Soft gait with a Walker exists on a continuum.
On the right you have the true trot, on the left the true pace, in the center the running walk. Between them you have a wide variety of timings. The sequence of foot fall does not change; only the timing changes.
Soft gaits are highly malleable, in that they can be altered by rider position, saddle placement, rein pressure, foot angle, shoe weight, etc. Professional trainers in every soft gaited breed know this and use this malleability to their advantage (which may or may not be of advantage to the horse). If a breed is defined by its way of going (TN Walking Horse, Racking Horse, MO Foxtrotter, Paso Fino, etc.) there will be pressure on breeders and trainers to have any given horse perform the signature gait. The Poster Horse for abusive practices remains the Walker, as people in that breed engage in some truly horrific methods to obtain a “running walk.” But as the Walker advocates often point out, they are not alone in their poor practices; they have lots of company.
Because the Walker is defined by its way of going much of the information about gait is oriented to obtaining that gait in the show ring. This makes such information questionable. There’s also a very strong “bunker mentality” in a large part of the Walker world which has developed as public criticism of breeding and training practices has become more common. You’ll often find the “daddy did it that’away” approach is gospel. Like the Bourbon Kings of France these people forget nothing and learn nothing. They often, however, hold forth on what they don’t know.
Lee Ziegler was one of the few genuine, gait experts; I most highly recommend her book. She was much more “catholic” in her approach in that she saw that each horse has its own way of going (determined in the breeding shed) and that the rider has the job of determining what gait is native to the horse and then “polishing” that gait to make it efficient for both horse and rider. This approach is optimal for most pleasure riders. It’s a guaranteed loser in the Walker show ring (unless the job was done right in the breeding shed). But so very much information on gait has its roots in show ring practices it’s very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. It takes some time to learn about equine biomechanics, farrier science, riding science and then apply that knowledge to make intelligent choices. With Walkers there’s no magic “pixie dust” (long toes, action devices, heavy shoes, etc.) that some guru can sprinkle on a horse and make it “do” better. Sadly, there’s a lot of if for sale and many get taken when they buy it.
If a rider wants to make their Walker gait “better” they must first define “better.” That’s a “mush” word and reflects prejudice more than fact. If a rider wants to make their Walker smoother or better conditioned or “correct” (as in closer to defined standard of movement) these can be objectively determined. Some things a rider can do with any soft gaited horse, Including Walkers, to make the horse more comfortable and useful:
First, determine that basic husbandry is being correctly done. A horse that’s being fed crap hay, has poorly done feet, or is not properly groomed starts off at a disadvantage.
Second, ensure that tack is correctly fitted and adjusted. As noted saddle position, brindle tightness, etc. can alter the native soft gait. Before intentional alteration is tried find out what is being changed.
Third, the rider has to learn to ride. Go to a trail ride with lots of gaited horses and you’ll see plenty ridden by what’s best described as the “old sack of wheat” rider. They’re not riding, they’re just sitting there. They are often devotees of the “kick and jerk” school of equitation. You can imagine how this will affect way of going.
Fourth, the horse must be properly conditioned. The soft gaits all require more strength and fitness than the trot. This means they must be ridden several times per week to maintain the ability to perform their intermediate gait. The work need not be much more than 30 minutes, but that time is essential. A field kept horse might need a bit less, a stall kept horse a bit more. But when I hear a “weekend warrior” complain “my horse would not gait on our three hour trail ride last Saturday” and then I find out that this was the first time the horse was ridden a month or so my response is, “well, DUH!!!”
Fifth, the rider should have some goals beyond not getting dumped. By challenging themselves to learn something new each month or so the rider will improve their own skills and the skills and fitness of their horse. It need not be an “earth shattering” thing; it can be as simple as learning to take one step at a time in any direction. Or maybe opening and closing a gate without dismounting (actually this is an excellent exercise as it has a bunch of parts; maybe this one is earth shattering). But you get the idea.
Walkers, and other soft gaited horses, are often sold to people with the promise that they are so easy to ride the rider need not develop any real equitation skills. This is a half truth. Many soft gaited horses are exactly that. But if the rider accepts this then they are putting a big limit upon themselves and the horse. They can do this if they want (it’s their horse) but when they begin to complain about equine performance you’ve got to say “go look in the mirror” to find the source of their problems. If they’ve drunk the “bunker mentality kool aid” of their particular breed or type this answer is not well received.
Lee Zigler’s book is an excellent place to begin. Then the rider can build on what they learn.
From the OP’s signature I’m going to presume that they have, in fact, a set of sound equitation skills and that they know about general conditioning and husbandry. With a Walker you don’t want to “collect” the horse as you would a trotter, but rather want to “contain” it within its normal way of going. If you bascule the horse then you’ll lose the gait and gain a trot. If the horse is “strung out” you’ll lose the impulsion from the rear. Many Walkers are trained to hand and seat only and know nothing about the leg; except that the leg has a spur attached. Meaning that the first time to use a spur-less leg you might get a “reaction.” This can be handled with some training. Most Walkers are ridden in curb bits with shanks as long as 9 ½ inches. Transitioning to a lighter bit is not a big deal, but is best done in the school and will take a week or so of regular work to accomplish. Many Walkers have very long toes as that makes a lateral gait smoother; it also greatly stresses the horse. Have the horse trimmed to anatomical correctness to find out what its native gait is. Many Walkers have very heavy plantation shoes (that can be legally as heavy as 48 oz.). If the horse needs shoes use a standard keg shoe (like a St. Croix Eventer).
The Walker can be a good horse, but can also be pretty screwed up by its human connections. Take the time to evaluate it. Good luck in that evaluation.