A lovely spring day blessed 21 horse/rider teams at the Walker’s Triple R schooling dressage show held May 15, 2011. I rode my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse mare, Gift of Freedom, She was the only gaited horse entered among Friesians, Warmbloods, Arabians, and Thoroughbreds and placed second in both First Level tests with scores of 65.9% and 63.9%.
Gift of Freedom was the only gaited horse entered. She did wonderfully in her First Level test with a high score of 68.1%!
Judge Mary Spaeth who has been officiating dressage shows for 26 years had never seen a gaited horse ride to a dressage test. Although she didn’t know how to score the flat walk and running walk, her collective remarks include, “Fluid, obedient and willing – shows harmony and confidence.”
A beautiful fall day, lovely horses of various breeds, and warm and wonderful people of all ages graced this summer’s third well-organized schooling dressage show held at Walkers Triple R Farm in Cambridge, MN on September 19, 2010. This was Gift of Freedom’s (Makana) first dressage show, and we entered not expecting to place since we were riding with trotting horses. Makana is a Tennessee walking horse and I planned on riding her flat walk in lieu of the trot (sitting of course).
To my amazement, Makana did exceptionally well riding with Friesians, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, Arabians, and quarter horses with high scores of 68% and 66% in Training 1 and 4 tests. She rode relaxed and confident, took correct leads, and made smooth transitions on each letter. She scored an “8”on her free walk on a long rein and did very well in her canter work. We took a hit in the overall gait score since we were not able to show the trot. Yet we took home second place in both classes against 13 other horses/riders.
Among the comments at the end of our first test, judge Jenny Zimmerman asked, “Is there anything your horse won’t do for you?” I remarked, “Yes, trot!” We laughed. She said that my horse could probably learn that too, but I think I’ll pass. After all, that’s the reason I bought a gaited horse.
I can’t say enough about how well organized this show was and how friendly the people were. Organizers Judy and Mike mentioned that these were among the top priorities as they planned this summer’s three shows. The facilities were well laid out with plenty of warm up area. Intro tests were held in the indoor arena and arenas were available for horses to warm up prior to classes. This made it much less intimidating for horses new to showing and helped build their confidence. The scary trailer seemed to lose its power after a few practice laps.
While conversing with several people, I learned of a schooling dressage show held on Sunday, October 10 at Rocking R Ranchin Foley, MN that even offers gaited dressage classes. I met several dressage riders who own gaited horses and several others who know dressage riders with gaited horses in the area. This is utterly exciting to know that there are others out there blending dressage riding with gaited horses. I never imaged that I’d return to showing dressage on a horse that doesn’t trot!
Breaking through the Proctor fog was the sunny smile and personalized teaching of F.O.S.H. Clinician Bucky Sparks. He brought along some new tools to share from his training toolbox. This marked Bucky’s sixth consecutive 2,000-mile trip to Minnesota. He imparted wisdom to riders and auditors who had traveled from all corners of Minnesota and Wisconsin for the clinic held June 4-7, 2010 in Proctor, MN.
Bucky’s toolbox is filled with effective training techniques geared to B.L.E.S.S. the horse. B.L.E.S.S. stands for balance, looseness, engagement, softness, and soundness. In fact, everything Bucky teaches, he applies to the horses he trains and shows. You’ll see him successfully showing barefoot (the horse that is) and in a snaffle bridle.
This year, we saw dramatic transformations in many returning horses. Ones that had paced are now solid in their flat walks. Horses that had started the canter last year worked on softness and balance through simple changes and counter canter. Other horses that have mastered the basics worked on improving collection and engagement through lateral exercises like shoulder-in, haunches-in, and leg yielding.
One of Bucky’s new tools introduced this year was “breaking it down” which helps a young horse stay focused and not “take two steps of stupid,” as Bucky says.
Breaking it down redirects the attention of the horse away from doing something dangerous to listening to the rider. It is also effective for horses that have developed a habit of bracing in the neck and poll. Breaking it down applies a tug and release of one rein with some leg pressure as the horse moves forward. It redirects the horse to relaxation when they realize there is nothing to brace against.
Bucky Sparks returned for the fifth year to the Dirt Floor Arena in Proctor, MN for more B.L.E.S.S.ing. While the humane training methods that produce balance, looseness, engagement, softness, and soundness, blessed the horses, the education and encouragement blessed the riders.
Remembering the erratic weather of years gone by, I packed my pickup prepared for anything. Yet I felt foolish loading up my truck with winter coats, hats, and mittens when it was nearly 90 degrees on departure day.
While the 2009 B.L.E.S.S. Your Horse Clinic in MN came in like a lamb, it went out with a roar. On the last day of the clinic it was only 39-degrees, with pouring rain and gale-force winds. Was I ever glad to have been foolish!
The first two days of the clinic focused on the basic exercises of stretching the bit, lateral flexion, and rein-back. The last two days focused on curling and canter exercises. During all four days, the clinic began with a group session followed by individual lessons.
I loved how Makana, my five-year-old Tennessee walking horse felt at the clinic: impulsive, light, and forward with a dramatic head nod, flopping ears, and clicking teeth. These are three things that sound really strange to a classical dressage rider of hard trotting horses, yet to a walking horse enthusiast, these are three highly desired attributes.
Now as both a dressage rider and walking horse enthusiast, I have noticed that when Makana is correct in her dressage frame, she reflects the true walking horse attributes in a flat walk. She produces an even four-beat, smooth gait with an overstride, along with a nodding head, flopping ears, and clicking teeth.
In our first lesson, Bucky remembered us from last year, the complete rookie at this gaited thing with a four-year-old green horse. This year, we had several months of applying B.L.E.S.S. techniques through stretching the bit, lateral stretching, forwardness, rein-back, and leg-yielding exercises that paid off. This year Bucky challenged us to go to the next level of training: bending on a 20-meter circle, canter departs, and running walk.
You see, many gaited horse riders believe that the canter ruins the flat walk, but this is such a myth. Not only did the canter improve Makana’s flat walk, but bending on a 20-meter circle improved the canter departs and the pureness of gait as well.
As a five-year old, we were just beginning to work on Makana’s canter work. My approach to getting the correct canter lead had been to counter bend Makana along the fence and ask for the canter with my outside leg in the corner of the arena. While this is a somewhat common method at producing the correct lead, it was at the cost of Makana’s frame. She lacked roundness, softness, and the correct bend.
Bucky challenged me to bend Makana in a 20-meter circle using the inside leg at the girth and the outside hind leg slightly behind the girth. Then he asked me to slightly raise my inside rein. Once Makana was in soft, round, supple and bending correctly, that when I asked for the canter depart with the “inside” leg. Amazingly, Makana took the correct lead, and this application had produced a round, soft, and correctly bent canter. That felt connected and controlled.
After cantering a few circles, we transitioned to a flat walk which had notably improved. The canter work had clearly produced a pure flat walk with more overtrack than ever!
Next we worked on running walk. Bucky asked me to establish bend at a flat walk and then ask for more speed. He said that when increasing the tempo, it is common to experience more resistance. Instead of dropping down to a flat walk to fix Makana’s frame, Bucky encouraged us to correct the frame in the higher speed.
As always, the four-day clinic provided enriching and effective training methods to help us bring the best out of our walking horses. And gave me plenty of homework for the coming year.