When we talk about basic paces, we are talking about the paces a horse has been given by nature. The idea is to maintain their purity, and then improve them under saddle. Many riders lose the purity of the paces because their horse doesn’t go properly through, and on the bit. The rider’s driving aids are insufficient and the horse never allows the half halt to flow through its body. The horses develop a block somewhere, the neck, the back, the mouth, wherever, and that takes away the freedom of the pace. The horse becomes restricted through the rider’s aids, rather than enhanced in his paces through the rider’s aids. ‘Through’ is not a hard concept.
You see many horses which pick up a bridle lameness; this is an indication of resisting the aids. Through means the rein aid must flow in a circle-type pattern through the body of the horse without any interference. The rein aid must meet no block or any resistance in between: it must control the tempo, enhance collection, but it must never stop the fluency of the basic paces. With most riders, the rein starts to act like a hand brake, their rein aid goes backwards, rather than allowing the horse to go forward. I find resistance in a horse is always related to the talent of the rider and their standard of riding; I do not find these problems with the good riders. Too many people are not aware that it is normal for the horse to resent something new.
We have to change a horse’s frame, because the frame required to move in the paddock is not the same as the frame the horse needs to carry our weight and to compete. Even from day one, when you put your first halter on the little foal, there is a resistance. Many riders are not talented or skilled enough to immediately work out a way to approach resistances. Wait a bit longer or immediately correct it? We need to consider the training scale. For example, the horse Finnigan we have here, when we saw the first step of passage which he offered to do, it wasn’t even. We immediately stopped and concentrated on working on rhythm. No rider must ever ask a horse to do an exercise which causes loss of rhythm.
The emphasis must always be on maintaining the basic pace and the rhythm, because that is what the judges look for; irregularity has no place in dressage. Irregularity comes through bridle lameness which is caused by weakness, the wrong build up of muscles, bad riding, overfacing the horse, you name it. Some horses are more sensitive than others. Some can cope with bad riders very well and keep going strongly along, but good horses are more sensitive and responsive. We can start by thinking about the walk. I find many people ride the walk on a nice long rein, which is fine. But when those riders start to ride tests that call for a medium walk, a collected walk, the walks suddenly lose the clarity of the four beat. My assessment over the years is that this problem is getting worse. Riders don’t ride horses through in walk.
Horses must be able to walk in any frame, through to collection without losing the clarity of the stride. When a rider feels the horse is offering a bad walk, they usually ride on a loose rein again, and then when they pick the horse up again the same thing happens. We ride the horse through the shorter rein, to develop the flow through of the half halt, the suppleness of the neck, to develop the acceptance of position while still maintaining the purity of the walk. I believe the walk can be improved with good riding at any time, but not on a long rein alone, because you will come back to the same problem.
What is a good walk? That’s a problem I have here in Australia. When I ask riders for the sequence of walk they all start with the hind leg to move the walk off. I start with the front leg as it is in the books by the European Masters. What the horse really does is put the weight on the hind leg and push itself forward, this makes the foreleg start as number one; no horse moves the hindleg first in walk. If a horse starts off with the hindleg first, it means the horse is not pushed from behind into a forward walk. It’s the same in canter, the outside leg is just used with a little spring in it to activate the canter and push the horse forward in front. That’s where people don’t understand the paces, why the horse moves in front. The walk sequence is inside front, outside hind, outside front, inside hind. People are being told the wrong thing, which doesn’t help them understand the walk. I look for more expression in the front leg, like in passage, in the transition from walk to trot. I look for more in front – how much elevation and forward ground the horse covers immediately. It’s always the hindleg that creates the movement of the front. I look for a nice regular four beat in walk, with a good overstep, a normal overstep – not too great, as this can sometimes create difficulties.
The biggest problem in walk is that horses start to pace when the rider asks for collection. This problem occurs because riders don’t understand that in collected walk the judge just doesn’t look for shortened strides. The horse can still step well into his footprints depending on his natural walk – even a bit over – as long as it is collected, active, and has a collected walk frame, has a more arched neck. The picture we are looking for is collection with activity, and is not to be confused with shorter strides. In the past there always was more emphasis on short strides, and it ruined many horses, because it asked for more than their ability to shorten while still maintaining the clarity of the gait.
Many horses who don’t accept the bridle in the correct way and don’t go through, will block in the back and start to pace or lose the regularity of the walk. In collected walk you look for the most possible collection the horse can give you without disturbing the sequence of the walk. We have collected walk, medium walk, extended walk and free walk (on a loose rein). In extension you look for the most overtrack the horse can give you by nature, while it still remains on the bit, the highest point is the poll, less arched neck, frame a bit longer.
Medium walk is the normal walk, the walk you use when you are walking around! It used to be called working walk. You look also for a nice overstep; not as extreme, the horse may be a touch less long in the frame. At any walk the highest point remains the poll, and with the horse’s forehead a touch in front of the vertical. In free walk, the horse can go free and stretch down and be completely relaxed in himself. The neck becomes longer and lower. A horse can have his head between his front legs and it is never behind the vertical. The important thing is the angle between the head and neck, and this must be right.
Go to The Dressage Basics with Clemens Dierks: Part 3 – The Trot