By Jennifer Klitzke
Next to “how do I get my horse to gait?” is another common question I hear gaited horse owners ask: “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” This question comes up at every gaited dressage and gaited horsemanship clinic I’ve attended. Among the use of ground rails and transitions, every clinician I’ve heard agrees that working your gaited horse in a long and low position is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow and stiff-backed pace into a relaxed, smooth, four-beat gait.
In dressage terms, long and low is called freewalk on a long rein. It is required in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced—and it is the way riders are asked to leave the arena after the final halt and salute.
Freewalk on a long rein is more than just allowing the horse a long rein to stretch its head and neck out and down. The freewalk has great purpose: it stretches and strengthens the top line muscles, it develops rhythm and depth of stride as the horse reaches beneath its body with its hind leg and over tracks the fore footprint, and the lowered head and neck position stimulates endorphins to relax the horse. The freewalk is a great way to begin and end every ride with a couple stretch breaks in between—as long as the horse is in balance.
Recently I’ve had the great privilege of auditing two great clinicians who came to my region: International riding bio-mechanics coach Mary Wanless and Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz. Both clinicians challenged riders to not only become aware of riding in a balanced position, but to become aware of the horse’s balance so that they are more proactive in maintaining it. While both clinics taught riders of trotting horses, the principles of rider position and balance certainly apply to gaited horses.
Heather explained the feeling of a horse’s balance in this metaphor. While riding, imagine if your horse had a medicine ball which freely moves around its insides. Feel where the weight of the medicine ball would rest. Does it feel like it rests in the horse’s chest or beneath your seat? The former indicates that the horse is more on the forehand and the latter indicates that the horse is more in balance with the rider.
Thinking about this, what if I were to release my horse into a long and low frame while her balance is on the forehand? What quality of freewalk would we produce? Likely my horse would begin pulling herself forward with her front legs and her hind legs would be trailing behind instead of stepping deep beneath her body and creating over track with the fore hoof print.
Now that I’ve become aware of how it feels when my horse is in and out of balance, it is important to correct her balance BEFORE releasing the reins for freewalk on a long rein.
Heather’s metaphor has really helped me discover the feeling of balance and what to do about it when I lose it. Each time it feels like the medicine ball rolls into my horse’s chest, I begin with a half halt or transition from walk to halt to walk. If the medicine ball still feels like it is in the chest, then I transition from walk to halt with a couple steps of rein back until I feel the medicine ball roll beneath my seat. That’s when I allow my horse to take the reins long and low for a freewalk and feel her step deeply beneath her body like pictured above.
Freewalk on a long rein is a great way to break up pace for a smooth, four-beat gait. It also improves depth of stride, rhythm and relaxation. Just remember to establish balance before releasing the reins to maximize your efforts.