Tag Archives: gaited dressage

Half Halt Awakening

half halt awakening

By Jennifer Klitzke

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.

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Humane Training Leads to National Championships

dressage s for gaited horses too

By Jennifer Klitzke

I’ve been a horse-crazy dressage rider for nearly 30 years. In 2007, my aching back gave up that bouncy sitting trot, and I bought Gift of Freedom (Makana), my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. SMOOTH was all I had in mind. I wanted to ride a horse that would be easier on my aging body.

In fact, showing dressage wasn’t even a considered when I looked at Makana, because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot. But dressage had been the only riding style I knew, so that’s what became our training language.

I love dressage because of the connection and harmony it brings between me and my horse. I love the relaxation, rhythm, balance, and impulsion it creates. I love how natural and humane it is as a training method. Connection, harmony, relaxation, rhythm, balance, and impulsion works for all horses whether they trot or gait. Plus, I love how dressage challenges me to become a better rider and communicator to my horse through the use of my aids.

I live on a rural hobby farm with few dressage instructors nearby, so I’ve began coasting on the knowledge I had gained from 12 years of traditional dressage lessons.

Then I joined a local TWH association and began attending clinics whenever gaited dressage instructors traveled to Minnesota and Wisconsin. I learned from people like Jennie Jackson, Larry Whitesell, Jennifer Bauer, and Bucky Sparks.

Makana has been barefoot for as long as I’ve owned her, and so are the other horses at my farm. A few years ago I began to study natural barefoot trimming and the importance of a low carbohydrate diet. I keep all of my horses trimmed on a regular basis. My husband likes the cost savings, but I like the natural and holistic approach to hoof care. Trimming hooves is pretty good exercise, too!

Meanwhile, through the Tennessee walking horse association, I learned that down South some Tennessee walking horses are shod with heavy shoes, thick pads, and chains. Caustic substances are applied to their front feet to intentionally make them sore. All this is done to accentuate their movement in what is known as the “Big Lick.” This isn’t dressage, nor is it natural or humane. In fact, it is illegal to sore horses this way. Yet still goes on because it is hard to enforce.

Then I became introduced to FOSH (Friends of Sound Horses) and the NWHA (National Walking Horse Association). FOSH is on the front lines fighting against soring and abuse, and both organizations are firm supporters of natural and humane training methods.

In 2010, three years after Makana and I had began my backyard gaited dressage journey, I learned of a tradition schooling dressage show only 10 miles away. I contacted the show manager and asked if I could ride my Tennessee walking horse and replace trot with flat walk. The show manager agreed. Little did I know that the NWHA had already written tests which did exactly that.

Getting to the show that day, I wondered if fellow competitors would laugh at me for entering a horse that didn’t trot, but I didn’t care. I was curious what a trained dressage professional would have to say as to where we were at in our training in regards to rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, balance, and harmony. The feedback we received was meaningful, challenging, and affirming. It gave us something to work toward.

Through conversations with trotting horse riders, I was introduced to women who also owned gaited horses they rode on the trail. Up until that point, riding their gaited horses using dressage methods had not occurred to them. A couple of the women invited me to their next trail ride. I was thrilled to have someone to ride with.

During that first show, I learned of another schooling dressage show which offered gaited dressage entries using the FOSH tests. Then I learned that the NWHA had  worked with the USDF to replicate dressage tests using flat walk in place of trot.

Well, five years and fifty-five gaited dressage tests later, I’ve gotten over being the odd-ball at the traditional dressage schooling shows, because of the people we’ve met along the way. Makana and I get to  present a natural and humane alternative to the soring and abuse people hear about in the TWH industry. They get to see firsthand how dressage brings about rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, collection, harmony, and balance in a horse that doesn’t trot.

In 2015, Makana and I showed at five USDF open schooling shows as the only gaited horse among the trotting horses and rode 10 NWHA tests.

2015 Gaited Dressage Show Record

May 2, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Jodi Ely
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 68.2%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 70.4%

May 9, 2015
Arbor Hill Schooling Dressage Show
Stillwater, MN
Judge: Molly Schiltgen
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 67.27%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.56%

May 30, 2015
Northwoods Schooling Dressage Show
Corcoran, MN
Judge: Colleen Holden
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.926%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 70.294%

August 2, 2015
Carriage House Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Hugo, MN
Judge: Jennie Zimmerman
NWHA First Level Test 1: 64.07%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 62.06%

August 15, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Nancy Porter
NWHA First Level Test 1: 66.5%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 63.9%

Naturally gaited TWH Gift of Freedom ridden by Jennifer Klitzke was named 2015 NWHA First Level Champion.

“This accomplishment demonstrates the commitment, consistency and communication of partnership.” —Dianne Little

With our 2015 dressage scores, my naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse mare, Gift of Freedom, has been named the 2015 NWHA Gaited Dressage National Champion at First Level, 2015 FOSH Gaited Dressage National Champion at First Level and 2015 FOSH Gaited Dressage National Champion at Training Level.

Dianne Little, FOSH Gaited Dressage Program Director writes, “You are to be congratulated for riding eight tests at First Level with all scores over 62%.  Of these eight tests, four scores were over 65%.  This accomplishment demonstrates the commitment, consistency and communication of partnership.”

What will 2016 hold for us?
Whether we continue riding english gaited dressage or give western gaited dressage a try, we just want to keep encouraging people to recognize that dressage is for gaited horses, too, and it is a wonderful humane and natural alternative to soring and abuse.

Sore No More: Rehabilitating a Big Lick Horse with Dressage

Sore no More

By Jennifer Klitzke

Can dressage training rehabilitate a former Big Lick Tennessee walking horse? Can dressage transform a tense, high-headed and hollow-backed frame into a relaxed posture that builds the top line? Can dressage break up a hard pace into a natural four-beat gait without heavy shoes and pads? Can dressage mend a damaged mind to develop trust in a rider, accept a soft snaffle contact, and respond willingly to leg aids without exploding? Can humane training methods prolong the life of a Tennessee walking horse?

In January I had the opportunity to address these questions when I applied the grant awarded by the United States Humane Society “Now That’s a Walking Horse” program and flew to Theodore, Alabama to be Jennie Jackson’s working student at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center. Jennie is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse through the highest levels of dressage, and she, along with her husband Nate, have been on the front lines fighting against Big Lick soring and abuse for over 30 years.

While I was there I had the privilege of watching Jennie ride her barefoot, 21-year-old gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout in person! He is the ONLY Tennessee walking horse still living among those who he had competed against in the 1998 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class. He was also the only flat shod entry ridden in that class among Big Lick horses. Horses simply don’t live that long when subjected to the cruelty and abuse of soring.

Jennie and Watchout
Jennie Jackson riding piaffe en gaite with her barefoot, 21-year-old TWH gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.

My days with Jennie were filled with riding several Tennessee walking horses at various levels of training, flat walking the ocean coast, riding in a Dauphin Island Marti Gras parade, and being introduced to the challenges of retraining a rescued Big Lick horse.

Big Lick it’s something I’ve ever encountered in Minnesota. In fact, I didn’t even know what Big Lick or soring was when I bought my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) in 2007. It wasn’t until I began surfing YouTube for information about training a Tennessee walking horse when I stumbled upon Big Lick. After watching a few Big Lick videos, I wondered, “Is this how a Tennessee walking horse is suppose to move?”

To me, the Big Lick Tennessee walking horses are like a Picasso painting coming to life: exaggerated, disjointed, and unnatural. Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” While some people might think Big Lick is expressive and exciting to watch and ride, how the motion is achieved unveils a horrifying truth. The exaggerated Big Lick motion is produced by applying caustic agents to the horses’ front feet known as soring. Then heavy shoes, pads and chains are added. Horses are forced forward by the riders’ sharp spurs. With each step the chains slap against the horses’ sored feet. The horses’ pain reaction, propelled by the heavy shoes, are the real reasons why the horses lift their front legs as they do. To evade the pain, horses learn to shift most of their weight to the hindquarters which produces extreme engagement. Then the horses are ridden in harsh curb bits to restrain them from exploding. Torturous. Sadistic and unlawful. Yet Big Lick still exists.

I made a firm decision after watching a couple Big Lick videos that dressage is all my barefoot Tennessee walking horse was going to know. Then I began to support organizations like Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) who advocate against Big Lick soring and abuse, and I began to meet others like Jennie Jackson who teach and train dressage as applied to the gaited horse.

Thankfully my Tennessee walking horse has never experienced Big Lick. Makana was imprinted at birth, family raised and trained when I bought her in 2007 as a barefoot, just-turning-three-year-old filly. Natural and humane training methods are all she’s known—no rehab needed.

Not so for many Tennessee walking horses down South.

A few weeks before my trip, Jennie had acquired a lovely mare named Sweet Caroline who had sadly experienced “Big Lick” training trauma. Like many Big Lick Tennessee walking horses, Caroline was breed to pace where when heavy shoes and pads are added they would offset the pace into a four-beat sequence. For years, Carolyn had been driven forward with sharp spurs into a harsh curb bit which taught her to rush off in a tense, high-headed, hollow-backed frame. The soring scars on her front feet tell the rest of the story.

Now that Caroline is barefoot, could dressage break up her pace to develop a natural four-beat gait? Could dressage transform her tense, high-headed and hollow-back frame into a relaxed long and low posture? Could dressage help her develop trust with a rider, seek a snaffle bit contact, and accept leg cues without rushing?

If anyone could teach me, it would be Jennie who has been training naturally gaited Tennessee walking horses for decades using dressage. Jennie had been retraining Caroline for several weeks prior to my arrival, so she knew how to coach me as I rode this hot, tense, and sensitive mare.

Sweet Caroline and I
Jennie Jackson coached me on how to achieve relaxation and rhythm with a former Big Lick Tennessee walking horse using dressage. This horse is being ridden in a Happy Mouth Pelham bit which functions as a snaffle or a curb depending upon which reins are applied.

Relaxation and Rhythm
Dressage training produces relaxation and rhythm in any horse breed whether the horse trots or gaits. Jennie showed me a great exercise to establish relaxation by riding Caroline at a dog walk on a 20-meter circle and transition between a true to the inside of the circle (shoulder fore) and a bend to the outside of the circle (counter bend). This exercise helped her lower her head and neck down and out and break up the pacey steps into a four-beat walk.

The shoulder fore/counter bend exercise taught Caroline to step beneath and across her belly with her hind leg each time I applied my calf lightly at the girth. This engaged her abdominal muscles and lifted her back and lowered her head and neck. As I squeezed and released the inside rein softly, it unlocked the tension in her poll to look slightly to the inside of the circle. The opposite rein (the indirect rein) maintained a light contact against her neck to keep her from moving sideways. Then I’d squeeze and release the outside rein softly to unlock the tension in her poll to look slightly to the outside of the circle while applying my outside calf at the girth.  I clearly felt the “before” and “after” difference. Each time Caroline got tense, dropped her back, and rushed off in a pace, I felt like I was riding a stiff bumpy plank, but as soon as she relaxed into the bending exercise, she felt smooth and pliable.

Half Halts
When Caroline relaxed into the bending exercise at a dog walk, Jennie encouraged me to move her up into flat walk. That’s when she taught me the importance and effectiveness of half halts. Each time Caroline would rush or pace, I squeezed my fists together on the reins and at the same time stilled the motion of my hips and back. As soon as Caroline responded to the half halt by slowing down or breaking up the pace, I immediately relaxed my grip on the reins (without letting the reins slip through my fingers), lengthened my arms toward the bit, and resumed following her movement with my hip joints and lower back.

I got LOTS of practice with half halts and releases while riding Caroline. We’d have a few soft, round steps in rhythm and relaxation before she would try to rush off again. It takes a lot of patience and quiet repetition to rehabilitate a Big Lick horse like this.

riding along the lake
Riding up and down hills is a great way to build top line muscles and balance.

Cantering the Hillside
After Caroline and I became acquainted in the arena, Jennie tacked up and we rode along the scenic trail system at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center and to the lake where we schooled flat walk and canter along the hillside. This really helped Caroline engage from behind as she cantered up the hill and learned balance walking back down. I switched up the flat walk and canter each time I rode up the hill so that Caroline would listen to my cues instead of anticipate the gait.

In the short time I was there, I was delighted to witness how dressage could rehabilitate a horse damaged by Big Lick. Each day I rode Caroline, we had more prolonged moments of relaxation and rhythm. Her pace was being replaced with a natural four-beat gait. She was beginning to seek a snaffle bit contact instead of evading it, and we began to build a some trust.

I grew to love that spunky little mare, and returning home I felt good knowing that Sweet Caroline was in good hands with Jennie and that for the rest of her life she’d be sore no more.