How Dressage Improves Movement in the Naturally Gaited Horse
By Jennifer Klitzke
In 2007, I began searching for a smooth horse that would be easier on my aging body. That’s when I bought my first naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Makana, as a three-year-old filly.
I had been an avid dressage student of the trotting horse variety since 1988 and showed my Trakehner/thoroughbred gelding successfully through second level. I was familiar with the three distinct gaits he offered which were walk, trot, and canter.
Makana had these gaits, too—and a myriad of new gaits I needed to get a feel for and put cues to such as the flat walk, running walk, fox trot, and rack. She also came with a few gaits I needed to discourage: the pace, stepping pace, lateral canter and four-beat canter.
I thought a Tennessee walking horse was born to do a smooth flat walk and running walk! Well, yes, these gaits are natural and inherent, BUT I soon discovered that it was up to me to identify which gait was the one I had cued, help her maintain consecutive steps of it, and help her refine the quality of each gait.
Adding to this, dressage requires riding with an even contact. I knew that I needed to earn Makana’s trust with my hands in order for her to accept contact with the snaffle bit. Riding with even contact is a lot easier at a trot when the horse’s head and neck remain stationary. What about the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot? How do I maintain an even contact while the horse’s head and neck nod with each step?
These were the big questions I wrestled with as we began our gaited dressage journey. One thing I knew for sure is that dressage would teach Makana rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. I have found that these attributes improve the quality of movement in naturally gaited horses.
- By relaxing the horse’s mind, the horse was in a more trainable state of mind.
- By relaxing the jaw and back, pace can be replaced with a natural four-beat gait.
- With suppling exercises, the naturally gaited horse can develop a deeper stride beneath its body.
- By riding with even contact and connection from back to front, the naturally gaited horse can develop a consistent head nod in the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot.
Dressage also helps improve a rider’s balance, confidence, and riding position, as well as clarifies the rider’s use of aids in communicating with the horse which produces greater trust and harmony.
Most of all, naturally gaited horses flourish when ridden using dressage methods that build partnership, trust, and respect as compared with domination training methods or the use of severe bits, heavy shoes, chains, pads, artificial enhancements, and mechanical devices.
Over the years, it is clear that dressage has improved the quality of Makana’s gaits. Her medium walk, free walk, flat walk, and canter are well established now. We are still working on improving depth of stride in the running walk, and I know this will come with time.
Makana and the people we have met over the last ten years have introduced us to many new experiences that I never imaged we’d be doing, such as moving cows in team penning events and cow sorting leagues, enjoying the beauty of our State Parks by horseback which has led us to endurance rides, orientation events, and trail challenges, to riding in the snow, to giving stadium jumping a try. Dressage has been the common language through the versatility of experiences we are enjoying together!
Video: How dressage improves the movement of naturally gaited horses
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