So let’s go over the points of the scala in more detail. First the natural rhythm of the gaits. A horse puts his legs down in a certain order in each gate. If he’s restricted by physical problems or by a rider, this rhythm becomes unnatural. If you want to know if the rhythm is pure, you need to know the natural footfall of each gait.
The walk is a four beat movement. Each leg is lifted and put down individually. The front leg is lifted when the hindleg on the same comes near to be put down. If you look from the side, you’ll see the legs make a V shape. The rhythm is compromised when front leg and hind leg on one side are lifted together in a lateral movement.
Problems with the rhythm of the walk occur quickly when the energy can’t flow freely forward over the back. For instance when a rider uses too much hand or restricts the horse in any other way. Or when a horse doesn’t get the chance to finish his stride, which happens when someone pushes him forward too much. A good walk can sometimes feel rather slow to the rider. If this is the case with you, ask someone (who knows) on the side when the walk looks good, regular and active. Try to absorb that feeling in your mind. It might need some repetition.
In walk the contact should feel as if you walk with your horse, hand in hand like with someone you love. It is a nice feeling. A lot of instructors tell you to keep your hands quiet. But if you keep them dead still and the horse moves in motion, the rein will go slack and on, so the bit will move in the mouth. You have to move your hands as much as the horse moves it’s head, so the bit stays in one place. And this movement comes out of your elbows, shoulders and wrists, not out of your fingers. It should be an elastic feeling.
Now if you want to slow down, you can be a bit more firm in your contact. As soon as you get a response, go back to the lighter contact. If you keep holding on too much or you don’t move with the horse, you will interfere with his natural rhythm. If this is compromised, you’ll score very low in a dressage test. If it becomes a habit of a horse to hold itself in the walk and therefore go lateral, it’s hard to fix this. Every time it occurs you should try to get him in a regular pace. Make sure you are elastic in the contact. Try to walk more forward. The horse should move forward-down, into your hand. But sometimes it helps to make the horse slow down a bit more. Be flexible and try what works for you. Go shoulder in of do a little leg yield to get his legs in the right order. Sometimes it helps to walk over some poles.
Never force it
In dressage we know several kinds of walk. In collected walk a horse lifts his legs more up. He’s less forward moving, but the activity should be there. It is definitely not slow. The main thing is the balance, which should be transferred to the hindlegs, so he’s up in the front, with a nice outline and the neck being the highest point. You can’t force this. He can only walk collected if he’s ready to collect, which takes quite a bit of training. Don’t attempt collected walk with a young horse. It takes a few years before he’s strong enough to carry the weight on his hindlegs.
Fool the judge
In medium he is covering more ground, his frame stretched forward and down, while the riders maintains an elastic contact. Don’t let go of the reins. It’s not the same as a free walk. In extended it used to be required to step with a hindfoot as much over the imprint of the front hoof as possible. But nowadays it is not so much about how far a horse can do this, it’s about the difference with the other types of walk he shows. He needs to stretch with a nice relaxed topline as well. And important is that he walks toward something, it should look eager to move forward, never slow or dragging with hindlegs. To fool the judges slightly you can tip your upper body a bit forward while doing medium and extended walk. You free the back a little that way and it give an impression of a more outstretched frame.
Look for suppleness
A good walk is the base of everything. My father used to look at the walk before buying a horse. The rest you can train, he always said. But what is a good walk? The rhythm should be natural of course. I don’t like a short stride. But very big is not automatically good. A horse should be able to collect as well. Sometimes a very big walk is hard to make shorter. My former top horse Davy used to have a huge walk, we always scored very high on extended. And he was so supple it was easy to collect him, so his collected walk was good too.
I always look for elasticity. A horse should be able to vary his stride easily without losing the rhythm. This should stay steady if you change direction or make him go sideways. This only happens when his back is supple. Also I want a horse to look happy and relaxed when he walks. Alert is good, but not tense. Not easy to find horses like that….