in broken country). The ability to take long steps at a free walk, and to take lofty steps at the collected walk is largely a function of joint action and hence is inborn. It can be improved only up to a certain maximum by making the hindquarters and back more active, especially since we cannot employ the same development of impulsion that aids trotting and galloping so very much …”
So far, this all fits with everything that I learned. The trick here is to know when the walk you are seeing is the horse’s natural walk, and when it is a man-made problem. The mustang we raised had a naturally lateral walk, even before he had any training. I was able to make some improvements to it, with walk-over poles being a key trick I learned from one of my Dressage trainers.
Coffee also came to us with a terribly lateral walk. Based upon his other gaits, I took a semi-educated guess that his issue might be a man-made one. So, activating his back and hindquarters was exactly the approach I took. I can happily report that he not only has a pure walk now (one with the V more I mentioned above), but his overstep is now easily better than six inches between hoofprints.
So far, reading Seunig was a nice refresher … but there was a “light bulb” moment to come … and here it is:
“The notion that at the walk the timing must be the same for all rates, as it is at the trot and the gallop, is largely responsible for the fact that some dressage horses walk with a hasty, broken and hurried step, which has as much in common with active walking as cramped gnashing of the teeth has with correct chewing… The horse would defend itself against the twofold requirement that it take lofty as well as very lively steps … [taking] refuge in the hasty steps mentioned above, which often stiffen into a pace-like sequence.”
This was not anything I’d ever considered, or been taught – but it makes complete sense. Lacking thrust and a period of suspension, the walk would have to change in tempo (speed of the footfalls) when it changes in length of stride. When I first read that passage, I reflected upon videos I’d seen of some of the masters schooling their horses, and the collected walk was very much a slowed tempo. Those horses move fluidly between collected walk and other movements, with none of the impurities you see in today’s competition arena.
So, I will continue to safeguard the walk, as we recondition and train our little herd – but now I have one more lesson to add to my workbook.
Be good to your horses!