Category Archives: Rider Position

Learning from the Trotters

Paul Belasik dressage clinic
International clinician Paul Belasik coaches a Grand Prix horse and rider in a canter exercise to strengthen the horse in preparation for canter pirouettes.

By Jennifer Klitzke

I learn so much from auditing traditional dressage clinics. Even though the horses at these clinics are trotting instead of flat walking, racking, or fox trotting, it doesn’t matter to me, because I see far more commonalities between traditional dressage and gaited dressage than differences. Among these commonalities are rider position and effective use of aids; developing relaxation, rhythm, balance and engagement in the horse; and developing trust, partnership and harmony between the rider and horse.

Central States Dressage and Eventing Association, of which I have been a member on and off for decades, sponsored a dressage clinic at the  Leatherdale Equestrian Center in St. Paul, MN on November 21-22, 2015 with international FEI rider, trainer, and author Paul Belasik.  This was my chance to see Grand Prix horses and riders being coached in real time through piaffe, passage, half pass, canter pirouettes, and tempe changes. What a treat to witness this level of dressage—LIVE.

I soaked in many wonderful exercises that will help my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana and I improve our balance, rhythm, relaxation, impulsion, and straightness in our gaited dressage.

Among the many take-a-ways include establishing balance through transitions. Depending upon where the horse is at in its training dictates the level of difficulty in the transitions being applied. For Makana and I, we will work on walk-halt-walk, gait-walk-gait, gait-halt-gait, canter-walk-canter, and add in a few steps of slow, soft, round, and relaxed rein back as needed to increase engagement in the hindquarters and through the back. Maybe next year Makana will have the strength and balance to tackle canter-halt-canter transitions.

In any case, these transitions, especially when rein back is added, are terrific ways to improve balance in the horse while maintaining a light contact. The transitions rock my horse back onto  her haunches, engage her abdominal muscles to lift and strengthen her back, and create an uphill feeling like her withers are rising up in front of my seat.

Mr. Belasik also coached students in establishing a more effective riding position. He pointed out the importance of maintaining a thigh connection with the saddle and to keep the heels beneath the rider’s hips. He outlined the importance of riding from the core which includes drawing the shoulder blades back and down. This flattens the rider’s back and keeps the rider’s elbows at their side for a more powerful and stable riding position—especially helpful for rider’s with horse that lean on the bit or suddenly try to pull the reins out of the rider’s hands.

Mr. Belasik also coached a couple riders who were newer to dressage. He explained the importance of establishing and maintaining a consistent light connection with the bridle that the horse can rely on and reach forward into. Each time a rider allowed the reins to slip through their fingers and flop, it broke the connection where horse seemed directionless. It’s rhythm changed, it’s frame changed, and the horse and rider were no longer in harmony. As soon as the rider re-established and maintained a consistent connection, the horse maintained a steady, forward rhythm, and sought out that connection, where the two became one again.

Much of what Paul Belasik taught affirmed much of my recent DVD studies in classical French dressage. These affirmations include the importance of the horse being relaxed in the poll and jaw, riding the horse in balance, engaged from behind, lifting its back, rising up in the wither, not leaning on the bridle or dropping its weight onto the shoulders, riding many transitions to improve balance, making sure that the poll is the highest point of the horse, and not riding the horse behind the vertical.

Paul Belasik dressage clinic
International clinician Paul Belasik is shown assisting a Grand Prix rider by cueing the horse to step deeper under itself, lowering its hindquarters, lifting its withers, and rounding its back in piaffe.

Even though I wasn’t the one riding in the clinic, I learned so much as an auditor. It feels good to know that Makana and I are on the right path to improving balance, rhythm, relaxation, impulsion, and harmony.

To learn more about Paul Belasik’s clinic schedule, his books and videos, visit Paul


Dressage is more than Trot

dressage is more than trot

By Jennifer Klitzke

Some owners of gaited horses believe that dressage will make their gaited horse trot while some traditional dressage riders believe that dressage is only for horses that trot.

Dressage is a French term for the training of horse and rider. Whether you ride english or western; whether your horse trots or gaits, it doesn’t matter. As long as you seek to improve rhythm, relaxation, balance, connection and engagement with your horse and grow in knowledge and application of rider position and effective use of aids, you’re right in line with the foundational principles of dressage. Dressage training will bring out the best natural movement in your horse whether it trots or gaits.

Remember…dressage is more than trot…and the saddle you ride in.


Video: Riding through Distractions

Riding through Distractions

By Jennifer Klitzke

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.

Video: Riding through Distractions


Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Balance

Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Balance

By Jennifer Klitzke

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.


Video: Gaited Dressage: Second Thoughts about Long and Low


freewalk on a long rein

By Jennifer Klitzke

Next to “how do I get my horse to gait?” is another common question I hear gaited horse owners ask: “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” This question comes up at every gaited dressage and gaited horsemanship clinic I’ve attended. Among the use of ground rails and transitions, every clinician I’ve heard agrees that working your gaited horse in a long and low position is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow and stiff-backed pace into a relaxed, smooth, four-beat gait.

In dressage terms, long and low is called freewalk on a long rein. It is required in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced—and it is the way riders are asked to leave the arena after the final halt and salute.

Freewalk on a long rein is more than just allowing the horse a long rein to stretch its head and neck out and down. The freewalk has great purpose: it stretches and strengthens the top line muscles, it develops rhythm and depth of stride as the horse reaches beneath its body with its hind leg and over tracks the fore footprint, and the lowered head and neck position stimulates endorphins to relax the horse. The freewalk is a great way to begin and end every ride with a couple stretch breaks in between—as long as the horse is in balance.

Recently I’ve had the great privilege of auditing two great clinicians who came to my region: International riding bio-mechanics coach Mary Wanless and Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz. Both clinicians challenged riders to not only become aware of riding in a balanced position, but to become aware of the horse’s balance so that they are more proactive in maintaining it. While both clinics taught riders of trotting horses, the principles of rider position and balance certainly apply to gaited horses.

Heather explained the feeling of a horse’s balance in this metaphor. While riding, imagine if your horse had a medicine ball which freely moves around its insides. Where does the weight of the medicine ball feel like is rests most? Does it feel like it rests in the horse’s chest or beneath your seat? The former indicates that the horse is more on the forehand and the latter indicates that the horse is more in balance with the rider.

Thinking about this, what if I were to release my horse into a long and low frame while her balance is on the forehand? What quality of freewalk would we produce? Likely my horse would begin pulling herself forward with her front legs, and her hind legs would be trailing behind instead of stepping deep beneath her body and creating over track with the fore hoof prints.

Now that I’ve become aware of how it feels when my horse is in and out of balance, it is important to correct her balance BEFORE releasing the reins for freewalk on a long rein.

Heather’s metaphor has really helped me discover the feeling of balance and what to do about it when I lose it. Each time it feels like the medicine ball rolls into my horse’s chest, I begin with a half halt or transition from walk to halt to walk. If the medicine ball still feels like it is in my horse’s chest, then I transition from walk to halt, take a couple steps of rein back until I feel the medicine ball roll beneath my seat, and that’s when I allow my horse to take the reins long and low for a freewalk and feel her hind legs step deeply beneath her body like pictured above.

Freewalk on a long rein is a great way to break up pace for a smooth, four-beat gait. It also improves depth of stride, rhythm and relaxation. Just remember to establish balance before releasing the reins to maximize your efforts.

Video: A Balanced Freewalk on a Long Rein