Breaking Pace & Cross Canter Using Trot & Ground Rails
By Jennifer Klitzke
Most owners of gaited horse who have a pacey horse or a horse that cross canters don’t refine the pace and cross canter, they work to break up the lateral gait for a four-beat gait and true canter.
My gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson taught me that the pace and the cross canter are lateral movements while the trot and true canter are diagonal movements. Using trot over one or two ground rails can help break up the lateral movement for a more diagonal movement.
For the pacey horse, one or two ground rails can help break up the pace and help the horse learn to trot. One ground rail can help correct cross canter any time the hind legs are traveling in the wrong lead. When the horse hops over the ground rail they often correct the hind legs to the true lead.
For me, the most important aspects of this exercise is to establish:
Introduce the rails and lunge whip so the horse isn’t afraid of them.
Encourage the horse to find relaxation, balance, rhythm and impulsion at the walk, trot, and canter. If the horse gets tense or loses its balance, bring the horse down to a walk or trot and start over.
Teach the walk, trot and canter on cue and in a quality way of going to build the correct muscles. Don’t let the horse decide its gait, blast off into tension, or travel continually in a hollow ewe neck frame. Seek to teach gaits that build the top line muscles, encourage a deeper stride under the body, are balanced, and a develop a relaxed rhythm.
Video: Breaking Pace & Cross Canter Using Trot & Ground Rails
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How Dressage Improves Movement in the Naturally Gaited Horse
By Jennifer Klitzke
In 2007, I began searching for a smooth horse that would be easier on my aging body. That’s when I bought my first naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Makana, as a three-year-old filly.
I had been an avid dressage student of the trotting horse variety since 1988 and showed my Trakehner/thoroughbred gelding successfully through second level. I was familiar with the three distinct gaits he offered which were walk, trot, and canter.
Makana had these gaits, too—and a myriad of new gaits I needed to get a feel for and put cues to such as the flat walk, running walk, fox trot, and rack. She also came with a few gaits I needed to discourage: the pace, stepping pace, lateral canter and four-beat canter.
I thought a Tennessee walking horse was born to do a smooth flat walk and running walk! Well, yes, these gaits are natural and inherent, BUT I soon discovered that it was up to me to identify which gait was the one I had cued, help her maintain consecutive steps of it, and help her refine the quality of each gait.
Adding to this, dressage requires riding with an even contact. I knew that I needed to earn Makana’s trust with my hands in order for her to accept contact with the snaffle bit. Riding with even contact is a lot easier at a trot when the horse’s head and neck remain stationary. What about the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot? How do I maintain an even contact while the horse’s head and neck nod with each step?
These were the big questions I wrestled with as we began our gaited dressage journey. One thing I knew for sure is that dressage would teach Makana rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. I have found that these attributes improve the quality of movement in naturally gaited horses.
By relaxing the horse’s mind, the horse was in a more trainable state of mind.
By relaxing the jaw and back, pace can be replaced with a natural four-beat gait.
With suppling exercises, the naturally gaited horse can develop a deeper stride beneath its body.
By riding with even contact and connection from back to front, the naturally gaited horse can develop a consistent head nod in the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot.
Dressage also helps improve a rider’s balance, confidence, and riding position, as well as clarifies the rider’s use of aids in communicating with the horse which produces greater trust and harmony.
Most of all, naturally gaited horses flourish when ridden using dressage methods that build partnership, trust, and respect as compared with domination training methods or the use of severe bits, heavy shoes, chains, pads, artificial enhancements, and mechanical devices.
Over the years, it is clear that dressage has improved the quality of Makana’s gaits. Her medium walk, free walk, flat walk, and canter are well established now. We are still working on improving depth of stride in the running walk, and I know this will come with time.
Makana and the people we have met over the last ten years have introduced us to many new experiences that I never imaged we’d be doing, such as moving cows in team penning events and cow sorting leagues, enjoying the beauty of our State Parks by horseback which has led us to endurance rides, orientation events, and trail challenges, to riding in the snow, to giving stadium jumping a try. Dressage has been the common language through the versatility of experiences we are enjoying together!
Video: How dressage improves the movement of naturally gaited horses
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Dressage training has helped my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse with her rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. Yet quickness hasn’t been something I have practiced on a regular basis, and it really becomes apparent when we sort cows.
Recently I took my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse mare Gift of Freedom (Makana) to a Wednesday evening cow sorting league. We are clearly the odd ball in the group among quarter horses that are naturally built for this sport. These horses are highly engaged from behind and can lope, stop, pivot and spring off in a new direction in half a second.
Will my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse ever be as quick and responsive as the quarter horses? Not likely, but being lowest on the pecking order seems to motivate her. Makana LOVES having something to push around. Each week we get better at moving the cows from one pen to the next in order, and have more clean rounds than DQs.
Watching the riders warm up their quarter horses, I’ve noticed that they often use rollbacks as an exercise of choice, so I began adopting rollbacks into our warm up.
Rollbacks have great benefits. They increase engagement and make her think about quickness and responsiveness. This is helping us in the hole as we attempt to keep the unsequenced cows from sneaking through before their turn.
P.S. As a side note, I show up at sorting league as a cross dresser: my horse wearing Western attire and me wearing breeches, half chaps, and my riding helmet. I figure if I’m going to be the oddball among all these spur wearin’, shank sportin’ cowboys and cowgirls riding their cowy quarter horses, I might as well go all out!
Video: Rollbacks for the Gaited Horse
(Take it from me, it is easier to ride rollbacks in the security of a Western saddle.)
Does your gaited horse struggle with a flat, four-beat or bumpy, lateral canter? You’re not alone. My naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana wrestles with these issues, too. Over the last few years I’ve learned a few ways to improve her canter using dressage and gymnastic jumping.
Dressage to Break up a Lateral Canter
Dressage training has shown me that the rounder and more relaxed my naturally gaited Walking horse mare is in her back, jaw, poll, and top line, the smoother and less lateral her canter becomes. One of my favorite exercises is establishing a soft and round rein back before a canter depart. When the rein back is soft, non forced, and not rushed, it encourages my mare to bend her hindquarter joints and engage her abdominal muscles which lifts her back. This puts her in a wonderful posture most conducive for a quality canter depart and canter steps.
I learned an important lesson from my gaited dressage mentor, Jennie Jackson: Don’t practice a poor quality canter. As soon as my horse begins to feel flat, hollow, bumpy, bracey, or out of balance, I need to transition back to a walk, regroup, halt, rein back softly and ask again for a quality canter depart to quality canter steps. This means I need to learn to recognize the difference between the feeling of a quality and a poor quality canter so that I can ask for more of the former and reduce steps of the latter. If I continue riding a poor quality canter that’s what I am reinforcing to my horse. If I want a quality canter, I must first know what it feels like and practice more of it. That’s why talking lessons from a qualified instructor are so important to me. Instruction provides me with timely feedback so that I can associate how it feels with right or wrong.
Gymanstic Jumping to Break a Four-Beat Canter
While I will never become serious about show jumping my gaited horse, I enjoy schooling her over rails and small fences for gymnastic purposes and giving Makana variety in her training. I’ve noticed that when we ride over ground poles and small fences, it creates more lift and brings out a truer three-beat canter.
The other day I tried a new cantering exercise over two rails in an L-shape. First I let my horse walk over the rails before we cantered over them. The video below demonstrates the exercise.
Video: Exercises to Break up a Lateral or Four-Beat Canter
This is a super fun exercise for the rider and horse. I learned so much from this exercise: balance of my horse, my balance on my horse, my horse’s rhythm, keeping my horse forward yet relaxed, looking ahead to plan the arc of a turn and line to a rail, and getting a feel for how many canter strides to a rail.
The L-shape can also be used to school flying changes over the rail by alternating the direction over each pole. We’ll have to give that a try when we begin schooling flying changes.
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Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!