It’s just as important to do a good free walk with your dressage horse at Training Level as it is to develop your trot and canter work. Many riders lose sight of the fact that they should pay as much attention to the medium walk and free walk as they do to the other two gaits.
First, let me define the free walk. It’s a gait of relaxation. Your dressage horse should lengthen his frame and lower his head and neck so he looks like he’s going to graze. His poll is lower than his withers. He should open the angle at his throatlatch so his nose points a bit forward, and he looks like he’s stretching toward the bit. Also, his strides become longer so his hind feet step more inches beyond the tracks made by his front feet.
PREPARATION is the key to getting a good free walk at Training Level. You should prepare for the transition at the beginning of the free walk the same way you prepare for the “stretchy” circle in the trot.
To do this, use “connecting aids” for 3-4 seconds on the short side while you’re still in medium walk. To give “connecting aids”, create energy by closing both calves as if you’re asking for a lengthening. But don’t let your horse lengthen. Instead, close your outside hand in a fist to capture, contain, and recycle that energy back to the hind legs. Keep your legs and outside hand closed for 3-4 seconds. While closing your legs and outside hand, vibrate or squeeze and release on your inside rein so your horse doesn’t bend his neck to the outside.
Then, as you turn onto the diagonal, relax your legs, and open your fingers so your horse can chew the reins out of your hands.
Your next challenge will be to do the transition back to the medium walk. Use the same “connecting aids” you used to prepare for the free walk. While the reins are still long, press lightly with your calves. As you shorten the reins, keep your new outside hand closed in a fist and squeeze and release with your new inside hand.
Horses should march in both the medium walk and the free walk. If your horse gets lazy, “breathe” your legs during the free walk.
To “breathe” your legs:
* Take your legs off of his sides.
* Move them an inch or two back, and place them on lightly again.
“ Breathing” your legs does two things. If you’ve been gripping, your horse is probably numb to your legs.
Taking your legs off allows you to put them on again lightly so he feels them. Also, moving your legs back puts them closer to your horse’s “engine” and reminds him to use his hind legs actively.
On the other hand, some horses get nervous in the free walk and want to jig. If your horse wants to jig, do several transitions to the halt, and praise him after each halt. Soon he’ll learn to anticipate stopping or slowing down.
Then when you’re doing a Training level dressage test, you can use just a little bit of your “stopping aids” several times to remind him to stay in a four-beat, flat-footed walk as you make your way across the diagonal.
If he wants to jig when you pick up the reins at the end of the diagonal, do some homework between shows. Practice your free walk at home and BEFORE you pick up the reins at the end of the diagonal, halt. Then, pick up the reins in the halt. Doing so will train him to stay slow when you do the transition for real at a dressage show.