"Dressage is more than trot...and the saddle you ride in."
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.
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.
Six reasons why riding with a dressage whip in each hand can improve your gaited dressage training:
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.
When switching the whip from side-to-side with each change of rein, you can miss timely cueing moments.
By carrying a whip in both hands, you can cue the right side and the left side of the horse at the same time.
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.
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.
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.
With deepest and heartfelt sympathy to Jennie Jackson, Nate, and their family in the sudden loss of their legendary naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse stallion: Champagne Watchout, who passed away on July 17, 2017 at the age of 24.
In the 1980s Jennie Jackson began applying and perfecting dressage methods of training to gaited horses. Then in 1998 she introduced dressage as a humane training alternative for Tennessee walking horses. She began to apply dressage training methods with her naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse stallion Champagne Watchout. The two defied the critics and rose through the levels of dressage [en gaite].
In 2006, Jennie and Champagne Watchout were the first duo in history to perform dressage en gaite at The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY. The duo demonstrated never-seen-before Prix St. George movements en gaite as piaffe, passage, half pass, Spanish walk, as well as canter pirouette, and tempe changes.
In 2010, Jennie and Champagne Watchout were formally invited to exhibit their dressage en gaite musical freestyle at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Champagne Watchout became the official Tennessee walking horse breed representative.
Video: Jennie Jackson and 16-year old Champagne Watchout performing their dressage en gaite musical freestyle at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games at Lexington Kentucky Horse Park in 2010
As a life-long student of dressage, I have always longed to achieve piaffe, passage, canter half pass, pirouette, and tempe changes with my trotting horses and now with my naturally gaited horses. In my opinion, Jennie Jackson and Champagne Watchout are naturally gaited dressage legends! They performed these difficult movements en gaite with ease—something many claimed was impossible for a gaited horse.
In addition to his striking looks and athletic moves, Champagne Watchout has a powerful, jaw-dropping, head-shaking, natural flat walk and running walk that turns heads at the rail class events. Champagne Watchout earned the right to compete in the 1999 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class. He was the first and ONLY naturally gaited flat shod entry competing among the traditional Big Lick horses.
Video: Champagne Watchout—First flat shod horse to compete at the 1999 TWHBEA World Grand Championship Tennessee Walking Horse Class
Encounters with the Golden One
I was fortunate to have met Champagne Watchout on two occasions. In 2015 I traveled to Tennessee to ride at a Jennie Jackson Dressage for the Gaited Horse Clinic and I got to meet this gentle, golden stallion. Even with his winter fuzzies, Champagne Watchout was a standout.
The next year, I returned to the South to ride with Jennie Jackson as a working student. While I was there I had the privilege of watching Jennie ride her barefoot, 22-year-old gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.
Back then Champagne Watchout was the ONLY Tennessee walking horse still living among those he had competed against in the 1999 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class.
I was privileged to watch Jennie ride Champagne Watchout at Amazing Gaits, piaffe and passage along the ocean coast, and dance to the music during the Marti Gras parade.
Champagne Watchout was the first horse eager to step into the wavy coastline and gave the rest of the Amazing Gait’s horses confidence. In no time all of us were flat walking in the ocean.
And through the Marti Gras parade at 22 years old Champagne Watchout still had all the moves!
We will never forget you, Champagne Watchout. You have inspired multitudes and left an amazing legacy that will live on.
Early years: Champagne Watchout at play and under saddle with Jennie Jackson
2012 Champagne Watchout with Jennie Jackson at the TWHBEA World Versatility Show
Twenty-two years ago Dominique Barbier traveled to Minnesota for a clinic and introduced me and my German warmblood, SeilTanzer, to the French dressage method of riding with lightness and harmony. Not only did I become acquainted with Barbier’s dressage methods, I came to know a fun-loving fellow and clinic participant named Fred Kappler, who traveled from Michigan with his American warmblood, Aden.
I never imagined that our paths would cross again. And when they did, Fred helped me see that Barbier’s methods still apply—even to a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse.
In 1995, I felt like a traitor attending Barbier’s clinic. You see, Seili and I had invested several years studying the German dressage system. That’s all that what was offered in my area. Yet my heart yearned for lightness, partnership, and harmony with my horse. I got a taste of this at the Barbier clinic.
The last few years I began studying the French dressage work of Philippe Karl and Jean Claude Racinet, and I have ridden at a few French dressage clinics with traveling clinician Susan Norman who has been a long-time student of both Karl and Racinet. I also rode with Nicole Walters at Cadbury Farm who has passed her first leg of certification in Philippe Karl’s School of Légèreté.
Flash forward 22 years after the Barbier clinic. (Yes, Seili is still alive at 33!) A Facebook friend informed me about a French dressage clinician coming to Minnesota named Fred Kappler. French dressage isn’t common around here, so I looked into it. Fred has studied Philippe Karl and Jean Claude Racinet’s teachings, has ridden with Dominique Barbier, and is familiar with gaited horses.
The clinic had filled quickly, but thankfully they made room for me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Makana. This would be the first non-gaited dressage clinic I have taken a gaited horse to. Turns out there were two other Tennessee walking horses riding at the clinic. (It’s a good thing Fred has had some knowledge with Walkers!)
During my first lesson, Fred mentioned that he rode with Dominique Barbier at Jacqurei Oaks. That’s the moment I realized Fred and I had ridden together at this clinic. Now 22 years later Fred is coaching me in Barbier’s methods of lunging and working in hand. Yes, 22 years later still applies—even with a gaited horse. What a moment!
I must confess that Barbier’s methods of lunging and working in hand are two things I haven’t continued with the gaited horses I work with. I tend to saddle up and ride. Fred helped me see the benefits of lunging and working the horse in hand before riding.
One side rein attached to the snaffle ring and girth at the inside of the circle; allow the side rein to be long enough for the horse to stretch forward without bringing the nose behind the vertical and short enough to keep the horse from getting strung out
A lunge line looped through the snaffle ring and attached to the girth buckle on the inside of the circle
A lunge whip to encourage the horse forward with a “snap” if the horse ignores your “cluck”
We lunged long enough to loosen up the horse (about 3-5 minutes each direction) at a walk, trot (yes, quality trot on cue) and canter with lots of transitions between gaits. Our circle size was about 15 meters. A relaxed and forward rhythm is the goal.
Teaching the gaited horse how to trot on cue, in a quality way of going, on a lunge line and in saddle, will not ruin the gait. Trot on cue will improve rhythm, balance, engagement, and strengthen the top line muscles. The benefits a quality trot on cue offers will break pace and improve the natural four-beat gaits and canter.
The in-hand exercises are done in both directions. The exercises are shoulder in on a square; turn on the forehand where the horse pivots around me; halt along the wall, rein back, walk forward and repeat three times; and bring the horse to a square and balanced halt.
The riding exercises we did are all exercises Philippe Karl uses in his training which I need to focus on more. After watching all of the riders (gaited and trotting) I realize that beautiful gaits come after working the horse through lateral exercises which supple the horse, bring the horse into balance, engagement, and into a round and connected frame onto the bit.
I tend to focus so much on depth of stride and head nod that lateral exercises have taken a back seat. After experiencing this clinc, my approach has been backwards! Fred’s clinic clearly demonstrated that the lateral exercises done in a SLOW collected walk improve the gait quality (whether it be trot or gait). This is a game changer for me!
Fred guided Makana and I through a course of fun and interesting exercises:
Changes of rein through the half circle
Changes of direction through bends—shoulder in to haunches in to shoulder out
Shoulder in to half pass to walk pirouette to half pass to reverse half pirouette to half pass
After Makana found her balance, softness, engagement, and suppleness through these exercises at a collected walk, Fred released us along a straight line into a flat walk and WOW it felt terrific!
The two lessons I had with Fred Kappler have set me on a new course of training gaited dressage. Going forward, I will spend more time riding lateral exercises at a collected walk before releasing Makana into flat walk along a straight line. I will add more transitions between exercises, more transitions between directions of bend, and more transitions between gaits. All of these exercises improve balance, engagement, connection, roundness, strength, and quality of movement.
Adding to the education was the amazing feeling of community I felt with the people who attended this clinic. Fred is unique when compared with most clinicians. He enjoys sharing his wealth of experiences outside of lesson time and is an entertaining storyteller. Deb, the owner of Amity West Stables, is an inspiring rider and trainer with amazingly talented horses. I watched her lessons with Fred and was impressed with witnessing piaffe and passage, canter pirouettes, tempe changes, extended trot, half pass, and more. Not to forget that Deb is a lot of fun to hang around with, as well as the many boarders there.
It was great to meet Facebook friend, Louisa, for the first time in person. She organized a marvelous matching set of four black Tennessee walking horses on a beautiful trail ride along Lester River the day before the clinic. I enjoyed reconnecting with a Walking horse friend, Becky and an eventing friend, Amy, and met new friends Nikki, Michelle, Pam, and the barn staff at Amity West Stables.
I hope it will be the first of many re-connections with this fun-loving group of dressage riders—both gaited and non-gaited. (As for Fred, will he and I live another 22 years for a reunion? Awe, maybe. Hopefully I will get a chance to ride with him sooner than later!)
Over the last 30 years I’ve ridden with lots of professional riding instructors—both local teachers and traveling clinicians—gaited and nongaited. No doubt, I wouldn’t be where I am today without quality instruction. My hope in attending each lesson and clinic is to learn new insights to help me become a better rider and communicate more effectively with my horses.
Gaited Dressage Legend Jennie Jackson is among my favorite instructors. She generously shares from her rich treasure chest of knowledge and decades of proven experience.
Since 2013, Jennie has imparted knowledge and pushed me beyond what I thought my horse(s) or I could do. She challenges us to the next level of difficulty—whether that is starting canter on a new horse, facing my fears, improving the quality of gait, or advancing to counter canter, simple changes, roll backs, and lateral exercises.
Lessons with Jennie have catapulted me and my horses to new heights quicker than any other dressage instructor (gaited and nongaited) I’ve ever ridden with in the 30 years I’ve been studying dressage.
Not only that, Jennie is a national gaited horse judge, and over the last four years she has helped me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Gift of Freedom (Makana) develop and improve a head-shaking, deep-striding flat walk and running walk.
How it all began
In December 2012, I purchased Jennie Jackson’s DVD set with my Christmas money. Watching the DVDs, I was impressed to witness gaited horses moving in collection, engagement, and forwardness—working the lateral exercises in softness and suppleness. It amazed me that Jennie had trained her Tennessee walking horse stallion Champagne Watchout to the highest levels of dressage and performed before a live audience. These are two things that are extraordinarily difficult to do, and to date, Jennie is the only one in history to have accomplished both. Jennie Jackson is a Living Legend!
This year, Jennie happened to be traveling through Minnesota on her way between clinics and that’s how this year’s lessons took shape. I had contacted nearly a dozen gaited riders who live near me to see if they would be interested in lessons. That didn’t work out, but no worries, Jennie gave me and my two naturally gaited horses, Lady and Makana, an inspiring and challenging education.
Lessons with Lady
Lady has been at my place for three years, and as of April 2017, she became my newly acquired naturally gaited horse. I have been thrilled with Lady’s progress this spring and summer and astounded with where Jennie took us in our lessons—moving from kindergarten to high school through connection, softness, lightness, balance, lateral exercises—and even canter under saddle!
Lady is moving more consistent in a light contact. She is more supple in her bending and is moving with more engagement in her easy gait.
To establish bend, suppleness, softness, and connection from the inside leg to the outside rein, we worked on lots of true bend and counter bend at a walk and collected soft trot. The soft trot is not a true two-beat diagonal gait. It is an easy gait somewhere between the fox trot and hard trot—yet smooth to ride.
We also worked Lady in a 20-meter circle and along the rail in a forward hard trot between true and counter bend. This improved her engagement and straightness.
Then we introduced canter under saddle. I had been working on canter with Lady in the round pen over rails to break the cross canter. During our lesson, Lady was taking her left lead clean, so we focused on her right lead. Instead of cross cantering, she kept choosing counter canter. With Jennie’s determination, coaching and perseverance, Lady began taking the right lead canter in all three lessons.
I am thrilled to have both of my gaited horses cantering now thanks to Jennie.
Lessons with Makana It’s been a few years since Jennie had last seen my naturally gaited walking horse Makana, and I was so happy that she confirmed the path we have been on in our flat walk. Not only that, but Jennie helped us increase the tempo while maintaining the reach and depth of stride.
How? Straight lines.
There’s a place for dressage exercises on a circle with lateral movement and a place for straight lines to develop show gait. This was a light bulb moment for me.
We began our lessons with shoulder in, haunches in, true bend and counter bend on a 20-meter circle in a slow, short-strided, collected walk. Did you know that a collected walk is slower, has very little to no head nod, and the stride depth is shorter and more under the body? Yes, it’s true! If you are like me, and get used to flat walk with a head nod and deep stride, the collected walk feels very foreign, but there is a place for it in the lateral exercises and it will only improve the flat walk.
Circles and collected lateral exercises are wonderful for breaking up pace, suppling and softening the horse, and getting the horse to listen to the inside leg to the outside rein, but working on a circle limits the range of motion that only a straight line can offer.
Once a horse has an even four beat gait, rail class show gait is best developed on straight lines for maximum depth of stride.
That’s when we moved to the rail and allowed Makana freedom of her head and neck in a medium walk with maximum depth of stride. As soon as she became even in her rhythm and timing of her head nod, we increased the tempo while maintaining the deep steps. Alternating a tickle with my heel as Makana’s hind foot stepped under her body helped deepen her stride. If she rushed off in short strides, I applied a half halt and I would start again.
When Makana found her rhythm and timing at a faster tempo with deeper strides, I just enjoyed the glide ride.
In addition to working on show gait, Jennie coached us on canter, halt, rein back, canter transitions and canter, counter-canter transitions. Riding the canter on a 20-meter circle in counter bend before executing the counter canter really helped hold her together through a full figure eight and back to the true canter lead.
For years I couldn’t understand why my horses didn’t want to go forward. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a new approach to dressage that I realized I had been riding with the gas pedal and brake pedal on at the SAME time each time I drove my horse with my seat and legs into closed hands.
I thirsted for harmony, partnership, trust, and lightness in my riding with my horses. I was tired of setting agendas for my horses and ready to invite them into a dance of relaxation, balance, harmony, and lightness—where ever that would lead us.
If you’ve been following Naturally Gaited for the last couple years, you know that classical French dressage has become my language of choice.
I’ve been studying books and DVDs by Philippe Karl, a DVD by Lisa Maxwell (a student of the late Jean Claude Racinet, who studied the work of Francois Baucher), taken lessons from Susan Norman, a student of both Philippe Karl and Jean Claude, and lessons from Nichole Walters, a student of Philippe Karl.
These teachings have rocked my world! Notably because they sharply contrast the German dressage training I had studied for the preceding decades. It wasn’t the contrast that made me switch. It was the truths in the contrast that made me switch. (Just watch the DVD: Classic vs. Classique where the French and German theories go head-to-head in a convincing demonstration.)
For me, I couldn’t understand why my horses didn’t want to go forward. It wasn’t until I began to open my mind to the French method that I realized I had been riding with the gas pedal and brake pedal on at the SAME time each time I drove my horse with my seat and legs into closed hands.
I was also tired of being a domineering micro-manager with my horses, and I thirsted for harmony, partnership, trust, and lightness in my riding. I was tired of “making” my horses DO and GO, and I was ready to “ask” my horses to dance with me—even if it meant giving up showing and my expectation of moving up in the levels each year.
If I was able to maintain harmony, trust, and partnership in the show ring, then I’d be open to showing, but if showing became a demand at every letter, then it was time to recheck my motives.
Last year my Dad grew gravely ill, and I didn’t have time to travel to shows. It was more important to be with my family. This is when I discovered virtual shows. Currently, the only organization that offers virtual shows is the National Western Association of America (NWAA). Many of their virtual shows are open to gaited horses. Not only could I ride and record my test from my own backyard, I could ride my test within the relaxation, harmony, trust, and partnership that I felt was essential in our dressage training.
I hope to get out to a show or two this summer (virtual and/or live). If not, I will for sure enjoy riding my horses with harmony, trust, and partnership.
Video: Separating the gas pedal from the brake pedal
For a list of gaited dressage tests, see “Links” in the right sidebar.