By Jennifer Klitzke
When your body can no longer endure the sitting trot, it’s time to discover the bounceless stride of a naturally gaited horse!
H-X-F, extended trot along the diagonal. Oh, dread, my German warmblood Seiltanzer has never been smooth to sit, especially at the extended trot, and over the last twenty years both of us have aged. Each stride has become more dislodging, resulting in back pain, sagging breasts that seem to hit me in the face with each step, and sometimes “splash”—the loss of bladder control! What began as a beautiful dance between horse and rider has now become a losing fight with gravity.
In 2007, I joined other aging baby boomers and retired from showing hard-trotting horses, but I didn’t want to give up riding, especially the beautiful dance of dressage.
This quandary introduced me to the bounceless stride of the Tennessee walking horse, and I have learned that I’m not alone. The naturally gaited horse industry has seen a continual climb in popularity. Tennessee walking horses, Missouri foxtrotters, Rocky Mountain spotted horses, Icelandics, gaited mules, Paso Finos, and Peruvian Pasos are among these naturally smooth-gaited horse breeds. Not only that, I was thrilled to learn that dressage actually improves the gaited horse’s quality of movement. The principles of dressage build balance, forwardness, relaxation, suppleness, and engagement and can actually transform a pacey horse into a smooth four-beat gaiting dance partner.
Below are seven ways I’m learning that improve the walking horses’s quality of gait using dressage training methods and transform an ordinary ride into a beautiful dance, even while on the trail!
1. Equipment: Just as it is no fun to dance with ill-fitting shoes, an uncomfortable horse is an unhappy dance partner. Dressage methods are best applied by riding with a well-fitted snaffle bit that encourages salivation and acceptance of the bit, as opposed to bits that are engineered for pain avoidance. I like to ride in a hollow mouth, double-jointed egg-butt snaffle, because it doesn’t pinch my horse’s cheeks or hit the top of my horse’s pallet. Equally important is a properly fitting saddle that does not pinch the shoulders or touch the wither.
2. Long and low: Begin and end every ride with 5-10 minutes of a marching, forward walk on a long rein, and encourage your horse to stretch down and round from nose to tail. Stretching helps lengthen the horse’s topline muscles and increase a horse’s stride.
3. Transitions: Choreograph every ride with changes of direction and tempo to keep it interesting for you and your horse. Walk-canter-walk, halt-rein back-walk, and transitions from walk to gait and back every 5-10 steps are great exercises that will improve the communication between you and your equine dance partner. Transitions can improve your horse’s responsiveness and graciously establish you as the dance leader.
4. Bending: Twenty-meter circles, three-loop serpentines, spiraling in and out of a circle are great exercises to encourage a horse to bend through the neck, shoulders, and rib cage, and teach the horse to step deeper under its body with its hind leg. Bending exercises improve a horse’s balance, lighten the forehand to carry itself more poised, and help smooth out a rough gait.
5. Lateral exercises: Zig-zag leg yields, turn on the haunches, turn on the forehand, haunches-in, shoulder-in, and half-pass are great dance moves to supple and soften your horse and build trust and communication between you and your dance partner.
6. Canter: It is a popular myth that cantering a gaited horse will ruin its naturally smooth four-beat gait. On the contrary, I have found that cantering actually improves my Walking Horse’s flat walk and running walk. Cantering up hills, in 20-meter circles, over ground rails and small jumps will strengthen your horse, lengthen its stride, and break up a pace.
7. Become a student: There are a few gaited horse trainers and nationally known clinicians who I have learned from who use dressage methods to improve the movement of naturally gaited horses. Among them are Jennie Jackson, Larry Whitesell, and Bucky Sparks. Audit their clinics, read their books, and watch their training DVDs or find an open-minded traditional dressage instructor to help you and your gaited horse get started with suppling exercises.
Dressage training methods will help your gaited horse improve its smooth, four-beat gait, make your horse a more mentally connected dance partner, and transform even a ride on the trail into a beautiful dance that you can comfortably enjoy well into your senior years.