Tag Archives: Heather Blitz

Video: Cues vs Punishments

cues vs punishments

By Jennifer Klitzke

At what point does a cue escalate to a punishment—a whisper to a shout? Think about what the horse actually learns from a punishment. Here’s an important tip.

When I learn something from someone, I make it a practice to credit my source. In this case, I thank Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz for a priceless tip that has transformed my riding with my naturally gaited Walking horse, Makana.

When Heather isn’t riding, training, or competing, she travels and teaches. I have learned so much from auditing her clinics when she visits my state.

At the last clinic, Heather shared a valuable tip in reference to a horse that was reluctant to go forward. She had my full attention, because of all the horses I’ve ever ridden, Makana is by far the least ambitious to go forward. I have tried every strategy I know of. Each strategy seems to work at first, but doesn’t have lasting success, and I could never figure out why until Heather shared this valuable tip.

She said, “Never let a punishment replace a cue.” Ask politely and lightly. That’s the cue. If the horse ignores you, then ask loudly and clearly using your legs and crop if needed. That’s the punishment. DO NOT proceed after the punishment. (That’s the critically important part.) Immediately stop and ask politely and lightly again to teach the horse the whisper cue. Then immediately STOP cueing when the horse responds. (That’s the second most important part.)

Proceeding right after the punishment was the essential ingredient missing from my training. To my horse the punishment became the cue, and it didn’t take long before she just tuned me out. While I was thinking, “You lazy horse. If you would just continue moving forward, I wouldn’t have to squeeze my guts out and use my crop to make you move.” While my horse was thinking, “You, bully, no matter what I do I never seem to get it right. I wish you would stop nagging me with every step!”

Ding-dong! Now I know why new strategies never lasted very long. It wasn’t that the strategies failed. It was that I wasn’t stopping after the punishment to ask lightly and politely to train the whisper cue. Plus, I continued to nag my horse after my horse had responded. While I felt sad at the miscommunication I had caused my horse, I was elated with the key to resolve our forwardness issue.

It is vitally important to immediately stop after a punishment and ask again in a whisper. The whisper cue is the aid the horse needs to respond to. Over time the horse will move off a polite and light cue and need less loud reminders.

This training tip has made an enormous difference for me and my horse. Makana is so much more responsive thanks to Heather. I hope that by sharing my mistake will save you and your horse miscommunication and lead you to quicker success and greater harmony.

If you are fortunate enough to live near one of Heather’s upcoming clinics, I HIGHLY encourage you to audit. While she doesn’t train gaited horses, you’ll learn so much as it relates to rider bio-mechanics and the essence of good dressage training which applies equally well to the gaited horse.

2015 Heather Blitz Clinics»

Video: Application of Cues vs Punishments


Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Balance

Gaited Dressage: The Feeling of Balance

By Jennifer Klitzke

High scoring dressage tests award the horse and rider who demonstrate a culmination of 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, and lightness of the forehand) as they move through a series of gaits, transitions, and movements precisely on the letter. Gait quality, harmony, and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and use of aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.

From time to time I’ve seen “needs more balance” written on gaited dressage tests I’ve ridden. While I know that balance is a dressage essential, I began to explore the “feeling of balance” as I ride my naturally gaited Walking horse. What does it feel like when my horse is in balance? What does it feel like when my horse is out of balance? As the rider, how can I identify, restore and maintain my horse’s balance?

Recently two of my favorite traveling clinicians came to town: international bio-mechanics riding coach Mary Wanless and successful Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz (who is also a long-time student of Mary’s). While Mary’s clinic helped each rider discover the feeling of a balanced riding position, Heather’s clinic offered metaphors to help rider’s get in touch with the feeling of their horse’s balance and offered terrific training tips whenever their horses lost balance. Both clinics featured trotting horses, yet the teachings of rider bio-mechanics and the feeling of balance certainly translate to the riding of gaited horses.

In regards to the feeling of balance, Heather encouraged riders to imagine a medicine ball inside the horse’s body while they rode and to notice where the weight of it tends to rest. If it feels like it rests in the horse’s chest then the horse tends to be more on the forehand, and if the medicine ball feels as if it is right beneath the rider’s seat, that indicates that the horse is more in balance with the rider.

Heather’s “medicine ball” metaphor has helped me gain rider awareness with the feeling of balance. My awareness of balance is an essential first step in me being able to guide my naturally gaited Walking horse into reposition her body as she learns better balance. Whenever my mare feels like her balance is in her chest instead of beneath my seat, or whenever she leans on the bit or rushes with short, quick strides, I calmly and quietly half half, halt or halt and softly rein back a couple steps until I feel her balance shift from in front of the saddle to under my seat. Then I calmly and gently cue her forward.

The more we practice this at a flatwalk, the more balanced steps we have in succession. It feels like my seat and my horse’s core snap together like a Lego, and we travel together as one unit with power from her hindquarters through her body, an engaged abdomen which lifts her back and withers, and the forward energy flows through my fists and pushes forward towards the bit with each head nod.

I’m so excited with how this feels and the difference it is making in our gaited dressage. Please share your thoughts as you experiment with the medicine ball metaphor and the feeling of balance.


Video: Gaited Dressage: Second Thoughts about Long and Low


freewalk on a long rein

By Jennifer Klitzke

Next to “how do I get my horse to gait?” is another common question I hear gaited horse owners ask: “How do I stop my gaited horse from pacing?” This question comes up at every gaited dressage and gaited horsemanship clinic I’ve attended. Among the use of ground rails and transitions, every clinician I’ve heard agrees that working your gaited horse in a long and low position is essential in transforming a high-headed, hollow and stiff-backed pace into a relaxed, smooth, four-beat gait.

In dressage terms, long and low is called freewalk on a long rein. It is required in all dressage tests—Introductory through Advanced—and it is the way riders are asked to leave the arena after the final halt and salute.

Freewalk on a long rein is more than just allowing the horse a long rein to stretch its head and neck out and down. The freewalk has great purpose: it stretches and strengthens the top line muscles, it develops rhythm and depth of stride as the horse reaches beneath its body with its hind leg and over tracks the fore footprint, and the lowered head and neck position stimulates endorphins to relax the horse. The freewalk is a great way to begin and end every ride with a couple stretch breaks in between—as long as the horse is in balance.

Recently I’ve had the great privilege of auditing two great clinicians who came to my region: International riding bio-mechanics coach Mary Wanless and Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz. Both clinicians challenged riders to not only become aware of riding in a balanced position, but to become aware of the horse’s balance so that they are more proactive in maintaining it. While both clinics taught riders of trotting horses, the principles of rider position and balance certainly apply to gaited horses.

Heather explained the feeling of a horse’s balance in this metaphor. While riding, imagine if your horse had a medicine ball which freely moves around its insides. Where does the weight of the medicine ball feel like is rests most? Does it feel like it rests in the horse’s chest or beneath your seat? The former indicates that the horse is more on the forehand and the latter indicates that the horse is more in balance with the rider.

Thinking about this, what if I were to release my horse into a long and low frame while her balance is on the forehand? What quality of freewalk would we produce? Likely my horse would begin pulling herself forward with her front legs, and her hind legs would be trailing behind instead of stepping deep beneath her body and creating over track with the fore hoof prints.

Now that I’ve become aware of how it feels when my horse is in and out of balance, it is important to correct her balance BEFORE releasing the reins for freewalk on a long rein.

Heather’s metaphor has really helped me discover the feeling of balance and what to do about it when I lose it. Each time it feels like the medicine ball rolls into my horse’s chest, I begin with a half halt or transition from walk to halt to walk. If the medicine ball still feels like it is in my horse’s chest, then I transition from walk to halt, take a couple steps of rein back until I feel the medicine ball roll beneath my seat, and that’s when I allow my horse to take the reins long and low for a freewalk and feel her hind legs step deeply beneath her body like pictured above.

Freewalk on a long rein is a great way to break up pace for a smooth, four-beat gait. It also improves depth of stride, rhythm and relaxation. Just remember to establish balance before releasing the reins to maximize your efforts.

Video: A Balanced Freewalk on a Long Rein