How do you tell the difference between the naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse’s medium walk and flat walk? Both walks are natural even four beat gaits with a head nod.
For me, it is very apparent in how it feels as a rider. Riding my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana’s medium walk has a lot of motion to follow. In the flat walk, not so much. Something happens in her body where the flat walk gets really smooth.
In either case, whether I ride the medium walk or flat walk, I want as much over stride as possible. That means I want the hind leg foot print to step over the forefoot hoof foot print when it leaves the ground. My seat, leg, and rein aids connect with the driving power of the hindquarter steps under the body, through shoulder, neck and head, to the bit. It is a back to front movement and the horse’s head and neck nod downward in regular timing with each hind leg step.
While riding the medium walk and flat walk, I become aware of the rise and fall of the horse’s belly sway with each step. (The belly sway is much more noticeable in the the medium walk than it is in the flat walk.) When the belly sway dips down, that’s when the hind leg is stepping under the body. If I want to encourage an even deeper step under the body it is important that I apply my calf aid at the girth at the moment the belly sway dips down. That timing in conjunction of the hind leg as it steps under the body will affect a deeper step. (Be careful not to apply both calves at the same time as that will encourage the horse to go faster.)
I find it important to ride with short reins and an even contact with the snaffle bit and to keep my elbows at my sides. Short reins don’t mean pulling back. It just means maintaining a light feeling of the horse’s mouth evenly on both reins. Keeping my elbows at my sides helps me stay in balance—ear, shoulder, elbows, hip and heel. If my elbows creep forward, I find that my upper body soon leans forward where I find myself out of balance which causes my horse to fall onto the shoulders.
Hind sight is 20/20. I think there is great value in developing a solid, even four-beat medium walk with as much over stride as possible before moving the horse up to the flat walk. In my early years of training my naturally gaited TWH, I made the mistake of rushing her into the flat walk which produced a short strided and rushed flat walk. This certainly was not the quality of gait she is capable of. But thanks to my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson who pointed this out to me four years ago in my first lesson. Jennie said, “Don’t let your horse flat walk in a tight skirt!” Lessons with Jennie are golden and I’ve learned so much from her. So, I believe time well spent developing a solid medium walk can improve the quality of the flat walk.
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.
Did you know that there is more than one way to ride a gaited horse? Did you know that riding position has an effect on the horse’s well being and way of going? Did you know that some riding positions place you in a more secure position to help you confidently ride through spooks?
Over the last 25 years, I’ve taken hundreds of dressage lessons, ridden at dressage clinics, read many books and watched dozens of dressage videos. In regards to riding position, I’ve encountered various methods. The most common method teaches balance by remaining loose and relaxed following the horse’s movement. This position teaches ear, hip and heel alignment and focuses on growing tall with the upper body, stretching down and long with the thigh and calf (a nearly straight leg), and pressing the heel down into the iron. The focus of the seat is the three seat bones. There is a feeling of leaning back with the upper body. This is the way I have ridden the majority of my life.
Another dressage position I learned when I rode at a riding bio-mechanics clinic with Mary Wanless. She teaches balance through stillness made through the isokinetic bearing down of the inner anatomy and holding of the thighs and knees along the saddle. This position teaches an ear, hip, heel alignment as well, but with a 90-degree bend in the knee from thigh to calf, and a lightly resting toe in the iron. The seat includes the knees, thighs and seat bones where the majority of the rider’s weight is held in thighs and not pressed down into the heel. There is a feeling of pressing forward from the sternum as if resisting someone’s push.
Mary’s theories have been developed through her education in physics, bio-mechanics, riding through the upper levels of dressage, and studying the best dressage riders of her time. She’s coached top riders such as long time student and successful Grand Prix rider Heather Blitz. Mary has a knack for communicating to the common dressage rider how talented dressage riders ride. While I have been studying Mary’s books and videos for decades, it wasn’t until this clinic where the riding position described below really clicked.
Here are ten steps to rider alignment and body awareness I gleaned from my lesson:
Stirrup length: Adjust my stirrups so that there is a 90-degree bend in my knee. Initially this felt too short.
External alignment: Sitting on my horse, I align my ear, hip, and heel. (The picture above shows that my heel is slightly too far back.)
Toe in iron: The toe lightly rests in the iron as the thighs hold the majority of the rider’s weight (not the heel). Mary describes the feeling of kneeling at a church pew.
Thigh and knee position: Then I rotate my thighs inward so that my thighs and knees seal to the saddle. The thighs and knees lightly hold to the saddle to distribute my weight along the horse’s back instead of resting my weight on my horse’s spine.
Rotate tailbone: Next, I rotate my tail bone forward as if I were drawing it between my thighs.
Position in motion: I remind myself of the ear, hip, heel alignment, my thighs and knees lightly holding the saddle, and my tail bone as if it were between my thighs. Then I ask my horse to walk. In each walk step I feel one hip slightly rotate forward with the horse’s movement and then the other.
Bear down: Next at a walk I add what Mary refers to as “bear down.” This lowers my inner anatomy and engages my core. As Mary puts it, I “suck in my stomach and push my guts against it.” Then I become aware of my three seat bones and lower them evenly to the saddle.
Breathing: Adding to the bearing down of my inner anatomy and lowering of the seat bones to the saddle, I add deep breathing and fill up my stomach as if it were my lungs.
Resisting the push: Next, I imagine that there is someone pushing against my closed hands gripping the reins, and someone pushing against my sternum as I resist that push which further engages my core.
Awareness of sitting surface: Now I become aware of the lowering of my inner anatomy and seat bones closer to the saddle and my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle.
While Mary teaches riders of trotting horses, I’ve found that the principles of her riding bio-mechanics have worked wonderfully when applied to my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. I’ve noticed that each time I realign my position with my weight distributed through my thighs (instead of resting on my horse’s spine), my horse immediately rounds her back and neck, and comes onto the bit and chews.
This riding position has taught me to become more aware of my riding and while doing so I’ve noticed that my horse need less fixing. When I’m correctly positioned, Makana moves more comfortably forward and happy, and each time my old habits creep back, she lets me know by dropping her back and lifting her head and neck which reminds me to reposition myself.
Mary’s riding bio-mechanics have also taught me a far more stable and secure riding position. When comparing my former riding position to the one Mary taught me, I notice that the angle my knees and thighs have to the back of my seat offer much more stability when compared to a straight leg. Plus the isokinetic lowering of my center of gravity closer to the saddle and my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle give me far more security than when my upper body grew tall, my leg grew long into my heels pressed down, and my core remained loose and relaxed to follow the motion of the horse. Now whenever my horse spooks, Mary’s riding position keeps me in place and builds my confidence as I ride through it.
Yes, there is more than one way to ride a horse. After 25 years of riding one way, I’m sure glad that I gave Mary’s riding bio-mechanics a try, because this riding position has transformed the effectiveness of my riding and has made me a more aware and confident rider which has translated into becoming a more trusted leader to my horse.
Video: Naturally Gaited Flat walk and Canter
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High scoring dressage tests award the horse and rider who demonstrate a culmination of rhythm (with energy and tempo), relaxation (elasticity and suppleness), connection (acceptance of the aids and bit), impulsion (energy and thrust, straightness with alignment and balance), and collection (engagement, self carriage, and lightness of the forehand) as they move through a series of gaits, transitions, and movements precisely on the letter. Gait quality, harmony, and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and use of aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.
From time to time I’ve seen “needs more balance” written on gaited dressage tests I’ve ridden. While I know that balance is a dressage essential, I began to explore the “feeling of balance” as I ride my naturally gaited Walking horse. What does it feel like when my horse is in balance? What does it feel like when my horse is out of balance? As the rider, how can I identify, restore and maintain my horse’s balance?
Recently two of my favorite traveling clinicians came to town: international bio-mechanics riding coach Mary Wanless and successful Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz (who is also a long-time student of Mary’s). While Mary’s clinic helped each rider discover the feeling of a balanced riding position, Heather’s clinic offered metaphors to help rider’s get in touch with the feeling of their horse’s balance and offered terrific training tips whenever their horses lost balance. Both clinics featured trotting horses, yet the teachings of rider bio-mechanics and the feeling of balance certainly translate to the riding of gaited horses.
In regards to the feeling of balance, Heather encouraged riders to imagine a medicine ball inside the horse’s body while they rode and to notice where the weight of it tends to rest. If it feels like it rests in the horse’s chest then the horse tends to be more on the forehand, and if the medicine ball feels as if it is right beneath the rider’s seat, that indicates that the horse is more in balance with the rider.
Heather’s “medicine ball” metaphor has helped me gain rider awareness with the feeling of balance. My awareness of balance is an essential first step in me being able to guide my naturally gaited Walking horse into reposition her body as she learns better balance. Whenever my mare feels like her balance is in her chest instead of beneath my seat, or whenever she leans on the bit or rushes with short, quick strides, I calmly and quietly half half, halt or halt and softly rein back a couple steps until I feel her balance shift from in front of the saddle to under my seat. Then I calmly and gently cue her forward.
The more we practice this at a flatwalk, the more balanced steps we have in succession. It feels like my seat and my horse’s core snap together like a Lego, and we travel together as one unit with power from her hindquarters through her body, an engaged abdomen which lifts her back and withers, and the forward energy flows through my fists and pushes forward towards the bit with each head nod.
I’m so excited with how this feels and the difference it is making in our gaited dressage. Please share your thoughts as you experiment with the medicine ball metaphor and the feeling of balance.
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!