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

February 9, 2020

This is a great walk exercise using poles that we learnt from American clinician Jec A. Ballou. It teaches the horse to shift his weight back which gives greater ability to maneuver between working gaits and more collected gaits.

The walk is a very important gait in our daily training and is often overlooked by many riders. We sometimes spend an entire session at the walk doing various exercises that help our horses improve their balance, suppleness, and fitness. Training in the walk can also greatly improve the horse’s other gaits.

With colder temperatures coming up, the walk is also a great gait to exercise your horse while preventing him from sweating. The walk isn’t just for warming up and cooling down!

This exercise requires a certain amount of collection, so your horse should be balanced, supple and accepting of half-halts. Before beginning the exercise be sure to warm up for at least 15 mins in the walk adding some working jog, leg yields, serpentines etc to prepare the horse for the required bend and connection of the exercise. Finish your warmup by having your horse at a free walk, allowing the horse to stretch his neck forward and down with a stride that reaches forward covering ground and the hind steps clearly reaching in front of the front hoof prints.

Set up five poles to create a fan shape. Raise the inside ends of the poles six to eight inches off the ground while the outside ends are sitting directly on the ground. Place the raised ends of the poles so they are two feet apart from each other. The centre of the poles should be four feet apart from each other. The outside edge of the poles should be six feet apart from each other.


The set up. The ends of the poles on the blocks are 2 feet apart and the other end is approximately 6 feet apart.

Begin the exercise by riding your horse in a working walk. Maintain light, soft contact with your horse’s mouth. The hoof prints of the hind feet will step into or slightly in front of the front hoof prints. Align your body with a line towards the outside of the poles asking the horse to take two steps between the poles (poles approx. 6 feet apart). Depending on the horse’s stride this will either be an easy step for the horse, or the horse will need to shorten or lengthen the stride slightly to fit two steps between the poles. The horse’s body will be bent on the half circle line and the rider’s body will also turn onto the line of travel, rotating from the centre.


The horse is walking through in a relaxed frame (Basic Level) taking 2 steps between each pole.

On the next circle ride more toward the center of the poles (approx 4 feet apart). Again ask for two steps between the poles. With the shorter distance and slight rise in the poles the horse will need to shorten his stride to maintain two steps between. To slow the tempo of the walk use your body by not allowing your 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 maintains 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.

Avoid pulling back on the reins to shorten the horse’s steps. This front to back action 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.

After crossing the fifth pole, go back to a working walk while continuing on the circle.

Before reaching the poles again, slow the horse’s walk and decrease your circle so that you will cross over the inner edge of all five poles, aiming to get one step between each pole. With the poles at their highest point the horse will have to lift considerably more while in the slower walk.


Stepping closer to the centre of the poles. The horse is becoming more compact and you can see a little more lift in the step.

Repeat this sequence and stride count a few times in both directions, switching back and forth between a working walk and a slow walk.

As always when riding a circle, look ahead three to four strides, turning your body onto the line of the circle. Your belly button should be aligned with the horse’s bend. Use your inside leg at the girth to maintain the bend in timing with the swing of the horse’s barrel. As the barrel swings out, press with your inside leg. The inside rein maintains the bend and the outside rein supports, preventing the horse from overbending in, or with pressure on the shoulder prevents the horse from drifting out. If the horse drifts out use the outside rein against the neck and outside leg pressure to turn the horse as the horse’s barrel swings in. The inside leg also prevents the horse from falling into the circle. Feel as if you can push the horse from your inside leg into the outside supporting rein. Your horse should stay straight (evenly bent) during this exercise, with his nose in front of the middle of his chest.


The horse has elevated slightly more and has to step higher and bend more on this line. One step between each pole.

Once your horse is able to do a slow walk/working walk on bending lines, ask for a slow walk to working walk on straight lines. Always be 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.

Photos by Gary Wieben.

Rider: Lisa Wieben on Itsa Rio Snazzy Zip

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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