Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Right

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By Jennifer Klitzke

It’s hard to ride gaited dressage when the feel of “right” isn’t engrained. So much of riding is how it feels when it is “right,” how it feels when it is “wrong,” and making corrections to get the horse feeling “right” again. It takes time to develop this. That’s why lessons are so important for me. A trained eye can coach me to correct movement, position, connection and let me know when it is correct so that I can hold onto that feeling for when I practice on my own. Nothing beats one-on-one coaching by someone who understand the mechanics of a four-beat gait combined with dressage principles of collection. If only I lived closer to a gaited dressage instructor!

There are plenty of good dressage instructors but few who are familiar with the biomechanics of a four-beat gait. The trotting horse does not have a head nod, so riding on-the-bit by capturing the energy from the hindquarters through the reins to the bridle is far less complicated!

Using today’s technology, I’ve been watching gaited dressage videos for how it looks when it is “right.” I study the headshake, depth of step, speed, headset, rider’s position and rein connection. Then I capture a ride or two each week on video and compare. This has been a powerful tool for me between clinics.

Since getting into gaited dressage in 2007, I have explored how to ride my Walking Horse on-the-bit, meaning how to ride my horse from back to front by capturing the forward energy through the reins to the bit. I’ve asked many gaited riders the question: how do you ride a head shaking horse on the bit without disrupting the head nod? I have yet to get an answer that I am able to translate to my own riding. I think I’ve been asking the wrong question. I need to ask, “How does riding on-the-bit feel on a head-shaking horse in the flat walk and running walk?”

It is important to note that riding on-the-bit is far more than just rein contact. Riding position is a huge factor. Last November I audited a life-changing bio-mechanics clinic taught by author and international riding instructor Mary Wanless. Since then I have been studying her “Ride With Your Mind” video series and applying what I have learn to riding gaited dressage.

As for the rider position, I’ve been combining inner and outer body alignment, stillness, bearing down of the inside anatomy to lower my center of gravity, increasing my seat coverage on the saddle and snugging my inner thighs with the dressage saddle to distribute my weight and lighten the load on my horse’s back. Then I apply Mary’s “suspension bridge” analogy to keep from falling into the hollow of my horse’s back. It’s like my knees and hips are the pillars of a suspension bridge. I aim to expand the distance between my knees and hips over the hollow of the mare’s back which supports my weight across her back. This helps my mare move more forward, lifting her back, stepping deeper under her body, and reaching up from the wither to produce a higher headset and deeper head nod.

Now to memorize the feeling for when it is right so that I can correct myself when we need to hit the reset button.

Video: Flatwalk in regular and slow motion: The video below shows this riding position and its effect on the gaited horse.

For more about Mary Wanless and her “Ride With Your Mind” video series, visit: mary-wanless.com.

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11 thoughts on “Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Right”

  1. I appreciate your endeavor into gaited dressage. My journey is similar with how I approach training my Fox Trotters. The hand in itself is a study for how to best stay in contact on these gaited horses. The late J-C Racinet wrote several books on French Classical Dressage and it can be concluded that he was a Baucherist. His study of the use of the fixed hand (to be interpreted as more-or-less fixed in space, not harshly resistant to movement) is worth the time to ponder. Of course, I doubt he rode any gaited horses, so his interpretation of staying in contact is based on less animated head movement. But, the idea of using the rein held firmly between the thumb and index finger, then allowing the contact to follow the head movement with lightness of the fingers playing over the top of the rein to adjust the aid to the bit is what I am attempting to master. I feel it preserves animated head nods, yet stays in contact. Racinet’s student, Lisa Maxwell, provided me some lessons though it was not on a gaited horse, it did reinforce that I was correctly staying light through the hand and fingers.

  2. Jennifer this is excellent. You are on the right track thank you for helping those of us just beginning.

  3. 2 books from Racinet are from Xenophon Press: Another Horsemanship and Total Horsemanship. Another master of lightness is Phillippe Karl. The publisher, Cadmos. features his Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. There is so much more and I am trying to read/study as much on lightness as possible in a lifetime. My horses deserve it.

    1. Thanks for the book titles. Larry Whitesell also teaches about lightness, patterned more from the French methods of classical dressage. His gaited dressage clinics are really good. In fact, I hadn’t been aware of how much I use my reins until I rode in one of his clinics.

  4. Larry helped direct me to some philosophies of some good trainers from Europe, I sort of took it from there. I have great appreciation for his contribution to my knowledge. And, he sparked such an interest for me that I have been insatiable for more. The nuances of Racinet and especially Phillipe Karl are very much advanced understanding of the horse in the lightest of aids.

  5. Larry Whitesell is a fantastic trainer and uses classical Dressage methods for Gaited horses, as do I. I train my Gaited horses just like my trotting horses except that I make sure they have room in the bridle contact to perform the head shake. That being said, I do like to have a good connection to the bridle through my hands and flexible elbows and arms. Gaited horses are quite capable of riding on the bit and still having a head shake.

    1. Hi Claudia,

      Riding a head-shaking horse on_the-bit has been a real quandary for me. Do you ride with ounces of contact that come and go with the head nod or do you move your fingers or arms or hands move with the head movement for a consistent contact or does the horse learn to dodge the nod behind the bit to avoid getting bonked in the teeth? I’ve tried it every which way and would love your thoughts.

      Thanks!
      Jennifer

  6. I am a Gaited Dressage instructor who came from the “trotting” Dressage world ;). As a matter of fact Claudia and I work together sometimes 🙂 I have held quite a few clinics for Larry and Jennifer and think they are such a valuable resource for the Gaited community. I noticed your last post that had not been replied to yet so I thought I would jump in. To answer your question, You would just follow the light contact as you would if you were dog walking. The connection is elastic through the give of your elbows. If the horse is able to trust that you will follow with an elastic connection he won’t feel the need to evade the bit.

    1. Thanks for writing, Jennifer. Feel free to contribute any time and also on the facebook.com/naturallygaited page.

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