Let's start with a question! .... What is a good walk?
Before we even mention the words ground-pole or Cavaletti; let's stop and take a quick look at the bio-mechanics involved with the vastly underappreciated gait that is "the walk"!
When was the last time you watched a horse in walk? ... do you even know what a "good" walk consists of? ... or why it's so beneficial to your horse?
A good walk is a thing of beauty! One of the best analogies I've heard compares a good quality walk against a Panther prowling through a forest!!... The reason I think this mental-imagery of a big cat is so fantastic is because it conjures up a picture of an animal that is graceful, fluid and completely relaxed in it's motion! We can all see the dormant power lurking beneath, but the cat has it fully contained within that flawless pace which makes it so mesmerising to watch! The take home message from this analogy is that the equine locomotion of a good walk is all about freely moving shoulders, free & equal swing of the pelvis and effortless spinal mobility.... so be sure to think "Panther" next time you ride a horse in walk, at the very least it will make you smile in your dressage test!!!
Have you heard of the adage that " the walk is probably the most difficult gait to work on & the easiest to destroy"
What is extremely important with the walk is for it to be ridden correctly from the beginning as it is the foundation of all training; unfortunately it is very easy to influence the walk in a negative way through incorrect training & riding. The two main pitfalls are:
- Too much leg: This can result in a rushed and ugly walk which forces the horse to take quicker strides, losing their rhythm , stiffen their backs and lose the fluidity & regularity of the walk
- Rigid or strong hands: This will restrict the movement of the horse & interfere with the horses frame, impeding both mobility & regularity
So what's so special about walk? ...
The main thing that is completely unique to walk is that there is no moment of suspension ie "hang time" or "air time"! There is always at least one hoof on the ground at any point in time. What this means is that you can't improve your horses walk by cheating and simply adding more energy; the quality of the gait has to be built on foundations of flexibility and range of motion within the hip-joint, pelvis and back (as well as a free & unrestricted shoulder). As a qualified ESMT, the walk is my absolute favourite gait for assessing horses, if I don't see a free & even swing of the shoulders & pelvis in walk, then I'll instantly be wanting to know what's causing the restriction and why.
What's fascinating (& I think possibly the most under-appreciated fact) is that the overall effect of walk involves a considerably larger range of motion within the vertebrae of the spine than in any other gait?! ... and when we come to fully appreciate this we can 100% embrace it and use it to our (and our horses) advantage! Why aren't we spending more time in walk if it mobilises the spine more than trot or canter? Perhaps we should be getting more tactical with our warm-up and warm-downs in order to take full advantage of this fact?
Let's have a think about our warm-up routines; we all know that the walk is an essential part of preparing to work a horse in order to avoid soundness issues; but why? Do you know that it's not only the soft tissues that needs time to warm up but also the synovial (joint) fluid within all your horses main concussive joints. When cold the synovial fluid resembles a thick gel or paste, and it needs time to warm up in order to become more fluid and function correctly as a lubricant and allow the joints to function correctly & without damage.
One of my favourite things to do whilst warming up before a session is plenty of lateral work in the walk! This is not only superb for improving your horses suppleness but also for nailing the accuracy & quality of the movements; it gives the horse time to analyse the aids involved and provide the correct response! ... because let's face it... if it doesn't go well in walk.. it's going to be a train-wreck in trot or canter! Another thing I thoroughly approve of which can be integrated into the walk-phase of your warm-up is encouraging the horse to stretch his neck down & nose forward; this allows the back muscles to progressively stretch & warm up as the horses core engages.
Because let's face it... if it doesn't go well in walk.. it's going to be a train-wreck in trot or canter!
One of the biggest benefits of the (correct) walk is that it is an excellent gait to permit the horse to release tension "hot-spots" in the back, constantly improving spinal flexion & mobility which is why it's so popular in rehabilitation. This is one of the reasons why it's so important to return the horse to the long/low extended frame in between periods of more active & demanding work; offering the horse a chance to stretch & avoid over-using (fatiguing) local muscle groups.
So what happens when we add ground-poles to the equation? ...
Let's have a quick overview of the bio-mechanics involved; for a horse to successfully walk over any obstacle it is necessary for them to stabilise their back and use their core muscles, physically lifting each leg over the obstacle as opposed to "springing" as they would in trot or canter (remember the lack of a moment of suspension I mentioned at the beginning of this blog!). As the poles are raised in height, this effort is further amplified, requiring more musculature control, you will also see the horse lower his head in order to focus, balance and help stabilise & extend the spine through the use of their spinal ligament system.
One interesting thing that I didn't fully appreciate until I started riding these exercises was the increased motion of the"roll" along the axis of the spine. Remembering that even at a normal walk with no poles you still have significantly more range of motion within the spinal vertebrae that in any other gait! With the addition of the poles this is definitely noticeable and you can really feel yourself move from side to side as the horse rolls his trunk in order to raise each leg in turn, it's an amazing feeling!!... and just think about the spinal mobility you're creating that you would never be able to achieve otherwise!
- Walk poles should be spaced anywhere between 0.7-1m depending on the stride-length of your horse, be aware that as you raise the height of the poles you may need to "shorten" the distance between them.
- With regard to how high you can take a walk pole, my rule of thumb is to not exceed the height of the horses knee but if you can walk over it then your horse should be able to manage it!
- Starting the exercise "in-hand" is always a good option as it allows the horse to figure out the question and work out how to successfully navigate the obstacle without any interference of the rider.
- If you do want to progress to riding these exercises then I would suggest you walk over the poles on a loose rein allowing the horse to lower his head, don't be tempted to rush the horse, sit quietly and allow them to find their own way through.
The easiest way to fully appreciate what happens to equine locomotion over walk-poles, is to illustrate it visually , so please do take a look at the KUBLOX® video below. The horse in this clip is very experienced with his pole-work and has exceptional proprioception which is why I'm 100% confident to ride him through this specific exercise. Do remember that this is a "learnt" skill for your horse so if you intend to do similar please take the time to get advice and build up to multiple raised poles slowly and in increments, as it's a lot tougher than it looks.
So what are the benefits of raised walk-poles? To put it simply the equine locomotion involved with walking over a raised pole conditions all the muscles required to successfully carry the weight of the rider & assists in reducing stiffness & increasing range of motion within the joints (including inter-vertebral). The therapeutic effects are significant and raised walk poles are commonly integrated into rehabilitation routines in order to help recover horses suffering from sacro-iliac, pelvic & spinal dysfunctions.
Through the use of raised walk poles, we are dictating a pre-determined series of bio-mechanical movements which can be tailored to our horses fitness & ability.
Without the use of poles the horse would never normally get the opportunity to use themselves in this way; certainly not in a safe & constructive manner. This is the reason that correctly performed pole-work exercises have such exciting therapeutic possibilities.