Have you longed to learn dressage with your gaited horse, yet have a trail horse that detests arena work?
Not all horses are wired the same. That includes my friend’s naturally gaited horse Lady. My friend asked me to work with Lady and see if I could bring out a smooth gait—something between the dog walk and a hard bouncy trot.
I began riding Lady in the arena, because that’s how I’ve introduced dressage to all of the horses I’ve ridden over the years.
Lady is a marvelous trail horse, and I quickly discovered that she didn’t understand the purpose of repetitive 20-meter circles without a change of scenery!
Instead of fighting with her, I took Lady to her happy place—the trail. And that’s where we worked on our gaited dressage. We used natural obstacles to maneuver around such as trees and the fire pit. Then we would leg yield from one side of the path to the other, followed by a soft halt, gentle and slow rein back, to a walk, and then transition to her easy gait for a few strides before transitioning back to a walk.
Changing up the requests along the way did three things:
1) Instead of being a passenger, I became an active participant in our relationship,
2) It gave Lady a reason to stay dialed in to me instead of relying on her fight and flight instincts.
3) Working together developed a partnership of trust.
While on the trail Lady began to ride the elements of a low level dressage test, and she seemed to enjoyed herself. Come to think of it, so did I. Our ride became a dance; a partnership. Lady became more relaxed, more balanced, and in more rhythm. She began to listen to me more without resistance and began to trust me more.
For me, dressage on the trail has become a new kind of training—training without walls in the beauty of nature which feeds my soul while freeing me of the rigidity and perfectionism that often plagues me in the arena.
Dressage training has helped my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse with her rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. Yet quickness hasn’t been something I have practiced on a regular basis, and it really becomes apparent when we sort cows.
Recently I took my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse mare Gift of Freedom (Makana) to a Wednesday evening cow sorting league. We are clearly the odd ball in the group among quarter horses that are naturally built for this sport. These horses are highly engaged from behind and can lope, stop, pivot and spring off in a new direction in half a second.
Will my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse ever be as quick and responsive as the quarter horses? Not likely, but being lowest on the pecking order seems to motivate her. Makana LOVES having something to push around. Each week we get better at moving the cows from one pen to the next in order, and have more clean rounds than DQs.
Watching the riders warm up their quarter horses, I’ve noticed that they often use rollbacks as an exercise of choice, so I began adopting rollbacks into our warm up.
Rollbacks have great benefits. They increase engagement and make her think about quickness and responsiveness. This is helping us in the hole as we attempt to keep the unsequenced cows from sneaking through before their turn.
P.S. As a side note, I show up at sorting league as a cross dresser: my horse wearing Western attire and me wearing breeches, half chaps, and my riding helmet. I figure if I’m going to be the oddball among all these spur wearin’, shank sportin’ cowboys and cowgirls riding their cowy quarter horses, I might as well go all out!
Video: Rollbacks for the Gaited Horse
(Take it from me, it is easier to ride rollbacks in the security of a Western saddle.)
There’s nothing like trail riding on a naturally gaited horse. You can cover lots of ground and your body won’t pay for it later. But who ever said that dressage has to stay in the four walls of an arena? Why not take dressage to the trail and transform a ride to a dance?
My friend’s gaited horse (Lady) has been living at our place the last two summers and she has encouraged me to ride her as much as I have time for.
Lady was purchased by my friend as an 8-year-old unregistered Walking horse. Registration didn’t matter to my friend since she just wanted a beautiful black trail horse. And Lady is all that—beautiful, black, and exceptional on the trail.
When Lady first arrived she had two distinct gears, a dog walk and a hard trot. Over time Lady has developed a naturally smooth fox walk and fox trot. She’s more diagonal versus lateral on the gait spectrum.
Lady is used to being ridden bareback on the trail with a long, loose rein, so the concept of being ridden on a light contact and in balance have been new to her. Here’s how it all started…
Golden Resources to Relaxation and Contact
A month ago, I began applying classical French dressage methods of training as taught by DVDs and books by Philippe Karl (Classical versus Classique and Classical Dressage), Jean Claude Racinet (Another Horsemanship) and Lisa Maxwell (Getting Started in Lightness). These instructors have taught me the importance of teaching the horse to be soft in the mouth, jaw and poll to create relaxation in the mind which is critical before moving on to body exercises. A relaxed mind is a teachable mind while a tense jaw and anxious mind bring about a resistant body that will not produce quality movement. Teaching the horse softness in the mouth, jaw and poll is best introduced in hand on the ground using a mild snaffle bit. These videos all provide excellent teaching in this and I highly recommend owning them for your personal library.
Relaxation to Trainability
Once the horse is soft and relaxed in the jaw and mouth, and licking, salivating, and chewing, then the body exercises may be added to bring the horse into balance. This is where the horse begins to engage the hind quarters by bending the joints, stepping under its body, engaging the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and lifting its whither to lighten the forehand for a few steps. This also can be introduced to the horse in hand which the videos encourage.
Separation of Aids
The French dressage philosophy differs from the German dressage philosophy I had been trained in for 12 years. While the German philosophy taught me to use my legs and seat to drive my horse into a rein contact, the French method separates the brake pedal (reins) from the gas pedal (seat and legs). Separating my seat and leg aids from my rein aids has been one habit that I have been working hard to break, and it is worth the results that I am seeing in the horses I ride. Lightness, harmony, and more willingness to go forward with less cueing on my part are among these benefits.
Timing of Aids
In addition to the separation of aids, is the crucial timing of my aids. My rein aids cue my horse’s front and my leg aids cue my horse’s hind legs. It is critically important for me to correctly discern the feeling of when my horse’s leg is in a cue-able position so that I get the desired result.
For example, if I am asking my horse to leg yield along the fence going to the right, my left calf needs to touch my horse at the girth as my horse begins to step its left hind foot forward. As I release my calf, I squeeze and release my outside (right) indirect rein to tell my horse to remain straight and not lead with the right shoulder. If my horse begins to get tense in the jaw, I squeeze the left rein with my middle, ring, and pinky fingers, and release by opening these three fingers as soon as the horse gives. At all times, I maintain a very light contact with the horse’s mouth on both reins with my thumb and index fingers.
Also, here’s an excellent blog post “The Wonder Whip” written by Manuel Trigo which was forwarded to me from a fellow gaited dressage friend. This blog post talks in detail about the timing of aids, and I find it very insightful.
Below is a video showing Lady being introduced to light contact as we leg yield along the fence. I am riding her in a Level 1 Mylar snaffle bit with white reins so that it is easier to see the amount of contact. The first leg yield is nothing short of a “hot mess,” and I explain what we worked through to “clean up” the second pass.
For Lady, establishing a soft contact and a relaxed mind before moving on to body exercises for balance have been the winning combination. Together they have brought out a beautiful transformation in Lady’s fox trot that is simply a joy to ride. The video below begins and ends just after the leg yield exercise which shows the most balanced, supple, and elegant fox trot Lady has achieved thus far.
Video: Introducing the Gaited Trail Horse to Dressage
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Does your gaited horse struggle with a flat, four-beat or bumpy, lateral canter? You’re not alone. My naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana wrestles with these issues, too. Over the last few years I’ve learned a few ways to improve her canter using dressage and gymnastic jumping.
Dressage to Break up a Lateral Canter
Dressage training has shown me that the rounder and more relaxed my naturally gaited Walking horse mare is in her back, jaw, poll, and top line, the smoother and less lateral her canter becomes. One of my favorite exercises is establishing a soft and round rein back before a canter depart. When the rein back is soft, non forced, and not rushed, it encourages my mare to bend her hindquarter joints and engage her abdominal muscles which lifts her back. This puts her in a wonderful posture most conducive for a quality canter depart and canter steps.
I learned an important lesson from my gaited dressage mentor, Jennie Jackson: Don’t practice a poor quality canter. As soon as my horse begins to feel flat, hollow, bumpy, bracey, or out of balance, I need to transition back to a walk, regroup, halt, rein back softly and ask again for a quality canter depart to quality canter steps. This means I need to learn to recognize the difference between the feeling of a quality and a poor quality canter so that I can ask for more of the former and reduce steps of the latter. If I continue riding a poor quality canter that’s what I am reinforcing to my horse. If I want a quality canter, I must first know what it feels like and practice more of it. That’s why talking lessons from a qualified instructor are so important to me. Instruction provides me with timely feedback so that I can associate how it feels with right or wrong.
Gymanstic Jumping to Break a Four-Beat Canter
While I will never become serious about show jumping my gaited horse, I enjoy schooling her over rails and small fences for gymnastic purposes and giving Makana variety in her training. I’ve noticed that when we ride over ground poles and small fences, it creates more lift and brings out a truer three-beat canter.
The other day I tried a new cantering exercise over two rails in an L-shape. First I let my horse walk over the rails before we cantered over them. The video below demonstrates the exercise.
Video: Exercises to Break up a Lateral or Four-Beat Canter
This is a super fun exercise for the rider and horse. I learned so much from this exercise: balance of my horse, my balance on my horse, my horse’s rhythm, keeping my horse forward yet relaxed, looking ahead to plan the arc of a turn and line to a rail, and getting a feel for how many canter strides to a rail.
The L-shape can also be used to school flying changes over the rail by alternating the direction over each pole. We’ll have to give that a try when we begin schooling flying changes.
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Back in the days before owning horses, I looked forward to the hour long trail rides I had each summer. Before our group mounted up, the trail guide would give us these handy instructions: “kick” to go and “pull” on the reins to stop.
Now that I’ve been a horse owner for a few decades, I’ve learned better approaches than “kick” to go and “pull” to stop which produce softer and rounder responses. The cues are a blend of tips I have learned from classical French dressage and natural horsemanship philosophies.
I ride my naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse in a mild single-joint snaffle bit and have been competing with her at schooling dressage shows since 2010. We consistently earn scores of “8” on our center line halt and salute.
Below is a sequence of cues that I have found which produce a soft, round, and relaxed halt without the use of force or pulling on the reins.
How to produce a soft, round and relaxed halt:
Well fitting equipment: Beginning with a practical note, an uncomfortable horse will not be able to perform a soft, round, and relaxed halt. So it is important to ride your horse with a saddle and bit that fit properly. Also have your horse’s teeth checked and floated regularly by an equine dentist or qualified veterinarian.
Following seat: The next thing I do is develop a following seat (versus a driving seat). I encourage my horse forward with my seat, followed up with the use of my voice, a bump and release of my lower calf, and a tap of the dressage whip if needed. Then I follow the motion of my horse’s walk (in a toned sort of way) as if my hip joints walk with my horse’s hind legs. I do not drive my horse forward with my seat (by thrusting my pelvis forward and backward) as I believe this annoys my horse and eventually causes her to tune me out.
Stilling seat: When I am about to come to a halt, I gently squeeze and release the reins with my middle, ring and pinky fingers to soften and round my horse. At the same time I still my seat and no longer follow the motion of my horse. If the horse is listening to my seat, the horse will stop.
Alternating squeeze and release of the rein: Plan B: If my horse doesn’t halt with the stilling of my seat, then I follow it up with an alternating squeeze and release of each rein in sequence with each hind step of the horse as if to say, “Stop your foot. Now stop your other foot.” I will keep alternating the squeeze and release of each rein with each step combined with a stilled seat until the horse slows to a stop.
I have found that this approach produces a softer, rounder, more relaxed and square halt than when squeezing with both reins at the same time and definitely better than pulling back on the reins.
Repeat the exercise: If the horse didn’t stop by my seat, I will return to a forward walk and repeat the exercise a few times before moving on to something else. Then I’ll come back to the exercise a couple more times during our riding session.
Practice: I practice this exercise each time I ride. Every horse I ride becomes more and more responsive to my seat, softer, rounder, and more relaxed with the halting, less dependent upon the reins for stopping, less depended upon the voice, legs, and whip to move forward and more responsive to the seat.
Video: Cues to a Softer Halt
A square halt from the medium walk is required in NWHA Intro tests, a square halt from the flat walk is required in NWHA Training Level tests, and a square halt from a canter is required in NWHA Fourth Level.
Video: Soft Halts from the Medium Walk, Flat Walk and Canter
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!