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.