Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) is a non-profit that supports the sound and humane training of gaited horses and is on the front lines fighting against soring and abuse. FOSH publishes the Sound Advocate which is filled with informative, well-written articles and stories.
I was elated when I received the 2017 September/October issue of Sound Advocate and read the story written about me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) who were named the 2016 Western Dressage Champions.
In 2016, Makana and I gave Gaited Western Dressage a try through the North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) Virtual Shows.
While we have been gaited dressage award winners since 2014, this was the first time we have won in the Gaited Western Dressage division.
To be eligible for awards in the FOSH Gaited Dressage Program, three scores of 60% and over must have been recorded in any level of Dressage competitions with a recognized judge. Tests must have been specifically developed and written for gaited horses. Recognized tests include IJA, NWHA, WDAA and Cowboy Dressage.
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: My toe lightly rests in the iron as my thighs hold the majority of my weight (not my heel). Mary described to me 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 her riding bio-mechanic principles 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 her spine), she 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. 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 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 more stability when compared to a straight leg. Plus the isokinetic lowering of my center of gravity closer to the saddle with my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle give me more security than when my upper body grew tall with my legs growing long into my heels pressed down. Now Mary’s riding position keeps me in place each time I ride through an unexpected spook which builds my confidence.
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. This riding position has made me a more effective, aware and confident rider which has translated into becoming a more trusted leader to my horse.
Video: Naturally Gaited Flat walk and Canter
Visit: mary-wanless.com for educational videos, published stories, books and DVDs. You can even become a cyber student and find where she is teaching world wide near you.
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.
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!