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Cracking the Free Walk

In presenting a quality free walk, we have got to show correct rhythm, complete relaxation, maximum ground cover and a clear stretch. This article will discuss what the judge wants to see during this movement as well as highlighting some common problems that might arise.

The following article, ‘Improving your Free Walk’, will discuss what you and your horse can do, both in training and in the arena, to present your best free walk and gain those all important higher marks!

A fundamental aspect of any and all movements in dressage is a correct rhythm. The walk should always have a clear and regular four-beat rhythm and any disruptions of rhythm will bring the mark down significantly.

One major rhythm issue comes when the horse shows a ‘lateral walk’. This means that both legs on the same side move in unison rather than individually, tending the walk towards a two-beat, rather than a four-beat, rhythm. Some horses naturally walk a little laterally, while others tend towards a lateral walk when tension is present. Depending on the severity of the rhythm disruption, the mark for this incorrect walk will usually be a 4.0 or below.

Listening to your horse walking on a hard surface is a great way to assess the four-beat rhythm

It’s likely that all of us have at one time or another had a horse 'ad lib' some jog steps during a free walk. This often arises from the rider over-applying the leg aids in an attempt to push the horse into a lengthened stride, causing the horse to lose his natural balance and having to quicken his legs to stabilise. This disruption of the four-beat rhythm forces the judge to lower the mark significantly. As the horse has not maintained a walk for the length of the movement, the mark should be a maximum of 5.5 (just 1-2 jog steps) and will decrease as the severity of the jogging increases.

Rhythm issues in the walk will always bring down the ‘paces’ collective mark at the bottom of the sheet, even if the trot and canter have been executed perfectly. Like the free walk mark, the collective marks are doubled when calculating the percentage, meaning that rhythm disruptions in this movement can have a real impact on the final mark.

Another important measure of a quality free walk is the degree of relaxation that the horse is able to show. Showing a high level of relaxation in the middle of a dressage test is a lot harder than it might sound! We ask our horses to perform different movements in quick succession to the best of their ability in an unfamiliar environment and then suddenly ask them to walk freely with the relaxation of an easy afternoon hack. My own horse figured out quite quickly that the free walk is usually followed by the canter work (apparently much more fun than walking!) and so maintained relaxation across the entire diagonal is challenging!

The relaxation has to come first from the rider. As herd animals, horses have been shown to display allelomimetic behaviour (a fancy word for mimicking or copying.) We will all have observed this – if one horse in a herd spooks and runs away, the others will instinctively spook and follow him without yet knowing what the cause of the panic is. This safety mechanism might stop our horse being eaten by a lion in the wild, but doesn’t help us much in our dressage test. Any nerves we are feeling will subconsciously cause our body to become tense, which the horse will feel and think ‘well if my rider is tense, there must be something serious to worry about!’ As a judge, it’s incredibly common to see a horse do their best free walk when exiting the arena after the final halt once the rider has taken a deep breath and relaxed their body!

Practice at home: Letting your horse walk on a loose rein, take a deep breath and relax your body. Let you hips swing with the rhythm of the walk and feel yourself allowing your horse to lengthen his stride.

A physically tense rider blocks the flow of energy and movement from the back end to the front, often resulting in a lack of ‘throughness’. We can’t expect the muscles over the horses back to stretch and contract freely when we are sitting stiff as a statue right in the middle of them. Before becoming a judge, I completely failed to appreciate the extent to which the judge is observing the rider’s body language in addition to the horse. The judge wants to see the rider relaxed through the body with the hips swinging along with the movement of the hind legs, thus allowing the horse to lift his back and bring his hind legs forward and underneath him.

The judge assesses the extent to which the horse is bringing his hind legs through and forward by observing the ground cover of the stride – literally how much ground is covered with each stride. Competitors will often see ‘needs more ground cover’ when reading the comments for the free walk – so what does this mean?

In the free walk, the horse needs to show a clear overtrack, meaning that the hind hooves must step down in front of where the front hooves have just lifted from. A high level of relaxation and suppleness over the topline will allow the hind leg to reach forward and achieve this overtrack. Ground cover is also dictated by the reach of the fore legs, meaning that the judge is also looking for freedom in the shoulders, allowing the horse to step out and lengthen his stride.

The judge will watch the footfalls carefully, looking to see a clear overtrack

It is key to remember that extension of a pace does not equate to a faster tempo (tempo being the speed of the rhythm). Often, a more extended movement will give a slightly slower tempo than when then same pace is collected purely because of the increased ground cover required from each stride. When we reach the walk stage of our test it can often feel like time is going extremely slowly and we instinctively want to keep using our legs to stop our horse falling asleep! What this actually achieves is a quickening of the tempo and a shortening of the stride. The horse is pushed out of his natural balance and onto his shoulders such that he cannot maintain adequate reach with the front legs and engagement of the hind legs is lost completely. This is a very common error in the free walk - we as riders have got to take a breath and allow our horses to relax into their extension.

The length of topline that the judges are looking for includes the horse’s neck as well as his back and hind legs. The movement is always written as ‘a free walk on a long rein’ – with the emphasis on a long rein rather than a loose one. The British Dressage Member’s Handbook states that ‘an elastic and consistent contact … must be maintained’ meaning that loose, baggy reins are not acceptable. The judge is ultimately looking for the horse to stretch forward and down to seek the contact in the new extended frame. The horse’s mouth should be in line with the point of the shoulder or lower and his nose should be slightly in front of the vertical – never behind it. A common error here is for riders to ask their horse to come rounder and rounder in a bid to achieve the stretch, resulting in him tucking his nose in to his chest and thus losing his balance and engagement. The comment ‘needs to stretch neck out more’ appears frequently on test sheets and is a direct response to this problem. We as riders need to give our horses enough length of rein and encourage enough engagement through their whole body that they are able to maintain their natural balance and stretch their neck down and out.

I hope that reading this article has helped you to gain a deeper understanding of how the free walk is assessed and what the judge is looking for from you and your horse. If you have found this article helpful, please feel free to share it with your friends! Head over to our Facebook page, The View From C, and give us a like to be the first to know about new articles and exciting updates!

If you have any questions arising from this article, please message us through the Facebook page and we will be happy to answer! Look out for the next article, ‘Improving your Free Walk’ for handy tips and exercises to try with your horse and get ready to see those free walk marks creeping up..!

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