When you enter an arena, allow the animal to stretch and relax at the walk on loose reins for a couple of minutes before you begin work. This gives the horse a good feeling about the ring, rather than making the animal think of it only as a workplace.
Then, take up the slack in the reins until you have a soft, but steady, contact on the horse’s mouth, with the animal traveling in a long frame at the walk. Think of the ideal tempo for your particular horse and, through the use of your aids, ask the animal to stick to it. (If the tempo you are dictating turns out to be slightly slow or fast when the horse reaches it, you can make the necessary adjustments.) On a dull horse, dictate a marching rhythm that makes the horse’s hind end work, but not a tempo so fast that the animal is encouraged to break into a trot. On a quick horse, dictate a steady rhythm that is slower than that at which the horse wants to travel, so that it encourages it to calm down and stretch for longer, more relaxed steps.
Mark the rhythm of the walk by silently counting 1,2; 1,2; 1,2; etc., as you mentally track the footfalls of the hind feet each time they strike underneath your seat. Although the walk is a four-beat gait, the feet fall too quickly to reasonably count them in fours, so only concern yourself with the footfalls of the hind two feet. (The front feet can only go where the hind feet push them, so if you control the hind feet, you control the horse.)
Motivating the Dull Horse
If the dull horse will not keep the proper tempo without being nagged by your legs, then supplement your leg aid with spurs or a stick. The horse should think: “If I do not move forward from leg pressure, then the rider will spur me; and if I do not move forward from the spur, then he will punish me with the stick.” Finally, the horse concludes that it would be better to respond to the leg and avoid the spur and stick altogether.
I often see riders jabbing their horses every step with the spur. In this case, the rider is not using his reinforcements properly. If the horse doesn’t respond to the spur, then punish the animal with the stick. If the stick seems to fall on lifeless flesh, then punish the horse more forcefully. You know you’ve accurately gauged the strength of the stick when the horse reacts with respect for it. If the horse ignores it, you have not hit the animal hard enough; and if it reacts to the stick with fear, then your punishment has been too harsh. Apply the stick with just enough force to get the performance you desire, for excess use of force creates new problems, such as anxiety and too much pace.
Controlling the Quick Horse
Quickness of movement is not only a by-product of nervousness, but also a perpetuator of it. If you can persuade the horse to physically slow down, the animal will usually become more mentally relaxed. This takes your complete concentration, for you must dictate every step on a quick horse, or else the animal will immediately resume a fast walk.
As discussed earlier, half-halts can be used to establish and maintain the proper rhythm at the walk, or they can be used during a downward transition to slow the horse gradually until it halts. Half-halts reprimand the quick horse, but halting is even more effective, because it requires the horse not only to slow down, but to obey to the point of immobility. Therefore, when you ask the horse to halt, you further promote obedience to your aids.
In changing from a walk to a halt on a long frame, emphasis is on the horse’s willingness to respond to your restrictive aids and stand still at the halt. Although engagement of the hocks is not an issue when the horse is asked to halt while in a long frame, the horse should nevertheless stand squarely and not stop with its hocks trailing behind. Walking and halting several times teaches the horse to wait for you to dictate the rhythm. At the halt, require the horse to stand immobile for four to six seconds, the same period of time used in competition. When schooling, if the horse is jittery and wants to move, you can say “whoa” in a low, calm voice, or reach down with one hand and pat the animal near its withers. This action does not solve the horse’s nervous problem, but it does reassure the animal—particularly a young horse—and can calm it down a little.
If the horse wants to lurch forward into the walk again, or if it has pulled during the downward transition, the halt can be followed by backing. To back, apply leg pressure, but completely restrict any forward movement with your hands, so that the horse moves into the bit and, finding no forward escape, moves backward. At that instant, ease the pressure of your legs to allow the horse to step backward. On a very sensitive horse, you may not need to use your legs to motivate the animal, but may get the proper response from adding pressure in your hands alone. In this case, your legs simply maintain straightness of the hindquarters.
Backing requires the quick horse to submit completely, not only by prohibiting it from rushing forward, but also by making it concentrate on moving in the opposite direction from the one in which it would rather go. It works well in correcting horses that pull because it makes them activate their haunches in upward and backward steps, rather than allowing them to use their haunches in low, forward, bracing steps to exert more pressure on the bit.
On jittery horses that do not want to stand, backing may elicit the frightening response of rearing. A horse that is nervously dancing around, champing at the bit, or looking anxiously from one object to another should be longed to release some of its energy before it is restricted with halting or backing, both of which make it too easy for the animal to channel all of its energy upward.
The Importance of the Walk
The walk comes into your work plan time and again when, for example, you practice a lateral movement at the walk before attempting it at the upper gaits; when you give your horse a break on a free rein; or when you collect the reins after a break and walk for a short while before picking up another gait. You do not have to walk the horse for long periods of time, but do practice the walk a little each day, so that your horse considers it to be a working gait and does not anticipate the trot by jogging whenever you pick up the reins.
Intersperse free walks into your work frequently, so that the horse can stretch and relax. If you do not do this about every five minutes, then its muscles will become so cramped that it will begin to fight you.