By Jennifer Klitzke
There’s nothing like trail riding on a naturally gaited horse. You can cover lots of ground and your body won’t pay for it later. But who ever said that dressage has to stay in the four walls of an arena? Why not take dressage to the trail and transform a ride to a dance?
My friend’s gaited horse (Lady) has been living at our place the last two summers and she has encouraged me to ride her as much as I have time for.
Lady was purchased by my friend as an 8-year-old unregistered Walking horse. Registration didn’t matter to my friend since she just wanted a beautiful black trail horse. And Lady is all that—beautiful, black, and exceptional on the trail.
When Lady first arrived she had two distinct gears, a dog walk and a hard trot. Over time Lady has developed a naturally smooth fox walk and fox trot. She’s more diagonal versus lateral on the gait spectrum.
Lady is used to being ridden bareback on the trail with a long, loose rein, so the concept of being ridden on a light contact and in balance have been new to her. Here’s how it all started…
Golden Resources to Relaxation and Contact
A month ago, I began applying classical French dressage methods of training as taught by DVDs and books by Philippe Karl (Classical versus Classique and Classical Dressage), Jean Claude Racinet (Another Horsemanship) and Lisa Maxwell (Getting Started in Lightness). These instructors have taught me the importance of teaching the horse to be soft in the mouth, jaw and poll to create relaxation in the mind which is critical before moving on to body exercises. A relaxed mind is a teachable mind while a tense jaw and anxious mind bring about a resistant body that will not produce quality movement. Teaching the horse softness in the mouth, jaw and poll is best introduced in hand on the ground using a mild snaffle bit. These videos all provide excellent teaching in this and I highly recommend owning them for your personal library.
Relaxation to Trainability
Once the horse is soft and relaxed in the jaw and mouth, and licking, salivating, and chewing, then the body exercises may be added to bring the horse into balance. This is where the horse begins to engage the hind quarters by bending the joints, stepping under its body, engaging the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and lifting its whither to lighten the forehand for a few steps. This also can be introduced to the horse in hand which the videos encourage.
Separation of Aids
The French dressage philosophy differs from the German dressage philosophy I had been trained in for 12 years. While the German philosophy taught me to use my legs and seat to drive my horse into a rein contact, the French method separates the brake pedal (reins) from the gas pedal (seat and legs). Separating my seat and leg aids from my rein aids has been one habit that I have been working hard to break, and it is worth the results that I am seeing in the horses I ride. Lightness, harmony, and more willingness to go forward with less cueing on my part are among these benefits.
Timing of Aids
In addition to the separation of aids, is the crucial timing of my aids. My rein aids cue my horse’s front and my leg aids cue my horse’s hind legs. It is critically important for me to correctly discern the feeling of when my horse’s leg is in a cue-able position so that I get the desired result.
For example, if I am asking my horse to leg yield along the fence going to the right, my left calf needs to touch my horse at the girth as my horse begins to step its left hind foot forward. As I release my calf, I squeeze and release my outside (right) indirect rein to tell my horse to remain straight and not lead with the right shoulder. If my horse begins to get tense in the jaw, I squeeze the left rein with my middle, ring, and pinky fingers, and release by opening these three fingers as soon as the horse gives. At all times, I maintain a very light contact with the horse’s mouth on both reins with my thumb and index fingers.
Also, here’s an excellent blog post “The Wonder Whip” written by Manuel Trigo which was forwarded to me from a fellow gaited dressage friend. This blog post talks in detail about the timing of aids, and I find it very insightful.
Below is a video showing Lady being introduced to light contact as we leg yield along the fence. I am riding her in a Level 1 Mylar snaffle bit with white reins so that it is easier to see the amount of contact. The first leg yield is nothing short of a “hot mess,” and I explain what we worked through to “clean up” the second pass.
For Lady, establishing a soft contact and a relaxed mind before moving on to body exercises for balance have been the winning combination. Together they have brought out a beautiful transformation in Lady’s fox trot that is simply a joy to ride. The video below begins and ends just after the leg yield exercise which shows the most balanced, supple, and elegant fox trot Lady has achieved thus far.
Video: Introducing the Gaited Trail Horse to Dressage
Thanks for visiting NaturallyGaited.com and feel free to write to me by completing the contact form. I’d love to hear from you.