By Jennifer Klitzke
I’ve been a horse-crazy dressage rider for nearly 30 years. In 2007, my aching back gave up that bouncy sitting trot, and I bought Gift of Freedom (Makana), my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. SMOOTH was all I had in mind. I wanted to ride a horse that would be easier on my aging body.
In fact, showing dressage wasn’t even a considered when I looked at Makana, because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot. But dressage had been the only riding style I knew, so that’s what became our training language.
I love dressage because of the connection and harmony it brings between me and my horse. I love the relaxation, rhythm, balance, and impulsion it creates. I love how natural and humane it is as a training method. Connection, harmony, relaxation, rhythm, balance, and impulsion works for all horses whether they trot or gait. Plus, I love how dressage challenges me to become a better rider and communicator to my horse through the use of my aids.
I live on a rural hobby farm with few dressage instructors nearby, so I’ve began coasting on the knowledge I had gained from 12 years of traditional dressage lessons.
Then I joined a local TWH association and began attending clinics whenever gaited dressage instructors traveled to Minnesota and Wisconsin. I learned from people like Jennie Jackson, Larry Whitesell, Jennifer Bauer, and Bucky Sparks.
Makana has been barefoot for as long as I’ve owned her, and so are the other horses at my farm. A few years ago I began to study natural barefoot trimming and the importance of a low carbohydrate diet. I keep all of my horses trimmed on a regular basis. My husband likes the cost savings, but I like the natural and holistic approach to hoof care. Trimming hooves is pretty good exercise, too!
Meanwhile, through the Tennessee walking horse association, I learned that down South some Tennessee walking horses are shod with heavy shoes, thick pads, and chains. Caustic substances are applied to their front feet to intentionally make them sore. All this is done to accentuate their movement in what is known as the “Big Lick.” This isn’t dressage, nor is it natural or humane. In fact, it is illegal to sore horses this way. Yet still goes on because it is hard to enforce.
Then I became introduced to FOSH (Friends of Sound Horses) and the NWHA (National Walking Horse Association). FOSH is on the front lines fighting against soring and abuse, and both organizations are firm supporters of natural and humane training methods.
In 2010, three years after Makana and I had began my backyard gaited dressage journey, I learned of a tradition schooling dressage show only 10 miles away. I contacted the show manager and asked if I could ride my Tennessee walking horse and replace trot with flat walk. The show manager agreed. Little did I know that the NWHA had already written tests which did exactly that.
Getting to the show that day, I wondered if fellow competitors would laugh at me for entering a horse that didn’t trot, but I didn’t care. I was curious what a trained dressage professional would have to say as to where we were at in our training in regards to rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, balance, and harmony. The feedback we received was meaningful, challenging, and affirming. It gave us something to work toward.
Through conversations with trotting horse riders, I was introduced to women who also owned gaited horses they rode on the trail. Up until that point, riding their gaited horses using dressage methods had not occurred to them. A couple of the women invited me to their next trail ride. I was thrilled to have someone to ride with.
During that first show, I learned of another schooling dressage show which offered gaited dressage entries using the FOSH tests. Then I learned that the NWHA had worked with the USDF to replicate dressage tests using flat walk in place of trot.
Well, five years and fifty-five gaited dressage tests later, I’ve gotten over being the odd-ball at the traditional dressage schooling shows, because of the people we’ve met along the way. Makana and I get to present a natural and humane alternative to the soring and abuse people hear about in the TWH industry. They get to see firsthand how dressage brings about rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, collection, harmony, and balance in a horse that doesn’t trot.
In 2015, Makana and I showed at five USDF open schooling shows as the only gaited horse among the trotting horses and rode 10 NWHA tests.
2015 Gaited Dressage Show Record
May 2, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Jodi Ely
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 68.2%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 70.4%
May 9, 2015
Arbor Hill Schooling Dressage Show
Judge: Molly Schiltgen
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 67.27%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.56%
May 30, 2015
Northwoods Schooling Dressage Show
Judge: Colleen Holden
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.926%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 70.294%
August 2, 2015
Carriage House Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Judge: Jennie Zimmerman
NWHA First Level Test 1: 64.07%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 62.06%
August 15, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Nancy Porter
NWHA First Level Test 1: 66.5%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 63.9%
“This accomplishment demonstrates the commitment, consistency and communication of partnership.” —Dianne Little
With our 2015 dressage scores, my naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse mare, Gift of Freedom, has been named the 2015 NWHA Gaited Dressage National Champion at First Level, 2015 FOSH Gaited Dressage National Champion at First Level and 2015 FOSH Gaited Dressage National Champion at Training Level.
Dianne Little, FOSH Gaited Dressage Program Director writes, “You are to be congratulated for riding eight tests at First Level with all scores over 62%. Of these eight tests, four scores were over 65%. This accomplishment demonstrates the commitment, consistency and communication of partnership.”
What will 2016 hold for us?
Whether we continue riding english gaited dressage or give western gaited dressage a try, we just want to keep encouraging people to recognize that dressage is for gaited horses, too, and it is a wonderful humane and natural alternative to soring and abuse.