Category Archives: Gaited Editorial

Upper Level Movements and the Naturally Gaited Horse

Piaffe in hand for the gaited horseBy Jennifer Klitzke

Should lower level horses wait to be schooled in shoulder in and rein back or is there a benefit to learning these exercises before Second Level? Is piaffe and passage only reserved for talented horses and riders (or only for horses that trot)? I think not, and here’s why. 

In 1996 I sat center line in the balcony at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna mezmorized watching the ivory Lipizzaner stallions being schooled in piaffe, passage, canter pirouettes, tempi changes, and airs above the ground. The dressage training pyramid of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection was made complete right before my very eyes. It was a life-long dream come true!

Since 1988 I’ve been an avid student of dressage and have longed to experience piaffe and passage with my horses. Yet these movements are reserved for Intermediate and Grand Prix Levels of dressage, and thus far I have only shown through Second Level. In my Grandma age I was beginning to wonder if I would ever reach these levels of training.

can-german-and-french-dressage-co-existThen in the last year I purchased the DVD Classical versus Classique with Christoph Hess and Philippe Karl. Hess represents the German National Federation and Karl represents French Classical Dressage. Their lively conversation illuminates the rather stark differences between German and French dressage and made me realize that showing dressage and training dressage don’t have to be the same thing. From this DVD, French dressage trainer Philippe Karl gives me hope because he believes that the upper level movements can be performed by any horse, not just the talented ones. And the rather average horse at the age of 12 shown in the DVD learned all of the movements through piaffe and passage by its rider within ONE YEAR under Karl’s instruction!

While the USDF tests and levels make perfect progressive sense for the show ring, and align with the dressage pyramid of training, I no longer believe horses in lower levels need to wait to be schooled in higher level movements such as shoulder in, rein back, counted walk and piaffe in hand. Nor do I believe that piaffe and passage are only reserved for talented horses and riders (or only for horses that trot)!

Intro, Training, and First Levels don’t introduce shoulder in at a walk, rein back, counted walk, or piaffe in hand, yet these exercises provide wonderful benefits to the horse in terms of balance, engagement, connection, straightness, collection, and communication between the horse and rider (as long as the horse is relaxed in its mind and jaw). This is true for both horses that trot or gait. Plus, these movements teach the rider the feeling of balance as the horse bends the hindquarter joints, engages the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and rise up more through the withers.

It’s a fact that few riders and horses ever achieve the highest levels of competition dressage, and the majority of dressage riders never reach Second Level. So why should our horses miss out on training in balance through the benefits of rein back, shoulder in, counted walk, and piaffe in hand while we school the lower levels?

I made this mistake—for years—as an amateur trainer while I was schooling the lower levels with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding. I only practiced the elements of the tests I was showing at. Since then, what I have realized is that this approach taught my horse rhythm, relaxation, and forwardness in a  long and low frame—on the forehand. Long and low is terrific, as long as it is in BALANCE. But balance wasn’t something I learned until I reached Second Level which was several years later.

If you are an amateur trainer like me, who has a full time career, family, and other obligations, plus the five-month-long Winter season and no indoor arena to stay in condition, it takes far longer to make training progress through the dressage levels. Consequently it took me several years to work my way through Second Level with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred and that’s when the tests introduced BALANCE demonstrated through shoulder in, rein back, and haunches in.

Sigh. So for several years, I had conditioned the muscle memory of my horse to carry himself on the forehand—with rhythm, relaxation, and forwardness. I had not developed the “feeling” of balance as a rider, because I had only performed the exercises the Level I was showing at called for.

For me, Second Level was like erasing the hard drive and starting over in our training. I had to learn the feeling of balance and retrain my horse from long and low on the forehand to engagement and connection in balance.

My horse and I would have been so much better off if I had introduced shoulder in, haunches in, and rein back while I was schooling the lower levels because of the balance these exercises produce. Plus, I would have learned the “feeling” of balance which would have helped me train my horse in the lower levels of long and low — in balance — instead of training my horse long and low onto the forehand. Remember, not all long and low is the same.

A few months ago, I purchased a DVD entitled Getting Started in Lightness: The French Classical Dressage of Francois Baucher as taught by Jean Claude Racinet presented by one of his students Lisa Maxwell. This DVD introduces rein back, shoulder in, introductory steps of piaffe, and other refreshing exercises such as the counted walk (something I had never heard of before but produces amazing results in balance: bending of the hindquarter joints, engagement of the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and lighten the forehand with a feeling of the withers rising up).

I immediately I noticed how light, happy, harmonious, engaged, relaxed (in mind and jaw), rhythmic, impulsive, and balanced Lisa’s horses are in this DVD. The horses aren’t fancy, just like my horses, yet they demonstrate some amazing transformations. So I began applying these exercises with all of the horses I ride—Intro through Second Level dressage.

While this DVD illustrates these exercises using trotting horses, I have seen remarkable improvement in balance, gait quality, and transitions with the naturally gaited horses I ride as a result of applying these exercises.

Progression of exercises: First I introduce leg yields along the fence. As soon as the horse understands the exercise, I introduce leg yields from the quarter line to the rail.

I do a lot of circle work with my horses beginning with a 20-meter circle and reducing the size as the horse is able to maintain balance, rhythm, relaxation (in mind and jaw), and softness in the mouth. I include true bends and counter bends on a circle.

As the horse can maintain balance in a 10-meter circle at a slow walk, I introduce to a few steps of shoulder in. After a 10-meter circle, I maintain the arc of the circle as I travel along the fence a few steps.

Over time I will increase the number of steps and increase the tempo from a slow walk to a medium walk as long as the horse remains in balance with relaxation, bending, impulsion, and rhythm. Then I will proceed with shoulder in at a flat walk or fox trot. I also do the shoulder in on a circle at a collected, medium walk and flat walk.

When the horse is forward in the mind and from the leg, I will introduce rein back and counted walk along the fence to help the horse remain straight. I only ask for a couple steps at a time in order to rebalance the horse. Then I begin teaching the piaffe in hand before asking for piaffe from the saddle.

Bottomline: I let the horse tell me what it needs vs. the level we are showing at. I introduce the next progression of exercises as the horse is able to maintain balance, relaxation in the mind and jaw, softness in the mouth, rhythm and forwardness.

canter-left canter-rightIn fact, the improved balance the rein back, shoulder in, and counted walk have established with my friend’s gaited horse, Lady, have built the balance needed to introduce canter to the right and left leads without chasing her into the canter.

Plus, Lady has developed a natural head nodding fox trot that is smoother than a Western jog! I feel that we have made dramatically greater training progress by introducing rein back, shoulder in, and counted walk than if we would have just continued traveling in 20-meter, long and low circles that the Intro Level calls for.

Naturally gaited and barefoot fox trot.
Naturally gaited and barefoot fox trot.


Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I knew in 1988 what I know now. At least I am becoming a rider with more awareness of the feeling of balance and believe I’m moving in a constructive training path of lightness, balance, harmony, and impulsion—especially in the lower levels. That’s not to say that I expect Grand Prix balance from an Intro Level horse; I just redirect the horse into the feeling of balance each time the horse leans on the bit or becomes heavy on the forehand and shoulders with exercises that improve balance, lightness, harmony, and impulsion. In any case, it transforms our training into more of an enjoyable dance.


Sore No More: Rehabilitating a Big Lick Horse with Dressage

Sore no More

By Jennifer Klitzke

Can dressage training rehabilitate a former Big Lick Tennessee walking horse? Can dressage transform a tense, high-headed and hollow-backed frame into a relaxed posture that builds the top line? Can dressage break up a hard pace into a natural four-beat gait without heavy shoes and pads? Can dressage mend a damaged mind to develop trust in a rider, accept a soft snaffle contact, and respond willingly to leg aids without exploding? Can humane training methods prolong the life of a Tennessee walking horse?

In January I had the opportunity to address these questions when I applied the grant awarded by the United States Humane Society “Now That’s a Walking Horse” program and flew to Theodore, Alabama to be Jennie Jackson’s working student at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center. Jennie is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse through the highest levels of dressage, and she, along with her husband Nate, have been on the front lines fighting against Big Lick soring and abuse for over 30 years.

While I was there I had the privilege of watching Jennie ride her barefoot, 21-year-old gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout in person! He is the ONLY Tennessee walking horse still living among those who he had competed against in the 1998 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class. He was also the only flat shod entry ridden in that class among Big Lick horses. Horses simply don’t live that long when subjected to the cruelty and abuse of soring.

Jennie and Watchout
Jennie Jackson riding piaffe en gaite with her barefoot, 21-year-old TWH gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.

My days with Jennie were filled with riding several Tennessee walking horses at various levels of training, flat walking the ocean coast, riding in a Dauphin Island Marti Gras parade, and being introduced to the challenges of retraining a rescued Big Lick horse.

Big Lick it’s something I’ve ever encountered in Minnesota. In fact, I didn’t even know what Big Lick or soring was when I bought my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) in 2007. It wasn’t until I began surfing YouTube for information about training a Tennessee walking horse when I stumbled upon Big Lick. After watching a few Big Lick videos, I wondered, “Is this how a Tennessee walking horse is suppose to move?”

To me, the Big Lick Tennessee walking horses are like a Picasso painting coming to life: exaggerated, disjointed, and unnatural. Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” While some people might think Big Lick is expressive and exciting to watch and ride, how the motion is achieved unveils a horrifying truth. The exaggerated Big Lick motion is produced by applying caustic agents to the horses’ front feet known as soring. Then heavy shoes, pads and chains are added. Horses are forced forward by the riders’ sharp spurs. With each step the chains slap against the horses’ sored feet. The horses’ pain reaction, propelled by the heavy shoes, are the real reasons why the horses lift their front legs as they do. To evade the pain, horses learn to shift most of their weight to the hindquarters which produces extreme engagement. Then the horses are ridden in harsh curb bits to restrain them from exploding. Torturous. Sadistic and unlawful. Yet Big Lick still exists.

I made a firm decision after watching a couple Big Lick videos that dressage is all my barefoot Tennessee walking horse was going to know. Then I began to support organizations like Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) who advocate against Big Lick soring and abuse, and I began to meet others like Jennie Jackson who teach and train dressage as applied to the gaited horse.

Thankfully my Tennessee walking horse has never experienced Big Lick. Makana was imprinted at birth, family raised and trained when I bought her in 2007 as a barefoot, just-turning-three-year-old filly. Natural and humane training methods are all she’s known—no rehab needed.

Not so for many Tennessee walking horses down South.

A few weeks before my trip, Jennie had acquired a lovely mare named Sweet Caroline who had sadly experienced “Big Lick” training trauma. Like many Big Lick Tennessee walking horses, Caroline was breed to pace where when heavy shoes and pads are added they would offset the pace into a four-beat sequence. For years, Carolyn had been driven forward with sharp spurs into a harsh curb bit which taught her to rush off in a tense, high-headed, hollow-backed frame. The soring scars on her front feet tell the rest of the story.

Now that Caroline is barefoot, could dressage break up her pace to develop a natural four-beat gait? Could dressage transform her tense, high-headed and hollow-back frame into a relaxed long and low posture? Could dressage help her develop trust with a rider, seek a snaffle bit contact, and accept leg cues without rushing?

If anyone could teach me, it would be Jennie who has been training naturally gaited Tennessee walking horses for decades using dressage. Jennie had been retraining Caroline for several weeks prior to my arrival, so she knew how to coach me as I rode this hot, tense, and sensitive mare.

Sweet Caroline and I
Jennie Jackson coached me on how to achieve relaxation and rhythm with a former Big Lick Tennessee walking horse using dressage. This horse is being ridden in a Happy Mouth Pelham bit which functions as a snaffle or a curb depending upon which reins are applied.

Relaxation and Rhythm
Dressage training produces relaxation and rhythm in any horse breed whether the horse trots or gaits. Jennie showed me a great exercise to establish relaxation by riding Caroline at a dog walk on a 20-meter circle and transition between a true to the inside of the circle (shoulder fore) and a bend to the outside of the circle (counter bend). This exercise helped her lower her head and neck down and out and break up the pacey steps into a four-beat walk.

The shoulder fore/counter bend exercise taught Caroline to step beneath and across her belly with her hind leg each time I applied my calf lightly at the girth. This engaged her abdominal muscles and lifted her back and lowered her head and neck. As I squeezed and released the inside rein softly, it unlocked the tension in her poll to look slightly to the inside of the circle. The opposite rein (the indirect rein) maintained a light contact against her neck to keep her from moving sideways. Then I’d squeeze and release the outside rein softly to unlock the tension in her poll to look slightly to the outside of the circle while applying my outside calf at the girth.  I clearly felt the “before” and “after” difference. Each time Caroline got tense, dropped her back, and rushed off in a pace, I felt like I was riding a stiff bumpy plank, but as soon as she relaxed into the bending exercise, she felt smooth and pliable.

Half Halts
When Caroline relaxed into the bending exercise at a dog walk, Jennie encouraged me to move her up into flat walk. That’s when she taught me the importance and effectiveness of half halts. Each time Caroline would rush or pace, I squeezed my fists together on the reins and at the same time stilled the motion of my hips and back. As soon as Caroline responded to the half halt by slowing down or breaking up the pace, I immediately relaxed my grip on the reins (without letting the reins slip through my fingers), lengthened my arms toward the bit, and resumed following her movement with my hip joints and lower back.

I got LOTS of practice with half halts and releases while riding Caroline. We’d have a few soft, round steps in rhythm and relaxation before she would try to rush off again. It takes a lot of patience and quiet repetition to rehabilitate a Big Lick horse like this.

riding along the lake
Riding up and down hills is a great way to build top line muscles and balance.

Cantering the Hillside
After Caroline and I became acquainted in the arena, Jennie tacked up and we rode along the scenic trail system at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center and to the lake where we schooled flat walk and canter along the hillside. This really helped Caroline engage from behind as she cantered up the hill and learned balance walking back down. I switched up the flat walk and canter each time I rode up the hill so that Caroline would listen to my cues instead of anticipate the gait.

In the short time I was there, I was delighted to witness how dressage could rehabilitate a horse damaged by Big Lick. Each day I rode Caroline, we had more prolonged moments of relaxation and rhythm. Her pace was being replaced with a natural four-beat gait. She was beginning to seek a snaffle bit contact instead of evading it, and we began to build a some trust.

I grew to love that spunky little mare, and returning home I felt good knowing that Sweet Caroline was in good hands with Jennie and that for the rest of her life she’d be sore no more.

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Can German and French Dressage Co-exist?

Can German and French dressage co-exist?

By Jennifer Klitzke

Is dressage a sport, an art form, or a training methodology between the horse and rider? Is dressage only for horses that trot or can dressage be applied to the naturally gaited horse to bring out its best possible movement? Is there a right way and a wrong way to “do” dressage? How about the training methods of dressage: Is there a good method and a bad method? How about the expressions of dressage: competition dressage, dressage as an art form, or dressage as a means of developing the best natural movement while developing rider position and effective use of aids to build a solid partnership between the horse and rider whether the horse trots or gaits?

In my opinion, there are many shades of gray between the blacks and whites, and within the shades of gray is a color pallet that transcends dressage methodology and expression to enhance one’s dressage experience. Yet, one must become educated to become discerning.

In its essence, dressage is a French term for the training of the horse and rider. Since this term was coined, dressage training has taken two distinct forms: the French method and the German method. And from each method are expressions of dressage: Competition dressage and dressage as an art form. 

Much of the focus of German dressage is Grand Prix competition with lots of performance pressures added to it. The horse and rider are expected to demonstrate movements precisely at the letter while performing a test before a judge(s) for a score. Dressage for competition systematically develops the horse and rider through levels (Intro to Grand Prix) by applying the dressage training pyramid: rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, collection and rider position and effective use of aids.

In contrast, the French dressage method is more about preserving a classical art form—to develop a harmonious partnership with the horse as it develops relaxation (in mind and body), balance, lightness (softness), forwardness, straightness, and collection. Without the pressures of competition, dressage becomes more like beginning every ride with a blank canvas and paint brush to see what art is expressed through the ride.

German dressage and French dressage are entirely different perspectives and applications of riding dressage and these differences are so well articulated in the DVD: Classical vs. Classique. This DVD features Christoph Hess, German Equestrian Federation Trainer and Philippe Karl, French Dressage Master as they discuss and demonstrate dressage from their philosophical view points.

Coming from twelve years of German-based dressage lessons, and in recent years, lessons and study in the French philosophy, it makes me wonder: Can German and French dressage can co-exist? Is it possible to apply best practices of each into my riding for the betterment of the horse?

This contrast brought me back to 1995 after taking 12 years of German-based dressage lessons for which gave me a great foundation to compare the French training method.

In the late 1980s-1990s, German dressage is all that was taught in my area until a nearby stable hosted several clinics with Dominique Barbier, a French dressage instructor, trainer, and author of Dressage for the New Age. Even though I felt like a traitor to my German roots, I was intrigued by the French concept of “lightness.” It was quite a contrast from that of driving my horse into the bridle with my seat and legs for which I was accustomed.

1995 Dominique Barbier Clinic
Dominique Barbier works my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding in hand.

After auditing a couple of Dominique’s clinics, I brought my Trakehner/ Thoroughbred gelding to the next few. I loved the respect, joy, and harmony he had with horses which replaced the mechanical, precise, and demanding form my riding had taken. During the clinic, Dominique played flamenco and classical music which transformed our learning into a dance studio with our horses.

I faced a cross roads in my riding.

The German and French philosophies were so different. Could they co-exist? Would it be possible to take best practices from each and discard the extremes? Could I preserve lightness and drive my horse less? Could I set a goal of excellence without demanding it and be happy with every effort my horse offered even if it wasn’t perfect? Would I be willing to seek, listen to, and consider my horse’s needs instead of only fulfilling my competition ambitions? Would I be okay with retiring from competition if my horse’s heart was no longer in it?

I continued taking lessons with my German instructor for a couple more years and showed my gelding through second level dressage until he told me it was time to retire. Then I dropped out of the show scene.

Naturally Gaited DressageSixteen years later, I’m back showing dressage—only I didn’t anticipate that I’d be riding a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse that didn’t trot!


Combining or Separating the Aids
The DVD Classical vs. Classique illuminates many differences between German and French dressage methods. On one extreme, the German philosophy teaches the rider to drive the horse with the seat and legs to push the horse forward into a bit connection. To the French, this theory is like saying, “Go forward with the legs and seat, and stop with the hands at the same time,” like driving your car with one foot on the break and the other on the gas pedal.

In contrast, the French method separates the leg, seat, and hand aids and maintains little to no contact with the bridle once the horse has learned to find its balance. To the German, this theory doesn’t teach the horse connection and throughness from hindquarters through the back to the bit.

On the Bit
The interpretation of “on the bit” is another contrast. The German philosophy views “on the bit” as a vertical frame (as shown in the upper left piaffe silhouette). The French philosophy believes that “on the bit” should be slightly ahead of the vertical, as not to compress the tongue, which Karl believes causes pain. The poll should be the highest point of the horse (as shown in the top right piaffe silhouette).

A Quiet Mouth or Active Mouth
The German philosophy prizes a quiet mouth and uses crank and flash nose bands to keep the horse’s mouth shut. The French philosophy permits the horse to express itself by opening its mouth and believes that the mobility of the lower jaw is the best judge of relaxation.

Upper Level for only the Talented Horses or for All
Another contrast is that the German philosophy believes that not all horses are able to achieve piaffe and passage, while the French believe that good dressage is able to teach all horses piaffe and passage—not just the talented ones.

In the DVD, the German demonstration rider rode an exceptionally talented Grand Prix dressage horse (top left) while the French dressage rider rode an ordinary horse (top right) which she trained through Grand Prix movements within a one year time span under the coaching of Philippe Karl.

Can German and French dressage co-exist?
Watching this DVD provoked the same question I had in 1995: Can German and French dressage co-exist? In each extreme, I believe the answer is a resounding “No.” However, I feel that there are great benefits that can be extracted from both and combined for the betterment of the horse and rider—particularly as it relates to the gaited dressage horse.

I believe that some of the French methods can be brought into competition dressage to make for a happier horse and build greater partnership between horse and rider, and that competition dressage (schooling shows) can propel us home hackers to advance our training into canter, counter canter, shoulder-in and haunches-in, as well as challenge us to improve in our riding position and effective use of aids.

Below are seven takeaways where German and French dressage can co-exist for the naturally gaited horse:

1. Dressage is for all horses (including naturally gaited horses), not just the talented ones. While dressage will never make an ordinary horse a Grand Prix mover, dressage training will bring out the best quality natural gaits the horse is able to perform whether it trots, tolts, fox trots, or flat walks.

2. School dressage for fun and show dressage for growth. While it is true that dressage training does not require showing dressage, I have found that showing at schooling dressage shows offer a low-key opportunity to introduce my naturally gaited horse to the show ring and get feedback from a professional on where we are at in our training. Riding through a couple of gaited dressage tests forces me to school my horse evenly in both directions and face the hard stuff I’d rather avoid if I weren’t riding a test, such as counter canter to the left or shoulder in at a flat walk. Dressage tests challenge me and my horse to keep learning and growing.

3. Riding “on-the-bit”: Riding on-the-bit is far more than hands affecting headset. It begins from engaging the hindquarters with forward energy and engaging the abdominals which lift the back to a neutral position for the gaited horse. The engaged hindquarters take on more carrying power as the horse steps deeper under its body and lightens the forehand and the energy flows through back and neck to the bit. Adding French theory to this, the rider doesn’t pull the reins back thus compressing the horse’s tongue, rather the rider lifts the hand or hands upward momentarily to affect the corners (lips) of the horse’s mouth to soften the jaw.

I think that the naturally gaited head shaking horse needs to be ridden slightly ahead of the vertical through the top of the nod to be vertical at the downside of the nod so that the tongue doesn’t get compressed. In doing so the poll will remain the highest point of the horse.

4. Bridles and proper fit that promote relaxation: “The mobility of the lower jaw is the best judge of relaxation,” says Philippe Karl. The horse needs to be ridden in a loose nose band and permitted to chew the bit for relaxation purposes.

Crank nose bands with flash attachments confine the horse and make it hard for them to relax. Symptoms of tension include grinding teeth, swishing tail, pinning ears, and rushing tempo which leads to the horse getting too heavy on shoulders and the forehand.

5. Make a practice to begin every ride at a balanced walk before progressing to gait. “The walk is the mother of all gaits,” says Karl. I believe this is especially true for horses with natural four beat gaits. This DVD offers wonderful exercises that work for all horses including the gaited horse. After I develop relaxation in the horse both mentally and physically, I establish balance by riding transitions of eight meter collected walk circles, changes of directions, adding shoulder in, shoulder out, haunches in, haunches out, with balanced long and low stretch breaks in between before proceeding to the flat walk and canter work. Riding a horse like playing an accordion works the horse’s full range of motion both laterally and longitudinally.

6. Seeking to understand and meet the horse’s needs. The days of riding my horse in a mechanical way in order to meet my agenda are long gone thanks to Dominque who introduced me to riding with a respect for the horse’s needs. Philippe Karl illustrates this point well throughout the DVD.

7. Separation of the “stop” and “go” aids. Above all, the separation of the aids is probably the number one biggest difference between the German and French dressage applications, and for me the hardest one to change.  Driving my horse forward with my seat and leg aids simultaneously and continually into the bridle has been so engrained in my riding. I believe it has much to do with my mare’s apprehensiveness to go forward, falling onto the shoulders and forehand, and getting too deep in the bridle. Each time I remember to separate my leg aids from my rein aids—just for a millisecond—my horse becomes lighter, more forward, more relaxed, and more balanced.

While there are many staggering differences between the German and French dressage philosophies, I believe there is great value in studying both and becoming a discerning student as to what you’d like to take into your riding repertoire as it relates to the naturally gaited horse.

I highly recommend purchasing a copy of Classical vs. Classique for your library. It it offers in-depth discussion and application to both the French and German dressage philosophies of training.

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The Critical Student

the critical student

By Jennifer Klitzke

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.


A Trusted Leader

A Trusted Leader

By Jennifer Klitzke

“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.