Sore No More: Rehabilitating a Big Lick Horse with Dressage

Sore no More

By Jennifer Klitzke

Can dressage training rehabilitate a former Big Lick Tennessee walking horse? Can dressage transform a tense, high-headed and hollow-backed frame into a relaxed posture that builds the top line? Can dressage break up a hard pace into a natural four-beat gait without heavy shoes and pads? Can dressage mend a damaged mind to develop trust in a rider, accept a soft snaffle contact, and respond willingly to leg aids without exploding? Can humane training methods prolong the life of a Tennessee walking horse?

In January I had the opportunity to address these questions when I applied the grant awarded by the United States Humane Society “Now That’s a Walking Horse” program and flew to Theodore, Alabama to be Jennie Jackson’s working student at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center. Jennie is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse through the highest levels of dressage, and she, along with her husband Nate, have been on the front lines fighting against Big Lick soring and abuse for over 30 years.

While I was there I had the privilege of watching Jennie ride her barefoot, 21-year-old gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout in person! He is the ONLY Tennessee walking horse still living among those who he had competed against in the 1998 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class. He was also the only flat shod entry ridden in that class among Big Lick horses. Horses simply don’t live that long when subjected to the cruelty and abuse of soring.

Jennie and Watchout
Jennie Jackson riding piaffe en gaite with her barefoot, 21-year-old TWH gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.

My days with Jennie were filled with riding several Tennessee walking horses at various levels of training, flat walking the ocean coast, riding in a Dauphin Island Marti Gras parade, and being introduced to the challenges of retraining a rescued Big Lick horse.

Big Lick it’s something I’ve ever encountered in Minnesota. In fact, I didn’t even know what Big Lick or soring was when I bought my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) in 2007. It wasn’t until I began surfing YouTube for information about training a Tennessee walking horse when I stumbled upon Big Lick. After watching a few Big Lick videos, I wondered, “Is this how a Tennessee walking horse is suppose to move?”

To me, the Big Lick Tennessee walking horses are like a Picasso painting coming to life: exaggerated, disjointed, and unnatural. Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” While some people might think Big Lick is expressive and exciting to watch and ride, how the motion is achieved unveils a horrifying truth. The exaggerated Big Lick motion is produced by applying caustic agents to the horses’ front feet known as soring. Then heavy shoes, pads and chains are added. Horses are forced forward by the riders’ sharp spurs. With each step the chains slap against the horses’ sored feet. The horses’ pain reaction, propelled by the heavy shoes, are the real reasons why the horses lift their front legs as they do. To evade the pain, horses learn to shift most of their weight to the hindquarters which produces extreme engagement. Then the horses are ridden in harsh curb bits to restrain them from exploding. Torturous. Sadistic and unlawful. Yet Big Lick still exists.

I made a firm decision after watching a couple Big Lick videos that dressage is all my barefoot Tennessee walking horse was going to know. Then I began to support organizations like Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) who advocate against Big Lick soring and abuse, and I began to meet others like Jennie Jackson who teach and train dressage as applied to the gaited horse.

Thankfully my Tennessee walking horse has never experienced Big Lick. Makana was imprinted at birth, family raised and trained when I bought her in 2007 as a barefoot, just-turning-three-year-old filly. Natural and humane training methods are all she’s known—no rehab needed.

Not so for many Tennessee walking horses down South.

A few weeks before my trip, Jennie had acquired a lovely mare named Sweet Caroline who had sadly experienced “Big Lick” training trauma. Like many Big Lick Tennessee walking horses, Caroline was breed to pace where when heavy shoes and pads are added they would offset the pace into a four-beat sequence. For years, Carolyn had been driven forward with sharp spurs into a harsh curb bit which taught her to rush off in a tense, high-headed, hollow-backed frame. The soring scars on her front feet tell the rest of the story.

Now that Caroline is barefoot, could dressage break up her pace to develop a natural four-beat gait? Could dressage transform her tense, high-headed and hollow-back frame into a relaxed long and low posture? Could dressage help her develop trust with a rider, seek a snaffle bit contact, and accept leg cues without rushing?

If anyone could teach me, it would be Jennie who has been training naturally gaited Tennessee walking horses for decades using dressage. Jennie had been retraining Caroline for several weeks prior to my arrival, so she knew how to coach me as I rode this hot, tense, and sensitive mare.

Sweet Caroline and I
Jennie Jackson coached me on how to achieve relaxation and rhythm with a former Big Lick Tennessee walking horse using dressage. This horse is being ridden in a Happy Mouth Pelham bit which functions as a snaffle or a curb depending upon which reins are applied.

Relaxation and Rhythm
Dressage training produces relaxation and rhythm in any horse breed whether the horse trots or gaits. Jennie showed me a great exercise to establish relaxation by riding Caroline at a dog walk on a 20-meter circle and transition between a true to the inside of the circle (shoulder fore) and a bend to the outside of the circle (counter bend). This exercise helped her lower her head and neck down and out and break up the pacey steps into a four-beat walk.

The shoulder fore/counter bend exercise taught Caroline to step beneath and across her belly with her hind leg each time I applied my calf lightly at the girth. This engaged her abdominal muscles and lifted her back and lowered her head and neck. As I squeezed and released the inside rein softly, it unlocked the tension in her poll to look slightly to the inside of the circle. The opposite rein (the indirect rein) maintained a light contact against her neck to keep her from moving sideways. Then I’d squeeze and release the outside rein softly to unlock the tension in her poll to look slightly to the outside of the circle while applying my outside calf at the girth.  I clearly felt the “before” and “after” difference. Each time Caroline got tense, dropped her back, and rushed off in a pace, I felt like I was riding a stiff bumpy plank, but as soon as she relaxed into the bending exercise, she felt smooth and pliable.

Half Halts
When Caroline relaxed into the bending exercise at a dog walk, Jennie encouraged me to move her up into flat walk. That’s when she taught me the importance and effectiveness of half halts. Each time Caroline would rush or pace, I squeezed my fists together on the reins and at the same time stilled the motion of my hips and back. As soon as Caroline responded to the half halt by slowing down or breaking up the pace, I immediately relaxed my grip on the reins (without letting the reins slip through my fingers), lengthened my arms toward the bit, and resumed following her movement with my hip joints and lower back.

I got LOTS of practice with half halts and releases while riding Caroline. We’d have a few soft, round steps in rhythm and relaxation before she would try to rush off again. It takes a lot of patience and quiet repetition to rehabilitate a Big Lick horse like this.

riding along the lake
Riding up and down hills is a great way to build top line muscles and balance.

Cantering the Hillside
After Caroline and I became acquainted in the arena, Jennie tacked up and we rode along the scenic trail system at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center and to the lake where we schooled flat walk and canter along the hillside. This really helped Caroline engage from behind as she cantered up the hill and learned balance walking back down. I switched up the flat walk and canter each time I rode up the hill so that Caroline would listen to my cues instead of anticipate the gait.

In the short time I was there, I was delighted to witness how dressage could rehabilitate a horse damaged by Big Lick. Each day I rode Caroline, we had more prolonged moments of relaxation and rhythm. Her pace was being replaced with a natural four-beat gait. She was beginning to seek a snaffle bit contact instead of evading it, and we began to build a some trust.

I grew to love that spunky little mare, and returning home I felt good knowing that Sweet Caroline was in good hands with Jennie and that for the rest of her life she’d be sore no more.

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Gaiting the Coast before Marti Gras

riding the ocean coast

By Jennifer Klitzke

Have you ever dreamed about riding along the ocean coast? It’s been a dream of mine, and it came true—but there was a catch. I had to ride in a Marti Gras parade on a horse that had never been in one.

In January I had a week free before beginning my new job and learned that Jennie Jackson was training at Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center near Mobile, Alabama. So I took a spontaneous four-day trip South to briefly escape the arctic blast.

“Make sure you stay through Saturday,” Jennie said, “so that you can ride the ocean coast and in the Dauphin Island Marti Gras parade.”

Ocean coast? Wow! Not only would I be Jennie’s working student and ride several Tennessee walking horses at various stages of training each day, but I would be riding the ocean coast—a dream come true!

I didn’t realize how special this opportunity was until I arrived. Dauphin Island only allows horses on the beach once a year and that’s only for horses that are trailered in for their Marti Gras parade.

Speaking of Marti Gras, Like most people, I thought Marti Gras was an annual event exclusive to New Orleans. Turns out Marti Gras originated in Mobile, Alabama and is celebrated for several weeks throughout the South until Lent begins.

On the third day of riding with Jennie, I met Abbie, a six-year-old Tennessee walking horse mare who reminded me of my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. Abbie would be the horse I’d ride on the beach and in the parade. Neither she nor I had ever ridden the ocean coast or in a parade, so I did my best to establish trust and team work.

Abbie and I took a nice trail ride with one of the boarders while Jennie taught lessons. We rode up and down hills, alongside a beautiful aqua marine lake with rust colored sand, through the woods, over felled trees, and through creeks. Back at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, Abbie and I negotiated their extensive trail obstacle course . I felt like we had connected well.

The next morning a group of us trailered to Daulphin Island through the grey skies and rain. Thankfully the sun broke through the clouds for our beach ride and parade.

Jennie and Watchout
Jennie Jackson riding her famous TWH dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.
Abbie and I riding on the ocean coast.
Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center’s TWH Abbie and I riding on the ocean coast.

The first one in the ocean was Jennie Jackson and her famous stallion Champagne Watchout. He LOVES the water and gave the rest of the horses confidence to step into the wavy shoreline. In no time we were flat walking the ocean coast. It wasn’t as romantic as I had pictured in my mind—galloping carefree through the water in a long flowing gown—but it was FUN!

Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center fosters a community of wonderful people who enjoy a variety of disciplines with their gaited horses: dressage, trail riding, competitive trail obstacles, jumping and cross country, parades, mounted patrol, and more.

Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center
Our group from Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center.

After our beach ride, our group dressed up in purple, green and gold, adorned in beads, and rode four miles along the city streets to the beginning of the parade route.

Cremelo TWH
The large beads are called sugar beads.
Blues band between the ears
Not your typical between the ears shot.
Abbie and I
Abbie seemed to like the music and danced to the beat.
Jennie and Watchout
How long do you think the beads will last on this head shaking horse?
Large crowds ahead.
Large crowds ahead anxiously awaiting beads, coins and moon pies.
Parade patron
Parade patrons caught flying strings of beads.
She's got the bead technique mastered.
This young parade patron has got the bead technique mastered.
Baby's first Marti Gras.
Baby’s first Marti Gras.
Parade patron
Front row seat.
Parade patron
Parade patrons of all ages having a wonderful time!
Parade patron
Love the hat!
Madison
Kathee’s TWH mare Madison leading our group in the Marti Gras Parade.
Parade patrons caught flying strings of beads.
Parade patrons caught flying strings of beads.
Parade patrons
Parade patrons getting a better view!
Parade patron
Parade patron festively dressed for the parade.
Parade patron
Love the hair!
Festively dressed horse and rider
Festively dressed horse and rider.

Thanks to Abbie and the great group of people from Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, I not only rode on the ocean coast, but I also rode eight miles through cheering crowds, horns, loud music and flying beads and couldn’t stop smiling the entire time!

Getting ready to for the Marti Gras parade
Getting back to the trailers after four hours of riding, my face hurt from smiling about as much as my body hurt from riding!

For more information about Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, visit their blog or subscribe to the Amazing Gaits Facebook group.

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2016 NWHA First Level Dressage Champion

Naturally gaited TWH Gift of Freedom ridden by Jennifer Klitzke was named 2015 NWHA First Level Champion.
Naturally gaited TWH Gift of Freedom ridden by Jennifer Klitzke was named 2015 NWHA First Level Champion.

By Jennifer Klitzke

When I bought my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) in 2007, I had no intentions on showing her—especially in dressage—because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot. I just wanted a smooth horse to ride that would be easier on my aging body. Since dressage had been the only riding style I had studied since 1988, that’s what became our training language.

Since I lived on a hobby farm with no gaited dressage instructors nearby, I rode by myself and applied knowledge from 12 years of traditional dressage lessons and attended clinics when gaited dressage instructors traveled to my state.

In 2010, I saw that a USDF schooling dressage show would be held ten miles away. I contacted the show manager and asked if I could ride my TWH but replace trot with flat walk. She agreed. (Little did I know that the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) had already written dressage tests which did exactly that.

Getting to the show that day, I thought I would be laughed off the planet, because I’d be the only one riding a horse that didn’t trot. But I didn’t care, because it meant more to me to receive feedback from a dressage professional as to where we were at in our training as it related to rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, balance, and harmony. The feedback we received that day was meaningful, challenging, and affirming. It gave us something to work toward.

Both Makana and I enjoyed the day. My mare was relaxed and curious. I made significant connections with owners of gaited trail horses. Many of which had never considered applying their dressage training to their gaited horses until seeing gaited dressage in action. Two women even invited us to join their next trail ride. As long as Makana and I had fun, we’d try it again.

After that show I became introduced to the NWHA dressage tests which are the same as the USDF tests with flat walk in place of trot.

Five years and fifty-five gaited dressage tests later, USDF schooling dressage show judges have provided constructive feedback to help us grow in our training from Intro through Training to First Level and have challenged us to face all of the required movements in both directions. This would be easy to avoid if we were just hacking at home.

In 2015, the NWHA launched a dressage awards program. I have so much gratitude for the NWHA. I appreciate all of the hard work in getting the tests approved through the USDF every four years. If it weren’t for these tests, I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to show at open USDF schooling dressage shows the last five years. For these reasons I became a NWHA member to support the dressage awards program.

In 2015, Makana and I showed at five USDF open schooling shows as the only gaited horse among the trotting horses and rode 10 NWHA tests (two at Training Level and eight at First Level). Five scores were required from three different “L” (or higher) judges within a level to qualify and one test being the highest of the level. The horse with the highest median score would determin the winner.

2015 Gaited Dressage Show Record

May 2, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Jodi Ely
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 68.2%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 70.4%

May 9, 2015
Arbor Hill Schooling Dressage Show
Stillwater, MN
Judge: Molly Schiltgen
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 67.27%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.56%

May 30, 2015
Northwoods Schooling Dressage Show
Corcoran, MN
Judge: Colleen Holden
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.926%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 70.294%

August 2, 2015
Carriage House Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Hugo, MN
Judge: Jennie Zimmerman
NWHA First Level Test 1: 64.07%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 62.06%

August 15, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Nancy Porter
NWHA First Level Test 1: 66.5%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 63.9%

I’m happy to announce that Makana and I were named Champion in First Level, followed by Banner’s Dixie Belle ridden by Scot MacGregor, and Heat Stroke ridden by Pamela Polydoros.

For complete dressage award results visit www.NWHA.com.

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

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