I felt like I was dressed up for a Halloween costume party wearing this get up, but I thought I’d give Western gaited dressage a try again. This time without leaving home. I saw a Facebook post for a virtual Western dressage show that was open to gaited horses. So my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana and I rode the FOSH IJA Training 1 Test which calls for regular walk, medium walk, free walk, intermediate gait (flat walk), and canter.
What’s nice about a virtual show is that you can ride from home—no need to trailer to the show grounds, as long as you have an arena marked off and someone to record your ride. No editing allowed, just the raw footage to capture the entire test, post it to youtube and wait for the results and feedback via email.
Then if you feel like it, you can share the video link with others and ask for their feedback as to how the test could have been ridden better. I was a bit confused by one of the judge’s comments, “Excessive head nod.” Isn’t that what a Tennessee walking horse is known for? So I asked my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson to help me understand where to go with this comment and how to improve.
Jennie gave me terrific feedback in regards to riding the Medium Walk, which makes up the majority of this test. She said that at times during the Medium Walk, my horse is head pecking and not head nodding. This is an evasion where the horse isn’t traveling forward from behind into a connection. The head nod should rise and lower down from the head, neck, and shoulders with each step of the hind legs, not flicking up with the head. Jennie said that I need to have more rein connection with my horse so that my horse’s hind legs connect with her head nod.
Jennie also mentioned that I need to “freshen up” Makana’s canter with hand galloping to get her back to an air lifted three-beat canter. She’s absolutely right. (I must admit that riding this test was the third time we had cantered since last fall. I have Winter to contend with and no indoor arena, so we are a bit out of show shape.)
Ah, yes! After reviewing the video, I see the nose flicking at the Medium Walk and the rather flat Canter. Now that’s terrific feedback I can begin working on the next time I ride. I hope by sharing this video and feedback will help you at home as you train your gaited horse in dressage.
Feel free to write to me any time with your comments, questions, and stories. I’d love to hear about your gaited dressage journey. Just click the Contact button on the menu above.
Should lower level horses wait to be schooled in shoulder in and rein back or is there a benefit to learning these exercises before Second Level? Is piaffe and passage only reserved for talented horses and riders (or only for horses that trot)? I think not, and here’s why.
In 1996 I sat center line in the balcony at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna mezmorized watching the ivory Lipizzaner stallions being schooled in piaffe, passage, canter pirouettes, tempi changes, and airs above the ground. The dressage training pyramid of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection was made complete right before my very eyes. It was a life-long dream come true!
Since 1988 I’ve been an avid student of dressage and have longed to experience piaffe and passage with my horses. Yet these movements are reserved for Intermediate and Grand Prix Levels of dressage, and thus far I have only shown through Second Level. In my Grandma age I was beginning to wonder if I would ever reach these levels of training.
Then in the last year I purchased the DVD Classical versus Classique with Christoph Hess and Philippe Karl. Hess represents the German National Federation and Karl represents French Classical Dressage. Their lively conversation illuminates the rather stark differences between German and French dressage and made me realize that showing dressage and training dressage don’t have to be the same thing. From this DVD, French dressage trainer Philippe Karl gives me hope because he believes that the upper level movements can be performed by any horse, not just the talented ones. And the rather average horse at the age of 12 shown in the DVD learned all of the movements through piaffe and passage by its rider within ONE YEAR under Karl’s instruction!
While the USDF tests and levels make perfect progressive sense for the show ring, and align with the dressage pyramid of training, I no longer believe horses in lower levels need to wait to be schooled in higher level movements such as shoulder in, rein back, counted walk and piaffe in hand. Nor do I believe that piaffe and passage are only reserved for talented horses and riders (or only for horses that trot)!
Intro, Training, and First Levels don’t introduce shoulder in at a walk, rein back, counted walk, or piaffe in hand, yet these exercises provide wonderful benefits to the horse in terms of balance, engagement, connection, straightness, collection, and communication between the horse and rider (as long as the horse is relaxed in its mind and jaw). This is true for both horses that trot or gait. Plus, these movements teach the rider the feeling of balance as the horse bends the hindquarter joints, engages the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and rise up more through the withers.
Video: Rein back
It’s a fact that few riders and horses ever achieve the highest levels of competition dressage, and the majority of dressage riders never reach Second Level. So why should our horses miss out on training in balance through the benefits of rein back, shoulder in, counted walk, and piaffe in hand while we school the lower levels?
I made this mistake—for years—as an amateur trainer while I was schooling the lower levels with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding. I only practiced the elements of the tests I was showing at. Since then, what I have realized is that this approach taught my horse rhythm, relaxation, and forwardness in a long and low frame—on the forehand. Long and low is terrific, as long as it is in BALANCE. But balance wasn’t something I learned until I reached Second Level which was several years later.
If you are an amateur trainer like me, who has a full time career, family, and other obligations, plus the five-month-long Winter season and no indoor arena to stay in condition, it takes far longer to make training progress through the dressage levels. Consequently it took me several years to work my way through Second Level with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred and that’s when the tests introduced BALANCE demonstrated through shoulder in, rein back, and haunches in.
Sigh. So for several years, I had conditioned the muscle memory of my horse to carry himself on the forehand—with rhythm, relaxation, and forwardness. I had not developed the “feeling” of balance as a rider, because I had only performed the exercises the Level I was showing at called for.
For me, Second Level was like erasing the hard drive and starting over in our training. I had to learn the feeling of balance and retrain my horse from long and low on the forehand to engagement and collection in balance.
My horse and I would have been so much better off if I had introduced shoulder in, haunches in, and rein back while I was schooling the lower levels because of the balance these exercises produce. Plus, I would have learned the “feeling” of balance which would have helped me train my horse in the lower levels of long and low — in balance — instead of the forehand. Remember, not all long and low is the same.
A few months ago, I purchased a DVD entitled Getting Started in Lightness: The French Classical Dressage of Francois Baucher as taught by Jean Claude Racinet presented by one of his students Lisa Maxwell. This DVD introduces rein back, shoulder in, introductory steps of piaffe, and other refreshing exercises such as the counted walk (something I had never heard of before but produces amazing results in balance: bending of the hindquarter joints, engagement of the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and lighten the forehand with a feeling of the withers rising up).
I immediately I noticed how light, happy, harmonious, engaged, relaxed (in mind and jaw), rhythmic, impulsive, and balanced Lisa’s horses are in this DVD. The horses aren’t fancy, just like my horses, yet they demonstrate some amazing transformations. So I began applying these exercises with all of the horses I ride—Intro through Second Level dressage.
While this DVD illustrates these exercises using trotting horses, While not perfect, I have seen remarkable improvement in balance, gait quality, and transitions with the naturally gaited horses I ride as a result of applying these exercises.
Video: Counted Walk to Canter
Video: Counted Walk to Flat Walk
Progression of exercises: First I introduce leg yields along the fence. As soon as the horse understands the exercise, I introduce leg yields from the quarter line to the rail.
I do a lot of circle work with my horses beginning with a 20 meter circle and reducing the size as the horse is able to maintain balance, rhythm, relaxation (in mind and jaw), and softness in the mouth. I include true bends and counter bends on a circle.
As the horse can maintain balance in a 10 meter circle at a slow walk, I introduce to a few steps of shoulder in. After a 10 meter circle, I maintain the arc of the circle as I travel along the fence a few steps.
Over time I will increase the number of steps and increase the tempo from a slow walk to a medium walk as long as the horse remains in balance with relaxation, bending, impulsion, and rhythm. Then I will proceed with shoulder in at a flat walk. I also do the shoulder in on a circle at a collected, medium walk and flat walk.
When the horse is forward in the mind and from the leg, I will introduce rein back and counted walk along the fence to help the horse remain straight. I only ask for a couple steps at a time in order to rebalance the horse. Then I begin teaching the piaffe in hand before asking for piaffe from the saddle.
Bottomline: I let the horse tell me what it needs vs. the level we are showing at. I introduce the next progression of exercises as the horse is able to maintain balance, relaxation in the mind and jaw, softness in the mouth, rhythm and forwardness.
In fact, the improved balance the rein back, shoulder in, and counted walk have established with my friend’s gaited horse, Lady, have built the balance needed to introduce canter to the right and left leads without chasing her into the canter.
Plus, Lady has developed a natural head nodding fox trot that is smoother than a Western jog! I feel that we have made dramatically greater training progress by introducing rein back, shoulder in, and counted walk than if we would have just continued traveling in 20-meter, long and low circles that the Intro Level calls for.
Video: Starting Lady in Canter
Video: Lady’s Fox Walk/Fox Trot in regular time and slow motion
Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I knew in 1988 what I know now. At least I am becoming a rider with more awareness of the feeling of balance and believe I’m moving in a constructive training path of lightness, balance, harmony, and impulsion—especially in the lower levels. That’s not to say that I expect Grand Prix balance from an Intro Level horse; I just redirect the horse into the feeling of balance each time the horse leans on the bit or becomes heavy on the forehand and shoulders with exercises that improve balance, lightness, harmony, and impulsion. In any case, it transforms our training into more of an enjoyable dance.
What is a half halt? Why is it used? When do you apply it? Does the half halt serve a purpose for the naturally gaited horse? Can a half halt improve the quality of gait?
When I flew to Alabama in January to be Jennie Jackson’s working, the half halt wasn’t one of the questions I had on my mind. Instead I was interested in learning how to lengthen the stride of a running walk without rushing. I was soon to learn that the half halt was the secret ingredient to do just that.
The half halt is a broad term used to rebalance the horse, and as a dressage rider, I’ve been acquainted with the half halt for decades. Yet, I had not understood its application with the naturally gaited horse. My focus had been establishing a head nodding even rhythm and a SMOOTH gait. Beyond that I hadn’t developed an awareness for the need of half halts that could lead to gait quality.
That is, until I traveled to Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center and rode with Jennie. Each day I rode several naturally gaited Tennessee walking horses of various training levels. Some were green, others were well schooled, and one was being rehabilitated from Big Lick. Within each level of training, some horses rushed, others leaned on the bit, some took small quick steps, and some barged through the outside shoulder in a lateral exercise. In each case, Jennie taught me the importance and application of the half halt.
From Jennie’s coaching, I had a half halt awakening that taught me three important keys to its effectiveness. The first key is to become aware of when a half halt is needed; the second key is knowing and consistently applying the half halt aids at the right time; and the third key is knowing when to release the half halt.
Applying half halts with the naturally gaited horse
Awareness of need: Now that the ice has melted and it’s safe to ride again, I’ve been putting half halts into practice with the horses I ride. I’m amazed with how many half halts are applied within a riding session and how many reasons a half halt is needed. I’m using half halts to prepare my horse for a transition, whenever my horse leans on the bridle, or rushes, or becomes distracted, or feels heavy on the forehand and needs to re-shift its balance onto the hindquarters. Whenever my horse takes short quick steps, and whenever my horse bulges through the shoulder in a lateral movement.
Aids of the half halt: After I recognize the need for a half halt, I simultaneously freeze my lower back, still my hip joints from following my horse’s movement, and squeeze my fingers on the reins without pulling back. I hold this position until the release.
Timing of the release: Riding several horses of various training, along with Jennie’s coaching, really pointed out that the release of a half halt is not a one-size-fits-all. Sensitive horses will respond to the half halt quicker than less sensitive horses. One horse I rode tended to rush and a two-second half halt was applied before the horse responded. Another horse I rode also rushed, but she was much more sensitive so the half halt was released in a half second. As soon as the horse responds to the half halt by slowing down, or rebalancing, or straightening through the outside shoulder, or taking a deeper stride under its body, it is important to release the half halt. This means opening my fingers without letting the reins slip through, relaxing my lower back and resume following the horse’s motion through my hip joints alternating to the rise and fall of the belly sway which is in sync with the hind legs as they step under the body.
Sometimes a half halt and release is followed up with another half halt and release because the horse responded to the first half halt, took a couple balanced steps, and then rushed off again. Over time, with consistent half halts and releases in response to the rushing, the horse will rush less.
One horse I rode was barn sour. Every time we headed away from her friends, the horse began moving sideways. I tried to overcome this by riding with a fixed outside rein against her neck. It wasn’t working. Instead, Jennie encourage me to apply the outside rein like a half halt, then lift both reins up and over to the other side, and release. For this mare, the release made all the difference.
I am becoming more aware through the sense of feel just how half halts are rebalancing my horse to shift more weight onto the hindquarters, helping my horse become lighter on the bridle and rounder in the frame, and slowing my horse whenever she rushes to encourage deeper strides under her body.
This half halt awakening has opened my eyes to many benefits the half halt brings to the naturally gaited horse and in improving the gait quality of the horses I ride.