One dressage movement that seems to cause more trouble than any other at the lower levels is the ‘free walk’. The free walk movement carries double marks, so the better you can ride it, the more you stand to gain. Here are some tips to help you perfect it.
What is the ‘free walk’?
In dressage tests, the free walk can be performed across the diagonal line or around a circle.
The free walk is a gait of total relaxation. The horse should be allowed the freedom to lengthen his whole frame; lower his head and neck to stretch forward down and round into the contact. His poll is lower than his withers and his strides lengthen until he clearly overtracks; there is no tension in his body.
A smooth transition back to medium walk is important too. The horse should quietly accept the bit, shorten his frame and march calmly forward.
If the horse is not really working forward from the rider’s leg into the bridle, he will often raise his head the moment the reins are released. Rather than stretching for the contact, the horse will look around him, slow down and come totally off the aids. Sometimes a horse will throw his head around, snatch at the bit or tuck his head into his chest; all of these are serious faults.
The horse should continue to march forward. Some lazy horses will almost grind to a complete standstill as soon as the reins are released as they anticipate the end of the work; this is why you should never finish every schooling session with a free walk before patting your horse and dismounting.
If the horse is tense and tight through his body, he will often lose the clear rhythm of the walk and will take short strides, rather than overtracking. On the take-back to medium walk, a tense horse will often jog, come against the hand and open his mouth or become crooked.
How to ride a good free walk
Like all dressage exercises, preparation is the key to a good free walk. As you ride along the short side of the arena in medium walk, give connecting aids. Ride your horse forward from both legs and close your outside hand to capture and contain the energy your leg is creating and recycle it back to the hind legs.
Keep these aids on for a few seconds and squeeze and release with your inside hand to stop the horse bending his neck to the outside.
As you ride onto the diagonal, release the contact and open your fingers to allow the horse to smoothly take the rein from you, keeping your legs quietly wrapped around him to maintain the impulsion.
The transition back to medium walk
In essence the aids for the transition back are the same as for the free walk. Whilst the reins are still long, put your leg on a little more strongly. As you shorten your reins, close your outside hand and ask the horse to soften with the new inside one.
If your horse is inclined to jog or speed up into the transition, try riding a halt before asking him to walk on again. If you repeat this a few times, he’ll soon get the idea that he’s to settle down and stay in the walk. Unfortunately, some dressage tests ask for a direct transition to canter from the medium walk and this is usually when problems arise as horses anticipate the canter transition.
It’s well-worth taking the time to practice the free walk exercise and it’s a great tool to use when teaching a tense horse to relax. Ride it a few times during each schooling session and follow up with some trot or canter work so that your horse doesn’t begin to associate the free walk with the end of class for the day!