How to go from free walk to medium walk without losing contact

How to go from free walk to medium walk without losing contact

Why is this transition so important?

In many dressage tests, the free walk carries a double coefficient, which can make a big difference to the final score.

Part of the elements of the free walk movement is the transition back to the medium walk. This can be a difficult transition, especially in a test environment where tension (from the horse, the rider, or both!) can creep in.

Unfortunately, it is also seen as a "boring" transition by many riders and as a result, it is often not practised nearly enough! During every ride, you will give your horse a number of walk breaks, usually on a free rein. Each time you take up the reins again, it is an opportunity to practise this important and valuable movement.

With enough practice, and by following the advice and tips in this post, you should see consistently good scores in this movement, which is a movement required in every test, all the way up to and including Grand Prix! (Although
at the higher levels, the transition is between extended walk and collected walk.)


Set up a forward walk

The first step is to ensure that you have a marching walk. You want the feeling that your horse is walking with purpose. From the ground, there should be a nice overtrack, where your horse's hind hoofprint touches the ground about 20cm further than the front hoofprint. Your coach, or a person on the ground, can let you know how much overtrack there is.

You also want to feel as though your horse is really swinging their ribcage from side to side, like a barrel suspended between two ropes. You will then know that your horse has a nice, swinging and forward walk.

If you don't set up a forward walk, and your horse is "behind your leg" (this means that when you put your lower leg on to ask for forward, nothing happens), then it is very likely that he will tense his back and raise his head when
you retake the reins.

Keep going on a long rein until your horse responds by taking bigger steps, and swinging their ribcage more, when you apply your lower leg. Ideally, you use your legs on each alternating side in the walk, in time with the horse's
footsteps. But to begin with, you can use your legs together if you're not sure of the timing.

You don't need to worry about contact at all until your horse responds well to the forward aid, but once you have a good response, it's time for the next step.


Establish a following rein connection

In the walk, the horse moves their head and neck significantly with each stride. This is even more pronounced in free walk than in the medium walk or collected walk (they also move their heads and necks in canter, but not in trot).

What this means is that in order to establish a following contact, your hands and arms must move as well. If you keep your hands completely still, then they will inevitably catch your horse in the mouth when she wants to stretch her
neck out. Many horses react to this by restricting their own head and neck movement. Unfortunately, by doing so, they are then unable to use their backs properly, and lose the beautiful swinging movement of the walk (a horse's
neck and back and interconnected, and tension in one of those body parts will always transfer to the other).

First rule of contact in the walk then, is that your hands must follow that movement. In practice, this means thinking about your hands moving back and forth, along an imaginary  straight line drawn between the horse's bit and your elbows - the rein will make up most of that line up to your hand, and you have to imagine the last bit of the "line" going through to your elbow. A good tip is: think about the rein as stopping at your elbow, not the rein.

If you are not used to it, it may feel awkward at first, but it will soon become second nature. As you practise this, you may want to start with longer reins at first, with almost no contact, and as the movement becomes easier,
gradually shorten the reins.

Eventually, you then progress from free walk on a loose rein (which may have little or no contact), to free walk on a long rein (which means the horse retains the freedom to stretch out the neck, but you now have a consistent
contact with his mouth).


The transition to medium walk

Now for the trickiest part, although if you've managed to get the previous two steps down pat, this will be much easier!

The important thing to remember is to do this transition gradually! This means you should not start the transition just as you reach the long side, but rather, start the transition as you cross the three-quarter line. This is assuming you're riding on the diagonal as in the test, although of course, you should practise this movement in all different spots in the arena (and even out of it!).

As you already have a forward walk with consistent connection (if not, see steps 1 and 2 above), it is now a matter of shortening your reins and slightly restricting the following movement of your seat, so your horse understands
that it is time to gather herself up.

Start by restricting the following movement of your seat, but only very slightly, as you still want your horse to maintain a swinging back as they return to medium walk. However, this will alert them that something is about to happen, and they won't be surprised when you start to gather your reins.

As you start to gather your reins, do this gradually, about half the length of your closed hand at a time (around five centimetres, although you can do it even more gradually to start with). You also need to keep following the
forward motion of your horse's head and neck, and this can be tricky to do while you are gathering your reins (it is one of those cases in riding where you need to learn to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time!).

Fortunately, it is completely possible, and you just need to practise it until it feels smooth and easy.

Putting it all together


Just remember the three main points:

- A forward, marching walk where your horse is responsive to your leg aids;
- A consistent connection where your hands and arms follow the horse's head and neck;
- Gradually taking up the reins, little by little, while following the movement of the head.

If you're finding either of the last two steps a little difficult, SteadyHands gloves can certainly help. Amongst other things, SteadyHands gloves keeps your hands working as a pair. This makes it easier to feel the movement needed through your arms and elbows to follow the horse's head. Secondly, you will be unable to make big hand movements while wearing SteadyHands gloves (except in an emergency, of course, when the centre release clip will come undone). This will teach you just how gradually you need to gather your reins, and will also help you to retain the forward and back motion as you gather the reins - making it much easier to build those neural pathways which can feel as strange as patting your head while rubbing your tummy!

You can explore the benefits of SteadyHands gloves and purchase them here.

Happy training!

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