2016 was a year of firsts for all three gaited dressage winners
Friends of Sound Horse (FOSH) announced the award winners for the 2016 FOSH Gaited Dressage Program, a division of FOSH Gaited Sport Horse. This unique program recognizes and rewards gaited horses competing in the discipline of Dressage.
2016 entries included the Spotted Saddle Horse, Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Fox Trotting Horse, and Rocky Mountain Horse. Eligible scores ranged from 62.8% to 74.50%. Eligible tests may be Live, Virtual, English or Western. Recognition was given in Two Gait, Introductory, Training, First, and Second Levels.
For my naturally barefoot and naturally gaited Tennesee walking horse, Gift of Freedom, this was the first we submitted entries for Western Dressage. While we have been award gaited dressage award winners in the FOSH gaited dressage category, this is the first time we have won in the Gaited Western Dressage division.
I am thrilled to see gaited dressage grow! Congratulations to Sosa’s Playboy at Sonset, a Tennessee Walking Horse, owned by Nicole Mauser-Storer of Bartonville, IL who are a new entrant to the FOSH gaited dressage program. Not only did this duo submit seven test scores, they won the award for Training Level and achieved the highest score of 74.50%,.
Congratulations also to Cash-N-Out owned by Loren Hilgenhurst Stevens of Atkinson, NH who was a new entry in 2016. This Tennessee Walking Horse was the award recipient in the Two-Gait category, submitting six test scores.
To be eligible for awards in the FOSH Gaited Dressage Program, three scores of 60% and over must have been recorded in any level of Dressage competitions with a recognized judge. Tests must have been specifically developed and written for gaited horses. Recognized tests include IJA, NWHA, WDAA and Cowboy Dressage.
Have you ever heard anyone say, “Never trot a gaited horse, because trot will ruin their easy gait?”
Who ever coined this myth maybe didn’t know there is a BIG difference between letting a gaited horse choose to trot off in a hollow fashion versus teaching a gaited horse to trot on cue in a quality way of going .The former is letting the horse train the rider. The latter is the rider training the horse.
Trotting the gaited horse isn’t for everybody and every horse, but if you ask me, teaching a gaited horse how to trot (or soft trot) on cue and in the right posture, has many benefits that can actually improve the quality of their easy gait. Trotting with back to front connection and engagement develops the top line muscles, rhythm, balance, forwardness, breaks up pace, and results in a deeper stride reaching under the body.
When my friend brought her trail horse, Lady, to my place, she had two gears: a dog walk and a hollow hard trot. My friend wanted to know if Lady had an easy gait in her, because she was told that Lady was a gaited horse.
I’ve ridden Lady on and off the last three summers. My strategy has been to speed up her walk just before she breaks into a hard trot in order to develop a smooth, easy gait on cue. It isn’t that showy, but it is smooth, and nothing beats Lady on the trail in her easy gait! It’s fun to ride, and we see a lot of the forest in a short amount of time.
Then last Fall, I began to ride Lady with more contact using a mild snaffle bit. Previous to this she had always been ridden trail style on a loose rein.
In July 2016, I entered Lady in her first dressage show—a North American Western Dressage (NAWD) Virtual Show which was open to gaited horses. I was thrilled that the show didn’t require that Lady be registered in order to enter. We rode NAWD Intro 2 which includes walk, freewalk, and substituting jog trot with gait. Lady was the only gaited horse competing against trotting horses and placed 5th of 9 horses with a score of 60.357%. For her first go at it, I was tickled!
The judge provided wonderful feedback. She said that overall Lady seemed tense in the bridle and lacking engagement. She pointed out a section in the test where Lady was moving well in relaxation and engagement and to shoot for more of that. This was very helpful feedback!
You see, for the last three summers, I’ve focused on developing a SMOOTH gait, not so much on producing engagement or connection.
So now that Lady has established smooth, I studied the video, took the judge’s feedback, and began to work on engagement and a soft connection with relaxation.
Lady’s response wasn’t rainbows and unicorns. She resisted the engagement by rushing off in shorter steps and then she blasted off into a hard, hollow trot.
Then I had an idea. Back in my trotting horse days, I spent many miles trotting in a rounded working frame on a 20-meter circle to develop the top line muscles, rhythm, balance, and engagement.
So that became my strategy for Lady any time she resisted engagement and connection with a soft contact in the easy gait. I asked for a quality TROT on cue.
Huh!? I know what you’re thinking: Why would I trot a gaited horse that I just broke from hard trotting?!
Let me explain. There is a big difference between Lady choosing to blast off in a hollow hard trot and me teaching her a quality trot on cue.
Lady’s hard trot was stiff in the jaw and back. Her under neck was bulging, and she ran away with me. Her hard trot was an evasion to get out of working in the easy gait. Left unchecked, this is an example of the horse training me, the rider.
Teaching Lady a quality trot on cue has many benefits. When riding her with a relaxed jaw, connection from back to front produces engagement, rhythm, balance, and strengthens the top line muscles. This type of trot produces depth of stride which improves the quality of her easy gait. It is an example of the rider training the horse.
Then after a few circles of quality trot on cue, I’d cue for the easy gait, and I am amazed how much better the easy gait has improved after a few circles of trot.
It didn’t take Lady long to prefer the engaged easy gait over the quality trot. My strategy was to ask for an engaged easy gait first, and if her response was resistance, then I cued for the quality trot. After a few training sessions, our trotting on cue became less and less to none at all, because she offered the engaged easy gait on cue without resistance.
In September 2016, I entered Lady in her second NAWD Virtual Dressage Show. Not only had Lady’s easy gait improved with engagement, but she placed second of 11 horses in NAWD Intro 2 with a score of 64.821%, and she was the only gaited horse!
Video: Gaited Horse NAWD Intro 2
Trotting the gaited horse isn’t for everyone or every horse. It has helped Lady and I establish more engagement in the easy gait and now that she is working in a quality engaged easy gait, with connection, rhythm and balance, we haven’t had to resort to the trot on cue.
Who ever coined the myth, never trot a gaited horse, because trot will ruin their easy gait, maybe didn’t know the difference between letting the gaited horse evade by trotting hollow at will and training the gaited horse to trot on cue in a quality way of going that brings about rhythm, relaxation, balance, and forwardness to develop engagement, a soft connection, a deeper stride beneath the body, and breaking up pace.
That’s where years of dressage lessons on trotting horses have paid off for me. I never imagined that I would be trotting a gaited horse. I got into the gaited thing for a SMOOTH ride, but in the end, that’s where we are now, because I discovered that Lady prefers an engaged smooth easy gait over an engaged trot any day. That makes us both happy!
Video: Benefits of trotting the gaited horse on cue
If you are on this gaited dressage journey, I’d love to hear from you. Contact us»
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
If you are on this gaited dressage journey, I’d love to hear from you. Contact us»
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.
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;
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;
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) ;
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.
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.