Hi. I'm new to dressage and learned a lot but free walking puzzles me. I've seen other horses almost take the reins out of a rider's hands and lower their head. Is this free walking? As much as I try, my western horse converted to English just doesn't' want to pull the bit down... Are there exercises I can do to better my score on that part of the test? :?
My understanding of the free walk is that the horse is supposed to stretch out on a longer rein but still with contact. The idea is to fish out the reins to the horse so it can elongate it's frame and stretch it's neck forward, but still keeping contact with the rider's hand. At the same time, the hind feet should be stepping into or in front of the prints left by the front feet. The result will be a horse who is stretching it's head both forward and somewhat down, kinda 60/40%. If you just drop the contact and give the horse a loose rein, most likely the horse will just drop it's head into the dirt because there's nothing there to reach into. It will also stop working from behind and no longer overtrack. I'm still playing with how much seat you need to add to get the leg activity the judges are looking for, but just remember to give your horse something to reach into by keeping the contact to some degree. Hope that helps.
Dressage Canada defines the free walk as:
3.4 Free walk
: The free walk is a pace of relaxation in which the horse is allowed complete freedom to lower and stretch out his head and neck. The degree of ground cover and length of strides, with hind feet stepping clearly in front of the footprints of the front feet, are essential to the quality of the free walk.
I've always been taught to go right to the buckle in the free walk while using seat and legs to encourage a forward marching, straight walk. Most horses will take the opportunity to stretch down.
I wouldn't go all the way to the buckle, you do still need contact unless you are asked for a loose rein walk. If you drop the contact, your horse will dawdle or fall on it's face and you'll be canned for it.
As MBP described, the free walk requires the horse to actively march forward, while allowing the neck to lengthen forward and down. The nose does not have to be on the ground, in fact you do not want the nose that lose. Ears level or slightly lower than the wither is ideal.
The free walk is NOT a time to veg out and relax. In most (if not all) tests, the free walk is worth double marks. Its a valuable movement, don't just wing it!
The length of the rein/contact are no longer specified. At one point tr#1/#2 where are loose rein, and #3/#4 were are long rein. Now the choice is the riders as long as the walk is active and the horse is seeking the hand. So, there should be the best walk sustained. There are some judges who will look for huge stretch, being on the buckle, etc. But the question is whether the rider can 're-take' the reins w/o the horse becoming tense/slowing/hollowing as well. Remember you are not just riding a test, but training the horse. So, choose the quality of the contacts carefully.
Why does the horse 'seek the hand'/chew the reins from the hand/lengthen the neck? Because ideally the horse is up/open/active and 'accepting the bit' (in training level) or 'on the bit' (from first level on). When that is the case, whem the rider releases contact the horse should relax/drape itself into a longer posture/etc. If the horse does not, then there is a problem with the working posture of the other two gaits. Likely if the horse has a western background they are too long/too low and rather posed, hence not much willingness to trust the hand to seek it.
What is the energy/posture of the horse in all three gaits? Is the horse active in the walk before you ask for the free walk? Is the horse bending through the corner? Do you ask the horse to chew (inside aids) and then allow the horse to stretch as it goes straight?
My trainer describes it as a "stretchy walk" because the goal is for the horse to stretch down as you give the reins.
When I showed MANY years ago, we did throw away the reins---if you could, without your horse taking off. The horses tended to be less submissive, if I recall.
Today, the custom is to let them out slowly, to test the hand-to-mouth connection, and to judge the quality of the horse's walk; and yes, according to my teacher in yesterday's lesson, you certainly DO KEEP THE CONTACT. She just came back from a judges' conference, so I'm pretty sure that's the current view.:-)
If your horse is truly stretching to the contact correctly, you do basically just open your fingers and put a leg on, and to come back, pull your rein loop through one hand until your reins are at the right length. There shouldn't need to be any fiddling and sponging of the hands. The horse, even in training level, should be elastic and submissive enough to do this. Otherwise I suspect there is more in the test than the free walk with issues. A test is just that, a test to guide your training. Instead of bandaiding by fiddling and being busy up front (aka riding front to back aka wrong) take the time to fix the holes and the whole test will improve.
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