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Tribute to a Legend: Champagne Watchout

Tribute to a Legend Champagne Watchout

By Jennifer Klitzke

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].

spanish walk
Jennie Jackson and Champagne Watchout performing the Spanish Walk.

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.

Champagne Watchout at Alltech
Jennie Jackson and Champagne Watchout performing at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

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

Champagne WatchoutI 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.

Jennie and Watchout
Jennie Jackson riding her gaited dressage stallion Champagne Watchout.

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.

Jennie and Watchout
How long do you think the beads will last on this head shaking stallion? Champagne Watchout and Jennie Jackson enjoyed throwing beads to the Marti Gras parade patrons.

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


Quality Step to Quality Steps

quality step to quality steps

By Jennifer Klitzke

Do you have a naturally gaited horse and wonder why it doesn’t have a consistently smooth natural gait?

Lots of people buy a gaited horse thinking that they automatically gait. While they are all born with the ability to perform naturally smooth gaits, it takes time to develop those gaits through consistent training to ingrain muscle memory. Over time the horse can develop balance, rhythm, relaxation, impulsion, and strength to carry a rider in a smooth natural four-beat or easy gait.

Developing a consistently smooth natural gait requires a rider who also has developed the sense of “feel” in order to discern the difference between a quality step from an unbalanced, rushed, hollow, or disengaged step.

Not there yet? No worries! This is why, after 30 years of perusing education, I continue to take lessons, attend clinics, study DVDs, read books, and video record my rides for feedback. This helps me so that I don’t slip back into bad habits and so that I can become a more effective rider and better communicator and trainer with my horse.

In this video I share what I’ve learned about developing quality gaits —one step at a time.

This is very important: Don’t practice poor quality steps, because that’s the muscle memory you’ll create.

When the horse loses rhythm, becomes unbalanced, rushes, hollows or becomes disengaged, that’s a great cue to simply transition down to a slower gait and establish quality steps.

When you’ve re-established quality steps, then transition to the next level of tempo and refine a quality step to quality steps.

Over time, steps will turn into circles and then seconds into minutes for a longer duration of smooth gaiting time.

Video: Quality Step to Quality Steps

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Breaking Pace & Cross Canter Using Trot & Ground Rails

Breaking Pace & Cross Canter Using Trot & Ground Rails

Breaking Pace & Cross Canter Using Trot & Ground Rails

By Jennifer Klitzke

Most owners of gaited horse who have a pacey horse or a horse that cross canters don’t refine the pace and cross canter, they work to break up the lateral gait for a four-beat gait and true canter.

My gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson taught me that the pace and the cross canter are lateral movements while the trot and true canter are diagonal movements. Using trot over one or two ground rails can help break up the lateral movement for a more diagonal movement.

For the pacey horse, one or two ground rails can help break up the pace and help the horse learn to trot. One ground rail can help correct cross canter any time the hind legs are traveling in the wrong lead. When the horse hops over the ground rail they often correct the hind legs to the true lead.

For me, the most important aspects of this exercise is to establish:

  • Introduce the rails and lunge whip so the horse isn’t afraid of them.
  • Encourage the horse to find relaxation, balance, rhythm and impulsion at the walk, trot, and canter. If the horse gets tense or loses its balance, bring the horse down to a walk or trot and start over.
  • Teach the walk, trot and canter on cue and in a quality way of going to build the correct muscles. Don’t let the horse decide its gait, blast off into tension, or travel continually in a hollow ewe neck frame. Seek to teach gaits that build the top line muscles, encourage a deeper stride under the body, are balanced, and a develop a relaxed rhythm.

Video: Breaking Pace & Cross Canter Using Trot & Ground Rails

I hope you find this video helpful. Please let me know your thoughts by completing the contact form.

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Misconceptions of Gaited Dressage

By Jennifer Klitzke

When people watch a gaited horse performing a dressage test, I wonder if they expect to see the show gait movement of a rail class? And if so, I wonder if they think that dressage training has permanently altered the horse’s gait? Could the expression of show gait or gait executed during a dressage test be as simple as flipping the switch of rider aids?

I’ve heard a few misconceptions of gaited dressage over the years: Dressage will make a gaited horse trot; cantering or trotting a gaited horse will ruin its natural four beat gait; and dressage will destroy a gaited horse’s show gait.

Where do this misconceptions come from? Maybe people see a gaited dressage test performed and don’t see show gait. Then the horse moves up the dressage training pyramid to higher levels of collection and the movement looks even more foreign. Maybe people think that dressage tests are evaluated by the same criteria as that of rail class. Maybe they know people who show at recognized dressage shows and believe that showing dressage is only for horses that trot. Maybe people have watched upper level dressage tests where the horses are performing in collection and engagement and strides are shortened, and they believe that dressage permanently alters the length of stride.

I have really good news! First of all, dressage training and showing dressage are not the same thing. You can train your gaited horse using dressage methods and never show at a dressage competition.

Second of all, dressage tests and rail class shows are judged by different criteria. Rail class movement ridden on a straight line and dressage movements ridden on a perpetual bend are like comparing apples and oranges.

Competition dressage offers many levels and tests from Introductory two-gait tests to upper level three-gait tests in line with the Pyramid of Training. The latter demanding higher levels of collection and engagement from the horse. Schooling dressage shows are often open to Western dressage and gaited dressage entries.

Dressage Training PyramidIn a dressage test, gait quality is only one aspect of the test score, and that includes the variations of walks, gaits, and canters. A dressage test also evaluates how well the rider helps the horse execute 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, lightness of the forehand) as they move through a series of required gaits, transitions, and movements precisely on the letter. Harmony and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and the rider’s use of leg, seat and rein aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.

Rail class awards big strides and exaggerated head nods. In order for the horse to achieve this, the horse needs to be positioned in a frame where the hind leg trails behind the tail and pushes from behind for maximum length of stride while the other hind leg steps deep under the body to pull the horse along. This frame positions the horse in a neutral to hollow back and flat croup where the push and pull of the hind legs activate the head and neck nod with each step.

Jennifer Klitzke riding Gift of Freedom at the flat walk
In rail class, maximum hind leg stride length is prized with a head and neck nod in each step. The horse’s croup is level and the horse pushes and thrusts with each step. One hind leg steps backward trailing behind the tail to pushes while the other leg steps deep beneath the body to pull for maximum stride length.

While a horse ridden in rail class predominantly rides straight lines along the rail, dressage tests utilize circles, lateral exercises, and changes of bend with the goal of producing soft, round, relaxed, engaged, and balanced movements. The cues and riding position needed for dressage require the rider’s use of leg, seat, and rein aids with the concept of “inside leg to the outside rein” to connect and channel the energy from the hindquarters through the body to a soft and round acceptance of the bit with even contact.

While show gait movement may be achievable at lower levels of dressage, it becomes bio-mechanically impossible at the higher levels that require collection and engagement to perform lateral movements and small circles.

Collected and engaged
Collection and engagement place the horse in a frame that bends the hips and hindquarter joints. The horse carries more weight from behind and lightens the fore, instead of pushing and thrusting. The hind step back remains under the horse.

As the horse advances to higher levels of engagement and collection, the rider repositions the horse’s frame in such a way that the hindquarter joints bend, the back slightly rounds, the horse carries more weight from behind while lightening the forehand by growing taller in the wither, head, and neck position. The movement produced from this posture is biomechanically different than that of the show gait. This makes it impossible for the horse to push and pull to produce the same length of stride as in rail class. Instead the horse’s steps are shorter because there is little to no trailing of the hind leg extending behind the tail. The gait shortens and the head nods less.

stride length: pushing power vs carrying power
Notice as pushing power increases as the hind leg becomes disengaged, the stride length increases while as carrying power increases, the hind leg disengages less and the stride becomes shorter.

Does this mean that dressage permanently alters gait? I am happy to say, “No.” Gait expression is simply the biomechanical response of a set of rider aids and training that place the horse in a frame which allows more push and pull or carrying power from behind.

If you want to ride show gait, simply apply the aids (and tack if needed). In fact, I believe dressage training develops a gaited horse’s range of motion, so that the show gait will improve in quality with deeper strides.

Enjoy the journey!

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A Gift of Freedom

A Gift of Freedom

By Jennifer Klitzke

Galloping through an open field is something that I have always longed to do, yet paralyzing fear had imprisoned me.

My Tennessee walking horse mare was a Valentine’s Day gift from my husband in 2007. (Well, actually, I pleaded with him for two weeks when he buckled on Valentine’s Day and said, “Okay!”) She came with the registered name “Gift of Freedom” which is ironically symbolic.

My first ponyAs a child, I rode my spring-loaded plastic pony through the wild, wild West of my imagination and dreamed for the day of owning a horse. That day finally arrived 24 years later after a friend said to me, “Jennifer, you’re going to be saying ‘Someday I’ll buy a horse’ for the rest of your life. You need to make it happen or ‘someday’ will never come.”

She was right, so that’s what I did. I saved enough money for my first horse and 29 years later, I think I’m more horse-crazy than ever! Bringing horses into my life was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I was born for this.

Horseman Buck Brannaman says, “Horses are a mirror to your soul,” and I’ve found that to be true. I believe that God has used horses to expose the broken and misguided pieces of my life that are in need of restoration. Once I courageously acknowledge and work through these broken areas, God has blessed me with a gift of freedom.

In fact, the real gift of freedom came at Easter time in 1996.

Leading up to this, horses had become a god of sorts. Horses had become my source of life, my source of purpose, and my source of identity. Anytime horses fell short of the god-role I had placed them in, I became more demanding to the point that control, perfectionism, and domination began to replace what once had been team-driven harmony.

When horses rebelled and I felt out of control, then hyper-ventilating panic attacks began to consumed me. I became so imprisoned with paralyzing riding fear that I could only ride in a 20-meter circle, traveling to the left, on a calm day, with no distractions, in an indoor arena, at a walk.

Then one day I faced a cross roads: It was time to quit riding horses, the very thing I love, or face the fear in humility, with courage and an open mind in hopes of overcoming it?

Yes, I believe Buck Brannaman is right when he says, “Horses are a mirror to your soul.” I am thankful that they have humbled me to realize that riding horses isn’t about controlling them; it is about building a trusted partnership.

And horses were not meant to be my source of life, either. Horses are a gift from God—not a god. I believe that God had allowed this cross roads in order that I would ultimately find what I had been searching for— an identity, a purpose, and meaning for life in Him.

Not only that, God has given me the courage to face my fears and over come them. Through daily prayer and perseverance, He has given me a gift of freedom to do what I never imagined I would be doing.

Today, me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Gift of Freedom, enjoy many adventures I only dreams of doing: riding in the beauty of nature outside of the four walls of an arena, participating in endurance rides, moving cows in sorting leagues, gymnastic jumping, and more.  All without the straps of fear.

Enjoy your journey!

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