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Western Dressage – Create balance through the walk. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

January 26, 2020

The walk is an important and often overlooked gait in our daily training, quite often being relegated to the rest period between working jog or lope work. By spending more time training in the walk we can greatly improve the other gaits as well as lateral work and also improve dressage scores as much of the tests are in walk, especially in the lower levels.

The walk has a four-beat rhythm (often referred to as a “marching” rhythm). As with the other gaits there are gaits within the walk. In western dressage the first walk introduced is the Working Walk. This is an energetic, but relaxed, walk in soft contact. The hoof prints of the hind feet will step into or slightly in front of the front hoof prints. The Free Walk is a relaxation walk where the horse is allowed freedom to stretch the neck forward and down with a stride that reaches forward covering ground, the hind steps clearly reaching in front of the front hoof prints. This is not a faster walk, but a longer strided walk. The Collected Walk is a walk performed in contact with the neck raised and arched in self-carriage. The hind legs take more weight with the steps covering less ground, but are higher stepping. This walk is introduced in Level 2.

An exercise we were introduced to years ago that we have found helps the walk tremendously is to change to a slower tempo in the walk. This acts to connect the horse more through from back to front and enables the rider to detect when the horse’s body is out of alignment quicker.


Notice how the horse is pushing forward into the bridle. The muscles in the neck are more noticeable behind the poll rather than along the entire neck.

Start by riding a 20 metre circle. Have the horse in a working walk in light contact. To slow the tempo of the walk use your body by not allowing the hips to follow the walk as much. Use the idea of kneeling into your knees to create more contact with your seat and legs to both support and slow the horse. The lower leg will maintain contact so the horse continues to push forward from the hind end. The hands will maintain contact to ask for smaller steps. Essentially you will be making your horse’s body shorter from back to front as the hind legs step a little further under and the hands prevent the neck from reaching as far forward. Continue to allow your hands/elbows to follow the motion of the walk, even though the follow won’t be as big as in the working walk.

Be careful not to pull the reins back to shorten the steps. If the “ask” comes from the hands only (front to back), then the horse will slow the front end, but the hind legs will be left behind. Use your seat and weight aids to ask the horse to slow the tempo. Instead of a backward pull with the hands you can lift the reins slightly to or slightly above the level of the saddle horn. The combination of the weight aids and the reins lifting shifts the weight to the horse’s hind legs.

To begin with only shorten the steps for a few strides then allow the horse to move forward again as a reward. Keep the horse in contact and think about the distinct four-beat rhythm of the walk. If the horse needs more forward energy use your legs alternately with the swinging rhythm of the barrel to encourage a more forward pace. As the ribcage is swinging away from the leg press with that leg. When the ribs swing back press with the other leg. This alternating rhythm encourages each hind leg to step further under the body as the rider’s leg presses. See if you can work up to one full circle each direction with the slower tempo.

If you find your horse gets tense or stiff as you ask for the smaller steps and slower tempo you can add a little leg yield out of the circle to supple the horse. When you are feeling tension the horse is lacking suppleness through his body to be able to lift his back to allow for the slower, shorter steps. You can also work on left/right flexion through the neck and rib cage by subtly flexing the horse’s nose to the left while asking the horse to leg yield away from the left leg. After a couple of steps change to the right and leg yield away from the right leg. When riding a circle you can do these changes of flexion in a very subtle way and make the leg yield steps very small and only for a step or two. The goal is not big movements, but to loosen up the body.


In this picture you can see how much higher the horse is stepping, also elevating the neck. Notice how the muscles of the neck are ‘on’ down the line of the neck. The rider could soften her hand slightly to prevent the horse coming slightly behind the vertical.

Another way to help your horse get the idea of the exercise is to set up some walk-over poles. By setting the poles slightly shorter than the horse’s usual walk stride he will start to get the idea to shift back and shorten his steps. Again if working on a circle you could set 4 to 5 poles in a shortened length and then on the other side of the circle set 4 to 5 poles in a slightly lengthened position.

Once your horse is able to do a slow walk on bending lines, ask for a slow walk on straight lines. Always make sure not to compromise relaxation.

Changing the length of the horse’s steps develops the horse’s ability to maintain balance and connection. With improved balance comes improved transitions and lateral work at all levels.

Note: when placing the poles for this exercise the shorter steps can be set at 18 inches to two feet. A longer stride could be set from two feet to three feet depending on the horse’s natural stride.

Even though this is a western dressage article, any horse, from any discipline will benefit from the exercise. The horse in the photos competes in both Western and English events.

Photos by Rianne Eeltink. Rider Kyra Tyerman. Horse “Big Texas Dream”

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.

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