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
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.
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.
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.
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 I 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 hermovement 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.
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.
Have you ever dreamed about riding along the ocean coast? It’s been a dream of mine, and it came true—but there was a catch. I had to ride in a Marti Gras parade on a horse that had never been in one.
In January I had a week free before beginning my new job and learned that Jennie Jackson was training at Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center near Mobile, Alabama. So I took a spontaneous four-day trip South to briefly escape the arctic blast.
“Make sure you stay through Saturday,” Jennie said, “so that you can ride the ocean coast and in the Dauphin Island Marti Gras parade.”
Ocean coast? Wow! Not only would I be Jennie’s working student and ride several Tennessee walking horses at various stages of training each day, but I would be riding the ocean coast—a dream come true!
I didn’t realize how special this opportunity was until I arrived. Dauphin Island only allows horses on the beach once a year and that’s only for horses that are trailered in for their Marti Gras parade.
Speaking of Marti Gras, Like most people, I thought Marti Gras was an annual event exclusive to New Orleans. Turns out Marti Gras originated in Mobile, Alabama and is celebrated for several weeks throughout the South until Lent begins.
On the third day of riding with Jennie, I met Abbie, a six-year-old Tennessee walking horse mare who reminded me of my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. Abbie would be the horse I’d ride on the beach and in the parade. Neither she nor I had ever ridden the ocean coast or in a parade, so I did my best to establish trust and team work.
Abbie and I took a nice trail ride with one of the boarders while Jennie taught lessons. We rode up and down hills, alongside a beautiful aqua marine lake with rust colored sand, through the woods, over felled trees, and through creeks. Back at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, Abbie and I negotiated their extensive trail obstacle course . I felt like we had connected well.
The next morning a group of us trailered to Dauphin Island through the grey skies and rain. Thankfully the sun broke through the clouds for our beach ride and parade.
The first one in the ocean was Jennie Jackson and her famous stallion Champagne Watchout. He LOVES the water and gave the rest of the horses confidence to step into the wavy shoreline. In no time we were flat walking the ocean coast. It wasn’t as romantic as I had pictured in my mind—galloping carefree through the water in a long flowing gown—but it was FUN!
Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center fosters a community of wonderful people who enjoy a variety of disciplines with their gaited horses: dressage, trail riding, competitive trail obstacles, jumping and cross country, parades, mounted patrol, and more.
After our beach ride, our group dressed up in purple, green and gold, adorned in beads, and rode four miles along the city streets to the beginning of the parade route.
Thanks to Abbie and the great group of people from Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, I not only rode on the ocean coast, but I also rode eight miles through cheering crowds, horns, loud music and flying beads and couldn’t stop smiling the entire time!
There’s no better way to capture “the feeling of right” than by riding a gaited dressage school master under the coaching of a seasoned gaited dressage legend: Jennie Jackson.
I just got back from my third Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse Clinic with Jennie Jackson, but this time I flew to Tennessee. As much as I wanted to ride my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana, I couldn’t squeeze her in my luggage! Words cannot express my gratitude to Ronance for her generosity in lending to me her exquisite naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse gelding Outrageous who became my second level school master for the three-day clinic. He was like riding a Rolls-Royce!
Outrageous is an organically gaited son of the famous gaited dressage stallion Champaign Watchout. I say “organically gaited” because he is ridden barefoot and trained without the use of chains, pads, soring, harsh bits, or artificial gimmicks. He is bonafide USDA approved!
Riding a school master is a terrific way to get established in “the feeling of right.” With Jennie’s coaching, Outrageous answered the many questions I have had training Makana in gaited dressage. He clarified the feelings between medium walk, flat walk, and running walk; the feeling of a correct response when applying my rein, seat, and leg aids for leg yield, shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass in flat walk; how to discern the feeling of stiffness within the horse’s body and resolving that stiffness through suppling exercises; the feeling of horse and rider balance; the feeling of riding on a relaxed and round back with deep stride beneath my seat.
Jennie also coached me through the positioning of “on-the-bit” as it relates to the head shaking horse while maximizing depth of stride; she helped me negotiated which of my body parts remain still and which ones follow the horse’s motion to allow the horse to move freely forward; she coached me through the application, timing, and release of aids for lateral suppling exercises; and gave me effective tools in how to regain trusted leadership whenever Outrageous became distracted or tense when away from home with a stranger he didn’t know. All of this learning will help me so much when I get back home to Makana.
The clinic was held at White Stables in Vonore, Tennessee and featured riders as young as 12 on up with a mix of gaited and trotting horses of various levels of training from green broke to well established in dressage.
In fact, one of the students, Beatrice came to the clinic with her fiance’s three-year-old black Tennessee walking horse filly. She has been a long-time dressage rider of trotting horses and brought her fiance’s gaited horse to the clinic to get feedback from Jennie about which gait the horse was performing beneath her.
This took me back to April of 2007 when I purchased my black gaited filly as a three-year-old and I asked the very same questions. (I only wish that Jennie lived in my State so that I could take regular lessons!)
By the second lessons Beatrice had her filly performing a smooth gaited rack, flat walk, and canter and leading our trail ride on the final clinic day!
A huge thanks to Jennie Jackson for imparting more knowledge and experience to me as Makana and I tackle the new gaited dressage tests this year. There are no words to describe how honored I am to learn from the only person in history who has trained and shown a naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse through the highest levels of dressage and who is willing to share her knowledge with anyone willing to learn.
Now that I’m back to snowy Minnesota, I can’t wait to try out all I’ve learned with my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. (Come to think of it, she’s organically gaited, too!)
Special thanks to White Stables who hosted the clinic. What a terrific place to ride—situated on 135 acres of wooded trails which we experienced on our last day of the clinic. Plus a wonderful group of people to ride with!