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  • Writer's pictureKyra Fraser

The Walk: An Introduction to Equine Biomechanics - Part 1

Updated: Apr 24

Diagram of anatomy of the four-beat walk in the horse.

The horse’s walk is a treasure trove of movement, often overlooked for its simplicity but revered for its complexity upon closer examination. Understanding the biomechanics of the walk is essential for both novice and experienced horse enthusiasts, as it lays the groundwork for healthy training and performance.


A Step-by-Step Breakdown

The walk is a unique gait in the equine world. It’s characterized by a consistent four-beat rhythm where the horse always has either two or three hooves touching the ground, a sequence known as bipedal or tripedal support. This ensures that unlike faster gaits, there’s no moment of suspension – a phase where all four hooves are off the ground. Because of this, the walk is the steadiest and lowest impact gait which is why the walk is often used in rehabilitation.


Horses at walk display a sequence of movements that resemble a well-choreographed dance. The gait starts with a triple stance, initiated by the left front leg, and follows a complex sequence (1). Proper tracking up – where hind hooves step into the imprints left by the front hooves – is a sign of a well-executed walk.


Grace and Power: The Ideal Walk

While it may be slow, the ideal walk of a horse, especially in disciplines such as dressage, is a display of both grace and athletic power. The effortless movement should remind one of a prowling jungle cat, where each limb advances and retracts with fluid precision. It's a display of biomechanical harmony that belies the slower pace of the gait, proving that the walk is anything but mundane in its execution.


Commencing the Walk: More Than Just Steps

Moving from a standstill to a walk is a deliberate act of balance and coordination. To initiate the walk, a horse must first shift its center of gravity forward, unbalancing itself enough to compel the movement of its feet in what could be described as controlled falls. This organic movement begins with the head and neck, highlighting the interconnectedness of the equine body (2).


A well-trained horse will engage its hindquarters, stepping under its center of gravity and propelling forward, rather than simply falling forward. This "on the bit" transition is not only aesthetically pleasing but requires considerable biomechanical coordination, reflecting a high degree of training and physical fitness.


Variations in the Walk: A Matter of Speed

The walk’s tempo can influence the distribution of bipedal and tripedal support. As a horse’s walk quickens, the bipedal stance becomes more prevalent, reducing the periods of tripedal support. This alteration is due to shorter individual stance durations of the limbs, leading to less overlap. An incorrectly accelerated pace can disrupt the walk’s fluidity and the tracking up process, which is pivotal for a harmonious gait (1).


Muscles and Movement: Equine Biomechanics in Action

When dissecting the walk, we uncover a symphony of muscular and skeletal actions. Advancing a front leg requires the orchestration of multiple muscles such as the biceps and brachialis for elbow flexion, the brachiocephalus for lifting the leg, and the serratus ventralis for scapula retraction. The hind legs follow a similar pattern of complex actions involving the gluteal muscles, biceps femoris, and peroneus tertius, to name a few (3).


Each stride involves muscles and tendons working in unison to lift, extend, place, and stabilize the limbs in a seamless cycle that propels the horse forward. The stifle and hock joints play a crucial role in absorbing shock and preparing for the next stride.


The Importance of Lameness Evaluation

The walk is also a critical gait for assessing a horse’s health. Any deviation or lameness can drastically affect the gait’s quality, making it a less desirable performance or leading to actual physical lameness (3). Observing the walk provides a comprehensive picture of a horse's biomechanical integrity and is essential for evaluating fitness and detecting potential injuries early on.


In the next installment of this series, we will delve deeper into the biomechanics of initiating and maintaining the walk, exploring how balance, weight distribution, and muscle coordination play into creating the perfect step. Stay tuned as we continue to unravel the complexity of this seemingly simple gait.


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