Did you know that the naturally multi-gaits [on cue] can even include trot?
It was just what I needed, to be back in the saddle after several months off due to cold temperatures, darkness, and icy footing. It warmed up above freezing today, so me and Makana, my 14-year-old naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse played in the snow.
Just how many gaits did we tinker with on cue? Freewalk, medium walk, flat walk, running walk, fox trot, trot, and canter.
Crazy as it may sound, the trot has actually improved her flat walk! After trotting for five minutes on cue, her flat walk becomes more engaged from behind and lifted in the shoulders with a head-banging nod.
How many of you have tinkered with trot on cue with your gaited horse? What differences have you noticed in the quality of your horse’s movement? I’d love to hear from you if you have. Drop me a line and share how trot has improved your naturally gaited horse.
Dressage for the gaited horse: Developing a naturally gaited horse’s full range of motion by teaching big striding pushing gaits and balanced and engaged carrying gaits that improve the former.
Do you like the idea of training your naturally gaited horse for more relaxation, rhythm, balance, connection, and engagement?
I know I do.
I love training my natural gaited horse with humane training methods without pads and heavy shoes, mechanical devices, and artificial enhancements.
Yet, if we are using dressage as our natural training method, how many of us realize that as we move into the carrying gaits of collection that build balance and engagement, that the naturally gaited horse’s stride shortens.
Look at the photo above which shows some of the walks called for in dressage. Notice as the horse steps into a collected walk, the hind leg doesn’t push from behind the tail. Rather it carries weight. Without the hind leg pushing from behind the tail, the stride is shorter. In the collected walk the horse compresses its frame by bending its hindquarter joints and engages its abdominal muscles which rounds its back. While the horse engages the hindquarters it lifts the whither, head and neck. The horse moves more poised and elegant. The collected walk is also a much slower tempo than the flat walk and the head doesn’t nod.
Just as the naturally gaited horse can learn to develop maximum stride length with a head nod in the flat walk and running walk, the horse can learn the collected walk. There are many benefits in doing so.
Training through the levels of dressage doesn’t mean that the collected gaits replace the big striding gaits. The horse gains a full range of motion as it develops the long, low, ground covering pushing gaits as well as the engaged, compressed and elegant carrying gaits of collection which produce balance. It is as simple as applying a set of cues, training and conditioning to direct the horse into a desired posture of movement.
Even better, the carrying gaits of collection along with lateral exercises produces balance, suppleness, and strength which in turn improve the quality of the pushing gaits as the flat walk and running walk.
I own and train a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. I’ve shown her successfully at rail class events, so I know how big strides and head nods are deeply prized at breed shows.
I am also passionate about dressage. As one advances in the levels of dressage training they will come face-to-face with the requirements of the collected walk and lateral movements.
While naturally smooth gaits like the running walk “push” from behind to create big strides, collected gaits “carry” from behind to produce balance and engagement which in turn can improve the quality of the pushing gaits.
For the rail class competitor, the thought of slower, shorter strides, with little to no head nod produced by the collected walk may seem pointless. Yet teaching the naturally gaited horse the collected walk and lateral exercises such as shoulder in will improve balance and engagement which in turn can improve the quality of the flat walk and running walk.
As a gaited dressage rider, I’ve labored to develop a big striding, head nodding flat walk and running walk. Then I began schooling Second Level lateral exercises like the shoulder in. I tried REAL hard to maintain the same depth of stride and head nod when introducing collection and lateral exercises, but realized that the flat walk and the collected walk are not the same gait.
For the collected walk in the naturally gaited horse, it means SLOWING down and SHORTENING the stride to introduce lateral exercises. The collected walk and lateral exercises improve balance, engagement, softness, and strength to further gymnasticize the horse.
In the last few years while studying French dressage, I realized this demand for maximum depth of stride in the collected walk isn’t realistic. Lessons with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson and French classical dressage clinician Fred Kappler have confirmed this. Carrying gaits and pushing gaits are two different things. Working in the slower, compressed, engaged collected gaits will build balance and strength which then improve the quality of the pushing gaits of flat walk and running walk with maximum head nod.
Jean-Claude Racinet, a classical French dressage master of Baucher’s theories describes engagement and disengagement in a horse’s stride. He says that engagement is the amount of stride under the horse’s belly and disengagement is the amount of stride behind the horse’s tail. He also said that a horse’s head and neck become STILL when in the “collected” FOUR-BEAT gaits of walk.
Think this through with me in light of what Classical French Dressage Master Racinet is saying: For the Tennessee walking horse, the flat walk and running walk both seek to reach a maximum length of stride. This stride length counts both the stride length under the belly (engagement) as well as the stride length behind the tail (disengagement). And a radical head and neck nod with every stride is highly prized.
This got me thinking about the biomechanics of collection and the biomechanics of a head nodding, deep striding flat walk. To me it is clear: The biomechanics are different and will produce different effects.
Yes, I want a soft, harmonious, round horse, with a maximum stride length, and a pronounced head nod. Yet it is not a realistic expectation when applying the aids for the collected walk. For me this was freedom. I realized that I needed to change my expectations about collection and how it impacts the movement in the naturally gaited horse.
Working in a slow, collected walk through shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass doesn’t mean abandoning all of the other work that has been accomplished up to that point. It just means that I don’t combine the expectation of big strides and head nod to the collected walk. I believe the collected walk is just one more posture I can ask of my naturally gaited horse to make her more athletic.
The collected walk has helped my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse find balance. The tempo is slow and deliberate enough for her to learn lateral exercises which have strengthened her for more beautiful gaiting. After we apply moments of collection in shoulder in, I turn her loose along the rail into her deep striding, head shaking flat walk and WOW. These transitions between collection and gait are improving her quality of flat walk and running walk!
If you’ve ever seen the DVD of classical French dressage master Philippe Karl training High Noon, you’ll see how he trains him like he would play an accordion. He works the horse in a long and low frame for a few strides and then gathers the horse up for more collection and engagement in lateral exercises and then releases the horse to more strides of a long and low frame. This is what is known as gymnasticizing the horse to develop its full range of motion: pushing and carrying gaits.
Attaining the higher levels of dressage with collection and engagement doesn’t mean we never ride with maximum stride length and a head-banging nod again. I believe our horses can learn a full range of motion from long and low, to maximum depth of stride and head nod in a flat walk and running walk, to slow, engaged shortened steps of the collected walk in order to learn lateral exercises for balance and suppleness.
For now, applying transitions between the collected walk and moments of expressive flat walk along the rail have been a perfect recipe for me and my naturally gaited walking horse Makana.
Coming from the traditional trotting horse dressage camp to gaited dressage, nothing sounded more foreign to me than desirable attributes as ear flopping and teeth clicking.
What I have discovered since I began my gaited dressage journey in 2010 with my naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse mare, Makana is that it’s not so much the actual ear flopping and teeth clicking that’s important as what these attributes represent: relaxation and rhythm. Both relaxation and rhythm are what we seek in good dressage training whether riding a gaited or trotting breed. Along with this is relaxation of the jaw.
In breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Foxtrotter and others that offer a natural and even four-beat gait, such as the flat walk and running walk, the horse will begin to click their teeth with each head nod in rhythm with the hind leg steps as the horse settles into relaxation of the jaw. Along with this relaxation, the horse may also begin to flop its ears with each head nod up and down.
This is something that doesn’t happen with trotting horses because the horse’s head and neck remain stationary in the trot. And when the trotting horse walks, it is too slow to produce the head nod that produces the same teeth clicking and ear flop seen in the flat walk and running walk.
Now, it is important to recognize the sounds: teeth clicking and the grinding of teeth are not the same things. In fact, they are on the opposite spectrum. If a horse is grinding their teeth, it is because the horse is tense and unhappy, not relaxed. The source for the grinding of teeth may be a tight fitting nose band, ill-fitting saddle or bit, or teeth that need to be looked at by a veterinarian or equine dentist.
In any case, the video below will provide the sound of teeth clicking as a result of relaxation and a happy mouth. (And yes, it is possible to train your naturally gaited horse to do a four-beat gait on a loose rein, barefoot, and in a mild snaffle bit.)
Video: Teeth Clicking Flat Walk in the Tennessee Walking Horse
If you show gaited dressage, you know that you’re only permitted to ride your test with one dressage whip. But, did you know that there are benefits to riding with two dressage whips while schooling your naturally gaited horse between shows?
If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “You can’t show that way, so why would you want to do that?”
Well, that was my reaction when Dominique Barbier presented the idea to me in a 1995 French dressage clinic. So I gave it a try.
Ultimately you’re training your horse to be light and responsive to your hand, seat and leg aids and each use of the whip is purely reinforcement for when the leg aid is ignored.
Recently at the last French dressage clinic I rode at with Fred Kappler, he encouraged schooling my horse with two whips as well as recent lessons with my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson.
Six reasons why riding with a dressage whip in each hand can improve your gaited dressage training:
Switching the whip from side-to-side each time you change rein can get cumbersome. If you ride with a whip in each hand, there is no switching back and forth.
When switching the whip from side-to-side with each change of rein, you can miss timely cueing moments.
By carrying a whip in both hands, you can cue the right side and the left side of the horse at the same time.
Riding with a whip in each hand helps the horse and rider learn straightness. One whip can be used on the inside of the bend to activate the inside hind leg in order to step deeper under the body, while the other can be used on the outside of the bend to keep the outside shoulder from popping out like a jack-knifed semi and help the horse stay straighter. This was one of my take-a-ways from Jennie Jackson at my last lesson. Teaching the horse straightness helps the rider establish a “feeling” of straightness more quickly. If you get accustomed to riding a crooked horse, crooked becomes the feeling of normal and it becomes more difficult to discern the feeling of straight.
Another reason for carrying a dressage whip in each hand, is that the horse can’t evade or learn to anticipate the whip when there is a whip that may be applied at any moment from either side. By training your horse with two whips, you’re teaching him muscle memory of a correct way of moving its body that when you’re in the show ring, that training can lead to greater chances for success.
Riding with a dressage whip in each hand is not meant to replace your leg aids. They are meant to reinforce them if needed. Ultimately you’re training your horse to be light and responsive to your hand, seat and leg aids and each whip is purely reinforcement for when a leg aid is ignored. If you’re schooling your horse well at home using two whips, your horse is learning to listen to your aids more and more so that your whip aids are needed less and less. This means that when you get to the show, the second whip won’t be missed.
I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to contact me with your gaited dressage questions by completing the contact form.
With deepest and heartfelt sympathy to Jennie Jackson, Nate, and their family in the sudden loss of their legendary naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse stallion: Champagne Watchout, who passed away on July 17, 2017 at the age of 24.
In the 1980s Jennie Jackson began applying and perfecting dressage methods of training to gaited horses. Then in 1998 she introduced dressage as a humane training alternative for Tennessee walking horses. She began to apply dressage training methods with her naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse stallion Champagne Watchout. The two defied the critics and rose through the levels of dressage [en gaite].
In 2006, Jennie and Champagne Watchout were the first duo in history to perform dressage en gaite at The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY. The duo demonstrated never-seen-before Prix St. George movements en gaite as piaffe, passage, half pass, Spanish walk, as well as canter pirouette, and tempe changes.
In 2010, Jennie and Champagne Watchout were formally invited to exhibit their dressage en gaite musical freestyle at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Champagne Watchout became the official Tennessee walking horse breed representative.
Video: Jennie Jackson and 16-year old Champagne Watchout performing their dressage en gaite musical freestyle at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games at Lexington Kentucky Horse Park in 2010
As a life-long student of dressage, I have always longed to achieve piaffe, passage, canter half pass, pirouette, and tempe changes with my trotting horses and now with my naturally gaited horses. In my opinion, Jennie Jackson and Champagne Watchout are naturally gaited dressage legends! They performed these difficult movements en gaite with ease—something many claimed was impossible for a gaited horse.
In addition to his striking looks and athletic moves, Champagne Watchout has a powerful, jaw-dropping, head-shaking, natural flat walk and running walk that turns heads at the rail class events. Champagne Watchout earned the right to compete in the 1999 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class. He was the first and ONLY naturally gaited flat shod entry competing among the traditional Big Lick horses.
Video: Champagne Watchout—First flat shod horse to compete at the 1999 TWHBEA World Grand Championship Tennessee Walking Horse Class
Encounters with the Golden One
I was fortunate to have met Champagne Watchout on two occasions. In 2015 I traveled to Tennessee to ride at a Jennie Jackson Dressage for the Gaited Horse Clinic and I got to meet this gentle, golden stallion. Even with his winter fuzzies, Champagne Watchout was a standout.
The next year, I returned to the South to ride with Jennie Jackson as a working student. While I was there I had the privilege of watching Jennie ride her barefoot, 22-year-old gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.
Back then Champagne Watchout was the ONLY Tennessee walking horse still living among those he had competed against in the 1999 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class.
I was privileged to watch Jennie ride Champagne Watchout at Amazing Gaits, piaffe and passage along the ocean coast, and dance to the music during the Marti Gras parade.
Champagne Watchout was the first horse eager to step into the wavy coastline and gave the rest of the Amazing Gait’s horses confidence. In no time all of us were flat walking in the ocean.
And through the Marti Gras parade at 22 years old Champagne Watchout still had all the moves!
We will never forget you, Champagne Watchout. You have inspired multitudes and left an amazing legacy that will live on.
Early years: Champagne Watchout at play and under saddle with Jennie Jackson
2012 Champagne Watchout with Jennie Jackson at the TWHBEA World Versatility Show
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!