How I Taught My Horse the Spanish Walk

by Donna DeYoung

I was going through some old floppy discs (yes, floppies) and found this article I had written a few years ago...much of what is talked about here appeared in my trick horse video series.

"First teach the horse piaffe" (the trot in place) was what I was told. But I couldn't help myself. Here I was with an eager four year old Andalusian mare and I was ready to teach her the classic Spanish Walk so I could show it off to everyone.

I remembered my miserable attempts at teaching my quarter horse palomino this trick. I was working with her in a parking lot while on a break from mounted patrol duty. The palomino wasn't that coordinated and while attempting to follow my cues, her wellshod hoof came sweeping and crashing down on my thin leather soled boot toe. Ouch! That was so painful. I gave up with our awkward attempts.

Now here I was many years later with a large dapple grey Andalusian mare who was smart enough to learn to lift her left leg at my cues and count. She showed quite an aptitude for holding the leg up and lifting it high in the air. I was ready to try.

First I practiced with her cross tied in a wash stall. All she had on was a halter and I used a regular dressage whip to place the cues. Tap on her leg near the knee. Response, she would lift it. Tap again, no response. Tap harder. No response. A really good swat and up came the leg, hard. Then she kept pawing. No, no, I told her. I only needed one lift of the leg. So then I switched sides and tried the right leg. She lifted the opposite leg higher than the other one. This is quite common. I just kept at it.

She got a little irritated and then really lifted the leg. Good, I patted her and stepped away. She took a deep sigh. That was a result of our "approach and retreat" training, the mare always felt relief when I would step back, she didn't like being crowded.

From one tap on one leg to get a response, we progressed to tapping the left, then the right, I was trying to get her to lift her legs as if marching while still in the cross ties. Pretty soon she got the hang of it and I would give her carrot treats. Sometimes she pawed a few too many times, but that was just left over from teaching her to count.

I worked on getting the cue to be more subtle, lighter, but still applied it to her knee or cannon bone. I also used the verbal cue "paso" which is Spanish for walk. Pretty soon we were ready to practice outdoors and while moving. You don't want to spend too much time working at a stand still or the horse will not learn to walk forward properly.

A good Spanish walk is controlled and the horse walks well up underneath himself. I had studied videotape footage of some of the better trainers in Spain and had seen many examples of a correct and beautiful Spanish walk.

While outside I would work the horse alongside the arena fence. Now she wore a surcingle and snaffle bit with side reins. She also wore a Spanish serreta which is a training device somewhat harsher than a lunging cavesson but still has the ring on top and two on the sides for control. I attached one long rein to the ring on top. At first I faced the horse and walked backwards, tapping on the legs one after the other. It took a while to get the hang of it.

Once you have a front leg in the air, it's time to pull the horse forward with you so that they take a step forward with their hind legs. Then the other leg is in the air, and you pull forward again. Eventually I was cueing the horse on one leg after the other and she responded with an attempt to lift and march along. As soon as I got two or three good steps, I walked her away from the fence and into the center of the arena which was her reward. As soon as I led her over to the fence again and lifted the whip, she knew she was supposed to start trying the Spanish walk.

Once we got the rhythm down and the horse was walking forward and using her hind end, it just became a matter of perfection. Also it was time to start transferring the cues so that the horse would perform under saddle.

Another part of the perfection was trying to get her to lift each leg equally high. For this it's good to have your horse "bridge-target" trained. This means you place a target (like the whip) and the horse bridges or touches the target to get their reward. You can actually hold the whip up above the leg and as the leg touches it, say the cue word (or click if you use clicker training).

Eventually the horse is supposed to reach for the cue with their leg. In fact, this is one way to start teaching a horse how to count or paw on command. You might wonder how the heck do you get a horse to figure out to bridge the target with their leg? It's easy. You put the target in front of the leg, and then move the horse forward until they bump the target with their leg. Bingo, that's a bridge. The horse gets a verbal reward.

So, back to the perfection and transferring the cues. Most horses appear to do the Spanish walk through an alternating bridle/rein effect. Watch closely, you'll see the rider lift UP on one rein, then UP on the other. As the rider lifts up, the horse is lifting that leg. So, how do you get there?

As the horse is walking forward and attempting the Spanish walk, start cueing the horse with the whip more near their elbow than on the knee or lower leg. Then you can start walking beside the horse and it's easy to reach under the horse and tap the opposite elbow. Walk, tap, walk, tap. Get a few good steps and quit. It even helps to put the horse up and away after he or she is successful.

Now that the horse is responding to the elbow taps, try walking (driving) the horse with the reins in your hands. Of course you must be somewhat coordinated to do this and have practice and knowledge to ground drive your horse. Your horse must know how to ground drive, too! As you drive and apply your whip cues, start using the rein cues too. Pretty soon you're pulling up on the right rein and you get a right leg lift, same for the left side.

Now to saddle. You might have noticed by now that your horse is starting to "offer" the Spanish walk at opportune times - like whenever he doesn't understand something else you're trying to teach him. Practicing a turn on the haunch from the ground and your horse is now pawing? That's the downside of teaching the Spanish walk.

The best way is to ignore the pawing is to say no, and move along. Then maybe don't practice Spanish walk for a week. You can't punish the horse for trying it at odd times, though. If you're ever in the saddle and the horse offers it, then apply the cues (right rein, right leg tap on shoulder, then opposite) to see if he'll continue. Reward then move onto something else.

To totally transfer to saddle, it would help to have a second person on the ground who can apply the old cues and mental ground support for the horse, while you sit up there and apply the new cues from the saddle. Your new cue would be the lifting up of the reins one at a time and placing your foot in front of the girth with a tap. Eventually lighten these cues and get your timing perfected. Now you and your horse are doing the Spanish walk! All it takes is practice and patience.

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