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Gaited dressage: Second thoughts about long and low

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freewalk on a long rein

By Jennifer Klitzke

Next to “how do I get my horse to gait?” is another common question I hear gaited horse owners ask: “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” This question comes up at every gaited dressage and gaited horsemanship clinic I’ve attended. Among the use of ground rails and transitions, every clinician I’ve heard agrees that working your gaited horse in a long and low position is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow and stiff-backed pace into a relaxed, smooth, four-beat gait.

In dressage terms, long and low is called freewalk on a long rein. It is required in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced—and it is the way riders are asked to leave the arena after the final halt and salute.

Freewalk on a long rein is more than just allowing the horse a long rein to stretch its head and neck out and down. The freewalk has great purpose: it stretches and strengthens the top line muscles, it develops depth of stride as the horse reaches beneath its body with its hind leg and over tracks the fore footprint, and the lowered head and neck position stimulates endorphins to relax the horse. The freewalk is a great way to begin and end every ride with a couple stretch breaks in between—as long as the horse is in balance.

Recently I’ve had the great privilege of auditing two great clinicians who came to my region: International riding bio-mechanics coach Mary Wanless and Grand Prix rider Heather Blitz. Both challenged riders to not only become aware of riding in a balanced position, but to become aware of the horse’s balance so that they are more proactive in maintaining it.

Heather explained the feeling of a horse’s balance in a metaphor. While riding, imagine if your horse had a medicine ball which is free to roll around its insides. Where does the weight of the medicine ball rest? Does it feel like it is in the horse’s chest or under your seat?

This metaphor has helped me discover that often the weight of the medicine ball feels like it sits in my horse’s chest—which means my horse is out of balance and on the forehand. Thinking about this, if I were to release my horse into a long and low frame while her balance is on the forehand, what quality of freewalk would we produce? Likely my horse would begin pulling herself forward with her front legs and her hind legs would step more behind her tail instead of stepping deep beneath her body with overtrack. So now that I’ve become aware of my horse’s balance, I need to correct it BEFORE releasing the reins for freewalk on a long rein.

When my horse is in balance it feels like the medicine ball is right beneath my seat. So each time it feels like the medicine ball rolls into my horse’s chest, I need to transition from walk to halt and back to walk. If the medicine ball still feels like it is in the chest, then I need to transition from walk to halt with a couple steps of rein back to feel the medicine ball roll beneath my seat. Once I feel the medicine ball under my seat, that’s when I allow the horse to take the reins long and low for a freewalk on a long rein feeling her step deeply beneath her body like shown in the top picture.

Freewalk on a long rein is a great way to break pace in the gaited horse into a smooth four-beat gait, improve depth of stride and relaxation. Just remember to begin with balance to maximize your efforts.

 

 

 

 

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Spooky Horse or Nervous Rider?

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Depth of stride

Nothing improves depth of stride better than a camera man hiding in the bushes!

By Jennifer Klitzke

Thank you for the recent question I received about riding fear which inspired this blog post. I believe that riding fear is very common, and if you struggle with it, I certainly relate with you.

After a few scary falls in my early twenties, I became gripped with uncontrollable and paralyzing riding fear to the point of hyperventilation. The fear controlled me because I felt out of control whenever my horse did something that MIGHT result in me falling off and getting hurt again. I only felt safe riding in an indoor arena with no distractions on a calm day riding to the left at a walk.

I faced a cross roads: give up riding horses, my passion, or meet this fear head on. Thankfully the latter won out!

During the course of the last 26 years, I have developed a theory about spooky horses and nervous riders which is based upon my plight with riding fear, coupled with the people (and my faith) who have made a difference in helping me manage it. Most helpful to me are a blend of teachings from these great mentors: Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer who have taught me how to become a trusted leader, Jennie Jackson who has taught me gaited dressage and riding confidence, and Mary Wanless who has taught me a secure riding position.

My theory begins with this: I don’t believe that there are bomb-proof horses. I think some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider will heighten a horse’s reactivity. I’ve seen it dozens of times when an owner turns over a spooky horse to a clinician and the horse relaxes as soon as the clinician takes over.

My husband proves it to me each time I lose my focus and struggle with my naturally gaited Walking horse when she spooks at a swaying bush on a windy day. My darling husband hops on and in a matter of minutes he’s riding by the disco bush without a care. I’ve had hundreds of dressage lessons over the last 27 years and he’s had a handful. So how does he do it?

For starters I believe that God brought horses into my life to mirror my soul and help me get in touch with what’s really going on. I used to run to horses as an escape from a rough day only to have had the worst ride of my life. Over the years God has used horses to teach me about myself and lean on Him as my Source of Life. From time to time I lose sight of this and horses continue to humble me and keep my priorities in order. My faith has given me life purpose, meaning, identity, and the courage to persevere and not give up.

Jennifer Klitzke riding at a Larry Whitesell gaited horsemanship clinic

Larry Whitesell demonstrating and explaining
shoulder-in as I get a feel for it from the saddle.

Secondly is the leadership I convey to my horse which I have learned from Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer. My Walking horse mare tends to be reactive to noise and sudden movement. How I react to her makes all the difference. When I maintain myself as a trusted leader by calmly bringing her back to balance and relaxation and redirecting her attention through transitions every few steps (walk, halt, rein back, walk, shoulder in, etc.), that’s when we are successful. BUT when I react to what she MIGHT do, irrational fear springs up in me, I tense up, make a high pitch scream, and pull on the reins (something like the top photo), and it only exacerbates the nervousness in my horse.

2013 jennie jackson dressage en gaite clinic

Jennie Jackson teaching dressage
as applied to the gaited horse
.

Most recently God has aligned my path with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson. She is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse to the highest levels of dressage with her naturally gaited stallion Champaign Watchout. I am honored to have brought her to my state for two years in a row for intensive lessons which have catapulted me and my naturally gaited mare into a fearlessly forward moving flatwalk in connection. Jennie has challenged me to confidently ride through the storms, not react to them, and train myself to replace a high-pitched scream for a low growl. These tips have increased my riding confidence and have reduced my mare’s spookiness.

Finally, developing a secure and balanced riding position builds rider confidence like none other. Right after facing my cross roads in 1988, I began studying riding biomechanics from Mary Wanless when she published her first book, The Natural Rider. This book addresses riding fear in a way that makes sense to me.

Jennifer Klitzke riding at a Mary Wanless Clinic

Jennifer Klitzke riding her Spanish Mustang
getting established in the ABCs of riding
biomechanics with Mary Wanless.

Since then I have purchased Mary’s Ride With Your Mind DVD series, several of her other books, and have audited her clinics whenever she comes to my region. I was fortunate enough to have ridden at one of her clinics three years ago. Mary brought the book and DVD learning to real-time application. She taught me the importance of aligning my external anatomy, breathing deep into my stomach, and the isokinetic effort of bearing down my internal anatomy and sealing my seat and thighs alongside the saddle for a more secure position while distributing my body weight more comfortably along the horse’s back. Instead of fixing the horse, she challenged me to become aware of my riding position to fix myself which naturally restores my horse’s way of going.

Mary’s riding biomechanics have taught me a more secure and balanced riding position. Because of this I am better able to confidently ride through spooks. As a result, there is less fear in me and I produce less reactive fear in my horse. This translates into less overall spooks and a more harmonious riding relationship with my horse.

So what is my darling husband’s secret to calmly riding my mare by the disco bush? I think he is deeply grounded in his priorities, he presents trusted leadership with the horse, and a naturally balanced riding position. If the horse were to spook, he wouldn’t get rattled by all that the horse MIGHT do. (In fact, his mind doesn’t even go there.) His secure position would keep him in the saddle, he would bring the horse back to balance and relaxation, and the horse would look to him as the trusted leader.

The example between my husband and I riding the same horse within minutes of each other with the same conditions and completely different outcomes reinforces my theory: Some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider heightens a horse’s reactivity.

If you struggle with riding fear, hang in there and persevere. I’m sure glad that I did. My struggle with debilitating fear didn’t disappear overnight. But today I enjoy showing my naturally gaited Walking horse at open schooling dressage shows, trail riding, team penning, sorting cows, endurance races, jumping courses, cross country, and trail obstacles.

Fear no longer controls my life—thank God—I am FREE!


For more about riding biomechanics, visit mary-wanless.com.

For more about gaited dressage, visit Jennie Jackson’s Web site, walkinonranch.com

For for more about natural gaited horsemanship, visit Larry Whitesell’s Web site, whitesellgaitedhorsemanship.com and Jennifer Bauer’s Web site, gaitedhorsemanship.com

 

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“I bought a gaited horse, why isn’t it gaiting?”

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Gaited Dressage: Training Level

First gaited dressage show (2010).

By Jennifer Klitzke

“I bought a gaited horse, why isn’t it gaiting?”

Does this sound familiar? Many people, like me, buy a gaited horse and are perplexed that it doesn’t come out of the box gaiting. While the easy gaits are hard-wired into a gaited horse’s genes, it takes miles of correct and consistent training to develop a four-beat, head-nodding, ear flapping flat walk, and many miles more to build the running walk and canter. A special bit or gaited saddle won’t make them gait either. But an ill-fitting saddle can hinder a gaited horse to gait.

Some people invest hundreds and even thousands of dollars in professional training to make their horse gait. While professional training is a great investment, it still pays to learn how to ride in the manner the horse was trained. That way the rider and horse will communicate with the same language that the trainer taught the horse. And that takes time for the rider to develop—especially if dressage is the method of choice.

In 2007 I bought my first gaited horse, Gift of Freedom (Makana). She was just turning three years old with 20 rides on her. Me, I had over twenty years experience riding and training hard-trotting horses dressage-style, so gaits like the flat walk, running walk, and rack were completely foreign to me. All I knew is that I wanted a smooth horse to ride.

I wanted smooth and I got smooth—only discerning which smooth gait Makana was performing with each step took some time to develop a feel for. In the beginning of her flat walk training it was common for her to take a couple steps of flat walk, a few of step pace and a few steps of rack. Then we’d slow down enough to untangle her legs and started again.

So, how do you develop the feel for the easy gait of choice from the saddle and how do you get your gaited horse to become consistent in it? Here’s what I did:

1. Study good books and videos. There are lots of resources out there. The following books and videos have been helpful to me: The late Lee Ziegler wrote a terrific book, “Easy-Gaited Horses” that is very descriptive in how the gaits sound and feel. Gary Lane and Anita Howe’s DVD “From the Trail to the Rail,” the late Brenda Imus’s DVD “Gaits from God“, and Ivy Schexnayder’s “A Smooth Gait Naturally” are wonderful and affordable DVDs that show correct gaits in regular and slow motion with tips on how to achieve them for yourself. Clinton Anderson’s DVD series “Gaited Horsemanship” helped me in Makana’s early training as a three year old.

2. Get good coaching. I’ve been fortunately to get great coaching from people like Jennie Jackson, Jennifer Bauer, and Larry Whitesell who travel to my state each year. Jennie Jackson’s gaited dressage coaching has helped me establish connection and forwardness to improve my horse’s flat walk, while Jennifer Bauer and Larry Whitesell have helped me learn a natural and humane training philosophy which is based on classical French dressage.

3. Record your riding. I like to capture a ride a week on video which helps me see what I feel from the saddle. I set my video camera on a tripod to capture glimpses of my ride while making comments about how the ride feels so that when I watch it I can see if what I feel matches what I see. (I’ve uploaded a few of my videos on the Naturally Gaited You Tube channel.)

4. Enter your gaited horse at schooling dressage shows. This is my favorite way to get feedback from a professional eye on where I’m at in regards to rhythm, relaxation, harmony, balance, connection, engagement, gaits, rider position and effective use of aids.

When I learn of a schooling dressage show in my area, I contact the show manager and ask if I can ride my gaited horse using a NWHA or FOSH test. Then I mail the tests in with my entry form. The judge will write comments the score sheet of areas that went well and areas that need improvement. This helps me know what to work on when I get home. I find this feedback priceless.

Over the years Makana and I have progressed from Intro, Training and First levels of dressage. Now we are working on Second level movements to refine the quality of our running walk and collected canter.

At the 20-plus schooling dressage shows I have ridden at, I am far outnumbered by the trotting horses. Intrigued people always ask, “What kind of horse is that? She looks so SMOOTH to ride.” And I always say, “Yes, the sitting trot was hard on my grandma body and I didn’t want to give up dressage. I just wanted SMOOTH. That’s why I bought a gaited horse.”

So if your gaited horse hasn’t been gaiting lately, now you have a few new ideas to try and reclaim your SMOOTH!

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Dressage is more than trot (and the saddle you ride in)

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versatility of the naturally gaited horse

By Jennifer Klitzke

Coming from over 20 years of dressage riding non-gaited horses, much of my focus was on the quality of the trot. Before buying SeilTanzer, my German warmblood in 1989, I had looked at over 50 dressage prospects to find the best trot I could afford. Back then the trot seemed to define dressage, especially in the show ring.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I began showing my naturally gaited Walking horse at schooling dressage shows that I realized dressage is more than trot. This realization came through the feedback I had been given by each judge many who had never evaluated flat walk in the dressage ring. Yet all were fully capable to effectively evaluate rhythm, relaxation, balance, connection, straightness, engagement, harmony, rider’s position and effective use of aids as we navigated through the course of letters and movements. This realization inspired me to dust off my dressage books and videos and become a dressage student again with my gaited horse.

Dressage is a French term for the training of horse and rider which transcends the saddle you ride in. Whether you ride english or western; whether your horse trots or gaits, it doesn’t matter. As long as you seek to improve rhythm, relaxation, balance, connection, engagement and straightness with your horse and grow in knowledge and application of rider position and effective use of aids, you’re right in line with the foundational principles of dressage. Dressage training will bring out the best natural movement in your horse whether it trots or gaits.

That’s not all! Dressage training translates well into versatility training. It is refreshing to break out of the four walls of a dressage arena for some team penning, sorting cows, trail obstacles, trail riding, endurance races, and gymnastic jumping. Dressage training has made my naturally gaited horse more maneuverable around obstacles, jumps, and sneaky cows, and she is more reliable on the trail. Plus, a naturally gaited horse is easy on a grandma body like mine!

Dressage training has made all the difference and it hasn’t made my gaited horse TROT!

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A Bumpy Start to a Smooth Finish

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Bumpy Start to a Smooth Finish

By Jennifer Klitzke

“Horse crazy!” my mom exclaimed.

Smiling, my mom stood on the back porch of her 1966 suburban Seattle backyard watching me, her three-year-old daughter riding through the dessert sunset. I’m bumping up and down on a spring-loaded plastic pony and pretending to be Jane West, a famous cowgirl. Mom mutters, “I don’t know where she gets it from maybe she’ll outgrow it.”

Forty-eight years later, I’m still “horse crazy.” Only I’ve upgraded from the low-maintenance variety to ones that eat and eliminate 50-pounds of waste each day.

With the exception of one week each summer at Girl Scout camp, I was horseless until someone said to me, “Jennifer, you’ll always be saying ‘someday I’ll get a horse’ unless you do it now.” At 22, I saved my money until I had $1,000 to buy my first horse, Seasons, a five-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred mare.

One of the boarders at Jacqueri Oaks Stables asked me if I was going to take lessons. At that time I thought lessons were for people who didn’t own horses and provided them with a way to ride. Little did I know the importance of learning how to effectively communicate with horses in ways they understood.

That summer I stopped by the annual Brightonwood Dressage Show, in Maple Plain, Minnesota just in time to watch Kathy Theissen waltz with her horse Bullwinkle. The pair performed a musical freestyle in perfect rhythm. As if effortless, Bullwinkle skipped along the arena, changing canter leads with each stride. Then he powerfully soared along the diagonal in an extended trot, seeming not to touch the ground—all the while, Kathy smiled in pure delight while sitting that bumpy trot so elegantly. The teamwork, beauty and connection deeply inspired me.

From that moment on I was set out to study this form of riding called “dressage,” a French term for “training of the horse and rider.” This humane and natural training method produces balance, rhythm, relaxation, suppleness, connection and forwardness in the horse and teaches rider effective use of aids and riding position.

In 1988, I sold Seasons to a young girl who was just beginning her riding career. Later I fell in love with a five-year-old Thoroughbred/Trakehner named SeilTanzer. His loose, scopey movement had hang time, and his personality gelled well with mine. Indeed, this was the dance partner I searched for. Seili and I showed successfully through second level dressage.

The next few years it was like driving 65 mph through a Minnesota Spring riddled with potholes. My husband of 17 years left our marriage three days before Christmas. Then I lost my home, my good-paying job and Seili turned lame at age 13. Thankfully God gave me courage and strength to get through these dark and bumpy years.

And thankfully, the story didn’t end there. Several years later I remarried to a wonderful husband, Dan, and we moved from the city to a hobby farm and Seili recovered from his lameness.

By 2007, my grandma body felt like a rusty car with bad shocks when it came to riding Seili’s sitting trot. I liked the thought of a non-bouncy gaited horse. Yet I wondered if the dressage training methods I had learned on trotting horses would apply to the gaited horse or would I have to start over and learn a different style of riding? These thoughts ran through my mind as I searched for a new horse.

That Valentine’s Day, my husband surprised me with a black, just turning three-year-old Tennessee walking horse mare named Makana (Hawaiian for “gift”). She had 20 rides on her. In addition to her smooth gaits, I fell in love with her friendly personality, trainability, and striking beauty.

I couldn’t help but giggle in pure joy riding her: how can a horse travel so fast and be so smooth? Not only that, but all of my dressage training has translated beautifully in working with Makana in establishing balance, rhythm, relaxation, suppleness, connection and forwardness. There are differences in the gaits and the head nod from that of trotting horses, but the dressage training methods, rider position and rider’s use of aids still apply.

Have I outgrown horses? Certainly not, I am more horse crazy today than ever. And now with my Tennessee walking horse, and a horse-happy husband, I am enjoying a smooth finish to a bumpy beginning.

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