balanced and light flat walk

Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: Following Hands

Following the motion of the head shaking horse

Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: Following Hands

By Jennifer Klitzke

Dressage requires riding with even contact with a snaffle bit—not floppy, loose reins. This means that I need to earn my horse’s trust with my hands in order for her to accept contact with the bit. This is a lot easier to do at a trot when the horse’s head and neck remain stationary, but what about the flat walk, running walk and fox trot? How do I maintain an even contact while the horse’s head and neck nod with each step?

Recently while taking classical French dressage lessons on trotting horses, I learned how following the motion of the four-beat walk with my hands fosters relaxation, harmony and lightness. This makes me wonder how following hands might translate to relaxation, harmony and lightness to the naturally gaited head-shaking horse while moving in flat walk, fox trot, and running walk.

philippe-karl-dvds-video-cameraIf you’ve been following NaturallyGaited, you know that I’ve been studying the work of classical French dressage school master Philippe Karl through his books and videos. Recently before I set out to Seattle, WA to visit family, I learned that Philippe Karl has been conducting School of Légèreté certification clinics in three USA locations—one of which is Cadbury Farm, not far from where I would be staying.

Ecstatic with the opportunity to get first-hand teaching in this classical French dressage method, I contacted Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm for lessons while I was in Seattle.

This is the second blog post following lessons I took with Nichole who has now completed the first leg of the instructor’s certification program in the School of Légèreté.

After Nichole had spent a few hours teaching me work-in-hand exercises, we proceeded to my favorite part—riding!

Video: Work in Hand: Educating the Mouth

The majority of my riding time was at a walk in order that I took home how the work-in-hand exercises progress to the saddle.

Before we even got to applying the work-in-hand exercises in the saddle, Nichole encouraged me to follow the horse’s natural head and neck motion with my hands while maintaining an even contact with both sides of the snaffle bit (instead of keeping my arms quiet at my sides.)

She noticed that while my arms were locked at my sides, my body followed the motion of the horse more than it needed to. The tension in my shoulders became evident in my efforts to remain still with my arms and hands, yet this tension and stillness translated heaviness to the horse.

While some following the motion of the horse with my body is needed, Nichole encouraged me to also follow the head and neck motion of the horse with my arms while maintaining an even contact with both sides of the snaffle bit.

This was an epiphany for me! Granted, I was riding a trotting horse, but I was riding the horse at a natural four-beat walk.

This got me thinking about the natural four-beat gaits of the head nodding breeds. What compromises have my stillness in my arms been creating in the quality of the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot? Could the tension in my shoulders and still arms and hands be saying “stop” to my Tennessee walking horse, Makana? Would following hands produce less prodding on my part to move her forward? Would following hands produce less tension and more relaxation, harmony and lightness in my friend’s gaited horse, Lady? Would Lady be more apt to seek contact with the snaffle bit and trust the contact more if I followed her head nod? Would her back be less braced if I rode her with following hands? Would she track up more with deeper strides if there was greater relaxation in her back?

How many gaited riders struggle with pace and step pace? I just wonder if following the horse’s head nod might lead the horse to greater relaxation, harmony, and lightness and produce less brace in the jaw and back and produce a more pure four-beat gait?

Video: Following Hands

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Special thanks to Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who taught me the “Educating the Mouth” and “Following Hands” exercises that she learned first hand from Philippe Karl and his School of Légèreté.