Gaited Dressage: Feel and Release

Gaited horse cantering

By Jennifer Klitzke

There are so many riding methods out there. Just how do you know which one (or ones) to take into your riding and training foundation? Since 1988 I’ve been acquainted with many expressions of dressage: German, French, Western and gaited dressage. All of which offer methods, tips and tools in producing the results of relaxation, harmony, balance, impulsion, softness, suppleness, and engagement.

For me, I focus more on reaching these results versus sticking to any one method or teaching philosophy. If a method works, I keep using it. If a method isn’t working, I search for another approach. One approach may work best for a particular horse, on a particular day, in a particular situation, and at a particular level of its training. Another approach may work best for another horse or the same horse in a different situation or down the road at the next level of training.

My gaited dressage horse Makana and I had gotten into a rut. When she didn’t want to go forward, I would keep clucking, squeezing and tapping my whip to prompt her forward—practically with every step. So I’ve been on a quest to find a more effective approach.

Days after I had returned home from the Whitesell clinic with a load of new ideas, my friend Hannah stopped by for a visit. She is an avid horsewoman and Makana’s previous owner. She introduced me to a unique approach called “feel and release” that she had learned after spending a summer at Karen Mussen’s training barn.

Feel and release is the exact opposite of how I had been prompting Makana forward. Instead of using pressure by squeezing my legs and using my whip to encourage Makana forward, it begins with a light touch followed by an enthusiastic release which sends the horse moving freely into lightness and forwardness—both mentally and physically. Since softness, lightness, forwardness, and impulsion are results that I have been searching for, I’ve been giving it a try. It sure beats the constant nagging with my legs, voice and whip, and my horse seems lighter, softer, happier, and more up in the shoulders.

If softness and lightness are elements you’d like more of with your horse, visit Hannah’s blog Cambria Horsemanship and  Karen’s website