Dressage is about training and developing your horse’s natural athleticism.  Creating a willing and gymnastic way of going is just as important as achieving the technical requirements.

The importance of how you understand and focus on the collective marks cannot be emphasised enough.  If you pay lip service to this you will not have a full appreciation of the aims of your test.

Since the Rollkur debates began raging, more and more emphasis is being put on the horse’s ‘way of going’.  It is no longer sufficient to simply do the movements, you must demonstrate relaxation and willingness from the horse.

The collective marks allow the judge to give an overall score for their perception of how you and your horse performed throughout the test.  It is their opinion as to how you, as a combination, conducted yourselves and the overall impression you left them with as the test progressed.

The first post in this series – Collective marks – Scoring, explained the way the collectives are scored by the judges.  Moving on, we now turn to paces, regularity and freedom, the first of the collectives to be given marks.

Your score will be either an individual score for each of the 3 paces (walk, trot and canter) or an overall score for all of them, depending on your training level.


The Walk

The walk should at all times be consistent, like a march – a regular, four-time beat with equal intervals between each beat, relaxed.  There are currently 4 walks within the full range of Dressage Tests.

  • Medium Walk
  • Collected Walk
  • Extended walk
  • Free walk

Medium Walk

The rules state: A clear regular and unconstrained walk of moderate lengthening. 

For maximum points you should demonstrate an energetic, purposeful walk which is relaxed.  The horse should ‘overtrack’ (the hind feet touching the ground in front of the hoof prints of the forefeet) with even and determined steps.  The rider should allow the natural movement of the horses head and neck.

Collected Walk

The rules state: The horse moves resolutely forward with its neck raised and arched and showing a clear self carriage. 

The collected walk must remain marching and vigorous and in regular sequence.  The steps cover less ground and are higher than at the medium walk, because all the joints bend more markedly.  The collected walk is shorter than the medium walk although showing greater activity.

Extended Walk

The rules state: The horse covers as much ground as possible, without haste and without losing the regularity of the steps.

Overtrack becomes even more of a focus on the extended walk.  It is all too easy to have the horse strung out with appearance that the steps are longer, without overtrack the horse is not truly engaged and active.

However, the rider should allow the horse to stretch out the head and neck (forward and downwards) without losing contact and control of the poll.  The nose must be clearly in front of the vertical.

Free Walk

The rules state: 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 overtrack are essential to the quality of the free walk.  You are looking to show that the horse is balanced, supple, obedient and relaxed.  You should allow the reins to lengthen as the horse stretches gradually forward and downward.

As the neck stretches forwards and downwards the mouth should reach more or less to the horizontal line corresponding with the point of the shoulder.  How many of you have had the judges comment “should show more stretch or could stretch a little more”.  I see it all the time.  Work in a long and low frame at home and really get this, it is an essential element of your success.  An elastic and consistent contact with the riders hands must be maintained.

The most important element of this exercise is that the walk must maintain its rhythm.  He should stay light in the shoulders and not drop onto the forehand.  The hind legs should remain well engaged.  During the retake of the reins the horse must accept the contact without resistance in the mouth or poll.

Common Faults

Often the horse becomes irregular in the walk and the foreleg and hind leg on the same side move almost on the same beat so that the walk tends to become an almost lateral in its movement.  This ambling irregularity is a serious deterioration of the pace and will cost you dearly in a test situation.

Try this exercise to improve your control of the walk…

Experiment with the tempo of the walk by using your abdominal muscles to slow the pace.  Whilst in medium walk, with the horse ‘on the bit’ bear down (push of the guts against the skin, which we do naturally when we clear our throats and which good riders do all the time).

This is not easy for most riders, most bear down and give too much with the hand, or bring the hand back and suck in the stomach (which is not a bear down).  Riders also find it nearly impossible to bear down and breathe at the same time.  This comes with practice.  Remind yourself to breathe.  It is not easy to utilise the bear down to regulate the tempo of the walk, but as with everything, practice makes perfect.

  • Slow the walk to the very slowest you can achieve (using bear down – not reins) … then try to slow a little more.  You will be surprised at how slow your horse can walk! But you must maintain purpose.  This is not a slow amble, it’s a slow march.
  • Release the bear down and with swinging hip movements that follow the horses natural rhythm encourage the horse to walk forwards – not fast, just marching forwards.
  • When you have achieved a good forward walk, allow the reins through your hands and go for the free walk.  Remember to keep a contact.
  • Re-take the reins by ensuring that you are following the horses head movement with your arms – exaggerate if you have to.  Don’t bother vibrating or tweaking just follow the head movement and gradually take up the reins.  Your horse should come back up to you without resistance.  Once he’s there – do nothing, just hold.
  • In the early days the re-take might take a length of the school.
  • You can judge your improvement by aiming for shortening the time it takes to achieve the re-take with a goal of one-horse’s length.
  • Use the bear down again to slow the horse and repeat the exercise.

By repeating this exercise or taking part of it and practising you will begin to take control of the tempo, rhythm and balance of the horse.  You will begin to feel what it is like to regulate the pace.

So, back where we started, regularity, rhythm, balance, freedom, tempo – get this right and you have the basis for a good transition into trot, a great transition into canter and maximum points in the collectives for your walk.


Footfalls of the walk

Quick Quote: “It is a mistake to keep the horse on the bit for too long. He must be relaxed at the walk on the long rein regularly and afterwards he must be carefully put back together again.”  N.Oliveira (1998, 42)

The next post in the series will be the trot and what you need to look out for to improve your collective marks for the trot work.

Until next time, have fun!

Patricia, The Dressage Tipster

9 Responses

  1. Dear Dressage Tipster, I just can’t begin to tell how much I enjoy your texts! Will soon go home and test the bear down on my dear Lusitano – I realize that I’ve been literally sucking until now… Best regards, Lena

  2. Hi Tipster

    Can i just check – when you say bear down – as in when you clear your throat, you do mean more of a tensing of the abs rather than a sucking in of the stomach? I’m trying to picture what it is you mean to do… I’m new to dressage as you can probably tell 🙂



    1. Hi Emma
      The bear down is definately not ‘sucking in’ and the tensing is a little lower than the abs. Almost, without being too graphic, as if you are pushing to urinate! Not easy. Email me if you have difficulties when you get on board to practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top