A Lively Walk is the Only Way to Travel

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the February 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

When it comes to walking anywhere on horseback, fast-forward at the walk is the way to go. "Walk him right up on the end of his toes," Ray Hunt advises at his clinics. The horses Ray rides can do it and they look terrific. Most of us don't have fast-walking horses, especially if their schedule includes beginning riders. It takes consistent, accurate practice to direct and support a horse so that he can stay comfortable at a fast walk.

Given a choice between a horse that jigs and a horse that plugs along, I'd sooner ride the one that jigs because the "life" is already up on the surface and available. But whether he jigs or dogs along in a lifeless shuffle, to discover his fast walk, you must first get in touch with his forward movement, all the way down through his feet.

My horses don't jig, but I do maintain a "deadsided" school horse. I am grateful for this aggravating quality because it helps first-time riders gain confidence. To an awkward beginner, a more responsive horse would be too responsive.

But here's the rub. This dead-sided mare is also my main riding horse. When I need her "at the ready" with "100 percent forward" available and all she has to offer is a foot dragging shuffle, I need to bring up the life.

To reacquaint her with the feel of my ride, as opposed to the feel that a beginning rider presents to her, I need her attention and to get this, I need to "wake her up." Here is the procedure:

  1. I suggest that she pick up the pace. I ask with my whole seat (fanny and upper thighs). She usually ignores this, but I always give her the benefit of the doubt anyway.
  2. So, right away, I ask once. I squeeze a little with my whole leg or bump her sides lightly with my calves. If you wear spurs, don't let them touch her sides at this point. The amount of pressure I use depends on her sensitivity that day. I try to ask with as little as it takes to get a response.
  3. If she ignores this, I'll ask twice. This is one good firm bump. And that's the last warning she'll get.
  4. If she ignores this, then wham. I let her have it with all I've got--leg, calf, heel and stirrup. I first learned this "wham" part by using both my legs, but lately I've found success with Bill Dorrance's suggestion that using only one leg "is better because it's less confusing to the horse." So far, every horse that I've asked this way agrees.
  5. The horse will usually respond with a leap forward, then trot or lope a few strides. Allow his energy to dissipate over a few strides, then ask (steps 1-4) whenever he slows down below a fast walk without being asked.

Note: When that life comes up, let the horse move out and do not sling backwards in the saddle. Go with the horse or the impact of your full weight in his mouth, even momentarily, will punish him for believing that you meant "go forward with life" when you said so. This will frustrate or frighten the horse and before long he won't trust your legs or your hands, and a sorrier situation between a horse and rider there isn't.

As trial and error improves your timing, the horse will search for something to do with his feet to discourage you from stomping on his ribs. And just about then you should be sailing along smartly at a fast walk that all your riding pals will envy!