By Jennifer Klitzke
Since 1988, I have been an avid student of dressage and competed successfully through second level until life-altering circumstances and my aging dressage horse ended our competition in 1996. Over the course of the next 16 years, I moved to a hobby farm in non-dressage country and relied on the knowledge and skills gained through 12 years of regular dressage lessons in my daily hacks.
In 2007, I purchased my first naturally gaited horse—mainly to save my aging body from the sitting trot. I knew nothing about training gaited horses. All I knew is that I wanted SMOOTH, and out of default dressage became our method of training. I wasn’t even sure if dressage and gaited horses worked together. We would just have to find out.
So much of effective dressage training comes through knowing and applying “the feeling of right.” This entails discerning when the horse begins to move off course and making adjustments to restore balance, relaxation, rhythm, harmony, suppleness, and impulsion. It takes time to develop what balance feels like in each gait and feel the difference between a quality and impure gait from the saddle, to feel when the horse begins to rush or lag, go hollow, duck behind the bit, drop its back, fall on the forehand, get tense in the jaw, lack bend or rhythm, and the list goes on.
While there are many similarities between riding trotting and gaited horses, I quickly discovered how “the feeling of right” on a trotting horse is not exactly the same as how it feels on a gaited horse. It was easier for me to feel balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection in trot than it was to feel balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection in flat walk and even harder for me to feel these qualities in lateral movements as shoulder-in at a flat walk.
I became perplexed with questions like: How do I develop “the feeling of right” between flat walk, rack, fox trot, stepping pace, and running walk when they are all SMOOTH? Once defined, how do I discern the difference between an adequate flat walk and an exceptional flat walk when both are SMOOTH? What does balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection feel like in each smooth gait? How do I ride a head nodding horse on the bit? Do my hands move to and fro with the horse’s head nod (as I would follow a trotting horse at a walk)? Or do my hands remain stationary and let the horse learn how to nod without getting pulled in the mouth? I had 20 years experience riding trot and this dressage en gait thing was a whole new experience.
It became clear that I needed gaited dressage lessons with my horse to learn a new sense of “feel.” Since gaited dressage instruction didn’t exist in my area, I began trailering my horse to gaited dressage clinics that came to my region each year. Receiving instruction from Jennie Jackson, Larry Whitesell, Jennifer Bauer, and Bucky Sparks began to give me a better feel for balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection, discernment between the gaits, and gait quality.
If you’re fortunate enough to live by a gaited dressage instructor, start taking regular lessons. If not, join a local dressage club to connect with dressage riders and find an open-minded dressage instructor who will teach you rider position and effective use of aids and help you establish balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection in gait.
Pursuing “the feeling of right” is an ongoing journey and thanks to the quality instruction I’ve received, I’m developing a better sense of it.