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.
It has been a rainy summer. I was lucky to have one dry day to film our rides for the Harvest Virtual Western Dressage Show before another storm swamped the arena.
Since the last virtual Western dressage show, I’ve been working on improving engagement with my friend’s naturally gaited horse Lady and it paid off. Lady was the only gaited horse shown in NAWD Intro 2 and placed second out of 11 horses with a score of 64.821%.
Video: NAWD Western Dressage Intro 2
Lady ridden in her easy gait.
This show was the first time my Spanish Mustang Indian’s Legend (Indy) and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) competed against each other in the same show, riding the same test.
Indy placed first in NAWD Basic 3 with a score of 66% and Makana placed third with a score of 58.857%. She was the only gaited horse among the three horses riding NAWD Basic 3.
Video: NAWD Western Dressage Basic 3 TWH-style
Makana demonstrating a flat walk.
Video: NAWD Western Dressage Basic 3 Spanish Mustang-style
Indy being ridden on a 20 meter circle allowing the horse to stretch.
The show had a good turnout with 127 entries ranging from Intro through Basic, Freestyle, Therapeutic, Working in Hand and Versatility for Youth, Adult Amateur, and Open.
This year I’ve pretty much put showing on hold, because its been so touch and go with my Dad who is in hospice care. But, I thought I could sneak in a few local events: a Virtual Western Dressage Show (that I can do without leaving home), a Cow Sorting League (only minutes from my house) and the Mosquito Run Endurance Ride (held once a year at a local park).
Only I didn’t seem to notice that all three events were held in the same week until the week of. Working full time with an ailing father in hospice, what was I thinking?!
Virtual Western Dressage
North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) offers several Virtual shows each year. Makana and I gave it a try a couple months ago and we couldn’t wait for the next one. We have been practicing the feedback I had received from the judge’s remarks and from my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson.
When I saw that NAWD was having another Virtual Show, my over zealous enthusiasm overtook my sense of available time. I registered three horses for the show. Most challenging was finding time to squeeze in the rides between working full time, visits with my Dad, the cow sorting league, endurance rides, filming the tests around my husband’s schedule, the week’s inclement weather, and forcing my grandma brain to memorize three new Western dressage tests!
For this Western Dressage Virtual Show I entered my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Gift of Freedom (Makana), my friend’s naturally gaited grade horse, Lady, and my Spanish Mustang, Indian’s Legend (Indy). It was Lady’s very first show and Indy’s first Western Dressage show.
Our window for recording our rides just happened to be at the same time our neighbor took down his trees next to our arena with the brush hog. This stirred up an arsenal of repellent-resistant biting flies that came in for the attack!
Despite the distractions, we made the best of it. I rode Makana in IJA Western Training Level 2, Lady in NAWD Intro 2, and Indy in NAWD Basic 3.
A couple weeks back I saw a last minute opening for the July Cow Sorting League. I knew Makana was due for some cow time, because it’s her favorite thing to do. (My theory: since she’s lowest on the pecking order, cows give her something to push around!)
We finished our first week getting all ten cows sorted in order within 70 seconds! Not the fastest by far (which was an amazing 46 seconds) but it felt good to officially achieve this milestone.
On Sunday, I entered Makana in a ten-mile Mosquito Run novice endurance ride at Crow Hassan Park Reserve. That morning we were hit with ANOTHER thunderstorm. Many riders had packed up and headed for home just before Makana and I arrived. So many riders had left that I thought the event had cancelled. (At least it made it easy to find a parking spot!)
The novice ride headed out with two large groups of seven. The footing was slick in spots with lots of puddles, but the storms cooled down the temperature for a comfortable ride.
The week’s thunderstorms had taken a toll on the park. We passed hundreds of mature trees that had fallen during the storms. Many thanks to the Park Reserve staff who worked hard to clear the trails so that the endurance ride could go on.
Our group was composed of three Tennessee walking horses, a Rockie, and three Arabians. It was wonderful to ride with other gaited horses. While our gaited horses outpassed the nongaited horses at a walk, the speed required of the ride in order to make time forced our gaited horses to trot, speed rack (or canter) the majority of the ride. I asked Makana for a speed rack. She held it for a while, but waffled between the rack, the trot, and canter.
Three miles before the finish line we all cooled off in the lake. Makana and I took our first swim! We walked in the water until her entire body submerged and all that surfaced the water was her ears, nostrils, and eyeballs. Thank God horses are intuitively good swimmers!
Makana and I made the optimum time and took sixth place out of 12 entries. (We even surpassed the Arabians!)
I’ll see you soon Dad. Hang in there! I love you! (Next time I’ll double check my calendar before committing to these events.)
I felt like I was dressed up for a Halloween costume party wearing this get up, but I thought I’d give Western gaited dressage a try again. This time without leaving home. I saw a Facebook post for a virtual Western dressage show that was open to gaited horses. So my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana and I rode the FOSH IJA Training 1 Test which calls for regular walk, medium walk, free walk, intermediate gait (flat walk), and canter.
What’s nice about a virtual show is that you can ride from home—no need to trailer to the show grounds, as long as you have an arena marked off and someone to record your ride. No editing allowed, just the raw footage to capture the entire test, post it to youtube and wait for the results and feedback via email.
Then if you feel like it, you can share the video link with others and ask for their feedback as to how you and your horse could have ridden the test better.
Video: FOSH IJA Training 1
One of the judge’s comments about our test was: “Excessive head nod.” Isn’t that what a Tennessee walking horse is known for?
Perplexed, I asked my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson for feedback on how to improve my Western riding.
Jennie gave me terrific feedback in regards to riding the medium walk, which makes up the majority of this test. She said that at times during the medium walk, my horse displays a “head peck” instead of a “head nod.”
“Head peck? What on earth is that?!” I asked. Jennie said that the head nod is where the Tennessee walking horse travels forward from the hindquarters through a neutral to round back into a connection with the rider’s seat and light rein contact (not loose, floppy reins). The head nod should lower down from the head and neck with each step of the hind legs.
The head peck, on the other hand, is a disconnected head motion from the hind leg steps where the horse simply flicks its nose upward.
To correct the head peck, Jennie said that I need to encourage my horse to step deeply under her body where I feel her back raise up under my seat and then travel through the shoulders,neck, and poll to the bit.
Video: Head Nod (or Head Peck)?
Jennie also mentioned that I need to “freshen up” Makana’s canter with hand galloping to get her back to a three-beat canter. It’s not enough to be satisfied with just getting the correct canter lead. I need to work on improving our canter to the quality of the trotting horses. Will we ever attain it? Maybe not, but it is something to aspire to.
Ah, yes! After reviewing the video, I see the nose flicking head peck at the medium walk and the rather flat canter.
Now that’s terrific feedback I can begin working on the next time I ride. I hope by sharing these videos and feedback will help you at home as you train your gaited horse in dressage.
Did you know that Cowboy Dressage welcomes naturally gaited horses? Among the people I’ve met through cyber space since launching NaturallyGaited.com is Dollie Horst who just returned from the 2015 Cowboy Dressage World Finals with her naturally gaited Rocky Mountain mare, Annie. I asked Dollie if she would share her story with us about how she became involved with gaited horses and the path which led her to Gaited Cowboy Dressage. I think you’ll love what she has to say about Cowboy Dressage, its training philosophy, and the people who have taken the Cowboy Dressage “handshake” to live out its lifestyle. —Jennifer Klitzke
Gaited Cowboy Dressage: My Journey Begins
By Dollie Horst, Guest Writer
My introduction to naturally gaited horses came five years ago when my husband and I were offered a management position at Mountain Magic Ranch, a private Rocky Mountain Gaited Horse ranch in Three Forks, Montana.
Before that, non-gaited horses like thoroughbreds, AQHAs, APHAs, and BLM mustangs filled my riding background—mostly for trail riding, packing, reining, and working with cows. Like most non-gaited horse people, I thought gaited horses were just, let’s say, different. But with my new job working with mountain gaited horses and my love for anything “horse,” I kept an open mind and willingness to learn.
Meeting the Mountain Gaited Horses
My husband and I have done a lot of mountain riding and pack trips. We immediately saw the value gaited mountain horses brought to “the hills.” These horses can cover country like no other breed we had worked with, and their cool temperaments are exactly what you need when you’re 33 miles into the wilderness.
When I began training the Rocky MountainandKentucky Mountain gaited breeds, their exceptional learning capacity really stood out. Overall, they have been the most willing, level headed, intelligent horses I have ever worked with. Not only do they learn twice as fast as the non-gaited breeds I’ve trained, but they seem to retain their schooling with less repetition.
Since gaited horses were new to me coming into this job, I held true to my training philosophy that “a horse is a horse first.” Whether gaited or non-gaited, my goals were the same: develop a soft, supple, relaxed partnership which is based on trust and mutual understanding. After that, I began to recognize the natural four-beat gait, and then train, develop, and certify the gait in the young horses and the horses newly started under saddle. I have found that most people who are interested in the gaited mountain breeds are looking for smooth, soft, willing trail partners.
Introduction to Cowboy Dressage
I don’t ride in a fancy saddle, just a well fitting one. I don’t use a special bit, just a snaffle or bitless bridle. I like to ride on a loose rein or light contact. I love to lope the gaited horses I ride. I respect the time it takes to build a solid foundation and master a maneuver before progressing to a more challenging one. I strive for the ultimate partnership and develop a seamless communication between me and my horse as if we become one in the same. While I love this method of training gaited horses to be trail partners, something seemed missing. I longed for a show venue which aligned with my training philosophies and would showcase the philosophies and would showcase the multiple talents of gaited mountain horses. Little did I know that what I had longed for had already been coined “soft feel” by Eitan Beth-Halachmy, the founder of Cowboy Dressage.
Then in June 2015, I learned of a Cowboy Dressage clinic taught by Dr. Jenni Grimmett, DVM and held at Sleeping Willow Ranch in Stevensville, MT. What I knew of Cowboy Dressage piqued my curiosity, so my husband and I made the 3-1/2 hour drive to audit. Little did I know, this decision would become life-changing.
Listening to Dr. Grimmett explain the Cowboy Dressage principles and philosophy, I couldn’t stop nodding and smiling. Cowboy Dressage is not just a riding discipline or competition; it is a way of life. Cowboy Dressage is a commitment in how we treat our horses, and how we treat each other—everyday, anywhere—regardless if anyone is around or not. It is a commitment to the development of the horse as an individual, at a speed the horse can grasp. Cowboy Dressage transcends training exercises; it is the fundamental relationships between you, your horse, and others.
Membership in Cowboy Dressage is represented in a virtual “handshake” instead of paying joiner’s fees. The Cowboy Dressage Handshake is your word to pledge to “try” to:
become the person others can trust with your handshake and your word.
exemplify the Cowboy Dressage way of life and find the courage to chase your dreams.
not allow defeat when faced with setbacks in your life and your horsemanship.
treat all horses and people with integrity and kindness.
look for the “try” in your horses and always reward them.
look for the “try” in people as you travel down your horsemanship path.
When you pledge this handshake, you become a member of the Cowboy Dressage Worldand you ride together with others who have also done the same, including its founders Debbie and Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Lyn Moe and Garn Walker.
I had finally found what I had been yearning for! The girls at Sleeping Willow Ranch must have noticed, because they graciously let me ride their horses just so that I could participate in the clinic. I will never forget their kind gesture. Seriously, who lends their horse to someone they had just met, so that they could ride, not just audit a clinic?! People who have pledged the Cowboy Dressage Handshake—that’s who! Thanks to Shannon, Debbie, and Dr. Grimmett, I left the clinic that day completely engulfed in Cowboy Dressage and couldn’t wait to share it with my gaited four-legged friends!
Returning home I began applying what I had learned at the clinic with my registered/certified Rocky Mountain mare, MMR’s Cover Girl (aka, Annie). She had been started under saddle in May, and what better foundation could there be for a green horse then one of “soft feel”? On top of that, Annie has a great mind and confirmation for Cowboy Dressage as well.
In September and October, I brought Annie to two different Cowboy Dressage of Colorado clinics taught by the Cowboy Dressage founder himself, my new friend Eitan Beth-Halachmy. Eitan was happy to see a gaited horse at the clinics and welcomed us wholeheartedly, as did the other non-gaited riders!
At the clinics, Annie and I learned the ‘ins-and-outs’ of riding the Cowboy Dressage tests; as well as exercises we could do to improve our communication and relationship in order to thrive in any riding discipline. Eitan is an incredible teacher and someone I feel so grateful to work with. His vast knowledge is delivered humbly through whit, humor, and a go-getter mentality that is empowering. He makes everyone feel equal, and what he recognizes most, is not the ability, but the “try.”
Annie and I have reached new levels of trust and partnership. Cowboy Dressage has helped me develop a better seat as a means of communication with my horse, and soft contact helps Annie understand more clearly what I am asking of her. She is pliable and bendable to my slightest cues. Her movement and transitions are more fluid and understood. Her gaits are more balanced and rhythmic, with the ability to shorten and lengthen her strides without changing speed. Her natural four beat (intermediate) gait, is smooth and accomplished through light, soft contact. Annie knows what is expected of her and where she needs to be.
Through Cowboy Dressage, Annie and I have learned and accomplished so much in such a short period of time, as have the other gaited mountain horses I work with. In fact, gaited horses thrive with this concept of “soft feel,” and I strongly believe have the most to gain from Cowboy Dressage!
Cowboy Dressage Shows Not only did I travel to three Cowboy Dressage clinics in 2015; Annie and I competed at three Cowboy Dressage shows. Two shows were held in Colorado where Annie and I won the Amateur Gaited divisions.
The third, and most recent show was the 2015 Cowboy Dressage World Finals in Rancho Murieta, California, which drew over 900 entries. At first I hesitated to compete at the World Finals. I wondered if I was ready or if I was good enough, but Cowboy Dressage has helped me put aside those demons and give it a “try.” One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my horsemanship and life this year is that accomplishment begins with the decision to “try.” That we did. At the Cowboy Dressage World Finals, Annie and I won the Reserve Highpoint Champion in the Amateur Gaited Division.
As a participant at these events, I believe Cowboy Dressage is here to stay, and it is growing at an incredible rate—gaited, non-gaited, all breeds, all associations, all ages and people from all over the world of all walks of life. It is truly an inclusive group of liked-minded, kind, and supportive people who are in it for the horses, one another, and the betterment of horsemanship in general.
The Cowboy Dressage World Finals particularly, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the horse show world. Not once did I meet someone in passing who didn’t say, “hello” or “how are you” or “nice ride.” Nowhere did I see harsh equipment or rough riding. Never did I see anyone “taking it out” on his or her horse at the barn, warm up arenas, and show areas alike. In fact, the show even had an official to make sure each horse was treated fairly and humanely. What I did see was a commitment to kindness toward one another, the slow, endless journey that is horsemanship and especially toward the love for horses – with patting, rubbing, hugging, smiling, and endless “talking” to their four-legged friends everywhere you looked.
Annie and I have a long way to go, but we have started our Cowboy Dressage journey to which I am fully committed. For me, there is no other way than to “try.” Thank you Eitan, and thank you everyone committed to the Cowboy Dressage lifestyle.
I hope you enjoyed reading Dollie Horst’s story about how she became involved with gaited horses and the path which led her to Gaited Cowboy Dressage. If you have a naturally gaited horse you’ve developed a special relationship with and ride gaited dressage or versatility, and would like to share your story on NaturallyGaited.com, please contact me by completing the contact form.—Jennifer Klitzke
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!