Also known as “stretchy” walk and jog.
The free walk and jog: what is it?
The Western Style Dressage Association of Canada (WSDAC) states that:
WSD 2.02 b) 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 horse should maintain the same rhythm and tempo as the working walk, but is asked to stretch forward, down and into the contact. The poll should be lower than the withers with the nose well in front of the vertical. The amount of ground covered and the length of strides are essential to the quality of the free walk.
WSD 2.03 b) Free jog – The horse maintains the same rhythm and tempo as the working jog, but the horse is asked to stretch forward, down and into the contact. The poll should be lower than the withers with the nose well in front of the vertical. The free jog may be ridden either posting or sitting.
Free walk is seen from Introductory Level to Level 2 and Free jog is seen in the Basic and Level 1 tests.
When a horse is truly on the aids, supple, relaxed, and pushing forward with good energy, the back will lift and the neck will round with a soft flexion at the poll. Good quality training will produce an easy, relaxed stretch where the rider will softly open the hands and allow the horse to “chew the reins down”. The horse will take the bit forward and down to the point where the horse’s chin is at or slightly lower than the point of the shoulder, no lower than a point just above the knees with the nose slightly in front of the vertical.
Free walk – the rider is looking nicely forward, with the horse showing a nice lift through his back as he reaches down and forward with his neck. His hind legs will be over-tracking the front foot steps.
Why should we ride a free walk or jog?
We already know that bending a horse laterally aids our horses in becoming more supple left to right, but we do not tend to think about stretching the horse back to front from the croup and tail to the withers and down to the poll. These are the muscles you sit on and the muscles the horse needs when he lifts his back, along with his abdominals.
Free jog – the rider needs to allow the horse to stretch a little further forward so the nose is slightly in front of the vertical. The rider is, however, looking up and forward, and the horse has a nice reach in his stride and lift in his back.
What can stretching accomplish?
If the horse is high-headed and tense you can use stretching to get the horse more relaxed and listening. Stretching a horse “long and low” can release endorphins which relaxes the horse.
It can also help improve communication. If you are asking your horse for a specific movement and the horse begins to tense, you can ask for a little stretch and the horse will soften more through the movement.
The stretch can be used when the horse starts to become tense, tired, or tight during a movement. Green horses, in particular, can only take certain work, such as sitting jog work or lope work, for so long before their back starts to tire. The advanced horse performing higher level collected work will also need a break from time to time. Allowing the horse to stretch in posting trot (jog) will allow those muscles to release and relax before continuing on with work.
Once the horse knows how to stretch you can warm up and cool down a horse with a nice free “stretchy” walk and allow the horse to relax or take a break with either a free walk or free (posting) jog. The posting or rising jog keeps the rider’s weight off the horse’s back and allows the horse to lift and stretch the muscles of the topline.
A word of caution for those horses that tend to be heavy on the forehand with a naturally low headset: while the stretch can help aid relaxation, you need to be careful with how the horse stretches forward. If the horse immediately falls on the forehand, you will need to bring the horse’s back up and begin the stretch again. The stretch is not just the horse lowering the head, but it should lift his barrel and back, and the neck should lower from the withers. The horse should overtrack with good impulsion.
Free jog – the horse is showing a nice reach forward and down with his head. The rider has allowed the horse to “take” the reins down. The rider could be looking up and forward. If the rider looks down it can make the horse heavier on the forehand.
How to get a stretch?
The key ingredients for a good stretch are rhythm, suppleness and relaxation, and contact. We usually begin training the free gaits at the end of a ride when the horse is soft, relaxed, and willing to stretch forward and down. Some horses will naturally reach down when the rider softly opens the hands, but some horses may need a little guidance. Lateral work such as the leg yield on the spiral circle or riding small circles with good bend will loosen up the horse before asking for the stretch.
Following the horse’s side to side rhythm you can begin to ‘flex’ the horse from side to side. As the horse is walking forward, his head will always go over the leg that is coming forward, right then left, right then left. The rider can use this natural rhythm and flex with the direction the horse naturally wants to go. The hands will be a little wider to aid the horse in this right and left lateral movement. As the horse begins to stretch the head down, the rider will allow the reins to slide through his hands. The rider must never “throw the reins away”, but allow the horse to take the reins forward and down.
The free, stretch, work is an exercise that some horses will learn quickly and other horses may take weeks to learn. Be patient and breathe as you work with your horse. As they feel you relax with the movement they will find their way into the stretch. Enjoy!
This article is the tenth in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.
Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com
Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, mentorship programs, as well as student programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.