The counted walk also referred to in the writings of classical masters as the school walk, is used to sharpen communication between horse and rider and improve collecting, balance, and impulsion.
I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of the benefits of the counted walk as a training tool. I am greatly impressed with its effectiveness for conditioning in preparation for higher levels of collection. I wish I had this tool in my toolbox years ago. Here is a very nice video that demonstrates it well. Thank you David Donnelly for making it available. Now there is no dialogue in the video, so a little bit of information about the counted walk needs to be provided before you watch it.
The counted walk is the walk taken down to so collected that the horse moves slower and slower until an interesting thing begins to happen; the walk becomes a nearly diagonal movement. Done correctly, the seat is stilled completely, the legs lay passively and are only used in needed to keep the horse from stopping completely, and the hands elevate the neck while asking for the jaw and pole to relax as much as the horse is willing to give.
You collect the walk more and more, shortening the walk steps while elevating the neck and trying to maintain the willingness of the horse to move forward one, step, at, a, time. If the horse loses the forward you nudge them back into a working walk for several strides and begin again. The goal is to achieve rassembler at the most precise walk possible, then start adding the lateral leg aids as gently and subtly as you can to put the horse in shoulder-in position first, and travers after that. Changing the balance and bend often as well as moving the horse to willing forward motion by extending the stride from time to time and then reducing it and in fact going to rein back, then forward again.
Once travers in the counted walk has been well achieved, you can begin using it to move on to the pirouette at the walk and from that ask for the canter departure, followed by a few strides of collected canter and then transition back to the counted walk. Repeated from time to time this greatly improves the collection of the canter and enhances the general calmness of the horse in canter.
Brought all the way down to the near diagonal walk, but still maintaining a strong willingness to move forward, you can transition to piaffe quietly. Impulsion must be maintained so should it drop, moving the horse forward into the working trot and then back down to the diagonal walk will help restore it.
By moving on to a more extended version of the various gaits and then smoothly transitioning back to the counted walk, you maintain impulsion will encourage collection, but only as long as the hands stay light so the jaw and poll of the horse never tighten.
Comments from David about he experience with the ‘Counted Walk’:
The counted walk is the most non invasive, low impact, and powerful, training tool I know. When we got to the 2012 Horse Expo in Harrisburg, PA I found there was no warm-up ring. The was a nearly 1000 meter corridor, in the building with mulch laid down as footing. I had been cultivating the counted walk for several weeks but it had not yet manifested into piaffe. For the first two days we were there the only warm-up work I could do was lateral work in walk, counted walk and rein back in that corridor. On the third day I felt something in Matt’s walk I liked and he went seamlessly into a full blown piaffe. This video was taken only a few weeks after he showed his first steps. I should also note that when I began training this horse he had a full blown lateral walk at all times. While there was a pacey step from time to time in this video, the type of work practiced in this video brought him to the point where he never got less than a 7 for his walk, in shows for two seasons. Now. The key to counted walk? Jaw flexions and the cultivation of the RASSEMBLER! And yes, that word describes much more than collection!
Charles Mercier Dupaty, Marquis de Clam, “La Science et l’art de l’equitation, demontres d’apres la nature”, published in Paris in 1777 – Translated by Dr. Thomas Ritter (http://www.artisticdressage.com/)
“The horse only executes the school walk well, if he carries himself without having to be maintained by the human’s efforts. For it has to be feared, if one works too much with the hand, that the animal does not carry himself and that he does not go forward with determination. And if one uses the thighs and calves too forcefully, one will throw the horse onto his shoulders, instead of keeping him balanced. That happens every time one wants to chase the horse vigorously forward. In fact, this forcefulness of the thighs destroys the harmony and the connection that has to exist between the rider and his horse. It gives the haunches too much activity, and since the horse does not have enough time to place the hind legs, nor to balance himself, he falls onto his shoulders
“It is therefore necessary, in order to execute the school walk well, that the horse be well balanced, and that the rider’s leg aids do not give the animal a degree of movement in which he cannot maintain himself. It is furthermore necessary that the horse, finding himself at ease, i.e. not too compressed, can try to maintain his balance on his own. Every time one closes one’s thighs forcefully, one has to be aware that one takes away the liberty of the horse’s muscles, which can only respond with a violent contraction, since they are squeezed by foreign objects. And in almost all cases the force that we put into the violent pressure of the thighs, makes the horse brace, rather than go forward with determination.
“In order to take a horse into the school walk, one begins by sitting with relaxed thighs and calves, and by placing them without force, but in a manner which allows us to close them, should the horse become indecisive in his forward motion. The horse, feeling relaxed, establishes himself the connection. Then one raises the head. One places the neck with a light hand, so that the horse is positioned without an obstacle that obstructs his forward motion, and one animates him with the voice or a pressure of the calves. If the horse does not maintain his head in the same elevated position as he moves off, if he falls onto his shoulders, one elevates him again by a half halt of the hand, which one relaxes again, in order not to hold him back in any way. Gradually, he will reach a point where he can maintain the head position for an entire reprise.
“The challenge consists of maintaining the horse’s balance without interfering with him, but also without giving him a degree of liberty he can take advantage of.
“One must avoid two mistakes which are often commited against this principle.
“The first one is to try and make the horse sit in spite of himself by holding him back too much with the hand. That way, one overloads the haunches, who cease to move, since they are no longer asked to go forward. And one feels how the animal, suffering pain in his hindquarters, falls apart, loses the unison of his gait, and holds himself back to the point of refusing to go forward at all. If one drives aggressively in an attempt to correct this, the horse coils up instead of elevating himself, and does not show any harmony in his gait.
“The other mistake is to give him too much freedom when he has obeyed, so that he falls apart completely, sticks out his neck, and loses the good rein contact. One must guide the head and neck with the highest degree of elevation, and keep a light hand throughout the entire exercise, because if one places the horse for two minutes, and then lets him go asunder, one will never accustom him to the strain that is inevitable in the first exercises. If he cannot support the rein contact, keep the hand very light, but do not allow him to lose his balance. On well conformed horses, the hand merely has to guide the forehand after having placed it.
“This gait is excellent for all horses. They enjoy it. It is good for the dressage horse as well as for the race horse. It makes especially the latter more supple and nimble, when he has to become rounder, because racing and hunting have made him stiff and fall onto the forehand.”