Walking is Good for the Horse
A few weeks ago I was in a used bookstore trying to find a horse book I didn’t already have and that might teach me something new. The only one I could find was one written 30 years ago on race horse conditioning. I got it, I wanted a new horse book! When I got home I was looking through it and found a whole chapter on the walk. If you have been reading my blogs you know that when I ride I walk a lot. With my MS I just do not have the energy to do much more, usually I can only last one time around the ring at the trot and maybe half a ring at the canter. To my surprise all the horses I ride start to muscle up, even those I only rode 30 minutes a week. Now I know I am doing the horses I ride a favor!
These quotes are from:
“The Equine Athlete-New Horizons in Racehorse Conditioning” by Gary L. Wilson, DVM, and Martha Mueller, Trainer, Ó 1982, Veterinary Learning Systems Co., Inc., Princeton Junction, NJ, p. 58-66, Chapter 7, The Value of Walking.
p. 59 “Most trainers felt that it was a waste of time, and that it had little potential benefit for the overall training program. A comment made over and over was that racehorses are runners, not walkers.” I have noticed that race horse trainers are not the only ones who basically ignore walking. In hunt seat and dressage the goal seems to be to get the horse trotting as soon as possible, both on the lunge line and under saddle. There seems to be a fear that if the horse is not made to move faster than the walk in the early stages of breaking and training the horse will decide that is all he will ever have to do. People seem to believe than no physical conditioning takes place at the walk. I also think that riders get bored at the walk, there is no spring like in the trot, there is no breeze in your face, and it just is not that exciting.
This is a pity and unfortunate for the horse. Just look at what walking can do for him!
p. 59-61 “Advantages of walking racehorses at the beginning of their conditioning program and throughout their competitive training are:
1. Walking increases the ability of the heart and lungs to take in and distribute oxygen throughout the body. This helps build physical endurance, which many of our competitive equine athletes lack.
2. Walking is one of the best ways to teach a racehorse manners.
3. Walking can be used in the rehabilitation of equine athletes suffering musculoskeletal or vascular diseases.
4. Walking can clinically improve horses with acute or chronic lung problems, such as emphysema, while helping retain muscle condition and tone.
5. Walking increases the elasticity of the blood vessels.
6. Walking can relieve the symptoms of some diseases, when it is combined with veterinary therapy.
During the past few years we have seen many young equine patients that were started in training on too heavy a schedule. They developed ankle or knee injuries, fractures, and muscle or ligament injuries. All of these patients were pushed too fast too early, resulting in a setback in the conditioning and training program, expensive bills, upset owners, and loss of potential racing ability.”
One thing I have noticed since I re-started riding was the large amount of horses who become lame through training and use. I see more lameness nowadays than I did 40 years ago when I got my first horse. Back then hunt seat emphasized developing endurance so that the horse could last all day hunting or for long trail rides. There was a LOT of hacking on the trails at all three gaits, and if the rider was lucky there were plenty of hills. The horses started hacking mostly at the walk with the other gaits added as the horse’s wind and endurance improved, but a lot of the time spent hacking was at the walk even with advanced horses.
Horses at a walk are usually are calm, relaxed horses. They are going slow enough so that they can look around calmly, learn what “normal” is in an environment, and get used to all the scary things gradually. As horses speed up they stiffen many muscles as this is the most efficient way for them to go faster. As the muscles stiffen the horse’s reactions change and shies are quicker to occur (usually), faster, and with quicker changes of acceleration. After all, since the horse is going faster that scary monster in front of him is growing big rapidly, obviously much more dangerous a being than if it had been approached at a walk, or if the scary thing is behind him well, the horse is already going fast and it does not take as much energy to go much faster. Yes, horses shy at a walk, but most horses I’ve ridden are better about shying at a walk, and if they do shy the shies are more easily ridden.
Horses can also learn the language of the aids much more quickly at a walk. They can learn to go faster or slower by extending or collecting their stride, they can learn to move to the side while going forward, they can learn the meanings of a single rein in its several manifestations, they can learn the meaning of both reins being used at once, and the same with the various single leg aids and using both legs at once. They can do all of this without also being worried about tripping and falling down, and since they are calmer at a walk they can pay much more attention to their riders. When horses go faster they are concentrating on the trail, the ground, their legs, monsters, the wind, that rustle in the bushes, and they often tune out the rider, until they have traveled enough miles so the trail, field, or ring become normal and not as exciting.
But people think that they really NEED to make the horse go faster in order to build the horse’s muscles, bone, wind and endurance. We live in a culture that values work, and we assume that the horses need to work just as hard as we do, and we also assume that no useful work could possibly happen at the leisurely walk. This mind set on the part of the rider can lead to the horse being pushed too hard early in its riding career instead of being allowed to leisurely build muscular strength.
p. 62 “For aerobic exercise to be effective, it must be done continuously for at least 30 to 60 minutes. According to experts in the field of exercise physiology, three to four miles of walking will produce the same aerobic benefits as one mile of running. Walking a horse at a comfortable speed using a pony lead (without carrying a rider) may increase heart rate 40 to 50% above normal heart rate.”
p. 64 “Even though walking is a lower-intensity activity than galloping, similar development takes place, provided the walking is done often and for long periods.”
I was taught that a good Thoroughbred would “normally” walk at about 4 mph, so one hour of walking would equal 4 miles of ground covered. This is an ideal of course. I have had Arabs that could walk even faster than that without pressing them on, on the other hand I have had taller horses that, because of their conformation, could not walk comfortably above 2 ½ to 3 mph. The trainer has to make allowances for this, walking longer with the slower walking horse to get the aerobic benefits. I have found that horses that are rectangular, with shorter legs, often have faster walks than horses that are more square, with longer legs, who tend to forge when pushed into a faster walk. If you are fortunate enough to have hills then you get even more aerobic effects going up and down hill even if the horse is going slower than on the flat.
One of the best things about using the walk for equine physical fitness is that the walk puts a lot less strain on the legs. At the walk the rider can go just about anywhere, over rocky ground, on pavement, through deep mud and on all those footings that can cause a horse to go lame when he goes at a faster gait. The slower walk, especially on a loose rein, gives the horse plenty of time to decide the safest places to put his feet, thus the horse learns to be responsible for his own feet. This helps strengthen the physical fiber of the legs gradually, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and bones, and as the tissues of the legs get stronger it is less likely that the horse’s legs will become injured by riding him.
p. 66 “Walking as a form of exercising offers the following benefits:
1. Lower resting heart rate.
2. Faster return of heart rate to normal after exercise.
3. Improve efficiency and capacity of the lungs.
4. Increased blood volume and oxygen-carrying capacity.
5. Increased flexibility of the blood vessels and expansion of the arteries.
6. Improved maximum cardiac output.
All of these changes mean that the exercised heart works more efficiently. In turn, there is an improve conditioning effect (increased maximum oxygen consumption) that allows the heart muscles to withstand changes, such as a decrease in circulation and oxygen.”
So why do not more riders walk more of the time? I think part of the reason is that when people take riding lessons they are made to go in the faster gaits so that they can learn to ride them securely, and so that the beginning rider will develop the necessary riding muscles faster. Besides, how many people will eagerly pay for an hour of just walking? Walking is not fast, walking is not exciting, riding a horse at a walk is not a challenge, and very few people spent their youth dreaming of walking their horse across the fields. They dream of galloping with the wind in their face.
Training a horse is not a race to the finish wire, going fast will not get you to your goal any sooner, in fact because of the increased risk of injury at the faster gaits the trainer may well have to spend more time training the horse if the faster gaits are introduced too early. It can take weeks or months for injuries to heal, weeks or months of NO PROGRESS. A horse who has just been mounted needs a lot of riding and TIME to build up his back muscles so that they are strong enough to comfortably carry the rider, and to build up his legs so they can carry the extra weight of the rider. The horse also needs time to learn the meaning of the aids and how to react to them, and the slower walk gives the horse more time to figure this out and makes it less likely that the horse will trip over his own feet if he moves wrong.
If I was physically able to train a horse to saddle again I would start out with walking, miles and miles of walking over several months. Walking in the ring, walking in fields, and walking on trails. I think that this would pay off over the lifetime of the horse. After a few months the horse will have built up his heart, lungs, muscles and bone and will be physically and mentally ready to go faster.
And after many miles of riding at the walk the horse’s back will be strong enough to comfortably carry the rider, the horse will consider being ridden as a nice calm activity, the horse will have learned to negotiate many different types of ground at leisure, and the tissues in the horse’s legs will have hardened, muscles and tendons will have adapted to the added load, and then the horse will be ready to start trotting and cantering with a fit body. There will be fewer chances of injury or sprains, the horse will not feel overworked so the trot will be a new challenge but not an overly exciting challenge, a challenge that the horse will feel perfectly capable of meeting physically and mentally.
Have a great ride!