I think many inexperienced riders tend to completely forget to ride the walk at home or in competition. They think of it as a nongait or a rest period. Too many times, riders let everything hang out at the walk; the horses fall in a heap as soon as the walk is asked for, and riders don't even realize it. They don't know that their horses are not considering this a gait anymore.
When riders get to a competition, they are now required to show different kinds of walks: working, free, etc., depending on the level. Not only don't they show these different walks, they don't have a walk to begin with. This is evident when horses drag their feet, pull at the reins, toss their heads and stop paying attention because riders have indicated this is a rest period.
As a judge, I often see horses get startled when riders pick up the reins and go on to something else. It takes them 10 to 15 steps before the horse starts to cooperate because he's been in "la-la land" for the walk.
The walk is probably the most difficult gait to deal with when it's not naturally good, and we all are told by various experts, "Just leave the walk alone if it's good." Well, you can't quite just leave it alone. You have to ride the walk. The horse has to be on the aids and have some energy. He has to be focused and listening at the walk for the rider's next command.
Not taking the walk seriously is something we all do until we get burned in a test. Then we go home and school.
At home, school your horse so he accepts the longer and shorter adjusting of the reins. Riding outside the arena on the trails is a great way to school for a better walk, if the natural walk is not so great. Horses are not going to get any better at the walk by riding diagonals in the ring because they know when diagonals begin and end, and they won't give you that forward feeling. Horses know they are not going anywhere except around and around.
Outside the arena, horses want to go somewhere--heading home to the barn, for example--and they want to really stride out. Don't let them run at the walk. Let them slow down and really walk actively on contact. Because they are anxious to march, they'll teach themselves to walk properly on contact.
Be conscious of what you're asking your horses to do and insist they maintain the contact and a certain tempo. Make them go in good rhythm, on contact, and wait for your signals. I think that's the best way to school the walk.
Anne Gribbons is an FEI "I" judge, who has been recommended for "O" status--the highest attainable. She has officiated at many international shows, such as the 2004 World Cup Finals and Olympic Selection Trials. She is involved with the development of Young Riders. As a rider herself, she was a member of the 1995 Pan American silver medal team and finished seventh in the 1995 World Championship Trials. A native of Sweden, she is now based in Chauluota, Fla.
This article first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Dressage Today magazine.