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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.

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2016 NWHA First Level Dressage Champion

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

By Jennifer Klitzke

When I bought my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) in 2007, I had no intentions on showing her—especially in dressage—because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot. I just wanted a smooth horse to ride that would be easier on my aging body. Since dressage had been the only riding style I had studied since 1988, that’s what became our training language.

Since I lived on a hobby farm with no gaited dressage instructors nearby, I rode by myself and applied knowledge from 12 years of traditional dressage lessons and attended clinics when gaited dressage instructors traveled to my state.

In 2010, I saw that a USDF schooling dressage show would be held ten miles away. I contacted the show manager and asked if I could ride my TWH but replace trot with flat walk. She agreed. (Little did I know that the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) had already written dressage tests which did exactly that.

Getting to the show that day, I thought I would be laughed off the planet, because I’d be the only one riding a horse that didn’t trot. But I didn’t care, because it meant more to me to receive feedback from a dressage professional as to where we were at in our training as it related to rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, balance, and harmony. The feedback we received that day was meaningful, challenging, and affirming. It gave us something to work toward.

Both Makana and I enjoyed the day. My mare was relaxed and curious. I made significant connections with owners of gaited trail horses. Many of which had never considered applying their dressage training to their gaited horses until seeing gaited dressage in action. Two women even invited us to join their next trail ride. As long as Makana and I had fun, we’d try it again.

After that show I became introduced to the NWHA dressage tests which are the same as the USDF tests with flat walk in place of trot.

Five years and fifty-five gaited dressage tests later, USDF schooling dressage show judges have provided constructive feedback to help us grow in our training from Intro through Training to First Level and have challenged us to face all of the required movements in both directions. This would be easy to avoid if we were just hacking at home.

In 2015, the NWHA launched a dressage awards program. I have so much gratitude for the NWHA. I appreciate all of the hard work in getting the tests approved through the USDF every four years. If it weren’t for these tests, I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to show at open USDF schooling dressage shows the last five years. For these reasons I became a NWHA member to support the dressage awards program.

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 (two at Training Level and eight at First Level). Five scores were required from three different “L” (or higher) judges within a level to qualify and one test being the highest of the level. The horse with the highest median score would determin the winner.

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%

I’m happy to announce that Makana and I were named Champion in First Level, followed by Banner’s Dixie Belle ridden by Scot MacGregor, and Heat Stroke ridden by Pamela Polydoros.

For complete dressage award results visit www.NWHA.com.

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Naturally gaited TWH dressage duo receives US Humane Society Award

2015-gaited-dressage-jennfer-klitzke-gift-of-freedom
Naturally gaited TWH dressage duo, Jennfer Klitzke and TWH Gift of Freedom, received an award and grant from The United States Humane Society “Now, That’s a Walking Horse” Program recognizing correct training of horse and rider without the use of artificial enhancements or aggressive shoeing techniques while focusing on the gymnastic development as a way to improve and establish the gaits of the Walking horse and through volunteer efforts to “spread the word” by sharing the good news about the natural Walking horse to the trotting as well as to gaited enthusiasts who have seen the limitless potential in the breed in new ways.

By Jennifer Klitzke

Exciting news arrived in the mail! I received a letter from The Humane Society of the United States announcing that my naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) and I have received an award and grant from The Humane Society of the United States “Now, That’s a Walking Horse” (NTAWH) program.

Cheryl Jacobson, Deputy Director,  Equine Protection of The Humane Society of the United States writes:

“Your application showcases the sort of approach to training of Tennessee Walking Horses that the NTAWH program hopes to promote. This includes correct training of horse and rider without the use of artificial enhancements or aggressive shoeing techniques while focusing on the gymnastic development as a way to improve and establish the gaits of the Walking horse.”

“We are further impressed by your volunteer efforts to “spread the word.” The best promotion for the breed is a good example. It is clear that you have provided that, sharing the good news about the natural Walking horse to the trotting as well as to gaited enthusiasts who have seen the limitless potential in the breed in new ways because of your efforts.”

A couple years ago The Humane Society of the United States began to offer an award program called “Now, That’s a Walking Horse” which recognizes individuals who demonstrate natural and humane ways of training their Tennessee Walking Horses(s). This year, I pulled the material together and applied for this recognition award and grant.


2 year old Tennessee walking horse
Gift of Freedom as a frolicking two-year-old filly.

History
I’ve been an avid dressage rider since 1988 with trotting horses and on Valentine’s Day 2007, my husband caved in a moment of weakness and said “yes” to one more horse. I purchased my first naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse, Gift of Freedom (Makana), just before she turned three years old. She had been selectively bred by a private family farm, imprinted and raised, and had 20 rides on her. Initially I was struck by her black beauty, and then her friendly “meet me at the fence” personality stole my heart.

I had no intentions of showing her—especially dressage—because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot.

I had no intentions of showing her—especially dressage—because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot. I just wanted a smooth horse to ride that would be easier on my aging body. However, since dressage had been the only riding style I had studied, that’s what became our training language.

TWH 3-gait Trail Pleasure Rail Class
Jennifer Klitzke riding Gift of Freedom at a TWH breed show in the 3-gait Trail Pleasure Rail Class

Later on I joined a local Tennessee Walking Horse association. They pleaded with members to show at the county fair for fear that classes would be cancelled due to a low number of entries. So being a good sport, I took my then four-year-old TWH mare to her first rail class show. To my amazement, Makana came alive in the show ring. We had so much fun I showed her at TWH rail classes for three years where she earned Trail Pleasure Champion in 2010 with the Minnesota Walking Horse Association. Makana has always been ridden and shown barefoot and in a mild snaffle bit or Imus Comfort Gait Bit.

versatility of the naturally gaited horse

encountering the moose obstacle
Jennifer Klitzke riding naturally gaited TWH Gift of Freedom at a Gaited Trail Trial encountering the moose obstacle.

Versatility
In addition to showing Makana in Trail Pleasure rail classes at Tennessee Walking Horse breed shows, we had been a TWH demonstration horse/rider team for the Minnesota Horse Expo, gaited dressage demonstration team for a traditional dressage Ride-A-Test clinic, and a gaited western dressage demonstration team for a Western Dressage clinic. We have competed at a gaited trail trial, an orienteering race, novice endurance races, team penning and cow sorting leagues, ridden hunter over rails courses, lots of trail riding, gymnastic jumping and gaited dressage.

Video: Minnesota State Fair TWH Stakes Class
(the only barefoot horse competing in the class)

Video: Minnesota Horse Expo TWH Demonstration Team

Video: Gaited Dressage Demonstration
at a Traditional Dressage Ride-A-Test Clinic

Video: Endurance Riding with a Gaited Horse

Video: Sorting Cows with a Gaited Horse

Video: Gymnastic Jumping with a Gaited Horse

Video: Gaited Dressage

 

Gaited Dressage: Training Level
Our first gaited dressage show in 2010.

I never imagined that I’d be back in the dressage arena after a 16-year lapse on a horse that didn’t trot!

Gaited Dressage
In 2010, I saw a post on craigslist.com advertising a schooling dressage show near my home. I called the show manager and asked if I could ride my gaited horse in flat walk instead of trot. The show manager agreed and that’s when we made the switch to showing gaited dressage. I never imagined that I’d be back in the dressage arena after a 16-year lapse on a horse that didn’t trot!

Since 2010, Makana and I have ridden over 55 gaited dressage tests at open USDF schooling dressage shows and have been the only gaited entry among the trotting horses. Being the odd ball at these events has sparked great conversations. Many people ask what breed my horse is and when I tell them she is a Tennessee Walking Horse they are wonderfully surprised to see a barefoot and naturally gaited TWH moving in a smooth four-beat gait without heavy shoes, artificial enhancements, or a harsh bit.

The main reason I bring my naturally gaited Walking horse to schooling dressage shows is to get feedback from a professional as to where we are at in our training. Plus, dressage tests force me and my horse to face all of the required movements ridden in both directions. The difficult ones would be easy to avoid if I were just hacking at home.

In 2014, my naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse, Gift of Freedom, was named Champion in Training Level, Champion in First Level, and received the Highest Percentage Award in 2014 by Friends of Sound Horses (F.O.S.H.).

Flat walk
In First Level tests the horse must show bending through the corners at a flat walk, circle 10 meters at a flat walk, perform a 20 meter flat walk circle allowing the horse to stretch its head and neck down and out, and leg yields at a flat walk.

2015 Gaited Dressage Competitions
In 2015, my naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse, Gift of Freedom, and I competed at five USDF open dressage schooling shows and rode 10 NWHA Training Level and First Level gaited dressage tests. We were the only gaited horse entry among trotting horses at these shows which always opens the door to wonderful conversation with fellow competitors and onlookers. Nine times out of ten, people say that they own a gaited horse for trail riding, and it had never occurred to them that dressage training methods could actually improve their communication and partnership with their horse on the trail until seeing it in action!

1992-jennifer-klitzke-seiltanzer-first-recognized-show
My first recognized dressage show with my Trakehner/thoroughbred gelding in 1992.

Dressage Education
Beginning in 1988, I took 12 years of regular dressage lessons and showed my Trakehner/thoroughbred gelding SeilTanzer successfully at USDF recognized shows—Training Level through Second Level—until his retirement in 1996. Now with my Tennessee Walking Horse, I have resumed my dressage education by attending gaited dressage clinics with instructors who travel to my State, since no gaited dressage instructors teach nearby.

naturallygaited-Jennie-Jackson-dressage=as=applied-to-the-gaited-horse-clinic
Riding at a Jennie Jackson Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse Clinic in 2013.

Among the clinicians who I have ridden with are Larry Whitesell, Jennifer Bauer, Bucky Sparks, and I have coordinated two gaited dressage clinics with Jennie Jackson in Minnesota (2013 and 2014). In March 2015, I traveled to Tennessee to ride at a Jennie Jackson Dressage en Gaite clinic.

I also study the work of Mary Wanless riding biomechanics through her books and videos, Philippe Karl French Classical Dressage DVDs, and Lisa Maxwell Riding in Lightness DVD.

I am a member of Central States Dressage and Eventing Association and show my naturally gaited TWH at their schooling dressage shows and have been a member of Friends of Sound Horses (F.O.S.H.). My heart also aligns with the Cowboy Dressage values where I have made the pledge and given my word to the Cowboy Dressage “handshake” to:

  • become the person others can trust with a handshake and my word.
  • exemplify the Cowboy Dressage way of life and find the courage to chase my dreams.
  • not allow defeat when faced with setbacks in my life and my horsemanship.
  • treat all horses and people with integrity and kindness.
  • look for “the try” in my horses and always reward them.
  • look for “the try” in people as I travel  down my horsemanship path.

NaturallyGaited.com
In addition to training and showing gaited dressage, I launched www.NaturallyGaited.com in 2010 as a means to promote natural and humane training methods for gaited horses using dressage. This blog features stories, photos, videos, and information about how dressage can improve the quality of natural four-beat gaits without the use of abusive handling, heavy shoes, harsh bits, and artificial gadgets or enhancements. I also participate and promote natural barefoot trimming.

“Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in.”

Readers of www.NaturallyGaited.com learn that dressage can help their trotty or pacey gaited horses smooth out as they develop relaxation, balance, rhythm, collection, and impulsion. Dressage training improves the rider’s skills, sense of feel and timing of the aids in communicating with the horse, and develops more harmony between the horse and rider relationship. In fact, dressage training improves the horse’s natural gait whether that be flat walk, foxtrot, or trot. Indeed “dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in.”

Volunteer Work

Students
As a volunteer instructor, I have introduced dozens of students, young and old, to the naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse and gaited dressage.

My naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse has introduced dozens of people—young and old—to the basics of gaited dressage as I offer lessons as a volunteer instructor at my hobby farm. I have also served as a volunteer foster care home and have trained and placed many horses for the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation. In 2010, my husband and I fostered, broke, and trained a three-year-old Arabian gelding and competed him at the 2010 Trainer’s Challenge of the Unwanted Horse.

Over the last five years I have volunteered hundreds of hours providing graphic design, story writing, and photography for the Minnesota Walker publication for the Minnesota Walking Horse Association and cover designs for the Heritage Highlights publication for the International Heritage Walking Horse Society. Both non profit organizations are supporters of humanely treated naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horses.


NTAWH Grant

piaffe en gaite
Jennie Jackson riding TWH stallion Champagne Watchout in piaffe en gaite.

The NTAWH award includes a grant to use in furthering my gaited dressage education with my mentor Jennie Jackson to which I am so grateful. Not only has Jennie Jackson accomplished what no other person in history has by training and showing a Tennessee Walking Horse to the highest levels of dressage, but Jennie and her husband Nate have been on the front lines for over 30 years fighting against the soring and abuse that has tarnished the TWH industry. I am humbled to know them as mentors and friends.

I am honored to receive this recognition award by the United States Humane Society “Now That’s a Walking Horse” Program and am so thankful to obtain a grant to further my gaited dressage training with my mentor Jennie Jackson.

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