By Jennifer Klitzke
I took an arsenal of questions with me to a recent gaited dressage clinic with Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer. Questions like how do I ride a head-shaking horse on-the-bit, how do I get my horse more forward, and how do I unlock my horse’s stiff back. My first question led to an interesting discussion about head nod. And little did I know that my questions all relate to form and function.
Larry explained that the mechanics of overstride with swinging straight legs and an exaggerated head nod stem from a stiff back. It is why horses shown this way are trained on straight lines versus circles, serpentines, and lateral movements. The mechanics of dressage require lengthened topline muscles, a round and relaxed back, and bending hock and haunch joints. The result is a different expression of movement.
This led to an eye-opening realization: I had been expecting the same movement of my Tennessee walking horse at dressage shows as at Tennessee walking horse rail classes. Gaited dressage and show ring gaited classes are not ridden and measured the same way. Its like riding in an english pleasure class with western attire and in western form. If dressage is the way I intend to ride and train my gaited horse, I need to adjust my form and function to that of gaited dressage mechanics and stop fixating on exaggerated head nod and maximum overtrack.
As the clinic progressed I discovered that a stiff back is also why my horse hasn’t been moving forward with impulsion and engagement, and why her canter has been flat. Larry and Jennifer taught us several exercises to unlock a horse’s braced back such as reinback, turn on the forehand, and shoulder in. These exercises teach a horse to bend and round through the back and step deeper under its belly. We also worked on upward transitions between gaits and within gaits to improve impulsion and downward transitions to soften our horses.
Riding my Walking horse in correct dressage form will likely minimize her head nod and overtrack, but Larry promised that correct dressage training methods will purify her four-beat gait and make it smoother than ever!