Tag Archives: french dressage for gaited horses

Harmony, Trust and Partnership

Harmony Trust and Partnership

By Jennifer Klitzke

For years I couldn’t understand why my horses didn’t want to go forward. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a new approach to dressage that I realized I had been riding with the gas pedal and brake pedal on at the SAME time each time I drove my horse with my seat and legs into closed hands.

I thirsted for harmony, partnership, trust, and lightness in my riding with my horses. I was tired of setting agendas for my horses and ready to invite them into a dance of relaxation, balance, harmony, and lightness—where ever that would lead us.

If you’ve been following Naturally Gaited for the last couple years, you know that classical French dressage has become my language of choice.

I’ve been studying books and DVDs by Philippe Karl, a DVD by Lisa Maxwell (a student of the late Jean Claude Racinet, who studied the work of Francois Baucher), taken lessons from Susan Norman, a student of both Philippe Karl and Jean Claude, and lessons from Nichole Walters, a student of Philippe Karl.

These teachings have rocked my world! Notably because they sharply contrast the German dressage training I had studied for the preceding decades. It wasn’t the contrast that made me switch. It was the truths in the contrast that made me switch. (Just watch the DVD: Classic vs. Classique where the French and German theories go head-to-head in a convincing demonstration.)

For me, I couldn’t understand why my horses didn’t want to go forward. It wasn’t until I began to open my mind to the French method that I realized I had been riding with the gas pedal and brake pedal on at the SAME time each time I drove my horse with my seat and legs into closed hands.

I was also tired of being a domineering micro-manager with my horses, and I thirsted for harmony, partnership, trust, and lightness in my riding. I was tired of “making” my horses DO and GO, and I was ready to “ask” my horses to dance with me—even if it meant giving up showing and my expectation of moving up in the levels each year.

If I was able to maintain harmony, trust, and partnership in the show ring, then I’d be open to showing, but if showing became a demand at every letter, then it was time to recheck my motives.

Last year my Dad grew gravely ill, and I didn’t have time to travel to shows. It was more important to be with my family. This is when I discovered virtual shows. Currently, the only organization that offers virtual shows is the National Western Association of America (NWAA). Many of their virtual shows are open to gaited horses. Not only could I ride and record my test from my own backyard, I could ride my test within the relaxation, harmony, trust, and partnership that I felt was essential in our dressage training.

I hope to get out to a show or two this summer. If not, I will for sure take up a few virtual shows.

Video: Separating the gas pedal from the brake pedal

For a list of gaited dressage tests, see “Links” in the right sidebar.

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Life and Random Thoughts about Gaited Dressage

By Jennifer Klitzke

I hope your Spring is off to a great start! After six month of winter’s dark and cold, I was chompin’ at the bit for sunshine and ridable terrain to be back in the saddle and riding my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana and my friend’s naturally gaited fox trotting mare Lady. Thankfully, I’m back riding again. I hope you are, too!

Lady FoxtrotFirst off, I have great news: Lady, my friend’s fox trotting horse, has officially become a part of my family. Lady has been boarded at my place the last three years and my friend feels called to other time commitments in life. She has turn Lady over to my care, yet she knows that any time she wants to ride, she is more than welcome!

At the same time, due to my aging parents, a full time job, and the demands of life, I had to part with my once-in-a-lifetime Spanish Mustang, Indy, who had made many of my life-long dreams come true: cross country, endurance, stadium jumping, trail obstacles, dressage, and more.

NAWD Basic 3 stretch trot 1
My Spanish Mustang Indian’s Legend showing a jog by allowing the horse to stretch its head and neck out and down.

Indy was missing our continual weekend adventures that I no longer had time for during my Dad’s grave illness and my Mom’s need for our assistance on the weekends. I sold him back to the owner I purchased him from. Now Indy is living the trail horse dream. Here’s Indy’s story»

050617 Lady jumpingOn the bright side, Lady possesses many of Indy’s brave qualities, so who knows, after we get her canter consistently well established on both leads, maybe we’ll be back competing at these same events–only as a gaited duo!

So, now that it’s been Spring, here’s what’s been percolating since I began riding…So much of my focus has been on the depth of stride from behind. Lately I’ve been contemplating about fore stride in addition to the hind leg stride as it relates to head nod, throughness, connection, balance, engagement, rhythm, shoulder scope, and following the horse’s natural movement with my arms and seat.  It seems the more I follow the natural motion of the horse, the more freedom I’m seeing in the horses I ride.

Video: Naturally Gaited Tennessee Walking Horse Flat Footed Walk

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Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: Following Hands

Following the motion of the head shaking horse

Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: Following Hands

By Jennifer Klitzke

Dressage requires riding with even contact with a snaffle bit—not floppy, loose reins. This means that I need to earn my horse’s trust with my hands in order for her to accept contact with the bit. This is a lot easier to do at a trot when the horse’s head and neck remain stationary, but 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?

Recently while taking classical French dressage lessons on trotting horses, I learned how following the motion of the four-beat walk with my hands fosters relaxation, harmony and lightness. This makes me wonder how following hands might translate to relaxation, harmony and lightness to the naturally gaited head-shaking horse while moving in flat walk, fox trot, and running walk.

philippe-karl-dvds-video-cameraIf you’ve been following NaturallyGaited, you know that I’ve been studying the work of classical French dressage school master Philippe Karl through his books and videos. Recently before I set out to Seattle, WA to visit family, I learned that Philippe Karl has been conducting School of Légèreté certification clinics in three USA locations—one of which is Cadbury Farm, not far from where I would be staying.

Ecstatic with the opportunity to get first-hand teaching in this classical French dressage method, I contacted Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm for lessons while I was in Seattle.

This is the second blog post following lessons I took with Nichole who has now completed the first leg of the instructor’s certification program in the School of Légèreté.

After Nichole had spent a few hours teaching me work-in-hand exercises, we proceeded to my favorite part—riding!

Video: Work in Hand: Educating the Mouth

The majority of my riding time was at a walk in order that I took home how the work-in-hand exercises progress to the saddle.

Before we even got to applying the work-in-hand exercises in the saddle, Nichole encouraged me to follow the horse’s natural head and neck motion with my hands while maintaining an even contact with both sides of the snaffle bit (instead of keeping my arms quiet at my sides.)

She noticed that while my arms were locked at my sides, my body followed the motion of the horse more than it needed to. The tension in my shoulders became evident in my efforts to remain still with my arms and hands, yet this tension and stillness translated heaviness to the horse.

While some following the motion of the horse with my body is needed, Nichole encouraged me to also follow the head and neck motion of the horse with my arms while maintaining an even contact with both sides of the snaffle bit.

This was an epiphany for me! Granted, I was riding a trotting horse, but I was riding the horse at a natural four-beat walk.

This got me thinking about the natural four-beat gaits of the head nodding breeds. What compromises have my stillness in my arms been creating in the quality of the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot? Could the tension in my shoulders and still arms and hands be saying “stop” to my Tennessee walking horse, Makana? Would following hands produce less prodding on my part to move her forward? Would following hands produce less tension and more relaxation, harmony and lightness in my friend’s gaited horse, Lady? Would Lady be more apt to seek contact with the snaffle bit and trust the contact more if I followed her head nod? Would her back be less braced if I rode her with following hands? Would she track up more with deeper strides if there was greater relaxation in her back?

How many gaited riders struggle with pace and step pace? I just wonder if following the horse’s head nod might lead the horse to greater relaxation, harmony, and lightness and produce less brace in the jaw and back and produce a more pure four-beat gait?

Video: Following Hands

If you are on this gaited dressage journey, I’d love to hear from you. Contact us»

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Special thanks to Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who taught me the “Educating the Mouth” and “Following Hands” exercises that she learned first hand from Philippe Karl and his School of Légèreté.

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Beginning lessons in Légèreté: Work in Hand

Extend the neck

By Jennifer Klitzke

Work in hand? If you’re like me, I just like to get on and ride. Recently, I experienced the purpose work in hand has to build communication with my horse that translates to our saddle time and makes our training move along quicker in lightness and balance.

Before I set out to Seattle, WA to visit family for a week, I learned that Philippe Karl has been teaching School of Légèreté certification clinics in three USA locations—one of which is Cadbury Farm, not far from where I would be staying.

Ecstatic with the opportunity to get first-hand teaching in this classical French dressage method, I contacted Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm for lessons while I was in Seattle.

Nichole asked about my experience with Karl’s philosophy and the training with my horses. I explained that I had been studying Philippe Karl’s DVDs Classical versus Classique and Classical Dressage 1-4.

philippe-karl-dvds-video-camera

Learning via DVDs are great for teaching concepts, but nothing beats one-on-one instruction for applying these concepts in real time.

When Nichole urged me to begin with understanding lightness from the ground, I sighed, because I just wanted to get to the fun part of riding. Philippe Karl’s DVD series covers work in hand, but I had just glossed over that portion thinking that it wasn’t important. WRONG!

Nichole said that Karl believes educating the mouth from the ground is so important that he won’t teach his students how to ride until the student knows how to teach the horse how to establish balance (how to open its poll and lift its head and neck to shift its balance from the forehand to the hindquarters); taste the bit and swallow; relax the jaw; flex 45 to 90 degrees to the right and left in order to stretch the outside neck muscles; and accept and follow an even contact of the snaffle bit and extend the neck down and out to stretch the top line.

These concepts then translate to the rider’s hands while in the saddle which make it easier for the horse and rider to progress more quickly in their training.

Work-in-hand at a halt to teach the horse how to be light with the bit and follow a light contact:

1) Face the horse and align my spine to the horse’s spine;

2) Raise the horse’s head and neck and open the poll (the angle between the neck and the lower jaw) by applying equal contact on the corners of the horse’s mouth. This helps the horse shift its balance from the shoulders onto the hindquarters. (Notice the horse square up its fore legs and straighten its chest). This is a terrific exercise for breaking the habit of horses that lean on the bit;

3) Activate the horse’s tongue so that it begins to taste the bit and swallow;

4) If the horse stops tasting the bit, unlock the tension in the jaw. One hand remains neutral and holds the snaffle ring and the other hand directs the snaffle toward the bridge of the nose. As soon as the horse begins to taste the bit, release to reward;

shift balance by lifting head
Lift the head and neck and open the poll to shift the balance from the shoulders and more onto the hindquarters. Noticed the forelegs are perpendicular to the ground and not leaning toward me.

5) Then, while holding one ring of the snaffle while the horse is in a balanced stance, collect the rein of the opposite snaffle ring so that there is EVEN contact with the snaffle ring and the opposite rein;

Even contact
Moving to the side, one hand remains on the ring of the snaffle and the other on the rein with even light contact.

 

6) Gently lead the horse’s head and neck to one side with even contact. This stretches the outside neck muscles. (Notice the inside neck muscles concave and the outside muscles convex) ;

Stretching the outside neck muscles
With even contact, I reposition myself from the side to the front of the horse while encouraging the horse follow the contact and turn its head and neck. This stretches the outside neck muscles. Be careful that the ears remain level and the horse continues to taste the bit.

7)Then direct the horse to follow the contact down and out to the side to stretch while keeping its ears level. This stretches the outside neck muscles and prevents the horse from contracting the neck muscles and hollowing the underside muscles. It also builds the top line muscles. Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage goes into detail why this is so important.

Extend the neck
Extend the neck with even contact by guiding the horse with the hand down and out. Seek to maintain balance without the horse leaning onto the inside shoulder.

 

My lessons began with a horse that knew these exercises well so that I could experience how it feels when it goes right. Then I worked with a horse that was just starting these exercises so that I could experience what it is like when things go wrong and how to correct it. This would help me at home when I began teaching my horses.

Nichole guaranteed that if I spent ten to fifteen minutes in hand teaching each horse balance, tasting the bit, swallowing, flexing to each side, and following an even contact before riding, my horses will progress quicker in their training and become lighter on the bridle.

After the lessons with Nichole, I returned home and began to apply these exercises with my horses. Now I see why Karl feels so strongly about educating the horse’s mouth while in hand. I’m astounded with how soft, light, and balanced all of the horses are becoming when I begin every riding session with these exercises.

I have never given work-in-hand its proper respect until now. If you are a visual learner like me, I’d encourage you to purchase Philippe Karl’s Classical Dressage DVD Volume 1 which covers the work-in-hand exercises plus much more. Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage is also a great study aid with lots of pictures and detailed explanation.

For those who have studied German dressage like I have and wonder what the differences are between it and French dressage, Karl’s DVD Classic versus Classique is an amazing contrast with riding lessons from Philippe Karl and FEI German Trainer Christoph Hess.

Special thanks to Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who taught me the “Educating the Mouth” exercises that she learned first hand from Philippe Karl and his School of Légèreté.

Video: Educating the Mouth

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Balanced Lightness for the Gaited Horse

Balanced lightness for the gaited horse

By Jennifer Klitzke

What does it mean to ride with lightness? Is there more to it than riding with looped reins? What about connection and its role in the dressage training pyramid to bring about balance and rhythm?

Last month I took one of my horses to a classical French dressage clinic with Susan Norman. Susan had been a 15-year student of the late Jean Claude Racinet and a three-year student of Philippe Karl. Both Racinet and Karl are highly acclaimed French classical dressage thinkers of our modern era and have studied the work of Baucher.

Well-meaning riders are releasing their horses to lightness before their horses have learned balance and self carriage.

Susan holds dear the principle of riding with lightness, and when she said that she sees people riding their horses on loose reins when they shouldn’t, all of us at the clinic were braced for her next words. She went on to say that well-meaning riders are releasing their horses to lightness before their horses have learned balance and self carriage.

That really resonates with me as it relates to recent feedback I received from my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson.  A month ago, I had asked Jennie for feedback on ways to improve my Western gaited dressage with my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana. Jennie said that I need to ride my mare with MORE contact to establish forward balance into the correct mechanics of the head nod.

Jennie explained that Makana wasn’t traveling through from behind to the bit, and it showed in the presence of a “head peck” instead of a “head nod.” A head peck is an upward nose flicking evasion which is disconnected from the hind leg steps. Whereas the head nod is when the head and neck bob downward in sequence with each hind leg as it steps deep under the body.

After studying French classical dressage for the last year, my initial reaction to Jennie’s comment was, “What? Ride with MORE contact?!” But blending Jennie’s feedback with what Susan Norman said in her clinic put it into perspective.

Yes, ride with more contact UNTIL my horse learns to travel in a relaxed, balanced, forward rhythm with the correct mechanics of a head nod. THEN I can offer a release to a lighter contact and reward her AS LONG AS she remains in balance with the same quality of head nod. That’s what training for self carriage and lightness is all about.

Riding on floppy reins wasn’t training my gaited horse to move in balance or in self carriage. Training my horse to lightness offers her a release whenever she travels forward in relaxed, rhythmic balance with the correct mechanics of a head nod.

If my horse leans on the bit, that’s when I briefly lift both reins upward with equal contact on the corners of my horse’s mouth with gentle vibrating fingers, and then lowering my hands to a neutral position as soon as my horse lightens.

“There is no intimacy in long reins.” —Susan Norman

During the clinic Susan said, “There is no intimacy in long reins.” This was another profound statement coming from a dressage clinician who teaches lightness. What Susan meant is that short reins don’t mean pulling back reins. Short reins are communicating reins which are an ongoing dialogue with the horse. Short reins allow my fingers to have an even light feeling with the corners of the horse’s mouth to ask for softness and preparation for what’s coming next.

Another benefit to riding with short reins is that they allow me to keep my balance over my horse’s back, because short reins keep my elbows at my sides where my ear, shoulders, elbows, hip and heel align in balance. As soon as my reins grow long, my elbows extend forward and soon thereafter I begin to lean forward and lose my balanced alignment. Then my horse loses her balance, and she falls onto the forehand in response.

How do you know when your horse is in balance or not? That’s the tricky part. Balance is something that takes time to develop a feel for and balance feels different from one horse to the next. How balance feels on a Tennessee walking horse is different from that of a trotting horse.

The best way to learn the feeling of balance is through regular lessons with an educated dressage instructor who can coach you as you ride your horse. Over time, you’ll be able to feel balance more instinctively as you ride on your own.

Video: Balanced Lightness for the Gaited Horse
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