Beginning lessons in Légèreté: Work in Hand

Extend the neck

By Jennifer Klitzke

Work in hand? If you’re like me, I just like to get on and ride. Recently, I experienced the purpose work in hand has to build communication with my horse that translates to our saddle time and makes our training move along quicker in lightness and balance.

Before I set out to Seattle, WA to visit family for a week, I learned that Philippe Karl has been teaching School of Légèreté certification clinics in three USA locations—one of which is Cadbury Farm, not far from where I would be staying.

Ecstatic with the opportunity to get first-hand teaching in this classical French dressage method, I contacted Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm for lessons while I was in Seattle.

Nichole asked about my experience with Karl’s philosophy and the training with my horses. I explained that I had been studying Philippe Karl’s DVDs Classical versus Classique and Classical Dressage 1-4.


Learning via DVDs are great for teaching concepts, but nothing beats one-on-one instruction for applying these concepts in real time.

When Nichole urged me to begin with understanding lightness from the ground, I sighed, because I just wanted to get to the fun part of riding. Philippe Karl’s DVD series covers work in hand, but I had just glossed over that portion thinking that it wasn’t important. WRONG!

Nichole said that Karl believes educating the mouth from the ground is so important that he won’t teach his students how to ride until the student knows how to teach the horse how to establish balance (how to open its poll and lift its head and neck to shift its balance from the forehand to the hindquarters); taste the bit and swallow; relax the jaw; flex 45 to 90 degrees to the right and left in order to stretch the outside neck muscles; and accept and follow an even contact of the snaffle bit and extend the neck down and out to stretch the top line.

These concepts then translate to the rider’s hands while in the saddle which make it easier for the horse and rider to progress more quickly in their training.

Work-in-hand at a halt to teach the horse how to be light with the bit and follow a light contact:

1) Face the horse and align my spine to the horse’s spine;

2) Raise the horse’s head and neck and open the poll (the angle between the neck and the lower jaw) by applying equal contact on the corners of the horse’s mouth. This helps the horse shift its balance from the shoulders onto the hindquarters. (Notice the horse square up its fore legs and straighten its chest). This is a terrific exercise for breaking the habit of horses that lean on the bit;

3) Activate the horse’s tongue so that it begins to taste the bit and swallow;

4) If the horse stops tasting the bit, unlock the tension in the jaw. One hand remains neutral and holds the snaffle ring and the other hand directs the snaffle toward the bridge of the nose. As soon as the horse begins to taste the bit, release to reward;

shift balance by lifting head
Lift the head and neck and open the poll to shift the balance from the shoulders and more onto the hindquarters. Noticed the forelegs are perpendicular to the ground and not leaning toward me.

5) Then, while holding one ring of the snaffle while the horse is in a balanced stance, collect the rein of the opposite snaffle ring so that there is EVEN contact with the snaffle ring and the opposite rein;

Even contact
Moving to the side, one hand remains on the ring of the snaffle and the other on the rein with even light contact.


6) Gently lead the horse’s head and neck to one side with even contact. This stretches the outside neck muscles. (Notice the inside neck muscles concave and the outside muscles convex) ;

Stretching the outside neck muscles
With even contact, I reposition myself from the side to the front of the horse while encouraging the horse follow the contact and turn its head and neck. This stretches the outside neck muscles. Be careful that the ears remain level and the horse continues to taste the bit.

7)Then direct the horse to follow the contact down and out to the side to stretch while keeping its ears level. This stretches the outside neck muscles and prevents the horse from contracting the neck muscles and hollowing the underside muscles. It also builds the top line muscles. Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage goes into detail why this is so important.

Extend the neck
Extend the neck with even contact by guiding the horse with the hand down and out. Seek to maintain balance without the horse leaning onto the inside shoulder.


My lessons began with a horse that knew these exercises well so that I could experience how it feels when it goes right. Then I worked with a horse that was just starting these exercises so that I could experience what it is like when things go wrong and how to correct it. This would help me at home when I began teaching my horses.

Nichole guaranteed that if I spent ten to fifteen minutes in hand teaching each horse balance, tasting the bit, swallowing, flexing to each side, and following an even contact before riding, my horses will progress quicker in their training and become lighter on the bridle.

After the lessons with Nichole, I returned home and began to apply these exercises with my horses. Now I see why Karl feels so strongly about educating the horse’s mouth while in hand. I’m astounded with how soft, light, and balanced all of the horses are becoming when I begin every riding session with these exercises.

I have never given work-in-hand its proper respect until now. If you are a visual learner like me, I’d encourage you to purchase Philippe Karl’s Classical Dressage DVD Volume 1 which covers the work-in-hand exercises plus much more. Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage is also a great study aid with lots of pictures and detailed explanation.

For those who have studied German dressage like I have and wonder what the differences are between it and French dressage, Karl’s DVD Classic versus Classique is an amazing contrast with riding lessons from Philippe Karl and FEI German Trainer Christoph Hess.

Special thanks to Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who taught me the “Educating the Mouth” exercises that she learned first hand from Philippe Karl and his School of Légèreté.

Video: Educating the Mouth

Harvest Virtual Western Dressage Show


By Jennifer Klitzke

It has been a rainy summer. I was lucky to have one dry day to film our rides for the Harvest Virtual Western Dressage Show before another storm swamped the arena.

Since the last virtual Western dressage show, I’ve been working on improving engagement with my friend’s naturally gaited horse Lady and it paid off. Lady was the only gaited horse shown in NAWD Intro 2 and placed second out of 11 horses with a score of 64.821%.

Video: NAWD Western Dressage Intro 2

Lady ridden in her easy gait.

This show was the first time my Spanish Mustang Indian’s Legend (Indy) and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) competed against each other in the same show, riding the same test.

Indy placed first in NAWD Basic 3 with a score of 66% and Makana placed third with a score of 58.857%. She was the only gaited horse among the three horses riding NAWD Basic 3.

Video: NAWD Western Dressage Basic 3 TWH-style

Makana demonstrating a flat walk.

Video: NAWD Western Dressage Basic 3 Spanish Mustang-style

Indy being ridden on a 20 meter circle allowing the horse to stretch.

The show had a good turnout with 127 entries ranging from Intro through Basic, Freestyle, Therapeutic, Working in Hand and Versatility for Youth, Adult Amateur, and Open.

Harvest Virtual Show results»

Rollbacks and the Gaited Horse


Rollbacks and the Gaited HorseBy Jennifer Klitzke

Dressage training has helped my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse with her rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. Yet quickness hasn’t been something I have practiced on a regular basis, and it really becomes apparent when we sort cows.

Recently I took my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse mare Gift of Freedom (Makana) to a Wednesday evening cow sorting league. We are clearly the odd ball in the group among quarter horses that are naturally built for this sport. These horses are highly engaged from behind and can lope, stop, pivot and spring off in a new direction in half a second.

Will my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse ever be as quick and responsive as the quarter horses? Not likely, but being lowest on the pecking order seems to motivate her. Makana LOVES having something to push around. Each week we get better at moving the cows from one pen to the next in order, and have more clean rounds than DQs.

Watching the riders warm up their quarter horses, I’ve noticed that they often use rollbacks as an exercise of choice, so I began adopting rollbacks into our warm up.

Rollbacks have great benefits. They increase engagement and make her think about quickness and responsiveness. This is helping us in the hole as we attempt to keep the unsequenced cows from sneaking through before their turn.

P.S. As a side note, I show up at sorting league as a cross dresser: my horse wearing Western attire and me wearing  breeches, half chaps, and my riding helmet. I figure if I’m going to be the oddball among all these spur wearin’, shank sportin’ cowboys and cowgirls riding their cowy quarter horses, I might as well go all out!

Video: Rollbacks for the Gaited Horse

(Take it from me, it is easier to ride rollbacks in the security of a Western saddle.)

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Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!

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