Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the Tennessee walking horse head nod and head peck? “Head Peck?” you ask. Well, you’re not alone. That was my question after getting some cyber coaching from my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson.
I’ve always been an English dressage rider so whenever I give Western-style gaited dressage a try, I feel like a Cowboy in Spandex.
I recently rode my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom in our first FOSH IJA Western Training 1 Test, and after I received my Test results, I asked my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson for feedback on how we can improve our Western gaited dressage riding.
For some reason, I had always thought that riding Western meant riding with longer, looser reins. Maybe they do on the traditional, jogging variety, but according to national Tennessee walking horse judge, Jennie Jackson, the mechanics of a head nod require connection from the hindquarters, through the body, through the rider’s legs, seat and rein aids, and through the shoulder, neck, and head to the bit.
Jennie gave me terrific feedback in regards to riding the medium walk, which makes up the majority of this test. The medium walk is an active, even, four-beat walk with a head nod. The rider’s seat follows the motion of the belly sway as the hind legs alternately step under the body. The head nod needs to be in connection with the hind leg steps through the rein, seat, and leg aids of the rider. Jennie said that at times during the medium walk of my Test, my horse displayed a “head peck” instead of a “head nod.”
Head peck? Huh? What on earth is that?! Jennie explained that the head peck is an evasion where the Tennessee walking horse’s head simply flicks upward and is not connected with the hind leg steps of the horse.
The head nod is where the Tennessee walking horse travels forward from the hindquarter steps through a neutral to round back into a connection with the rider’s seat and rein contact—not loose, floppy reins. The head and neck should lower down with each step of the hind legs.
Jennie said that I need to feel the engine of my horse’s hind legs through her body, lifting her back to a neutral to round position, and forward into a rein connection with the snaffle bit. This will connect her back to front so that my horse’s hind legs step boldly under her body, through my aids, through her shoulders, neck, and head to the bit.
Video: Head Nod (or Head Peck)?
This video shows and describes the difference between the Tennessee walking horse head nod and the head peck I learned from Jennie Jackson. It is far too valuable for me to keep to myself. I hope it is helpful to you as well.
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.
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 less sensitive bars (corners) of the horse’s mouth. Low hands apply bit pressure on horse’s tongue which is more painful and can cause tension in the mouth and jaw. 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 its head 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 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. The transitions also help to improve the horse’s balance.
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 the rein: On a 20-meter circle at a walk, I gently squeeze the inside rein with my fingers and hold my fingers closed until my horse gives. Then I immediately release the inside rein by opening my middle, ring and pinky fingers to reward the horse. I don’t drop the rein. I keep a hold of the rein with my thumb and index fingers. Each time the horse’s head pops up, I’ll repeat the “squeeze and release.”
2. Application of the inside calf after the squeeze and release: Once the horse is relaxed and understands this concept, 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. It is important to separate the squeeze of the fingers on the inside rein and the application of the inside calf. I like to apply the inside calf just after I release my fingers of the inside rein. Combining my rein and leg aids is like driving a car with my foot on the break and gas pedal at the same time. It isn’t efficient. I have found that by separating my rein and leg aids by milliseconds, it produces much greater softness and lightness in my horse.
4. Inside leg to outside rein: Then I capture the forward energy into an ounce of contact with the outside indirect rein which I place lightly against my horse’s neck. The inside leg to outside indirect rein combined with the softening inside rein helps keep my horse in a consistent long and low frame on a 20-meter circle.
Video: Squeeze and Release to Reward
When my 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 how the free walk feels and looks when it is moving well and when it needs improvement. Finding a riding coach who can provide timely feedback is a great way to learn this “feel.” This takes time, patience and consistent training, but free walk offers such wonderful benefits to the horse. The free walk teaches the horse to maintain a consistent relaxed tempo, maximum stride depth, even four-beat rhythm, and a long and low frame which helps to develop the top line muscles.
2. Cueing deeper strides: While traveling at a relaxed long and low walk, the timing of my cue is critical. I press and release my right calf at the girth as the horse steps forward with its right hind leg (or as I feel the horse’s barrel sway left). Then I apply and release my left calf as the horse steps forward with its left hind leg (or as I feel the horse’s barrel sway right). The application of my calf should encourage a deeper step beneath the body. It is important not to apply my calf with every step or the horse will become as they say “dead to the leg.” It is also important not to use both calves at the same time as that shortens the stride. I stop cueing as soon as my horse increases its depth of stride, and I will follow the motion with my hips along with the rise and fall of the barrel of the horse.
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 forward. 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 my seat: After cueing my horse for deeper strides, I follow (not drive) my 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 body still from the core but not stiff or locked in the joints. 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, or 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 transitioning up to the gait again.
After the horse is established in canter, I like to warm up my gaited horse in a canter on a long rein. 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 up a lateral canter. After cantering I’m amazed with how much better my horse flat walks!
Video: Flat Walk on a Long Rein
Video: Cantering on a Long Rein
At every clinic I have attended since I began my gaited dressage journey, I have witnessed dozens of gaited horses transformed from a hard pace to a smooth, four-beat gait by replacing a tense, high-headed, hollow back frame with a relaxed 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!
When my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana was four years old, I took her to her first gaited dressage clinic with Bucky Sparks. I was so excited to be there and soak in all I could in beginning our gaited dressage journey.
I love Bucky’s teaching philosophy, because he blends traditional dressage with practical elements of natural horsemanship.
Most of the time Makana stands perfectly still for me to get on, but not when she is nervous or tense. When my lesson time came I literally had a panic attack before the auditors, because every time I put my foot in the iron, Makana would walk off. I was so frightened.
Thanks to Bucky, he showed me a profoundly helpful tip that worked that day and has helped me every time Makana doesn’t want to stand for me to get on.
How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand:
1. Teach the horse to flex their nose to the side by drawing one rein to the saddle. Reward the horse by releasing as soon as the horse gives. Relaxation is what is the goal, not making the horse flex. Signs of relaxation include a lowering of the head and neck and when the horse licks its lips and chews.
If the horse has tension in the poll, neck or shoulder, address these areas individually to release the tension before expecting a soft and relaxed flex to the side.
2. Once the horse understands how to flex to the side and is soft and relaxed in doing so, then flex and release the horse a few times until the horse chews and lowers its head and neck.
3. Then flex the horse to the saddle and keep the horse flexed while repositioning the mounting block and get on. Then release the flex as a reward and encourage the horse to remain standing.
While I was at the clinic my horse kept walking off while in a flexed position. Bucky said, “You can’t make a horse stand.” Don’t punish the horse. Just remain calm to encourage relaxation, keep the horse flexed and gently follow the horse around. He said, “Pretty soon the horse will discover it is a lot easier to stand while being flexed than to walk around being flexed.” Bucky was right. It didn’t take long and as soon as my horse stopped, I repositioned the mounting block, got on, and released the flex. Then we moved on to the gaited dressage lesson.
This tip worked for me at the clinic and continues to work for me each time my horse doesn’t stand when I try to get on.
Video: How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand
There’s no better way to capture “the feeling of right” than by riding a gaited dressage school master under the coaching of a seasoned gaited dressage legend: Jennie Jackson.
I just got back from my third Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse Clinic with Jennie Jackson, but this time I flew to Tennessee. As much as I wanted to ride my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana, I couldn’t squeeze her in my luggage! Words cannot express my gratitude to Ronance for her generosity in lending to me her exquisite naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse gelding Outrageous who became my second level school master for the three-day clinic. He was like riding a Rolls-Royce!
Outrageous is an organically gaited son of the famous gaited dressage stallion Champaign Watchout. I say “organically gaited” because he is ridden barefoot and trained without the use of chains, pads, soring, harsh bits, or artificial gimmicks. He is bonafide USDA approved!
Riding a school master is a terrific way to get established in “the feeling of right.” With Jennie’s coaching, Outrageous answered the many questions I have had training Makana in gaited dressage. He clarified the feelings between medium walk, flat walk, and running walk; the feeling of a correct response when applying my rein, seat, and leg aids for leg yield, shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass in flat walk; how to discern the feeling of stiffness within the horse’s body and resolving that stiffness through suppling exercises; the feeling of horse and rider balance; the feeling of riding on a relaxed and round back with deep stride beneath my seat.
Jennie also coached me through the positioning of “on-the-bit” as it relates to the head shaking horse while maximizing depth of stride; she helped me negotiated which of my body parts remain still and which ones follow the horse’s motion to allow the horse to move freely forward; she coached me through the application, timing, and release of aids for lateral suppling exercises; and gave me effective tools in how to regain trusted leadership whenever Outrageous became distracted or tense when away from home with a stranger he didn’t know. All of this learning will help me so much when I get back home to Makana.
The clinic was held at White Stables in Vonore, Tennessee and featured riders as young as 12 on up with a mix of gaited and trotting horses of various levels of training from green broke to well established in dressage.
In fact, one of the students, Beatrice came to the clinic with her fiance’s three-year-old black Tennessee walking horse filly. She has been a long-time dressage rider of trotting horses and brought her fiance’s gaited horse to the clinic to get feedback from Jennie about which gait the horse was performing beneath her.
This took me back to April of 2007 when I purchased my black gaited filly as a three-year-old and I asked the very same questions. (I only wish that Jennie lived in my State so that I could take regular lessons!)
By the second lessons Beatrice had her filly performing a smooth gaited rack, flat walk, and canter and leading our trail ride on the final clinic day!
A huge thanks to Jennie Jackson for imparting more knowledge and experience to me as Makana and I tackle the new gaited dressage tests this year. There are no words to describe how honored I am to learn from the only person in history who has trained and shown a naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse through the highest levels of dressage and who is willing to share her knowledge with anyone willing to learn.
Now that I’m back to snowy Minnesota, I can’t wait to try out all I’ve learned with my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. (Come to think of it, she’s organically gaited, too!)
Special thanks to White Stables who hosted the clinic. What a terrific place to ride—situated on 135 acres of wooded trails which we experienced on our last day of the clinic. Plus a wonderful group of people to ride with!
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!