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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What is a half halt? Why is it used? When do you apply it? Does the half halt serve a purpose for the naturally gaited horse? Can a half halt improve the quality of gait?
When I flew to Alabama in January to be Jennie Jackson’s working, the half halt wasn’t one of the questions I had on my mind. Instead I was interested in learning how to lengthen the stride of a running walk without rushing. I was soon to learn that the half halt was the secret ingredient to do just that.
The half halt is a broad term used to rebalance the horse, and as a dressage rider, I’ve been acquainted with the half halt for decades. Yet, I had not understood its application with the naturally gaited horse. My focus had been establishing a head nodding even rhythm and a SMOOTH gait. Beyond that I hadn’t developed an awareness for the need of half halts that could lead to gait quality.
That is, until I traveled to Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center and rode with Jennie. Each day I rode several naturally gaited Tennessee walking horses of various training levels. Some were green, others were well schooled, and one was being rehabilitated from Big Lick. Within each level of training, some horses rushed, others leaned on the bit, some took small quick steps, and some barged through the outside shoulder in a lateral exercise. In each case, Jennie taught me the importance and application of the half halt.
From Jennie’s coaching, I had a half halt awakening that taught me three important keys to its effectiveness. The first key is to become aware of when a half halt is needed; the second key is knowing and consistently applying the half halt aids at the right time; and the third key is knowing when to release the half halt.
Applying half halts with the naturally gaited horse
Awareness of need: Now that the ice has melted and it’s safe to ride again, I’ve been putting half halts into practice with the horses I ride. I’m amazed with how many half halts are applied within a riding session and how many reasons a half halt is needed. I’m using half halts to prepare my horse for a transition, whenever my horse leans on the bridle, or rushes, or becomes distracted, or feels heavy on the forehand and needs to re-shift its balance onto the hindquarters. Whenever my horse takes short quick steps, and whenever my horse bulges through the shoulder in a lateral movement.
Aids of the half halt: After I recognize the need for a half halt, I simultaneously freeze my lower back, still my hip joints from following my horse’s movement, and squeeze my fingers on the reins without pulling back. I hold this position until the release.
Timing of the release: Riding several horses of various training, along with Jennie’s coaching, really pointed out that the release of a half halt is not a one-size-fits-all. Sensitive horses will respond to the half halt quicker than less sensitive horses. One horse I rode tended to rush and a two-second half halt was applied before the horse responded. Another horse I rode also rushed, but she was much more sensitive so the half halt was released in a half second. As soon as the horse responds to the half halt by slowing down, or rebalancing, or straightening through the outside shoulder, or taking a deeper stride under its body, it is important to release the half halt. This means opening my fingers without letting the reins slip through, relaxing my lower back and resume following the horse’s motion through my hip joints alternating to the rise and fall of the belly sway which is in sync with the hind legs as they step under the body.
Sometimes a half halt and release is followed up with another half halt and release because the horse responded to the first half halt, took a couple balanced steps, and then rushed off again. Over time, with consistent half halts and releases in response to the rushing, the horse will rush less.
One horse I rode was barn sour. Every time we headed away from her friends, the horse began moving sideways. I tried to overcome this by riding with a fixed outside rein against her neck. It wasn’t working. Instead, Jennie encourage me to apply the outside rein like a half halt, then lift both reins up and over to the other side, and release. For this mare, the release made all the difference.
I am becoming more aware through the sense of feel just how half halts are rebalancing my horse to shift more weight onto the hindquarters, helping my horse become lighter on the bridle and rounder in the frame, and slowing my horse whenever she rushes to encourage deeper strides under her body.
This half halt awakening has opened my eyes to many benefits the half halt brings to the naturally gaited horse and in improving the gait quality of the horses I ride.
When people watch a gaited horse performing a dressage test, I wonder if they expect to see the show gait movement of a rail class? And if so, I wonder if they think that dressage training has permanently altered the horse’s gait? Could the expression of show gait or gait executed during a dressage test be as simple as flipping the switch of rider aids?
I’ve heard a few misconceptions of gaited dressage over the years: Dressage will make a gaited horse trot; cantering or trotting a gaited horse will ruin its natural four beat gait; and dressage will destroy a gaited horse’s show gait.
Where do this misconceptions come from? Maybe people see a gaited dressage test performed and don’t see show gait. Then the horse moves up the dressage training pyramid to higher levels of collection and the movement looks even more foreign. Maybe people think that dressage tests are evaluated by the same criteria as that of rail class. Maybe they know people who show at recognized dressage shows and believe that showing dressage is only for horses that trot. Maybe people have watched upper level dressage tests where the horses are performing in collection and engagement and strides are shortened, and they believe that dressage permanently alters the length of stride.
I have really good news! First of all, dressage training and showing dressage are not the same thing. You can train your gaited horse using dressage methods and never show at a dressage competition.
Second of all, dressage tests and rail class shows are judged by different criteria. Rail class movement ridden on a straight line and dressage movements ridden on a perpetual bend are like comparing apples and oranges.
Competition dressage offers many levels and tests from Introductory two-gait tests to upper level three-gait tests in line with the Pyramid of Training. The latter demanding higher levels of collection and engagement from the horse. Schooling dressage shows are often open to Western dressage and gaited dressage entries.
In a dressage test, gait quality is only one aspect of the test score, and that includes the variations of walks, gaits, and canters. A dressage test also evaluates how well the rider helps the horse execute rhythm (with energy and tempo), relaxation (elasticity and suppleness), connection (acceptance of the aids and bit), impulsion (energy and thrust, straightness with alignment and balance), and collection (engagement, self carriage, lightness of the forehand) as they move through a series of required gaits, transitions, and movements precisely on the letter. Harmony and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and the rider’s use of leg, seat and rein aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.
Rail class awards big strides and exaggerated head nods. In order for the horse to achieve this, the horse needs to be positioned in a frame where the hind leg trails behind the tail and pushes from behind for maximum length of stride while the other hind leg steps deep under the body to pull the horse along. This frame positions the horse in a neutral to hollow back and flat croup where the push and pull of the hind legs activate the head and neck nod with each step.
While a horse ridden in rail class predominantly rides straight lines along the rail, dressage tests utilize circles, lateral exercises, and changes of bend with the goal of producing soft, round, relaxed, engaged, and balanced movements. The cues and riding position needed for dressage require the rider’s use of leg, seat, and rein aids with the concept of “inside leg to the outside rein” to connect and channel the energy from the hindquarters through the body to a soft and round acceptance of the bit with even contact.
While show gait movement may be achievable at lower levels of dressage, it becomes bio-mechanically impossible at the higher levels that require collection and engagement to perform lateral movements and small circles.
As the horse advances to higher levels of engagement and collection, the rider repositions the horse’s frame in such a way that the hindquarter joints bend, the back slightly rounds, the horse carries more weight from behind while lightening the forehand by growing taller in the wither, head, and neck position. The movement produced from this posture is biomechanically different than that of the show gait. This makes it impossible for the horse to push and pull to produce the same length of stride as in rail class. Instead the horse’s steps are shorter because there is little to no trailing of the hind leg extending behind the tail. The gait shortens and the head nods less.
Does this mean that dressage permanently alters gait? I am happy to say, “No.” Gait expression is simply the biomechanical response of a set of rider aids and training that place the horse in a frame which allows more push and pull or carrying power from behind.
If you want to ride show gait, simply apply the aids (and tack if needed). In fact, I believe dressage training develops a gaited horse’s range of motion, so that the show gait will improve in quality with deeper strides.
Galloping through an open field is something that I have always longed to do, yet paralyzing fear had imprisoned me.
My Tennessee walking horse mare was a Valentine’s Day gift from my husband in 2007. (Well, actually, I pleaded with him for two weeks when he buckled on Valentine’s Day and said, “Okay!”) She came with the registered name “Gift of Freedom” which is ironically symbolic.
As a child, I rode my spring-loaded plastic pony through the wild, wild West of my imagination and dreamed for the day of owning a horse. That day finally arrived 24 years later after a friend said to me, “Jennifer, you’re going to be saying ‘Someday I’ll buy a horse’ for the rest of your life. You need to make it happen or ‘someday’ will never come.”
She was right, so that’s what I did. I saved enough money for my first horse and 29 years later, I think I’m more horse-crazy than ever! Bringing horses into my life was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I was born for this.
Horseman Buck Brannaman says, “Horses are a mirror to your soul,” and I’ve found that to be true. I believe that God has used horses to expose the broken and misguided pieces of my life that are in need of restoration. Once I courageously acknowledge and work through these broken areas, God has blessed me with a gift of freedom.
In fact, the real gift of freedom came at Easter time in 1996.
Leading up to this, horses had become a god of sorts. Horses had become my source of life, my source of purpose, and my source of identity. Anytime horses fell short of the god-role I had placed them in, I became more demanding to the point that control, perfectionism, and domination began to replace what once had been team-driven harmony.
When horses rebelled and I felt out of control, then hyper-ventilating panic attacks began to consumed me. I became so imprisoned with paralyzing riding fear that I could only ride in a 20-meter circle, traveling to the left, on a calm day, with no distractions, in an indoor arena, at a walk.
Then one day I faced a cross roads: It was time to quit riding horses, the very thing I love, or face the fear in humility, with courage and an open mind in hopes of overcoming it?
Yes, I believe Buck Brannaman is right when he says, “Horses are a mirror to your soul.” I am thankful that they have humbled me to realize that riding horses isn’t about controlling them; it is about building a trusted partnership.
And horses were not meant to be my source of life, either. Horses are a gift from God—not a god. I believe that God had allowed this cross roads in order that I would ultimately find what I had been searching for— an identity, a purpose, and meaning for life in Him.
Not only that, God has given me the courage to face my fears and over come them. Through daily prayer and perseverance, He has given me a gift of freedom to do what I never imagined I would be doing.
Today, me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Gift of Freedom, enjoy many adventures I only dreams of doing: riding in the beauty of nature outside of the four walls of an arena, participating in endurance rides, moving cows in sorting leagues, gymnastic jumping, and more. All without the straps of fear.