When my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana was four years old, I took her to her first gaited dressage clinic with Bucky Sparks. I was so excited to be there and soak in all I could in getting started on our gaited dressage journey.
I love Bucky’s teaching philosophy, because he blends traditional dressage with practical elements of natural horsemanship.
Ninety-nine percent of the time Makana has stood perfectly still for me to get on, but not when my lesson time came. I literally had a panic attack before the auditors, because every time I put my foot in the iron, Makana would walk off. I was so frightened.
Thanks to Bucky, he showed me a profoundly helpful tip that worked that day and has any time Makana pulls this stunt.
How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand:
1. Teach the horse to flex their nose to the side by drawing one rein to the saddle. Reward the horse by releasing as soon as the horse gives. Relaxation is what we are after. Signs of relaxation include a lowering of the head and neck and when the horse licks its lips and chews.
2. Once the horse understands how to flex to the side and is relaxed in doing so, then flex and release the horse a few times until the horse chews and lowers its head and neck.
3. Then flex the horse to the saddle and keep the horse flexed while you reposition the mounting block and get on. As soon as you’re in the saddle, release the rein as a reward and encourage the horse to remain standing.
This tip worked for me at the clinic and continues to work for me each time my horse doesn’t stand when I try to get on.
Video: How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand
Interested in riding a gaited dressage test but not sure what to expect? Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Schooling dressage shows are a friendly environment to receive constructive feedback from an experience dressage professional on where you and your horse are at in your training—what’s working and what needs improvement.
I love riding dressage tests because they force me to train all of the required movement in both directions. Invariably, there is one direction that is more difficult and there are some movement that I would rather avoid, but a test forces me to face them. The test itself challenges me to be a precise communicator to my horse to perform each movement at the letter, ride my horse in the correct frame through effective use of aids and riding position.
There are many gaited dressage tests to choose from of varying levels of difficulty created by FOSH, Western Dressage, Cowboy Dressage, and the NWHA. If you’re not ready to show canter, don’t worry as many of the introductory tests are two gait tests.
What to Wear
Schooling shows required riders to wear an approved helmet with a chin strap and boots with a heel. Informal riding attire is acceptable such as breeches and a polo shirt or jeans and a cowboy shirt. The horse must be ridden in a mild snaffle bit and a dressage or all-purpose English saddle or western saddle depending upon the test you’ve selected. Formal attire and braiding the horse’s mane are optional. I often wear my formal attire since I don’t show at recognized shows and it makes for nicer photos.
Where to Show
Some breed shows offer gaited dressage classes. Another opportunity is when you see a USDF open schooling dressage show in your area that you’d like to ride at, contact the show secretary and ask if you can enter your gaited horse and ride a gaited dressage test. If the show manager agrees, then mail a copy of your test(s) with a copy of your current Coggins, completed entry form and fees by the closing date.
The show will post a schedule of ride times 24 to 48 hours before the show, so you can plan your arrival and warm up accordingly. Ask the show manager if the arena is open to school your horse before the show or during break times. Recognized shows do not permit this, but many schooling shows do. This helps nervous horses get acclimated to the strange surroundings and build confidence.
Arriving at the Show
When you get to the show grounds, go to the show office to obtain your number, and ask if the show is running on time. Sometimes there are scratches and you may be asked to ride earlier. You are not required to, but it is courtesy to do so if you are able. Other times the show may be running behind schedule, and you’ll want to know this to pace your warm up. If you have a horse like mine, you won’t want to wear out your horse before your test.
Riding your Test
When the rider before you completes their final halt and salute, you may enter the outside of the arena to school your horse before your test. Relaxation for the horse is key. In the short couple minutes I have, I like to ride my horse by anything that might spook her, like the judging area, flower boxes along the rail, or bushes that are swaying in the breeze.
While warming up, you are permitted to talk to your horse, but as soon as you enter the arena you’ll get penalized for using your voice or clucking during your test.
When you hear the judge sound the bell or whistle, you have 45 seconds to enter the arena and begin your test.
Position your horse to ride in straight at “A”. Ride your horse straight down the center line to the halt and salute. Teach your horse to halt square and remain immobile for three seconds before proceeding forward (if called for in your test).
Remember to smile as you ride toward the judge and riding your horse into the corners by showing a nice bend. Ride as close to the rail as you’re able without jumping out of the arena as that will eliminate you.
Most shows permit you to have someone read your test as you ride. Normally the reader will stand at “E” or “B”. I memorize my tests only because I show solo. (I’m hoping this has the added benefit of prolonging my grandma brain!)
Each test has required movements that are evaluated on a score from 0 to 10. Among the judging criteria are rhythm, balance, bend, relaxation, impulsion, precision, gaits, rider’s use of aids and riding position. Dressage tests movements mirror each other to show that you’ve trained an ambidextrous horse.
After your final halt salute, ride your horse forward toward the judge at a free walk on a long rein. Sometimes the judge will offer verbal feedback in addition to the written comments on the test so you may stop an take it all in. Then turn right or left to exit the arena at a free walk on a long rein.
While you are riding your test, the judge verbalizes feedback to a scribe who writes down the comments on a test sheet. The tests are given to the show office and added for the final percentage. Sometimes gaited dressage is placed in its own category and other times gaited dressage is scored with the trotting horses of the same level. Scores are usually posted for placings and the test will be available at the show office for you to take home.
Don’t get discouraged if your horse doesn’t show all your hard work during your test. It is common that horses perform better at home than in a strange environment. Just hold onto the magic moments that made it a positive experience for you and your horse. You did it!
When picking up your tests from the show office, remember to return your number and that everyone who helped organize the show and accommodate gaited dressage.
I was so excited to return to Wildfire on Saturday, August 8, 2015 with my 11-year-old naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse mare Gift of Freedom (Makana). Why? Because this time to ride for USDF “R” judge Nancy Porter. Normally one has to ride at a recognized show to be judged by this caliber of a judge.
However, we were off to a rough start. First my GPS was out of order and my cell phone ran out of juice, so we hustled back home for an ol’ fashioned map.
On our way to the show, a car that pulled out in front of us and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting the car. Thankfully we didn’t collide, but the sudden stop left Makana rather rattled.
Forty minutes later we arrived safely at the show. I let Makana relax for a while then tacked her up for some long and low before beginning our warm up. Then I set up the video camera only to discover that I left the video chip at home. Rats! No photos or videos to capture the event.
On the bright side, we couldn’t have asked for better weather: 70 degrees, partly cloudy with a light breeze. And this time, no disco-dancing flower boxes to contend with.
But Makana’s heart didn’t seem to be into showing today. (I felt like I was squeezing an empty tube of toothpaste the morning before my annual dentist appointment!) I don’t know if it was the sudden stop or if she felt entitled to a weekend off after such a wonderful performance last weekend at Carriage House.
We rode NWHA First Level Tests One and Three. Areas we excelled in were center line halts (straight and square), 10-meter half circles at a flat walk, transitions and quality of our medium walk and free walk, flat walk leg yields, 20-meter flat walk stretch circles, 15-meter canter circles and transitions from flat walk to canter and flatwalk to medium walk to freewalk.
Improvement areas are showing more balance in the counter canter serpentines, showing more difference between the working and medium canters, and overall impulsion.
Despite how sluggish Makana felt, we received respectable scores of 66.5% in NWHA First Level Test One and 63.9% in NWHA First Level Test Three.
For me it was an honor to ride for an “R” judge at a schooling show! Normally you have to ride at a traditional USDF recognized show for this caliber of judge.
After the show, I had the chance to talk with Judge Nancy Porter in the show office with a couple of other riders. Nancy asked me about gaited dressage, and I was able to share about how it is a humane and natural alternative to the soring and abuse that has tarnished the Walking horse industry. She fully supports the fight against soring and is all for applying dressage training methods for the gaited horse as an alternative to abusive and artificial training methods.
Wildfire Farm has hosted several schooling dressage shows this summer and has accommodated traditional dressage, gaited dressage, and western dressage tests. The next schooling show is scheduled for September 12. If you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and are interested in giving gaited dressage a try, this is the perfect, low-key, beginner-friendly schooling environment for you!
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!