Tag Archives: Bucky Sparks

Getting on a horse that doesn’t want to stand

Getting on the horse that doesn't want to stand

By Jennifer Klitzke

When my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana was four years old, I took her to her first gaited dressage clinic with Bucky Sparks. I was so excited to be there and soak in all I could in beginning our gaited dressage journey.

I love Bucky’s teaching philosophy, because he blends traditional dressage with practical elements of natural horsemanship.

Most of the time Makana stands perfectly still for me to get on, but not when she is nervous or tense. When my lesson time came I literally had a panic attack before the auditors, because every time I put my foot in the iron, Makana would walk off. I was so frightened.

Thanks to Bucky, he showed me a profoundly helpful tip that worked that day and has helped me every time Makana doesn’t want to stand for me to get on.

How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand:

1. Teach the horse to flex their nose to the side by drawing one rein  to the saddle. Reward the horse by releasing as soon as the horse gives. Relaxation is what is the goal, not making the horse flex. Signs of relaxation include a lowering of the head and neck and when the horse licks its lips and chews.

If the horse has tension in the poll, neck or shoulder, address these areas individually to release the tension before expecting a soft and relaxed flex to the side.

2. Once the horse understands how to flex to the side and is soft and relaxed in doing so, then flex and release the horse a few times until the horse chews and lowers its head and neck.

3. Then flex the horse to the saddle and keep the horse flexed while repositioning the mounting block and get on. Then release the flex as a reward and encourage the horse to remain standing.

While I was at the clinic my horse kept walking off while in a flexed position. Bucky said, “You can’t make a horse stand.” Don’t punish the horse. Just remain calm to encourage relaxation, keep the horse flexed and gently follow the horse around. He said, “Pretty soon the horse will discover it is a lot easier to stand while being flexed than to walk around being flexed.” Bucky was right. It didn’t take long and as soon as my horse stopped, I repositioned the mounting block, got on, and released the flex. Then we moved on to the gaited dressage lesson.

This tip worked for me at the clinic and continues to work for me each time my horse doesn’t stand when I try to get on.

Video: How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand

For more about Bucky Sparks natural horsemanship and gaited dressage clinics, visit: www.blessyourhorse.com.


Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Right

Gaited dressage: The feeling of right

By Jennifer Klitzke

So much of effective dressage training comes through knowing and applying “the feeling of right.” This entails discerning when the horse begins to move off course and making adjustments to restore balance, relaxation, rhythm, harmony, suppleness, and impulsion. It takes time to develop what balance feels like in each gait and feel the difference between a quality and impure gait from the saddle, to feel when the horse begins to rush or lag, go hollow, duck behind the bit, drop its back, fall on the forehand, get tense in the jaw, lack bend or rhythm, and the list goes on.

Since 1988, I have been an avid student of dressage and competed successfully through second level until life-altering circumstances and my aging dressage horse ended our competition in 1996. Over the course of the next 16 years, I moved to a hobby farm in non-dressage country and relied on the knowledge and skills gained through 12 years of regular dressage lessons in my daily hacks.

In 2007, I purchased my first naturally gaited horse—mainly to save my aging body from the sitting trot. I knew nothing about training gaited horses. All I knew is that I wanted SMOOTH, and out of default dressage became our method of training. I wasn’t even sure if dressage and gaited horses worked together. We would just have to find out.

So much of effective dressage training comes through knowing and applying “the feeling of right.” This entails discerning when the horse begins to move off course and making adjustments to restore balance, relaxation, rhythm, harmony, suppleness, and impulsion. It takes time to develop what balance feels like in each gait and feel the difference between a quality and impure gait from the saddle, to feel when the horse begins to rush or lag, go hollow, duck behind the bit, drop its back, fall on the forehand, get tense in the jaw, lack bend or rhythm, and the list goes on.

While there are many similarities between riding trotting and gaited horses, I quickly discovered how “the feeling of right” on a trotting horse is not exactly the same as how it feels on a gaited horse. It was easier for me to feel balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection in trot than it was to feel balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection in flat walk and even harder for me to feel these qualities in lateral movements as shoulder-in at a flat walk.

I became perplexed with questions like: How do I develop “the feeling of right” between flat walk, rack, fox trot, stepping pace, and running walk when they are all SMOOTH? Once defined, how do I discern the difference between an adequate flat walk and an exceptional flat walk when both are SMOOTH? What does balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection feel like in each smooth gait? How do I ride a head nodding horse on the bit? Do my hands move to and fro with the horse’s head nod (as I would follow a trotting horse at a walk)? Or do my hands remain stationary and let the horse learn how to nod without getting pulled in the mouth? I had 20 years experience riding trot and this dressage en gait thing was a whole new experience.

It became clear that I needed gaited dressage lessons with my horse to learn a new sense of “feel.” Since gaited dressage instruction didn’t exist in my area, I began trailering my horse to gaited dressage clinics that came to my region each year. Receiving instruction from Jennie Jackson, Larry Whitesell, Jennifer Bauer, and Bucky Sparks began to give me a better feel for balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection, discernment between the gaits, and gait quality.

If you’re fortunate enough to live by a gaited dressage instructor, start taking regular lessons. If not, join a local dressage club to connect with dressage riders and find an open-minded dressage instructor who will teach you rider position and effective use of aids and help you establish balance, rhythm, impulsion, and connection in gait.

Pursuing “the feeling of right” is an ongoing journey and thanks to the quality instruction I’ve received, I’m developing a better sense of it.


The BIG Question

The BIG Question

By Jennifer Klitzke

I’m a huge fan of before’s and after’s. I love shows like Extreme Home Makeover and The Biggest Loser, because I love seeing transformation. So at the end of each riding season, I like to reflect upon where my horse and I have been, how we’ve improved, and what we’ll tackle next. I believe that life is an ongoing journey of learning–even for grandma-aged people like me.

Coming from decades of riding dressage on a trotting horse with a stationary head and neck to riding dressage on a head nodding, ear flopping, and teeth clicking naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, I had a BIG question: How do you ride a head-shaking horse on-the-bit? The more I sought out an answer, the BIGGER my question became.

Riding a horse on-the-bit is far more than headset. It involves a rider’s sense of feel, timing, and technique of the leg, seat and rein aids to capture and connect the forward energy produced from the hindquarters, through a relaxed back, fluid shoulders, and head and neck of the horse to a dialogue of contact between the rider’s hands and the snaffle bit while at the same time following the motion of the horse in a balanced riding position. A well fitting saddle that allows the horse to move freely and comfortably is also essential.

In dressage, riding on-the-bit and establishing a round frame are requirements, but according to the late Lee Ziegler, a well-known and respected gaited trainer and clinician, riding the Walking Horse in a round frame can produce fox trot and hard trot just as hollowness can create pace, step pace, and rack. Lee also pointed out aspects of conformation which relate to a horse’s propensity to pace, four-beat gait, and trot. In any case, Lee encouraged her students to ride their gaited horses in a neutral or neutral-slightly round position.

I’ve certainly witnessed hollow, high-headed pacey horses brought into a four-beat gait through a lowered headset and roundness, but if the latter is true, is it possible to ride a Walking Horse “on-the-bit” and in a round frame while maintaining a flatwalk and running walk?

In May I audited Larry Whitesell’s gaited dressage clinic and asked him how to ride a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse at a flatwalk, on-the-bit without restricting the head nod. He said, “You can’t.” Larry went on to say that if a horse nods its head, it must be bracing its back.

Really? I explained that the head nod is a signature attribute of the Walking Horse, and Larry said that the energy of engagement needs to be expressed somewhere. I believe Larry has something to this–although it is not to silence my Walking Horse’s head nod–but that my horse may be bracing her back.

During the lunch break I asked Larry for feedback regarding a recent video of a First Level dressage test we rode. He said, “Your horse looks happy and is where she needs to be at this level, but your horse is on the forehand.” Video: First Level Test 1>

The forehand? Gaited clinician Gary Lane and a few Walking Horse friends had also pointed this out. So what does it mean when a Walking Horse is “on the forehand”? Does this mean that my horse is too long and low? Do I need more forwardness? Certainly we need more engagement from the hindquarter, but how do I achieve it, how do I capture it into the bridle, what does it look and feel like, and how do these questions relate to riding my head-shaking horse on-the-bit with an unbraced back?

I spent the riding season exploring answers to these questions. In April Makana and I were honored to be one of the demonstration teams for clinician Gary Lane at the MN Horse Expo. After he had given us an “A+” on our long and low work, Gary offered insights to help my horse get “off the forehand.” He asked me to raise my hands slightly, squeeze with my calves against the horse’s sides, and release my grip on the reins. This is what he referred to as a half halt, and it resulted in a more elevated head and neck, lightness of the forehand, and a deeper head nod. Video: Gary Lane>

In May, I brought these questions to Hannah Rivard who raised Makana from birth and has gone on to be a Cavalia-quality horsewoman with her PRE-andalusian mare. She stopped by to provide expertise in regards to these questions. Hannah has a wonderful blend of gaited, classical dressage, and natural horsemanship application. She gave me pointers on forwardness, connection, and lateral exercises.

In June, Makana and I traveled to Proctor, MN with our questions to the B.L.E.S.S. Your Walking Horse Clinic. Clinician Bucky Sparks provided several answers which helped me get a feel for riding with contact in a round frame while allowing my horse’s head to nod. My horse had a noticeable overtrack and a four-beat flatwalk. I was relieved to know that it is possible to ride in roundness without breaking into a hard trot. Video: B.L.E.S.S. Clinic>

Bucky also helped me teach my horse to bend through the ribcage while asking for shoulder-fore, shoulder-in and haunches-in. These bending exercises began to unlock her braced back and add to her roundness and contact on-the-bit.

I also realized that forwardness and rushing are not the same thing. Forwardness can help produce balance but rushing will cause the horse to fall on the forehand. My horse had learned to evade stepping deep from behind by taking shorter and quicker steps. I have no idea what smooth gait she had invented, but it wasn’t a flat walk or a running walk!

By slowing Makana down, I am able to establish a deeper step under her body on a long and low frame. Then when the deep steps are established, I can slowly raise my horse’s head and neck while maintaining the same deep steps. Then I can transition to flatwalk for a few deep steps and transition back to a deep stepping walk.

A couple weeks after that, I met Karen Meyers, President of the Western Dressage Association of Minnesota at a women’s horse gathering. Karen grew up with Walking Horses, and she noticed that my horse seemed to stop with contact. Keeping my horse moving forward has been a big challenge, and I had just assumed that I had a lazy horse. Karen asked me to keep my arms at my sides and open and close my fingers with each head nod. This encouraged my horse to nod as she moved forward into the contact. Ah-ha, perhaps my closed hands were compounding the problem and cuing her to slow to a stop! Video: Flatwalk>

Then in October at a women’s horse gathering, instructor Judy Conger explored saddle fit with my horse. We switched from my gaited western saddle to her Black Rhino western saddle that has a dish-shaped tree and is more flared in front. To my amazement, there was a noticeable improvement in Makana’s willingness to travel forward and through the corners without stopping. My western saddle hindered her shoulder movement, especially in turns. I took this awareness with me and now place my dressage saddle behind my horse’s shoulders. This has also made a difference.

Finally in November, I audited a Biomechanics Clinic taught by author and clinician Mary Wanless. Watching this clinic brought the words of her book “The Natural Rider” to life. The practical take-aways have made a difference in my riding position which has impacted my horse’s way of going.

So did I lose a hundred pounds during this riding season? No, but I’ve gained many transforming answers to the BIG question. And I’m happy to report that it is possible to ride a head-shaking horse at a flatwalk, on-the-bit.


Preparation for What’s Next

Gaited dressage horse cantering

By Jennifer Klitzke

It’s interesting  how experiences have a way of preparing us for what’s next. I never would have imagined that I’d be back showing dressage after a 15-year break. And even stranger, that I’d be showing dressage on a horse that doesn’t trot!

I never got into this “gaited thing” to show. In fact, I only wanted a smooth horse to ride that would be gentler on my aging body.

When I bought my Tennessee walking horse mare Makana in 2007, dressage became our default language. It’s all I knew.  Yet the “feel” on a Walking Horse is so different from that of a trotting horse. And Walking Horses do unusual things that I had not encountered before: the faster they travel the smoother they get, their ears flop, their head nods, and their teeth sometimes click with each stride.  That’s when I joined a local Walking horse association in hopes to learn more about riding this unique breed.

Shortly thereafter, I took my mare to the B.L.E.S.S. Your Walking Horse Clinic with Bucky Sparks who trains Walking Horses with dressage methods. Later that year, I rode at a Larry Whitesell Gaited Dressage Clinic. Indeed my worlds were colliding.

In 2008 the Walking horse association sent out a request for more riders at the Washington County Fair to preserve future shows. “Well, okay, we’ll give it a try,” I said and off we went.  It wasn’t ribbons that kept us returning to Walking Horse shows. My horse came alive while away from home. She seemed to enjoy the people and other horses, so we’ve kept it up.

Now that I was officially riding dressage on a gaited horse and showing in rail classes, I entered my Walking horse at a local schooling dressage show the fall of 2010. We were the only gaited team and because of this it drew the attention of two women who owned gaited horses. We exchanged phone numbers and began to ride together at state parks. Up to this point I had lost the nerve to be a trail rider. I preferred the security of an arena, the fenced enclosure, and the cushy footing in the event I fell off. However, I gave trail riding a try and was hooked. My horse enjoyed the fresh air, arresting scenery, and varied terrain as much as I did.

Trail riding prepared us for the next step. If it weren’t for the dozens of trail rides we had been on with the women I had met at the schooling dressage show, I would have never considered riding the 2011 Gaited Trail Trials which proved to be the most fun I’ve ever had on horseback!

So what’s next? I’m tinkering with the notion of eventing my gaited horse.

Gaited horses jump too


B.L.E.S.S.(ed) in 2010

By Jennifer Klitzke

Breaking through the Proctor fog was the sunny smile and personalized teaching of F.O.S.H. Clinician Bucky Sparks. He brought along some new tools to share from his training toolbox. This marked Bucky’s sixth consecutive 2,000-mile trip to Minnesota. He imparted wisdom to riders and auditors who had traveled from all corners of Minnesota and Wisconsin for the clinic held June 4-7, 2010 in Proctor, MN.

Bucky’s toolbox is filled with effective training techniques geared to B.L.E.S.S. the horse. B.L.E.S.S. stands for balance, looseness, engagement, softness, and soundness. In fact, everything Bucky teaches, he applies to the horses he trains and shows. You’ll see him successfully showing barefoot (the horse that is) and in a snaffle bridle.

This year, we saw dramatic transformations in many returning horses. Ones that had paced are now solid in their flat walks. Horses that had started the canter last year worked on softness and balance through simple changes and counter canter. Other horses that have mastered the basics worked on improving collection and engagement through lateral exercises like shoulder-in, haunches-in, and leg yielding.

One of Bucky’s new tools introduced this year was “breaking it down” which helps a young horse stay focused and not “take two steps of stupid,” as Bucky says.

Breaking it down redirects the attention of the horse away from doing something dangerous to listening to the rider. It is also effective for horses that have developed a habit of bracing in the neck and poll. Breaking it down applies a tug and release of one rein with some leg pressure as the horse moves forward. It redirects the horse to relaxation when they realize there is nothing to brace against.

To view photos and videos of the B.L.E.S.S. Clinic, visit Naturally Gaited on  Facebook.

For more about Bucky Sparks, visit www.blessyourhorse.com.