Back in the days before owning horses, I looked forward to the hour long trail rides I had each summer. Before our group mounted up, the trail guide would give us these handy instructions: “kick” to go and “pull” on the reins to stop.
Now that I’ve been a horse owner for a few decades, I’ve learned better approaches than “kick” to go and “pull” to stop which produce softer and rounder responses. The cues are a blend of tips I have learned from classical French dressage and natural horsemanship philosophies.
I ride my naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse in a mild single-joint snaffle bit and have been competing with her at schooling dressage shows since 2010. We consistently earn scores of “8” on our center line halt and salute.
Below is a sequence of cues that I have found which produce a soft, round, and relaxed halt without the use of force or pulling on the reins.
How to produce a soft, round and relaxed halt:
Well fitting equipment: Beginning with a practical note, an uncomfortable horse will not be able to perform a soft, round and relaxed halt. So it is important to ride your horse with a saddle and bit that fits properly and have your horse’s teeth checked and floated regularly.
Following seat: The next thing I do is develop a following seat (versus a driving seat). I encourage the horse forward with the use of my voice, a bump and release of my lower calf, followed up with a tap of the dressage whip if needed, and then I follow the motion of my horse’s walk as if my hip joints walk with my horse’s hind legs. I do not drive my horse forward with my seat as I believe this annoys the horse and eventually causes them to tune me out.
Stilling seat: When I am about to come to a halt, I gently squeeze and release the reins to soften and round the horse. At the same time I still my seat and no longer follow the motion of my horse. If the horse is listening to my seat, the horse will stop.
Alternating squeeze and release of the rein: If the horse doesn’t halt with the stilling of my seat, then I follow it up with an alternating squeeze and release of each rein in sequence with each step of the horse as if to say, “Stop your foot. Now stop your other foot.” I will keep alternating the squeeze and release of each rein with each step combined with a stilled seat until the horse slows to a stop.
Repeat the exercise: If the horse didn’t stop by my seat, I will return to a forward walk and repeat the exercise a few times before moving on to something else. Then I’ll come back to the exercise a couple more times during our riding session.
Practice: I practice this exercise each time I ride. Every horse I ride becomes more and more responsive to my seat, softer, rounder, and more relaxed with the halting and less dependent upon the reins for stopping.
I have found that this approach produces a softer, rounder, more relaxed and square halt than when squeezing with both reins at the same time and definitely better than pulling back on the reins.
Video: Cues to a Softer Halt
A square halt from the medium walk is required in NWHA Intro tests, a square halt from the flat walk is required in NWHA Training Level tests, and a square halt from a canter is required in NWHA Fourth Level.
Video: Soft Halts from the Medium Walk, Flat Walk and Canter
How many times have you heard riders of gaited horses ask, “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” or “How do I improve the quality of my horse’s natural four beat gait?” These questions have come up at every gaited dressage clinic I’ve been to. They’ve been addressed on every naturally gaited horse video I’ve watched and book I’ve read since I bought my Tennessee walking horse Makana in 2007.
Why? Because relaxation is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow-backed, pace into a smooth and natural four-beat gait. A great place to start is with long and low at walk. Not only will relaxation in a long and low frame break up the pace, it can lengthen the depth of stride and improve the quality of your horse’s gait.
In dressage terms, a long and low walk is called the free walk on a long rein. This is a required movement in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced.
The free walk on a long rein produces many terrific benefits in the horse including rhythm, relaxation, balance, forwardness, and building the top line muscles. Most importantly, it breaks up the foot falls of pace into four individual steps—the sequence of gait at a slow tempo, and it positions the horse to be successful in taking longer and deeper steps.
Video: Free Walk on a Long Rein
The free walk on a long rein is a terrific way to begin and end every ride, as well as reward your horse throughout a training session.
If your horse needs to learn how to lower its head and neck, here’s an exercise I learned from naturally gaited clinician Bucky Sparks which he calls “Stretch the Bit.” This exercise teaches a horse to discover relaxation for itself. Once a horse finds relaxation, they are likely to seek more of it.
How to Stretch the Bit
1. Begin this exercise at a halt. Each time my horse’s head is too high, I lift my hands up and stretch my reins out to the side without pulling back. This engages the bars (corners) of the horse’s mouth. Low hands compress the horse’s tongue. As I draw my arms out to the side, I feel a pull in my triceps which helps me to remember not to pull back.
2. Release to reward: As soon as the my horse begins dropping its head and neck, I release the reins.
3. Repeat the exercise: I will repeat the exercise each time the horse’s head pops back up. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a couple minutes before the horse lowers or if the horse lowers and then pops its head back up. This is common for horses new to the exercise or for horses that are tense or resistant. After a few tries the horse most horses discover relaxation and prefer it over tension and hollowness because it is more comfortable. Eventually the horse will remain in a lowered headset for longer periods of time.
4. Stretch and release at a walk: When the horse gets consistent with this exercise at a halt, I begin stretching the bit at a walk on a large 20-meter circle. I find that it is easier for my horse to find relaxation in the long and low exercise on an arc than when traveling on a straight line.
5. Add transitions and changes of direction: After a few circles, I will repeat the exercise traveling in the opposite direction and switch directions every 3 or 4 circles. Then I will add some walk-halt-walk transitions to keep it interesting and “stretch the bit” and “release to reward” at a halt before transitioning to a walk.
Video: Stretch the Bit and Release and Reward
As my horse advances in its training, like to replace the “stretch the bit” with a more traditional dressage application I call “squeeze and release.”
How to Squeeze and Release 1. Squeeze and release with rein: On a 20-meter circle at a walk, I gently squeeze the inside rein and hold it until the horse gives and then I release the inside rein to reward the horse. Each time the horse’s head pops up I’ll repeat the “squeeze and release.”
2. Squeeze and release with inside calf: Once the horse understands this concept and is relaxed, I will touch and release my inside calf at the girth as my horse steps its inside hind leg forward. This encourages my horse to step deeper under its body with its inside hind leg.
4. Inside leg to outside rein: Then I capture the forward energy into an ounce of contact with the outside rein which I place lightly against the horse’s neck. This is called the indirect rein. The inside leg to outside indirect rein combined with the softening inside rein helps keep my horse in a long and low frame on a 20-meter circle.
Video: Squeeze and Release to Reward
When the horse is consistent in the long and low frame, then I ask for a few deeper, more ground covering steps and more impulsion from the hind quarters to begin the free walk on a long rein.
How to Improve the Free Walk 1. Awareness: Improving the free walk on a long rein begins by becoming aware of the elements of the free walk and how they feel and look. Teach the horse to maintain a consistent relaxed tempo, maximum stride depth, even four-beat rhythm, and a long and low frame. This takes time, patience and consistent training, but I believe that by becoming aware of the qualities of the free walk will help in teaching them to the horse.
2. Cueing deeper strides: While traveling at a relaxed long and low walk, I press and release my right calf at the girth as the horse steps forward with its right hind leg. Then I apply and release my left calf as the horse steps its left hind leg beneath its body. The application of my calf should encourage deeper steps. It is important not to squeeze with every step or the horse will become as they say “dead to the leg.” So I stop cueing as soon as the horse increases its depth of stride, and I will follow the motion with my seat.
If the horse ignores my calf aid, I will follow it up with a tap of a dressage whip applied to the same side I applied my calf to activate that hind leg while it is stepping forward.
Another way to encourage more energy and deeper strides in the free walk is to make a kissing or clucking sound as the hind leg steps beneath the body. As soon as the horse increases the energy and depth of stride, stop the sound. Since I show gaited dressage, using my voice as a training aid isn’t my best option since voice is not allowed during a test, but I have found that it motivates the horse forward and produces a deeper stride..
3. Following the movement with your seat: After cueing the horse for deeper strides, then follow (not drive) the horse’s forward movement with my seat. I allow each hip joint to walk with each hind leg as it steps beneath the horse. I become aware of the feeling of the horse’s rib cage lift on one side and lower on the other. I keep my upper body still but not stiff. I find that it is more effective to follow the horse’s movement versus drive the horse forward with my seat. It seems less noisy to the horse and my horses are able to hear my cues better.
4. Circles and straight lines: I find that it is easiest for the horses I ride to learn the free walk on a long rein on the arc of a large circle versus a straight line. Once the horse is consistent on a 20-meter circle, I will add serpentines, figure eights, and moments of straight lines. As soon as the horse’s head pops up, the back gets hollow and the gait gets pacey, I’ll return to the arc of a circle. Over time, the horse will learn to travel in straight lines in a consistent free walk on a long rein which is the required movement in dressage tests.
Gait and Canter on a Long Rein
As the horse develops a consistent free walk on a long rein, then I begin asking the horse for a few steps of flat walk or easy gait in a long and low frame. As soon as the horse begins to pace or trot, I slow the horse back down to a walk and begin again with relaxation at a long and low free walk before asking for the gait again.
After the horse is established in canter, I like to use canter in a long and low frame as a warm up exercise. A long and low canter on a 20-meter circle is a great way to relax the horse’s back, build the horse’s top line muscles, as well as help break a lateral canter. And I’m amazed with how much better my horse flat walks after a long and low canter warm up.
Video: Flat Walk on a Long Rein
Video: Cantering on a Long Rein
At every gaited dressage and naturally gaited clinic I have attended since I began my journey, I have witnessed dozens of gaited horses transformed from a hard pace to a smooth, four-beat gait by working in a long and low frame.
I hope you find this information helpful. Feel free to contact me and let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you!
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 beginning our gaited dressage journey.
I love Bucky’s teaching philosophy, because he blends traditional dressage with practical elements of natural horsemanship.
Most of the time Makana stands perfectly still for me to get on, but not when she is nervous or tense. 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 helped me every time Makana doesn’t want to stand for me to get on.
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 is the goal, not making the horse flex. Signs of relaxation include a lowering of the head and neck and when the horse licks its lips and chews.
If the horse has tension in the poll, neck or shoulder, address these areas individually to release the tension before expecting a soft and relaxed flex to the side.
2. Once the horse understands how to flex to the side and is soft and 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 repositioning the mounting block and get on. Then release the flex as a reward and encourage the horse to remain standing.
While I was at the clinic my horse kept walking off while in a flex. Bucky said, “You can’t make a horse stand.” Don’t punish the horse. Just encourage relaxation, keep the horse flexed and calmly follow the horse around. He said, “Pretty soon the horse will discover it is a lot easier to stand while being flexed than to walk around being flexed.” Bucky was right. It didn’t take long and as soon as my horse stopped, I repositioned the mounting block, got on, and released the flex. Then we moved on to the gaited dressage lesson.
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