Category Archives: French Dressage with Gaited Horses

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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Twenty-two Years Later Still Applies

22 years later still applies

By Jennifer Klitkze

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. 

1995 Dominique Barbier Clinic
Jennifer Klitzke and her German warmblood SeilTanzer at the 1995 Dominique Barbier Clinic held at Jacqurei Oaks in Minnesota.

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!

Fred Kappler and Aden 1996 Dominique Barbier Clinic Jacqurei Oaks
Fred Kappler and Aden at the 1995 Dominique Barbier Clinic held at Jacqurei Oaks, MN. At that clinic, I knew Fred as a fellow student and a personable guy. I had no idea he had a training facility and was a traveling clinician!

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.

Lunging equipment:

  • 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.

June 2017 Fred Kappler Clinic
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. All of these benefits will improve the gaits.
shoulder in in hand
Shoulder in while working in hand.

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.

shoulder in
Shoulder in at a SLOW collected walk with no head nod.

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.

flatwalk
A smooth flowing flat walk after lateral exercises.

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:

  • Broken lines
  • Leg yields
  • 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!)

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Harmony, Trust and Partnership

Harmony Trust and Partnership

By Jennifer Klitzke

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.

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Following Arms & Rubber Band Fingers

Following the Head and Neck Motion

Following the Head and Neck of the Gaited Horse with Relaxed Arms & Rubber Band Fingers

By Jennifer Klitzke

When I returned from my Seattle vacation last Fall, I was excited to try out all I learned from Nichole Walters, a student of Philippe Karl, as it relates to following the motion of the head and neck of the naturally gaited horse.

Granted, I rode trotting horses at Nichole’s farm, but while the trotting horse walks, it expresses an even four-beat gait where the head and neck nod with each step. This is where Nicole encouraged me to relax my shoulders, back, and arms to follow the horse’s motion.

It got me thinking. This seemed like a direct take-a-way I ride  my Tennessee walking horse. It was critical that I learn to follow the motion of the head shaking naturally gaited horse while maintaining an even contact with the right and left rein.

After publishing the video: Following the Motion of the Head Shaking Horse, I received a great tip from someone on the Naturally Gaited Facebook page. Along with following the motion of the head and neck with relaxed arms, a women encouraged to open and close my fingers with each head nod. This is what I call “rubber band fingers.”

I began giving this idea a try with both my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse and my friend’s fox trotting mare now that Winter is over and I’m back in the saddle again.

Along with following the head and neck motion with relaxed arms and rubber band fingers are the importance of relaxation (of mind and body within the horse), skeletal balance (not to be confused with collection), rhythm for the naturally gaited horse, and engaging the hind leg steps deeper under the body.

I am seeing great results from combining these elements. My naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse’s head nod is more defined and regular in timing with the hind leg steps. Her rhythm is more even, and she seems more forward and engaged from behind.

Video: Following the Motion of the Head & Neck

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