What is the school walk? Why is it useful? And how do we educate it?
We distinguish between the natural walk and the schooled walk. The natural walk is a four beat. The sequence of the legs is inside hind, inside front, outside hind, outside front. You can remember “same side but not at the same time” (in German: “gleichseitig, aber nicht gleichzeitig”).
What we see in the modern sport dressage is not collected walk but amble. This means the walk gets lateralised, the lateral pairs of legs move relatively fast after each other. You can observe this very well in competitions. This means, that the back is not swinging correctly and the horse is keeping the back tense, and this is not a collected walk but a destroyed walk. If a horse has a tendency to lateralise the walk, shoulder-in helps a lot, but also easing up on the reins.
When we collect the walk more and more, it becomes a two beat. Also called school walk. The sequence of legs is inside hind + outside front, then inside front + outside hind. Through the swinging of the spine, the power of the inside hind leg is directly transferred to the diagonal shoulder.
But also in a normal walk, the diagonal is important. In a correct bending, the inside hip moves forward and down, which leads to a rotation of the rib cage up on the outside (and down on the inside), which also takes the outside shoulder up. Often, the shoulder is blocking the rib cage rotation and thus the forward step of the hind legs (because the hip is connected to the spine, which is connected to the rib cage). Which means a soft, well balanced shoulder helps the forward step. At the same time, a better forward of the hind legs helps to lift the shoulder. At which end we start depends on the horse.
Acceleration and deceleration
Acceleration is the forward push of mass, and deceleration the slowing down of mass. When a horse moves, it accelerates body mass through pushing the legs back. The joints are opening. Then the leg travels through the air and when it hits the ground, body mass is decelerated. The joints are closing. In dressage, we call it push and carry. We want that the horse decelerates body mass with the hind legs. Why? Because the hind legs are well equipped for that, with big joins that can bend well. The front legs also have the shoulder joint, but as you might know, only soft tissue connects the shoulder blade to the rib cage (the thoracic sling). When there is too much push from behind and the horse has not learned to carry its own chest well, the chest actually sinks down between the shoulder blades, causing a whole cascade of unfortunate events in the horse’s body (look up “topline syndrome”).
How can you tell if a horse decelerates with the front legs or with the hind legs?
One can see it in the shoulder: look at how far the front leg reaches under the stomach. A horse who decelerated with the front legs pushes the front legs far under the belly, into the center of mass, where we would actually like a hind leg to step (so that hind leg can support the rider’s weight). When the hind legs start to take over more of that, the front legs stay more vertical. More freedom in the outside shoulder is absolutely essential for correct self-carriage. When the outside shoulder gets more lifted and forward, then this front leg steps better forward and does less deceleration. A better lift of the outside shoulder can be achieved through a better stepping under of the inside hind leg (which means the hind leg decelerates more).
Many modern horses decelerate by nature more with the front legs. They use the front legs to break the stride and to catch their body mass. Most horses carry about 2/3 of their body mass with the front legs. In itself, that’s not a problem for the horse. It is a totally different story though when we use horses the way we use them: putting a rider on top and riding them around in circles (in the arena, in which the horse has to master each corner just like a circle). The horse will carry the additional weight of the rider with its front legs as well, because this is its habit. Moreover, it will carry most of that weight with its preferred front leg, hence overloading that leg and the shoulder in general. Add the physical forces on the circle and in corners, and bigger physical forces in trot and canter, and you make it really difficult and actually harmful for the horse. That’s why we see so many horses with tendon problems.
How do we solve this? We educate horses from the ground first and teach them, how to carry better with the hind legs and how to distribute their own weight more evenly. When they have learned to carry their own chest and their own body well, and to deal with the physical forces on their own, they have a good chance to carry a rider well and to not injure themselves.
How do we teach the horse? We educate a correct bend on the circle and correct side movements. Through the side movements, we teach horses to decelerate, meaning carry, more with the hind legs and to not do that with the front legs.
A question I receive very often at the moment is: How to teach the school walk?
Collecting the walk should be a natural development and should not be rushed. I’m not a fan of putting the horse up against the wall and making it step on the place. Why? Because it can be very stressful for the horse and probably we will just bring it more on the shoulder. Have a look at so called piaffe training videos and observe the hind quarter. Does the hind quarter actually lower, which means taking up more weight? Or does the croup hop up? Are the front legs vertical or do they reach back? Which is another sign that the horse is not picking up the weight in behind and pushes onto the shoulder. Does the hip actually lower when the horse lifts a hind legs? What you mostly see is the same side hip being lifted when the horse lifts the legs. This is not correct. And then what should the purpose of that be? Satisfying our ego? Because the horse has no benefits from it.
The school walk can be a great way to introduce more collection to the horse in a gentle way. But it takes time. We educate the horse in all the side movements first: shoulder-in, quarters-in, half-pass, pirouette, renvers-turn (pirouette reversé). As the horse becomes more collected – in a natural way – through these exercises, you will see the school walk arising on its own. Because it is a natural development when the horse is allowed time to develop the bodily structures which are needed for collection.
Then, we can use the school walk to educate half-steps and piaffe. In a way which doesn’t stress the horse and helps him with better self-carriage. Which is the actual goal of dressage.
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