By Bronwen Meredith
Many of us have been told that the walk is an ‘unfixable’ gait and that it is therefore best to leave it untouched. Personally, I don’t believe this and have had success with several horses in at least improving their way of going in the walk. It is true that it is one of the most difficult gaits to fix, but in some cases I believe we have no alternative but to try and make some changes – one of these instances is in the lateral walk.
What is a lateral walk?
A lateral walk is an arrhythmic gait. Walk should be made up of four beats (clip-clop-clip-clop). Instead, in a horse with a lateral walk, the walk has two beats and then a gap and then another two beats (clip-clop GAP clip-clop). This walk is often referred to as a syncopated walk, or a camel walk, due to a camel’s usual walk gait where two legs move almost exactly at the same time, followed by the other two legs. This walk is incorrect, and ultimately can damage a horse’s legs and the tissues within them. It is therefore essential that we look at ways to improve this walk.
TIP: If you are unsure if your horse has a lateral walk, listen to his gait as he walks over a hard surface. Pay attention to the rhythm of the footfalls. Are they regular or irregular?
What causes a lateral walk?
A lateral walk tends to occur in two particular types of horses. Firstly, it often occurs in those horses who have naturally the most scopey walks, when it comes to collecting the gait. Secondly, it occurs in horses with short, tense backs. Ultimately, tension in the back is the overriding physical issue, as asking a horse with a big walk to collect in the walk often leads to large amounts of tension over the topline.
For the legs of the horse to move in the correct sequence, each of the back muscles running on either side of the spine (the longissimus dorsi muscles) must contract and relax alternately. If the back is tense preventing this alternating, rhythmical contraction and relaxation, then the correct neuromuscular sequence cannot occur in the walk, resulting in the disruption of the natural sequence of footfalls in the walk.
The tension in the back muscles may be due to general anxiety or excitability, or a rider using too strong and restrictive rein contact – often in an attempt to get the horse to walk ‘on the bit’. Some horses are more predisposed to developing a lateral walk than others, and in these horses it takes just a tiny bit of tension to elicit the gait.
What can I do to fix it?
The big trick is to ensure that you work on three main things in the walk: connection, flexion and a forwards tendency. Unfortunately, many riders neglect the walk in training, often as they have been told it is best to ‘leave it alone’. In my opinion, the walk needs as much if not more training than the trot and canter, and if your foundation is not there in the walk, it is unlikely that it is really there in the trot or canter.
Connection must be soft and even on both reins. You need to ensure that your horse is straight from back to front through the connection and is not pushing his shoulders or hindquarters in or out. Half-halts can be used to finesse the contact.
Next it is important to establish that you have good flexion to both sides. Your horse should be wrapped around your inside leg, and you should have a direct connection between the rein and the horse’s mouth. It is vital to ensure that your horse is not just bending his neck in flexion but is actually flexing from the poll as well. Avoid overbending the neck in all gaits, as this leads to the shoulder falling out and the quality of the connection being lost.
Once connection and flexion are established, you need to ask the walk forwards. You should never pull a horse downwards into a contact. A horse becomes round when he is connected to you and in-front-of-the-leg. Your horse needs to go forwards freely into your allowing hand. You must not restrain your horse with the rein – he needs to know that he can go forwards in the contact without experiencing resistance from your hand. In every training session it is wise to check several times that your horse remains in-front-of-the-leg. If he is behind-the-leg, he will be unable to perform any movements well. The walk should be ready at all times to burst into canter, piaffe or anything else you may ask for.
TIP: If your horse feels ‘restricted’ or ‘sticky’ in his walk, the most likely issue is your hand or your seat. Check that neither of these is restricting your horse’s gait before looking to causes in the horse.
Once you have the basics of connection, flexion and a forwards tendency established, you should find that your walk is already of a higher quality. At this stage it is worth introducing a few other exercises to work specifically on the lateral element of the gait.
Anything you can do to help your horse relax over the back is beneficial. If your horse needs to walk for a long time on a loose rein before starting to walk in a collected frame, then this is what you must do. Any bending exercises or exercises that lead to your horse stretching over the topline will also be beneficial.
Walking in water
Not many of us have access to a water treadmill, but if you are fortunate enough to have some deep puddles, the sea or other watery areas near you, you can still have a go at asking the horse to walk in the water. It is very difficult for a horse to walk laterally in water. Therefore, by practising walking in water against resistance, it may be possible to retrigger the correct neuromuscular sequence with the muscles in the back – essentially reminding your horse how he should be walking.
Put ground poles close together so that your horse has to focus on lifting his legs rather than stretching them. Once your horse is good at this, you can try to raise some of the poles to make the exercise more challenging. This should break the pattern of a lateral walk.
The Grand Masters in dressage all describe shoulder-in as the optimum way to fix the walk. Shoulder-in requires a horse to be connected, flexed and in-front-of-the-leg. By practising this movement and getting some sideways stepping, it is possible to reset your horse’s neuromuscular pattern and correct the gait.
Transitions are always beneficial and are especially so in correcting a lateral walk. Do plenty of walk-halt transitions. Do not let your horse run in the lateral walk, but instead bring him back to halt using your seat rather than your hands, to avoid adding to the tension with rein pressure. Slowing the horse down and making him sit on his hindquarter by regularly asking for the halt makes it more difficult for him to use the lateral walk.
Take home message
While many consider working in the walk to be dull, I cannot overemphasise its importance. A lateral walk is something you will need to watch for every single time you sit on your horse. On an outride you need to make sure that your horse is moving correctly in a four-beat gait. Remember that the more often your horse gets to walk laterally, the more engrained those neuromuscular habits will become, and the more likely he is to use a lateral walk in future. Therefore you must constantly pay attention to the way your horse walks, and correct it as and when necessary.