By Jennifer Klitzke
How many times have you heard riders of gaited horses ask, “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” or “How do I improve the quality of my horse’s natural four beat gait?” These questions have come up at every gaited dressage clinic I’ve been to. They’ve been addressed on every naturally gaited horse video I’ve watched and book I’ve read since I bought my Tennessee walking horse Makana in 2007.
In each instance gaited dressage and naturally gaited experts such as Jennie Jackson, Larry Whitesell, Jennifer Bauer, Bucky Sparks, Gary Lane, Anita Howe, Ivy Schexnayder, and the late Brenda Imus and Lee Ziegler have talked about the importance of lowering the horse’s head and neck to aid in relaxing the poll, neck, and back.
Why? Because relaxation is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow-backed, pace into a smooth and natural four-beat gait. A great place to start is with long and low at walk. Not only will relaxation in a long and low frame break up the pace, it can lengthen the depth of stride and improve the quality of your horse’s gait.
In dressage terms, a long and low walk is called the free walk on a long rein. This is a required movement in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced.
The free walk on a long rein produces many terrific benefits in the horse including rhythm, relaxation, balance, forwardness, and building the top line muscles. Most importantly, it breaks up the foot falls of pace into four individual steps—the sequence of gait at a slow tempo, and it positions the horse to be successful in taking longer and deeper steps.
Video: Free Walk on a Long Rein
The free walk on a long rein is a terrific way to begin and end every ride, as well as reward your horse throughout a training session.
If your horse needs to learn how to lower its head and neck, here’s an exercise I learned from naturally gaited clinician Bucky Sparks which he calls “Stretch the Bit.” This exercise teaches a horse to discover relaxation for itself. Once a horse finds relaxation, they are likely to seek more of it.
How to Stretch the Bit
1. Begin this exercise at a halt. Each time my horse’s head is too high, I lift my hands up and stretch my reins out to the side without pulling back. This engages the less sensitive bars (corners) of the horse’s mouth. Low hands apply bit pressure on horse’s tongue which is more painful and can cause tension in the mouth and jaw. As I draw my arms out to the side, I feel a pull in my triceps which helps me to remember not to pull back.
2. Release to reward: As soon as the my horse begins dropping its head and neck, I release the reins.
3. Repeat the exercise: I will repeat the exercise each time the horse’s head pops back up. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a couple minutes before the horse lowers its head or if the horse lowers and then pops its head back up. This is common for horses new to the exercise or for horses that are tense or resistant. After a few tries most horses discover relaxation and prefer it over tension and hollowness because it is more comfortable. Eventually the horse will remain in a lowered headset for longer periods of time.
4. Stretch and release at a walk: When the horse gets consistent with this exercise at a halt, I begin stretching the bit at a walk on a large 20-meter circle. I find that it is easier for my horse to find relaxation in the long and low exercise on an arc than when traveling on a straight line.
5. Add transitions and changes of direction: After a few circles, I will repeat the exercise traveling in the opposite direction and switch directions every 3 or 4 circles. Then I will add some walk-halt-walk transitions to keep it interesting and “stretch the bit” and “release to reward” at a halt before transitioning to a walk. The transitions also help to improve the horse’s balance.
Video: Stretch the Bit and Release and Reward
As my horse advances in its training, like to replace the “stretch the bit” with a more traditional dressage application I call “squeeze and release.”
How to Squeeze and Release
1. Squeeze and release with the rein: On a 20-meter circle at a walk, I gently squeeze the inside rein with my fingers and hold my fingers closed until my horse gives. Then I immediately release the inside rein by opening my middle, ring and pinky fingers to reward the horse. I don’t drop the rein. I keep a hold of the rein with my thumb and index fingers. Each time the horse’s head pops up, I’ll repeat the “squeeze and release.”
2. Application of the inside calf after the squeeze and release: Once the horse is relaxed and understands this concept, I will touch and release my inside calf at the girth as my horse steps its inside hind leg forward. This encourages my horse to step deeper under its body with its inside hind leg. It is important to separate the squeeze of the fingers on the inside rein and the application of the inside calf. I like to apply the inside calf just after I release my fingers of the inside rein. Combining my rein and leg aids is like driving a car with my foot on the break and gas pedal at the same time. It isn’t efficient. I have found that by separating my rein and leg aids by milliseconds, it produces much greater softness and lightness in my horse.
4. Inside leg to outside rein: Then I capture the forward energy into an ounce of contact with the outside indirect rein which I place lightly against my horse’s neck. The inside leg to outside indirect rein combined with the softening inside rein helps keep my horse in a consistent long and low frame on a 20-meter circle.
Video: Squeeze and Release to Reward
When my horse is consistent in the long and low frame, then I ask for a few deeper, more ground covering steps and more impulsion from the hind quarters to begin the free walk on a long rein.
How to Improve the Free Walk
1. Awareness: Improving the free walk on a long rein begins by becoming aware of how the free walk feels and looks when it is moving well and when it needs improvement. Finding a riding coach who can provide timely feedback is a great way to learn this “feel.” This takes time, patience and consistent training, but free walk offers such wonderful benefits to the horse. The free walk teaches the horse to maintain a consistent relaxed tempo, maximum stride depth, even four-beat rhythm, and a long and low frame which helps to develop the top line muscles.
2. Cueing deeper strides: While traveling at a relaxed long and low walk, the timing of my cue is critical. I press and release my right calf at the girth as the horse steps forward with its right hind leg (or as I feel the horse’s barrel sway left). Then I apply and release my left calf as the horse steps forward with its left hind leg (or as I feel the horse’s barrel sway right). The application of my calf should encourage a deeper step beneath the body. It is important not to apply my calf with every step or the horse will become as they say “dead to the leg.” It is also important not to use both calves at the same time as that shortens the stride. I stop cueing as soon as my horse increases its depth of stride, and I will follow the motion with my hips along with the rise and fall of the barrel of the horse.
If the horse ignores my calf aid, I will follow it up with a tap of a dressage whip applied to the same side I applied my calf to activate that hind leg while it is stepping forward.
Another way to encourage more energy and deeper strides in the free walk is to make a kissing or clucking sound as the hind leg steps forward. As soon as the horse increases the energy and depth of stride, stop the sound. Since I show gaited dressage, using my voice as a training aid isn’t my best option since voice is not allowed during a test, but I have found that it motivates the horse forward and produces a deeper stride.
3. Following the movement with my seat: After cueing my horse for deeper strides, I follow (not drive) my horse’s forward movement with my seat. I allow each hip joint to walk with each hind leg as it steps beneath the horse. I become aware of the feeling of the horse’s rib cage lift on one side and lower on the other. I keep my body still from the core but not stiff or locked in the joints. I find that it is more effective to follow the horse’s movement versus drive the horse forward with my seat. It seems less noisy to the horse and my horses are able to hear my cues better.
4. Circles and straight lines: I find that it is easiest for the horses I ride to learn the free walk on a long rein on the arc of a large circle versus a straight line. Once the horse is consistent on a 20-meter circle, I will add serpentines, figure eights, and moments of straight lines. As soon as the horse’s head pops up, the back gets hollow, or the gait gets pacey, I’ll return to the arc of a circle. Over time, the horse will learn to travel in straight lines in a consistent free walk on a long rein which is the required movement in dressage tests.
Gait and Canter on a Long Rein
As the horse develops a consistent free walk on a long rein, then I begin asking the horse for a few steps of flat walk or easy gait in a long and low frame. As soon as the horse begins to pace or trot, I slow the horse back down to a walk and begin again with relaxation at a long and low free walk before transitioning up to the gait again.
After the horse is established in canter, I like to warm up my gaited horse in a canter on a long rein. A long and low canter on a 20-meter circle is a great way to relax the horse’s back, build the horse’s top line muscles, as well as help break up a lateral canter. After cantering I’m amazed with how much better my horse flat walks!
Video: Flat Walk on a Long Rein
Video: Cantering on a Long Rein
At every clinic I have attended since I began my gaited dressage journey, I have witnessed dozens of gaited horses transformed from a hard pace to a smooth, four-beat gait by replacing a tense, high-headed, hollow back frame with a relaxed long and low frame.
I hope you find this information helpful. Feel free to contact me and let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you!
—Jennifer Klitzke, Makana and Lady