Gaited Dressage: Rider Position and Connection

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By Jennifer Klitzke

Since last year’s Jennie Jackson Clinic: Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse, I’ve established more forwardness at a flat walk with my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse mare. “Forwardness” is a prerequisite for “connection,” otherwise my mare would meet contact with halt.

Riding Position
In preparation for connection, Jennie addressed my riding position. First she provided an eye-opening illustration. Jennie took my reins and placed them behind my lower back. Then she pulled back and asked, “How does that feel?” I said, “Ouch! It hollows my back!” Jennie asked, “So, how do you think it feels to your horse each time you press your weight into your irons?” Point well made.

Jennie lowered my irons by four holes and for the first time, I literally felt my seat and thighs melt into my saddle. This position provides clearer communication with my horse and allows my lower legs and ankles to wrap around my mare as needed to activate her belly which lifts and round her back. My mare is far more comfortable and less fussy.

Connection
Contact in flat walk with my rather lazy mare has always inferred “stop,” so I’ve gotten into the habit of throwing my reins away and believing that I had been riding with lightness. Riding without contact isn’t connection, just as headset isn’t riding on-the-bit.

Jennie explained that connection is an art form and a whole book could be written about it. So for me to grasp the fullness of connection in a couple lessons is not realistic, but I did get a good feel of it that I hope to maintain it moving forward until I see Jennie next.

Coming from the trotting horse dressage world, riding a head-shaking horse has been a mystery to me. I had always been taught to follow the horse’s walk movement with my hands, so naturally I thought to do the same through the flat walk and running walk. However, my interpretation of this was rather active— sloppy to a judge and noisy to a horse.

Jennie explained that at a flat walk, my elbows are to remain softly still at my sides instead of moving franticly to and fro with my mare’s head movement. It feels like my elbows are connected with my abdominal core—not lock in rigidly, but softly connected. My hands are held much closer together than I am used to (a bit’s width apart from each other), and my fingers loosely hold the reins, but tightly enough so that the reins don’t lengthen by slipping through my fingers.

Our work in connection begins at a medium walk to establish the bend in a shoulder-fore position where my inside lower leg asks my mare to bend through the ribs and encourages her inside hind leg to step under her belly toward her outside fore leg. The outside indirect rein captures the energy and helps to keep her neck straight and the outside shoulder from falling out.

Once my riding position and the connection are established, we transition from medium walk to a flat walk on a 15-meter circle. If my mare evades the contact by taking short, quick steps (what Jennie refers to as “flat walking in a tight skirt”) we leg yield to a 20-meter circle while maintaining the bend and connection.

To enlarge the circle, Jennie said, “Imagine that your belly button has an eyeball and point it towards the direction you want to travel.” What a simple metaphor that works every time! Immediately, my mare’s head nod returns, and I feel her hind steps grow deeper beneath me.

Another strategy Jennie taught me when my mare evades by flat walking in a tight skirt, is to apply a one to three stride half halt using my seat and closing my fingers on the outside rein. Just before my mare slows to a walk, I urge her forward to a deep stepping flat walk. Each time my mare moves forward with deep steps, I feel the energy from her hindquarters travel into the soft connection with my hands while my riding position remains still and held together through my inner core.

Throughout the lesson, Jennie reminded me to breathe deep into my belly to help me stay relaxed and ride with soft eyes by looking ahead with less of a concentrated and focused vision. A still riding position blends core tone, relaxation, and deep breathing and is not to be confused with rigidness, tension or stiffness; just as a relaxed riding position is not to be confused with sloppiness.

Combining a still riding position with connection will be our new home work for the coming days. Thank you Jennie for traveling to Minnesota for the second year in a row!

For more about Jennie Jackson and Dressage en Gaite, visit facebook.com/groups/JennieJacksonDressageEnGaite.

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