It was our first 75-degree spring day after a long winter. I couldn’t wait to get Makana, my naturally gaited Walking horse mare, saddled for an afternoon ride.
I had thought that the gale-force winds would be our greatest riding challenge as I negotiated Makana past the disco tree dancing to and fro at the corner of the arena. I had no idea we’d be riding 100 yards from our new neighbor’s artillery range practice, plus enduring a steady stream of overzealous motorcyclists roaring by!
The frenzied sights and sounds gave us plenty of opportunity to practice riding bio-mechanic techniques I have learned from Mary Wanless that helped me maintain a secure riding position each time my explosive horse reacted to unexpected gun fire, thundering motors, and swaying bushes. Among Mary’s riding tactics include breathing deep into my stomach, bearing down of my internal anatomy to lower my center of gravity, holding my weight in my inner thighs to distribute my weight across my horse’s back instead of my weight resting on my horse’s spine, and pressing my fists forward toward the bit instead of pulling back.
The distractions challenged me to practice what I learned from Larry Whitesell about becoming a trusted leader. Whenever my horse got tense, nervous, and distracted it was my job to lead her back to balance and relaxation, and while doing she became a safer horse to ride. The best way to lead Makana back to balance and relaxation is through many transitions and lateral exercises.
So I practiced the suppling and lateral exercises I learned from Jennie Jackson and Outrageous, the gaited dressage school master I rode while I was at the March 2015 Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse Clinic in Tennessee. Lateral exercises, such as pivot the fore, shoulder in, and haunches in break up tension, lead to balance and relaxation, and improve the communication between me and my horse. As Makana realized that I was helping her find balance and relaxation through this harried situation, she learned to trust me more as a reliable leader.
In addition to riding bio-mechanics and leading my horse back to balance and relaxation with suppling exercises, we also practiced what I’ve been learning from the Philippe Karl Classical Dressage DVD series regarding the separation of the rein and leg aids, riding my horse into balance, and encouraging Makana to open and close her mouth, salivate and swallow by making my connection with the less sensitive bars of her mouth instead of from tongue pressure. These elements help to produce relaxation in the jaw and poll which help to produce a relaxed body which makes for a more trainable horse.
Although it wasn’t the joyous and relaxing spring ride I had hoped for, it was a successful milestone for me and my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. I faced my riding fears, trusted the skills my mentors have imparted, remembered to breath, (prayed a bunch that I didn’t get shot by stray bullets), and managed to work Makana through the distractions in real time. We managed to end our ride with quality flat walk possessing good rhythm, balance, over stride, and impulsion.
The sound of my sneakers gripping the polished floor caught the attention of fellow students as I entered the classroom. Looking around for a place to sit, Professor Larson interrupts the glances, “If you want an “A” you’ll have to sit in the front row.” Giggling classmates lighten my apprehensive return to college after a 21-year break. He was teasing of coarse. However, I took a seat in “A” row because of my ambitious nature (and my peepers didn’t see as good as they used to).
Professor Larson made it his mission to form critical students by encouraging each of us to listen, take notes, think through, and apply what is presented. That’s how learning is best retained.
I discovered that you don’t have to be in school to learn, but college put words to things I had already been doing as a student of dressage. For years I had been taking notes after each dressage lesson and clinic I’ve ridden in and I practice what I’ve been taught in efforts to form a new habit. I even take notes while watching instructional DVDs and while auditing clinics. I underline and scribble notes in the margins of dressage books I purchase. I think through the concepts presented and try them out the next time I ride.
My favorite way to learn is through lessons, but there isn’t anyone in my area who teaches gaited dressage, so between annual clinics with Jennie Jackson, my second most helpful way to learn is through video. Each week I set up my video camera on a tripod and record my ride. After each exercise, I stop and describe how it felt to the camera so that I can verify if what I see on screen matches what I felt from the saddle as I replay it. (I guess you could call it a form of self-help gaited dressage instruction!)
I became a student of dressage twenty-seven years ago with my first riding instructor. For 12 years she did a wonderful job coaching me from Training through Second level competition with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding. She taught me a foundation of feel for when it felt right and what to do when it felt wrong (at least from the German dressage perspective). Back then I felt like a traitor if I took lessons from anyone other than my instructor or dabbled with another training philosophy, so I became locked into only one view of riding.
Looking back, I think this was rather silly, as Professor Larson wasn’t the only teacher who encompassed my college education. I learned from dozens of professors who collectively imparted diverse knowledge to form the breadth and depth of my study.
After 12 years of regular dressage lessons with my first instructor (for which I am very grateful), much has changed: I remarried and moved away, and she went on to Seminary and is now an ordained Pastor leading a church in southern Minnesota (still riding horses of course)!
Thankful for my years under her mentorship, my curiosity and passion for learning didn’t stop when our paths went separate ways. It actually freed me to try new philosophies beyond the German form of dressage imprinted upon me. From there I became introduced to French classical dressage with Dominique Barbier; natural horsemanship with Pat Parelli and Larry Whitesell; riding bio-mechanics with Mary Wanless; gaited dressage with Jennie Jackson; gymnastic jumping with Len Danielson; and versatility training: trail riding and trail obstacles, endurance riding, orienteering, sorting cows and team penning. All of these instructors, riding philosophies, and activities have added to the depth and breadth of my naturally gaited riding experience.
You see, I am open to ideas and activities that foster and build teamwork, trust, balance, relaxation, forwardness, lightness, and engagement, as I ride Makana, my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. To me learning goes beyond the knowledge of just one instructor and training philosophy.
My favorite way to learn each time I navigate uncharted territory as I apply dressage to my head shaking, four beat flat walker is to take lessons. In between lessons, I sift through my treasure chest of note books, dressage books, video and DVD library, and if I don’t find an answer, I scour the Internet.
While I’m blessed with an abundance of online resources and much of it free, it gets tricky knowing which ideas to consider and which ones to discard. Often times one philosophy contradicts what I’ve been taught. For me, that’s when becoming a critical student comes in to play. I’ll listen to an idea, think it through. If it has merit, I will try it out. Evaluate it, and if it shows promise, I will add it to my treasure chest. If not, I’ll pitch it. If I’m in question, I’ll ask my riding friends what they think and pick my instructor’s brain during my lesson time.
Trying out a new idea doesn’t replace everything I’ve learned up to that point. Nor does it mean that by embracing ideas from a new training philosophy or instructor means that I will scrap everything I’ve learned from another. I merely add workable ideas to my methods of getting to my final outcome—which is a work in progress.
In the end, my intention aims to bring about a harmonious partnership with my horse, moving together in balance, bringing out the best movement, frame, and lightness of aids, establishing consistent rhythm, relaxation, and engagement as it relates to the gaited horse.
You see, I’m passionate about learning and will always consider myself a student—even in my grandma age.
“Let the horse know you’re the boss.” Did you grow up with this phrase?
This crude understanding accompanies cues like “kick to go” and “pull to stop.”
Just after purchasing my first horse in 1988, a fellow boarder gently asked me, “Who are you going to take lessons from?”
In ignorance I replied, “Why would I need to take lessons when I own a horse!?”
Back then I thought lessons were for horseless people looking for an opportunity to ride—not for horse owners learning how to interact well with their horses.
Then my kindhearted boarder friend invited me to watch a nearby dressage show. We got there just in time to see Kathy Theisen riding a horse named Bullwinkle in an upper level dressage musical freestyle. I get goose bumps just thinking about Kathy and her horse dancing as one to the rhythm of a waltz, skipping along the diagonal in tempe changes and soaring across the arena at an extended trot. She rode with an effortless finesse I had never seen before. This was my introduction to dressage.
That was the moment I realize there was a better way to interact with my horse than “kick to go” and “pull to stop.” No wonder my boarder friend asked me about lessons—no joke, I needed them!
Back then the German method of dressage riding was predominant in my area, so I learned how to drive my horse forward with my seat and legs in a mechanical way of going. While I learned how to become a technically correct dressage rider for the show ring, I didn’t learn much about leadership or why it is important to the horse.
Then after being dumped a few times, I became a very reactive rider. In terms of leadership, I was always on guard for the “what if’s”. Unknowingly, this transmitted insecurity to my horse and a lack of trusted leadership. So I rode in a very controlled environment—mainly in an indoor arena with few distractions.
Then a few years later Dominique Barbier, a French classical dressage trainer, rider and author of Dressage of the New Age began traveling to my region for clinics. It was the first time I had seen a harmonious human-horse partnership demonstrated with lightness, balance, relaxation, joy, connection, rhythm, impulsion, and engagement. I took my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding to a few of his clinics. Dominique confronted my reactive riding head on and taught me the importance of riding with a plan and to visualize it for the horse’s sake.
Also during this time, I believed that only dressage riders practiced the art of riding. My arrogance was met head on when I was invited to a Pat Parelli event and introduced to the philosophy of natural horsemanship. I was blown away watching Pat ride his horse alongside a black stallion dancing at liberty alongside him mimicking the movement his mount performed as he rode. I left the event deeply inspired and awestruck with what is possible in a relationship with a horse!
I am humbled to say that if it weren’t for the cowboys I would never have learned how to become a trusted leader with my horse. The cowboys have taught me how a horse thinks and relates with a rider. No matter how many 20 meter circles I do or how technically correct my riding may become, it will not develop a trusted leadership with my horse until I begin to understand how my horse thinks and relates with me as a leader.
In 2008 I became acquainted with the work of Larry Whitesell who combines French classical dressage with natural horsemanship for gaited horses. In fact, I was interested to learn that Dominique Barbier is one of Larry’s dressage mentors.
I’ve learned the most about trusted leadership from Larry Whitesell as a student at his 3-day and 5-day clinics. His unique riding philosophy is based upon French dressage, years of showing and training gaited horses, and understanding how the horse thinks and relates with its rider. He helps teach riders to understand what the horse’s needs are and meet these needs.
Larry says, “Don’t teach the horse what NOT to do. Teach the horse what TO do.” Instead of punishing the horse for making a mistake, redirect the horse to find balance and relaxation and at the same time the horse’s need for security will be satisfied, and the horse will better trust the rider as a reliable leader. This translates into less spooks, bolts, bucks, buddy sourness, and rears. The more a horse trusts the rider to keep it secure, the more the rider can trust the horse on the trail. It’s a win-win training method.
Learning how to become a technically correct rider is an excellent place to start. I’m so glad that I didn’t stop there. I yearned for more: I wanted the relationship Kathy had with Bullwinkle waltzing along the diagonal; the harmonious human-horse partnership Dominique has with horses; the inspiring connection Pat Parelli has with horses at liberty and while he is riding; and the trusted leadership Larry has with his horses.
It empowers me to know that my horse counts on me to lead her to balance and relaxation. Thanks to Dominique, I am reminded to visualize a plan for my horse’s sake. Thanks to Larry who taught me how to become a trusted leader for my naturally gaited Walking horse that will help her find balance and relaxation which in turn will help her become a safer and happier mount on and off the trail. Thanks to great teachers such as riding bio-mechanics coach Mary Wanless who have helped me develop a more secure riding position which gives me confidence in the event my horse does spook. And thanks to God for the courage to perseverance and press on to meet whatever lies ahead.
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.
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.
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 bio-mechanics 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.
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 bio-mechanics 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!
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 from gaited dressage and gaited horsemanship instructors. 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!
Video: A Collection of Naturally Smooth Gaits
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!