Learning from the Trotters

Paul Belasik dressage clinic
International clinician Paul Belasik coaches a Grand Prix horse and rider in a canter exercise to strengthen the horse in preparation for canter pirouettes.

By Jennifer Klitzke

I learn so much from auditing traditional dressage clinics. Even though the horses at these clinics are trotting instead of flat walking, racking, or fox trotting, it doesn’t matter to me, because I see far more commonalities between traditional dressage and gaited dressage than differences. Among these commonalities are rider position and effective use of aids; developing relaxation, rhythm, balance and engagement in the horse; and developing trust, partnership and harmony between the rider and horse.

Central States Dressage and Eventing Association, of which I have been a member on and off for decades, sponsored a dressage clinic at the  Leatherdale Equestrian Center in St. Paul, MN on November 21-22, 2015 with international FEI rider, trainer, and author Paul Belasik.  This was my chance to see Grand Prix horses and riders being coached in real time through piaffe, passage, half pass, canter pirouettes, and tempe changes. What a treat to witness this level of dressage—LIVE.

I soaked in many wonderful exercises that will help my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana and I improve our balance, rhythm, relaxation, impulsion, and straightness in our gaited dressage.

Among the many take-a-ways include establishing balance through transitions. Depending upon where the horse is at in its training dictates the level of difficulty in the transitions being applied. For Makana and I, we will work on walk-halt-walk, gait-walk-gait, gait-halt-gait, canter-walk-canter, and add in a few steps of slow, soft, round, and relaxed rein back as needed to increase engagement in the hindquarters and through the back. Maybe next year Makana will have the strength and balance to tackle canter-halt-canter transitions.

In any case, these transitions, especially when rein back is added, are terrific ways to improve balance in the horse while maintaining a light contact. The transitions rock my horse back onto  her haunches, engage her abdominal muscles to lift and strengthen her back, and create an uphill feeling like her withers are rising up in front of my seat.

Mr. Belasik also coached students in establishing a more effective riding position. He pointed out the importance of maintaining a thigh connection with the saddle and to keep the heels beneath the rider’s hips. He outlined the importance of riding from the core which includes drawing the shoulder blades back and down. This flattens the rider’s back and keeps the rider’s elbows at their side for a more powerful and stable riding position—especially helpful for rider’s with horse that lean on the bit or suddenly try to pull the reins out of the rider’s hands.

Mr. Belasik also coached a couple riders who were newer to dressage. He explained the importance of establishing and maintaining a consistent light connection with the bridle that the horse can rely on and reach forward into. Each time a rider allowed the reins to slip through their fingers and flop, it broke the connection where horse seemed directionless. It’s rhythm changed, it’s frame changed, and the horse and rider were no longer in harmony. As soon as the rider re-established and maintained a consistent connection, the horse maintained a steady, forward rhythm, and sought out that connection, where the two became one again.

Much of what Paul Belasik taught affirmed much of my recent DVD studies in classical French dressage. These affirmations include the importance of the horse being relaxed in the poll and jaw, riding the horse in balance, engaged from behind, lifting its back, rising up in the wither, not leaning on the bridle or dropping its weight onto the shoulders, riding many transitions to improve balance, making sure that the poll is the highest point of the horse, and not riding the horse behind the vertical.

Paul Belasik dressage clinic
International clinician Paul Belasik is shown assisting a Grand Prix rider by cueing the horse to step deeper under itself, lowering its hindquarters, lifting its withers, and rounding its back in piaffe.

Even though I wasn’t the one riding in the clinic, I learned so much as an auditor. It feels good to know that Makana and I are on the right path to improving balance, rhythm, relaxation, impulsion, and harmony.

To learn more about Paul Belasik’s clinic schedule, his books and videos, visit Paul Belasik.com.