“I heard that in the academic art of riding, you only walk with your horses, like forever?”
This is a question I get very often from students.
First, you are free to train your horse as you like and there is no rule that you are not allowed to trot and canter . But it is true that especially in the beginning of the education of horse and rider, we use the walk a lot. Let me explain why this is a good idea.
One thing is, and that’s maybe the most important, that you yourself have to learn a lot. To see when the horse gets out of balance, to know the right moment when to apply an aid, to get the right feeling for when it is correct, to learn how to teach the horse the side movements. How to use your body (both from the ground and in the saddle) so as not to disturb the horse and to learn how to feel into the horse and know what’s happening. And there the walk is suited best because things happen not so fast as in trot. You have the time to feel, look, think. You can learn how to influence each leg of the horse separately as the walk is a four beat.
Then, we first work on balance, suppleness and shape. And there most horses already have trouble in walk to be relaxed, to have a good balance on their four feet, to use their hip in the right way, to find the correct stellning and bending and rotation of the rib cage. When we add tempo too early, the horse just gets stiff and we will not be able to help him much, especially when we don’t have a basis in walk that we can return to, restore balance, suppleness and shape, and try again. In addition, the horse also first has to learn a lot of aids, because we want the horse to be responding to these aids with the correct understanding and not just react for some pressure or pull. Horses also learn best when they have time to think about their feet. When they are struggling with balance, there is not much surplus to pay attention to your aid and you have to push and pull.
When I’m travelling around stables, I see many riders that do a 10min walk on the loose rein (a lot of them are checking their phones in that time!), then start the trot and mostly work in trot. The horses don’t have a good response to the aids and they also don’t have good balance. They are struggling with their natural asymmetry and cannot even go in balance through a corner (they are often leaning over the inside front leg). The hind legs are not prepared well enough to grab forward under the center of mass and support the horse’s and rider’s weight, and thus the horses are heavy on the shoulder, heavy on the hand, and mostly just push through exercises without thinking and without using their backs. This kind of training is not very beneficial as from this situation, it is hard to get into a soft communication with the horse and we also train the wrong muscles. The riders mostly use a lot of secondary aids (hand, leg) and very little seat.
Then improvements often take years and years, if they come at all. Exercises like piaffe seem like something for only the very talented riders and horses.
If, on the other hand, we invest some time for learning, it might seem like a long time to train only in walk let’s say for half a year, but in the long run, it’s actually much faster. And there WE take a lot longer to learn than the horses, to be honest. So it is actually because of the students that I work so much in walk in the beginning, because they have to learn the technique and the feel. But the good news is that you only invest this time once. I remember very well when during my first internships I was wondering when we will start the trot work. But then whenever I tried it on my own, it just felt stiff, both from my side and the horses. So I had to admit that I wasn’t ready. When we think of the life span of a horse, then a few months, or even a year, is not a very long time. It is certainly a short time compared to the length of our lives.
Moreover, many riders have this idea of “work” when it comes to horse riding. There should be lots of trotting and cantering and it’s good when everyone is tired and a bit sweaty after the training. It is not my idea of training and especially not of learning and I think it is a leftover of the military tradition.
And if you need to move your horse to get rid of excess energy? Then you might have to think about the way he is kept and he might not get enough paddock time or incentive to move. It is not normal that horses need to run every day for 45min in order to feel ok. Yes even a horse that lives on a paddock trail might have phases where he needs to move more, such as in spring or during stormy weather. But if we always make our horse run, then this is what he will come to expect when working with humans. On the other hand, when he learns to listen, to think, and use his body very consciously, then he will do that when we are together with him.
If we want to ride horses, then we should do it in a way that is not harmful for them. They should learnt to carry us with a strong back and lifted chest. It should be fun for both of us, and there we have to have an honest look in the mirror sometimes if we want to do something because we think it’s fun, because we treat horse riding like a gym exercise, or if it would be beneficial for the horse. In the best case, of course, it should be both.