Back in the days before owning horses, I looked forward to the hour long trail rides I had each summer. Before our group mounted up, the trail guide would give us these handy instructions: “kick” to go and “pull” on the reins to stop.
Now that I’ve been a horse owner for a few decades, I’ve learned better approaches than “kick” to go and “pull” to stop which produce softer and rounder responses. The cues are a blend of tips I have learned from classical French dressage and natural horsemanship philosophies.
I ride my naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse in a mild single-joint snaffle bit and have been competing with her at schooling dressage shows since 2010. We consistently earn scores of “8” on our center line halt and salute.
Below is a sequence of cues that I have found which produce a soft, round, and relaxed halt without the use of force or pulling on the reins.
How to produce a soft, round and relaxed halt:
Well fitting equipment: Beginning with a practical note, an uncomfortable horse will not be able to perform a soft, round and relaxed halt. So it is important to ride your horse with a saddle and bit that fits properly and have your horse’s teeth checked and floated regularly.
Following seat: The next thing I do is develop a following seat (versus a driving seat). I encourage the horse forward with the use of my voice, a bump and release of my lower calf, followed up with a tap of the dressage whip if needed, and then I follow the motion of my horse’s walk as if my hip joints walk with my horse’s hind legs. I do not drive my horse forward with my seat as I believe this annoys the horse and eventually causes them to tune me out.
Stilling seat: When I am about to come to a halt, I gently squeeze and release the reins to soften and round the horse. At the same time I still my seat and no longer follow the motion of my horse. If the horse is listening to my seat, the horse will stop.
Alternating squeeze and release of the rein: If the horse doesn’t halt with the stilling of my seat, then I follow it up with an alternating squeeze and release of each rein in sequence with each step of the horse as if to say, “Stop your foot. Now stop your other foot.” I will keep alternating the squeeze and release of each rein with each step combined with a stilled seat until the horse slows to a stop.
Repeat the exercise: If the horse didn’t stop by my seat, I will return to a forward walk and repeat the exercise a few times before moving on to something else. Then I’ll come back to the exercise a couple more times during our riding session.
Practice: I practice this exercise each time I ride. Every horse I ride becomes more and more responsive to my seat, softer, rounder, and more relaxed with the halting and less dependent upon the reins for stopping.
I have found that this approach produces a softer, rounder, more relaxed and square halt than when squeezing with both reins at the same time and definitely better than pulling back on the reins.
Video: Cues to a Softer Halt
A square halt from the medium walk is required in NWHA Intro tests, a square halt from the flat walk is required in NWHA Training Level tests, and a square halt from a canter is required in NWHA Fourth Level.
Video: Soft Halts from the Medium Walk, Flat Walk and Canter
How many times have you heard riders of gaited horses ask, “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” or “How do I improve the quality of my horse’s natural four beat gait?” These questions have come up at every gaited dressage clinic I’ve been to. They’ve been addressed on every naturally gaited horse video I’ve watched and book I’ve read since I bought my Tennessee walking horse Makana in 2007.
Why? Because relaxation is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow-backed, pace into a smooth and natural four-beat gait. A great place to start is with long and low at walk. Not only will relaxation in a long and low frame break up the pace, it can lengthen the depth of stride and improve the quality of your horse’s gait.
In dressage terms, a long and low walk is called the free walk on a long rein. This is a required movement in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced.
The free walk on a long rein produces many terrific benefits in the horse including rhythm, relaxation, balance, forwardness, and building the top line muscles. Most importantly, it breaks up the foot falls of pace into four individual steps—the sequence of gait at a slow tempo, and it positions the horse to be successful in taking longer and deeper steps.
Video: Free Walk on a Long Rein
The free walk on a long rein is a terrific way to begin and end every ride, as well as reward your horse throughout a training session.
If your horse needs to learn how to lower its head and neck, here’s an exercise I learned from naturally gaited clinician Bucky Sparks which he calls “Stretch the Bit.” This exercise teaches a horse to discover relaxation for itself. Once a horse finds relaxation, they are likely to seek more of it.
How to Stretch the Bit
1. Begin this exercise at a halt. Each time my horse’s head is too high, I lift my hands up and stretch my reins out to the side without pulling back. This engages the bars (corners) of the horse’s mouth. Low hands compress the horse’s tongue. As I draw my arms out to the side, I feel a pull in my triceps which helps me to remember not to pull back.
2. Release to reward: As soon as the my horse begins dropping its head and neck, I release the reins.
3. Repeat the exercise: I will repeat the exercise each time the horse’s head pops back up. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a couple minutes before the horse lowers or if the horse lowers and then pops its head back up. This is common for horses new to the exercise or for horses that are tense or resistant. After a few tries the horse most horses discover relaxation and prefer it over tension and hollowness because it is more comfortable. Eventually the horse will remain in a lowered headset for longer periods of time.
4. Stretch and release at a walk: When the horse gets consistent with this exercise at a halt, I begin stretching the bit at a walk on a large 20-meter circle. I find that it is easier for my horse to find relaxation in the long and low exercise on an arc than when traveling on a straight line.
5. Add transitions and changes of direction: After a few circles, I will repeat the exercise traveling in the opposite direction and switch directions every 3 or 4 circles. Then I will add some walk-halt-walk transitions to keep it interesting and “stretch the bit” and “release to reward” at a halt before transitioning to a walk.
Video: Stretch the Bit and Release and Reward
As my horse advances in its training, like to replace the “stretch the bit” with a more traditional dressage application I call “squeeze and release.”
How to Squeeze and Release 1. Squeeze and release with rein: On a 20-meter circle at a walk, I gently squeeze the inside rein and hold it until the horse gives and then I release the inside rein to reward the horse. Each time the horse’s head pops up I’ll repeat the “squeeze and release.”
2. Squeeze and release with inside calf: Once the horse understands this concept and is relaxed, I will touch and release my inside calf at the girth as my horse steps its inside hind leg forward. This encourages my horse to step deeper under its body with its inside hind leg.
4. Inside leg to outside rein: Then I capture the forward energy into an ounce of contact with the outside rein which I place lightly against the horse’s neck. This is called the indirect rein. The inside leg to outside indirect rein combined with the softening inside rein helps keep my horse in a long and low frame on a 20-meter circle.
Video: Squeeze and Release to Reward
When the horse is consistent in the long and low frame, then I ask for a few deeper, more ground covering steps and more impulsion from the hind quarters to begin the free walk on a long rein.
How to Improve the Free Walk 1. Awareness: Improving the free walk on a long rein begins by becoming aware of the elements of the free walk and how they feel and look. Teach the horse to maintain a consistent relaxed tempo, maximum stride depth, even four-beat rhythm, and a long and low frame. This takes time, patience and consistent training, but I believe that by becoming aware of the qualities of the free walk will help in teaching them to the horse.
2. Cueing deeper strides: While traveling at a relaxed long and low walk, I press and release my right calf at the girth as the horse steps forward with its right hind leg. Then I apply and release my left calf as the horse steps its left hind leg beneath its body. The application of my calf should encourage deeper steps. It is important not to squeeze with every step or the horse will become as they say “dead to the leg.” So I stop cueing as soon as the horse increases its depth of stride, and I will follow the motion with my seat.
If the horse ignores my calf aid, I will follow it up with a tap of a dressage whip applied to the same side I applied my calf to activate that hind leg while it is stepping forward.
Another way to encourage more energy and deeper strides in the free walk is to make a kissing or clucking sound as the hind leg steps beneath the body. As soon as the horse increases the energy and depth of stride, stop the sound. Since I show gaited dressage, using my voice as a training aid isn’t my best option since voice is not allowed during a test, but I have found that it motivates the horse forward and produces a deeper stride..
3. Following the movement with your seat: After cueing the horse for deeper strides, then follow (not drive) the horse’s forward movement with my seat. I allow each hip joint to walk with each hind leg as it steps beneath the horse. I become aware of the feeling of the horse’s rib cage lift on one side and lower on the other. I keep my upper body still but not stiff. I find that it is more effective to follow the horse’s movement versus drive the horse forward with my seat. It seems less noisy to the horse and my horses are able to hear my cues better.
4. Circles and straight lines: I find that it is easiest for the horses I ride to learn the free walk on a long rein on the arc of a large circle versus a straight line. Once the horse is consistent on a 20-meter circle, I will add serpentines, figure eights, and moments of straight lines. As soon as the horse’s head pops up, the back gets hollow and the gait gets pacey, I’ll return to the arc of a circle. Over time, the horse will learn to travel in straight lines in a consistent free walk on a long rein which is the required movement in dressage tests.
Gait and Canter on a Long Rein
As the horse develops a consistent free walk on a long rein, then I begin asking the horse for a few steps of flat walk or easy gait in a long and low frame. As soon as the horse begins to pace or trot, I slow the horse back down to a walk and begin again with relaxation at a long and low free walk before asking for the gait again.
After the horse is established in canter, I like to use canter in a long and low frame as a warm up exercise. A long and low canter on a 20-meter circle is a great way to relax the horse’s back, build the horse’s top line muscles, as well as help break a lateral canter. And I’m amazed with how much better my horse flat walks after a long and low canter warm up.
Video: Flat Walk on a Long Rein
Video: Cantering on a Long Rein
At every gaited dressage and naturally gaited clinic I have attended since I began my journey, I have witnessed dozens of gaited horses transformed from a hard pace to a smooth, four-beat gait by working in a long and low frame.
I hope you find this information helpful. Feel free to contact me and let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you!
Interested in riding a gaited dressage test but not sure what to expect? Here are a few tips to help riders who are interested in giving gaited dressage a try.
Schooling dressage shows are a friendly environment to receive constructive feedback from an experience dressage professional on where the horse and rider are at in their training—what’s working and what needs improvement.
I love riding dressage tests because they force me to train all of the required movements in both directions. Invariably, there is one way that is more difficult for the horse and some exercises that I would rather avoid, but a test makes me address them. The test itself challenges me to be a precise communicator to my horse to prepare and perform each movement at the letter, ride my horse in the correct frame through an effective use of aids and riding position.
Gaited Dressage Tests
There are many gaited dressage tests to choose from of varying levels of difficulty created by FOSH, Western Dressage, Cowboy Dressage, and the NWHA. The introductory tests are two gait tests for those not ready to tackle the canter.
What to Wear
Schooling shows require riders to wear an approved helmet with a chin strap and boots with a heel. Informal riding attire is acceptable such as breeches and a polo shirt for English gaited dressage or jeans and a cowboy shirt for western gaited dressage. The horse must be ridden in a mild snaffle bit and a dressage or all-purpose English saddle or western saddle depending upon the test that is selected. Formal riding attire and braiding the horse’s mane are optional. I often wear my formal riding attire since I don’t show at recognized shows (and it makes for nicer photos).
Where to Show
Some breed shows offer gaited dressage classes. Another opportunity to show your gaited horse in dressage is at USDF schooling dressage shows. Whenever I see a USDF open schooling dressage show in my area that I would like to ride at, I contact the show secretary and ask if I can enter my gaited horse and ride a gaited dressage test. If the show manager agrees, then I mail a copy of my tests with a copy of my current Coggins, completed entry form and fees by the closing date.
The show posts a schedule of ride times 24 to 48 hours before the show, so I can plan my arrival and warm up accordingly. When I get to the show I ask the show manager if the arena is open to school my horse during break times. Recognized shows do not permit this, but many schooling shows do. This helps nervous horses get acclimated to the strange surroundings and build their confidence.
Arriving at the Show
When I get to the show grounds, I get my horse settled and go to the show office to obtain my number and ask if the show is running on time. Sometimes there are scratches. Many times I’ve been asked to ride earlier. Although I am not required to, I will accommodate this if I am able. Other times the show may be running behind schedule. This is really important for me to know so that I can pace my warm up and not wear out my horse before our tests.
Riding the Test
When the rider before me completes their final halt and salute, that’s my cue to enter the outside of the arena to school my horse before my test. Relaxation for the horse is key. In the short couple minutes I have, I like to ride my horse by anything that might spook her, like the judging area, flower boxes along the rail, or bushes that are swaying in the breeze.
While warming up, I like to talk to my horse, but as soon as I enter the arena voice or clucking is not permitted during the test without penalty.
As soon as I hear the judge sound the bell or whistle (or sometimes the ‘toot’ of a car horn), it is my signal that I have 45 seconds to enter the arena and begin my test.
I like to position my horse to ride in straight at “A” down the center line to the halt and salute (remaining immobile for three seconds) before proceeding forward.
I try to remember to smile as I ride toward the judge and ride my horse into the corners to show a nice bend. Judges like to see the horse being ridden close to the rail without jumping out of the arena (which means elimination).
Most shows permit a ‘reader,’ someone who reads the test for the rider as they ride the test. Normally the reader stands at “E” or “B”. I rode with a reader for many years, and it has only been recently that I began memorizing my tests mainly because I show solo. (I’m hoping this will have an added benefit of prolonging my grandma brain!)
Each test has required movements that are evaluated on a score from 0 to 10. Among the judging criteria are rhythm, balance, bend, relaxation, impulsion, precision, gaits, rider’s use of aids and riding position. Dressage tests movements mirror each other to show that the horse has become ambidextrous because of its training.
After the final halt salute, I ride my horse forward toward the judge at a free walk on a long rein. Sometimes the judge offers verbal feedback in addition to the written comments on the test so I’ll stop and take it all in. Then turn right or left to exit the arena at a free walk on a long rein.
While a test is being ridden, the judge verbalizes feedback to a scribe who writes down the comments on a test sheet. The tests are given to the show office and added for the final percentage. Sometimes gaited dressage is placed in its own category and other times gaited dressage is scored with the trotting horses of the same level. Scores are usually posted for placings and the test will be available at the show office for riders to take home.
I try not to get discouraged when my horse doesn’t show all of my hard work during my test. It is common that horses perform better at home than when in a strange environment. I hold onto the magic moments that made it a positive experience for me and my horse. We did it!
When picking up my tests from the show office and returning my number, I like to thank everyone who helped organize the show and for accommodating gaited dressage.
Video: Tips on Riding a Gaited Dressage Test
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!