All posts by naturallygaited

"Dressage is more than trot...and the saddle you ride in." -Jennifer Klitzke Some owners of gaited horses believe that dressage will make their gaited horse trot while some traditional dressage riders believe that dressage is only for horses that trot. Dressage is a French term for the training of horse and rider. Whether you ride english or western; whether your horse trots or gaits, it doesn't matter. As long as you seek to improve rhythm, relaxation, balance, connection and engagement with your horse and grow in knowledge and application of rider position and effective use of aids, you're right in line with the foundational principles of dressage. Dressage training will bring out the best natural movement in your horse whether it trots or gaits.

Collection and its effect on stride length

Collection and its effect on stride lengthBy Jennifer Klitzke

Dressage for the gaited horse: Developing a naturally gaited horse’s full range of motion by teaching big striding pushing gaits and balanced and engaged carrying gaits that improve the former.

Do you like the idea of training your naturally gaited horse for more relaxation, rhythm, balance, connection, and engagement?

I know I do.

I love training my natural gaited horse with humane training methods without pads and heavy shoes, mechanical devices, and artificial enhancements.

Don’t you?

Yet, if we are using dressage as our natural training method, how many of us realize that as we move into the carrying gaits of collection that build balance and engagement, that the naturally gaited horse’s stride shortens.

stride length: pushing power vs carrying power
Pushing power vs carrying power: Notice the biomechanics between flat walk (pushing gait) and collected walk (carrying gait). The pink line indicates the amount of disengagement beyond the tail. Increasing engagment and collection shortens the stride.

Look at the photo above which shows some of the walks called for in dressage. Notice as the horse steps into a collected walk, the hind leg doesn’t push from behind the tail. Rather it carries weight. Without the hind leg pushing from behind the tail, the stride is shorter. In the collected walk the horse compresses its frame by bending its hindquarter joints and engages its abdominal muscles which rounds its back. While the horse engages the hindquarters it lifts the whither, head and neck. The horse moves more poised and elegant. The collected walk is also a much slower tempo than the flat walk and the head doesn’t nod.

Just as the naturally gaited horse can learn to develop maximum stride length with a head nod in the flat walk and running walk, the horse can learn the collected walk. There are many benefits in doing so.

Training through the levels of dressage doesn’t mean that the collected gaits replace the big striding gaits. The horse gains a full range of motion as it develops the long, low, ground covering pushing gaits as well as the engaged, compressed and elegant carrying gaits of collection which produce balance. It is as simple as applying a set of cues, training and conditioning to direct the horse into a desired posture of movement.

Lateral exercises at a collected walk
Lateral exercises at a slow collected walk help the naturally gaited horse develop balance.

Even better, the carrying gaits of collection along with lateral exercises produces balance, suppleness, and strength which in turn improve the quality of the pushing gaits as the flat walk and running walk.

I own and train a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. I’ve shown her successfully at rail class events, so I know how big strides and head nods are deeply prized at breed shows.

I am also passionate about dressage. As one advances in the levels of dressage training they will come face-to-face with the requirements of the collected walk and lateral movements.

While naturally smooth gaits like the running walk “push” from behind to create big strides, collected gaits “carry” from behind to produce balance and engagement which in turn can improve the quality of the pushing gaits.

For the rail class competitor, the thought of slower, shorter strides, with little to no head nod produced by the collected walk may seem pointless. Yet teaching the naturally gaited horse the collected walk and lateral exercises such as shoulder in will improve balance and engagement which in turn can improve the quality of the flat walk and running walk.

As a gaited dressage rider, I’ve labored to develop a big striding, head nodding flat walk and running walk. Then I began schooling Second Level lateral exercises like the shoulder in. I tried REAL hard to maintain the same depth of stride and head nod when introducing collection and lateral exercises, but realized that the flat walk and the collected walk are not the same gait.

For the collected walk in the naturally gaited horse, it means SLOWING down and SHORTENING the stride to introduce lateral exercises. The collected walk and lateral exercises improve balance, engagement, softness, and strength to further gymnasticize the horse.

In the last few years while studying French dressage, I realized this demand for maximum depth of stride in the collected walk isn’t realistic. Lessons with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson and French classical dressage clinician Fred Kappler have confirmed this. Carrying gaits and pushing gaits are two different things. Working in the slower, compressed, engaged collected gaits will build balance and strength which then improve the quality of the pushing gaits of flat walk and running walk with maximum head nod.

Jean-Claude Racinet, a classical French dressage master of Baucher’s theories describes engagement and disengagement in a horse’s stride. He says that engagement is the amount of stride under the horse’s belly and disengagement is the amount of stride behind the horse’s tail. He also said that a horse’s head and neck become STILL when in the “collected” FOUR-BEAT gaits of walk.

Think this through with me in light of what Classical French Dressage Master Racinet is saying: For the Tennessee walking horse, the flat walk and running walk both seek to reach a maximum length of stride. This stride length counts both the stride length under the belly (engagement) as well as the stride length behind the tail (disengagement). And a radical head and neck nod with every stride is highly prized.

This got me thinking about the biomechanics of collection and the biomechanics of a head nodding, deep striding flat walk. To me it is clear: The biomechanics are different and will produce different effects.

Yes, I want a soft, harmonious, round horse, with a maximum stride length, and a pronounced head nod. Yet it is not a realistic expectation when applying the aids for the collected walk. For me this was freedom. I realized that I needed to change my expectations about collection and how it impacts the movement in the naturally gaited horse.

Working in a slow, collected walk through shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass doesn’t mean abandoning all of the other work that has been accomplished up to that point. It just means that I don’t combine the expectation of big strides and head nod to the collected walk. I believe the collected walk is just one more posture I can ask of my naturally gaited horse to make her more athletic.

The collected walk has helped my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse find balance. The tempo is slow and deliberate enough for her to learn lateral exercises which have strengthened her for more beautiful gaiting. After we apply moments of collection in shoulder in, I turn her loose along the rail into her deep striding, head shaking flat walk and WOW. These transitions between collection and gait are improving her quality of flat walk and running walk!

Naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse flatwalk
Naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse flatwalk.

If you’ve ever seen the DVD of classical French dressage master Philippe Karl training High Noon, you’ll see how he trains him like he would play an accordion. He works the horse in a long and low frame for a few strides and then gathers the horse up for more collection and engagement in lateral exercises and then releases the horse to more strides of a long and low frame. This is what is known as gymnasticizing the horse to develop its full range of motion: pushing and carrying gaits.

Attaining the higher levels of dressage with collection and engagement doesn’t mean we never ride with maximum stride length and a head-banging nod again. I believe our horses can learn a full range of motion from long and low, to maximum depth of stride and head nod in a flat walk and running walk, to slow, engaged shortened steps of the collected walk in order to learn lateral exercises for balance and suppleness.

For now, applying transitions between the collected walk and moments of expressive flat walk along the rail have been a perfect recipe for me and my naturally gaited walking horse Makana.

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Teeth Clicking in the Naturally Gaited Horse

Teeth clicking and the Naturally Gaited Horse

By Jennifer Klitzke

Coming from the traditional trotting horse dressage camp to gaited dressage, nothing sounded more foreign to me than desirable attributes as ear flopping and teeth clicking.

What I have discovered since I began my gaited dressage journey in 2010 with my naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse mare, Makana is that it’s not so much the actual ear flopping and teeth clicking that’s important as what these attributes represent: relaxation and rhythm. Both relaxation and rhythm are what we seek in good dressage training whether riding a gaited or trotting breed. Along with this is relaxation of the jaw.

In breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Foxtrotter and others that offer a natural and even four-beat gait, such as the flat walk and running walk, the horse will begin to click their teeth with each head nod in rhythm with the hind leg steps as the horse settles into relaxation of the jaw. Along with this relaxation, the horse may also begin to flop its ears with each head nod up and down.

This is something that doesn’t happen with trotting horses because the horse’s head and neck remain stationary in the trot. And when the trotting horse walks, it is too slow to produce the head nod that produces the same teeth clicking and ear flop seen in the flat walk and running walk.

Now, it is important to recognize the sounds: teeth clicking and the grinding of teeth are not the same things. In fact, they are on  the opposite spectrum. If a horse is grinding their teeth, it is because the horse is tense and unhappy, not relaxed. The source for the grinding of teeth may be a tight fitting nose band, ill-fitting saddle or bit, or teeth that need to be looked at by a veterinarian or equine dentist.

In any case, the video below will provide the sound of teeth clicking as a result of relaxation and a happy mouth. (And yes, it is possible to train your naturally gaited horse to do a four-beat gait on a loose rein, barefoot, and in a mild snaffle bit.)

Video: Teeth Clicking Flat Walk in the Tennessee Walking Horse

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Trail Challenge at Governor Knowles State Forest

Governor Knowles State Forest Trail ChallengeBy Jennifer Klitzke

Working cows with a gaited horseNext to the 2017 August Cow Sorting League with our personal best by leaps and bounds (5th of 17), I’d have to say that riding the Trail Challenge at Governor Knowles State Forest on September 3, 2017 with Stephanie, Brian, Indy, Lefty and Lady was one of the best memories of the summer.

The St. Croix River vista through the ears of Indy.
The St. Croix River vista through the ears of Indy.

Earlier this year, I made the heart-felt decision to sell my Spanish Mustang Indian’s Legend back to his previous owner, Stephanie. My Dad had passed away after an illness and my life circumstances had changed. Indy wasn’t happy as a backyard dressage horse. He missed our weekend-get-aways.

As much as I miss him, my heart is happy and at peace  knowing that Indy is with Stephanie and Brian who love him like I do. Not only that, but Indy is living in his happy place and in the trail horse dream: miles and miles of mature forests and river crossings every weekend with lots of pasture space to goof off with his fellow Spanish Mustang comrades.

Stephanie had checked in with me a couple weeks prior to the Trail Challenge at Governor Knowles State Forest. I quickly got naturally gaited foxtrotting horse Lady up-to-date on a Coggins so that I could join her and Brian.

All three of us
Lady with two Spanish Mustangs–all barefoot and sound!

What an amazing day: enjoying their great company, great scenery, great horses, great weather, and challenging obstacles, with the added bonus of several river and bridge crossings to boot! A first for Lady.

Indy and Stephanie eating up the obstacle
Indy and Stephanie eating up the obstacle.

It was so fun to watch Indy and Stephanie eat up those trail obstacles. They gave Lady and five-year-old Spanish Mustang Lefty courage to give them a try. There were six obstacles along a 10-12 mile trail through scenic mature forest, ferns, wildflowers, butterflies, and songbirds. The footing was perfect for naturally barefoot horses like the three of us were riding. It was a comfortable temperature and the sun made its brilliant appearance mid-point of the ride.

There were two divisions, the just-for-fun and the jackpot. I entered Lady in the just-for-fun since this was her first obstacle challenge. Stephanie and Brian opted for the jackpot—why not—no doubt Indy was up for the challenge!

The first of six obstacles was opening and closing a gate without letting go. After closing the gate, then maneuvering to a barrel and  picking up a clanger. Then navigating through two poles and ringing the “come-an’-get-it-dinner-is-ready triangle three times in two minutes or less. I was amazed how afraid Lady was of the gate. At home, all she wants to do is open and close the gate herself! Dang! We danced around the gate until the two minutes ran out.

The jackpot level had to back out of the rails after clanging the triangle in the same amount of time. Indy and Stephanie did this obstacle really well.

The second obstacle was navigating the horse through a wooden ladder in two minutes or less. The horse had to step within the narrow ladder prongs, turn on the fore and return through the narrow ladder prongs. After Lady realized that the ladder wasn’t going to eat her, she killed this obstacle—even on a loose rein!

For those in the jackpot level, they had to side pass the ladder in the return. Indy rocked this obstacle! I wish I had video to show for it!

Me and Lady playing some broom ball, if we can only get close enough to the ball.
Me and Lady playing some broom ball, if we can only get close enough to the ball.

The third obstacle was broom balling a heavy soccer ball with a wispy broom through a goal in two minutes or less. Sound simple? Yes, in reality. Yet, it was very difficult. Lady as well as many of the horses seem to have ball phobia. (Peeps, practice makes perfect! Until next time. Right!)

The jackpot level had to WEAVE the ball through a set of cones and into the goal. Stephanie and Indy made it look easy and received the fastest time thus far. WAY TO GO!

Me and Lady at the ring toss
Me and Lady at the ring toss…better luck next time.

The fourth obstacle was a ring toss. The horse and rider needed to pick up rings placed on a barrel next to a super spooky skeleton. Then the rider needed to position the horse at a rail and toss a ring to loop onto a steer horn, then advance to the next rail and do the same.

The just-for-fun level had four rings and the jackpot level had eight rings to pick up and toss in two minutes or less.

I congratulate Lady for her effort. Me, on the other hand, ugh. I did not navigate the rings anywhere near the horn. Stephanie and Indy ringed several on the horn. Well done!

Me and Lady doing the dressage moves through the log obstacle.
Me and Lady doing the dressage moves through the log obstacle. One of two obstacles we crushed!

The fifth obstacle was a log maze. The just-for-fun level had to pivot through the log maze, do a turn on the fore and return through the log maze. Lady rocked this obstacle. We’ve been working on these exercises all summer and it paid off.

The jackpot level had to pivot through the log maze and then rein back through it. Stephanie and Indy killed this obstacle as well!

Harder than it looks!
Harder than it looks!

The final obstacle was picking up a pole where the end of it needed to remain in a hoop while the horse and rider rode in a circle and over two rails and back to the starting point in two minutes or less. Lady’s initial try didn’t go very well as she ran away from the pole that was chasing her. Since we had two minutes, we had time to give it another shot and we maneuvered our way through the obstacle with flying colors and time to spare.

The jackpot level had to do this obstacle with a turn on the fore after the first circle and then ride the opposite direction before returning to the starting point. Indy and Stephanie rocked it again! I was sure that they would be in the money!

Between obstacles the horses rode together terrifically. Spanish Mustang Lefty has such a large, scopey walk that Lady and I fox trotted the entire 3-1/2 hour JOY ride! (I don’t think that Stephanie minded trotting and cantering Indy to keep up!)

I know that there are strains of Spanish Mustangs that have a natural four-beat gait. I wonder if Lefty is one of them. He is a stunning example of the Spanish Mustang. Several riders along our route stopped and asked what breed of horse Brian and Stephanie were riding. I was so happy, none of them asked: “Is that a Norwegian Fjord?” (Really, I have nothing against this breed. I really do like them. It’s just that Spanish Mustangs are not Norwegian Fjords.)

One woman asked what type of horse I was riding. (Yes, it is clear that Lady is NOT a Norwegian Fjord). Of coarse, Lady is anyone’s best guess since she isn’t registered. When my friend bought Lady, she was told that she was a Tennessee walking horse (in part). This woman replied, “I think the horse you’re riding is a Tennessee walking horse/Morgan cross.” Hallelujah! This affirms my thoughts in movement, intelligence and temperament. When Jennie Jackson was in Minnesota giving us lessons, that was her thought, too.

It was a great time had by all—people and horses. Walking Lady back to the trailer, I could hear Indy whinnying through the trees, “Until next time, my friends, until next time!”

Photo Gallery: (Click to enlarge)

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2016 FOSH Gaited Western Dressage Winner

Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) is a non-profit that supports the sound and humane training of gaited horses and is on the front lines fighting against soring and abuse. FOSH publishes the Sound Advocate which is filled with informative, well-written articles and stories.

I was elated when I received the 2017 September/October issue of Sound Advocate and read the story written about me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) who were named the 2016 Western Dressage Champions.

In 2016, Makana and I gave Gaited Western Dressage a try through the North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) Virtual Shows.

Here’s our story: 2007 Sept/Oct Sound Advocate»

September/October 2017 Sound Advocate story: Western Yes, Old Cow Horse No!

IJA Western Training 2 canter
Jennifer Klitzke riding her naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom at one of three North American Western Dressage Association Shows.

While we have been gaited dressage award winners since 2014, this was the first time we have won in the Gaited Western Dressage division.


To be eligible for awards in the FOSH Gaited Dressage Program, three scores of 60% and over must have been recorded in any level of Dressage competitions with a recognized judge. Tests must have been specifically developed and written for gaited horses. Recognized tests include IJA, NWHA, WDAA and Cowboy Dressage.

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Six reasons why two whips are better than one to improve your gaited dressage

6 reasons why two whips are better than one

By Jennifer Klitzke

If you show gaited dressage, you know that you’re only permitted to ride your test with one dressage whip. But, did you know that there are benefits to riding with two dressage whips while schooling your naturally gaited horse between shows?

If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “You can’t show that way, so why would you want to do that?”

Well, that was my reaction when Dominique Barbier presented the idea to me in a 1995 French dressage clinic. So I gave it a try.

Ultimately you’re training your horse to be light and responsive to your hand, seat and leg aids and each use of the whip is purely reinforcement for when the leg aid is ignored.

Recently at the last French dressage clinic I rode at with Fred Kappler, he encouraged schooling my horse with two whips as well as recent lessons with my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson.

Here’s why…

Six reasons why riding with a dressage whip in each hand can improve your gaited dressage training:

  1. Switching the whip from side-to-side each time you change rein can get cumbersome. If you ride with a whip in each hand, there is no switching back and forth.
  2. When switching the whip from side-to-side with each change of rein, you can miss timely cueing moments.
  3. By carrying a whip in both hands, you can cue the right side and the left side of the horse at the same time.
  4. Riding with a whip in each hand helps the horse and rider learn straightness. One whip can be used on the inside of the bend to activate the inside hind leg in order to step deeper under the body, while the other can be used on the outside of the bend to keep the outside shoulder from popping out like a jack-knifed semi and help the horse stay straighter. This was one of my take-a-ways from Jennie Jackson at my last lesson. Teaching the horse straightness helps the rider establish a “feeling” of straightness more quickly. If you get accustomed to riding a crooked horse, crooked becomes the feeling of normal and it becomes more difficult to discern the feeling of straight.
  5. Another reason for carrying a dressage whip in each hand, is that the horse can’t evade or learn to anticipate the whip when there is a whip that may be applied at any moment from either side. By training your horse with two whips, you’re teaching him muscle memory of a correct way of moving its body that when you’re in the show ring, that training can lead to greater chances for success.
  6.  Riding with a dressage whip in each hand is not meant to replace your leg aids. They are meant to reinforce them if needed. Ultimately you’re training your horse to be light and responsive to your hand, seat and leg aids and each whip is purely reinforcement for when a leg aid is ignored. If you’re schooling your horse well at home using two whips, your horse is learning to listen to your aids more and more so that your whip aids are needed less and less. This means that when you get to the show, the second whip won’t be missed.

I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to contact me with your gaited dressage questions by completing the contact form.

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