Tag Archives: Mary Wanless

Video: Riding through Distractions

Riding through Distractions

By Jennifer Klitzke

It was our first 75-degree spring day after a long winter. I couldn’t wait to get Makana, my naturally gaited Walking horse mare, saddled for an afternoon ride.

I had thought that the gale-force winds would be our greatest riding challenge as I negotiated Makana past the disco tree dancing to and fro at the corner of the arena. I had no idea we’d be riding 100 yards from our new neighbor’s artillery range practice, plus enduring a steady stream of overzealous motorcyclists roaring by!

The frenzied sights and sounds gave us plenty of opportunity to practice riding bio-mechanic techniques I have learned from Mary Wanless that helped me maintain a secure riding position each time my explosive horse reacted to unexpected gun fire, thundering motors, and swaying bushes. Among Mary’s riding tactics include breathing deep into my stomach, bearing down of my internal anatomy to lower my center of gravity, holding my weight in my inner thighs to distribute my weight across my horse’s back instead of my weight resting on my horse’s spine, and pressing my fists forward toward the bit instead of pulling back.

The distractions challenged me to practice what I learned from Larry Whitesell about becoming a trusted leader. Whenever my horse got tense, nervous, and distracted it was my job to lead her back to balance and relaxation, and while doing she became a safer horse to ride. The best way to lead Makana back to balance and relaxation is through many transitions and lateral exercises.

So I practiced the suppling and lateral exercises I learned from Jennie Jackson and Outrageous, the gaited dressage school master I rode while I was at the March 2015 Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse Clinic in Tennessee. Lateral exercises, such as pivot the fore, shoulder in, and haunches in break up tension, lead to balance and relaxation, and improve the communication between me and my horse. As Makana realized that I was helping her find balance and relaxation through this harried situation, she learned to trust me more as a reliable leader.

In addition to riding bio-mechanics and leading my horse back to balance and relaxation with suppling exercises, we also practiced what I’ve been learning from the Philippe Karl Classical Dressage DVD series regarding the separation of the rein and leg aids, riding my horse into balance, and encouraging Makana to open and close her mouth, salivate and swallow by making my connection with the less sensitive bars of her mouth instead of from tongue pressure. These elements help to produce relaxation in the jaw and poll which help to produce a relaxed body which makes for a more trainable horse.

Although it wasn’t the joyous and relaxing spring ride I had hoped for, it was a successful milestone for me and my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. I faced my riding fears, trusted the skills my mentors have imparted, remembered to breath, (prayed a bunch that I didn’t get shot by stray bullets), and managed to work Makana through the distractions in real time. We managed to end our ride with quality flat walk possessing good rhythm, balance, over stride, and impulsion.

Video: Riding through Distractions


The Critical Student

the critical student

By Jennifer Klitzke

The sound of my sneakers gripping the polished floor caught the attention of fellow students as I entered the classroom. Looking around for a place to sit, Professor Larson interrupts the glances, “If you want an “A” you’ll have to sit in the front row.” Giggling classmates lighten my apprehensive return to college after a 21-year break. He was teasing of coarse. However, I took a seat in “A” row because of my ambitious nature (and my peepers didn’t see as good as they used to).

Professor Larson made it his mission to form critical students by encouraging each of us to listen, take notes, think through, and apply what is presented. That’s how learning is best retained.

I discovered that you don’t have to be in school to learn, but college put words to things I had already been doing as a student of dressage.  For years I had been taking notes after each dressage  lesson and clinic I’ve ridden in and I practice what I’ve been taught in efforts to form a new habit. I even take notes while watching instructional DVDs and while auditing clinics. I underline and scribble notes in the margins of dressage books I purchase. I think through the concepts presented and try them out the next time I ride.

My favorite way to learn is through lessons, but there isn’t anyone in my area who teaches gaited dressage, so between annual clinics with Jennie Jackson, my second most helpful way to learn is through video. Each week I set up my video camera on a tripod and record my ride. After each exercise, I stop and describe how it felt to the camera so that I can verify if what I see on screen matches what I felt from the saddle as I replay it. (I guess you could call it a form of self-help gaited dressage instruction!)

I became a student of dressage twenty-seven years ago with my first riding instructor. For 12 years she did a wonderful job coaching me from Training through Second level competition with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding. She taught me a foundation of feel for when it felt right and what to do when it felt wrong (at least from the German dressage perspective). Back then I felt like a traitor if I took lessons from anyone other than my instructor or dabbled with another training philosophy, so I became locked into only one view of riding.

Looking back, I think this was rather silly, as Professor Larson wasn’t the only teacher who encompassed my college education. I learned from dozens of professors who collectively imparted diverse knowledge to form the breadth and depth of my study.

After 12 years of regular dressage lessons with my first instructor (for which I am very grateful), much has changed: I remarried and moved away, and she went on to Seminary and is now an ordained Pastor leading a church in southern Minnesota (still riding horses of course)!

Thankful for my years under her mentorship, my curiosity and passion for learning didn’t stop when our paths went separate ways. It actually freed me to try new philosophies beyond the German form of dressage imprinted upon me. From there I became introduced to French classical dressage with Dominique Barbier; natural horsemanship with Pat Parelli and Larry Whitesell; riding bio-mechanics with Mary Wanless; gaited dressage with Jennie Jackson; gymnastic jumping with Len Danielson; and versatility training: trail riding and trail obstacles, endurance riding, orienteering, sorting cows and team penning. All of these instructors, riding philosophies, and activities have added to the depth and breadth of my naturally gaited riding experience.

You see, I am open to ideas and activities that foster and build teamwork, trust, balance, relaxation, forwardness, lightness, and engagement, as I ride Makana, my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. To me learning goes beyond the knowledge of just one instructor and training philosophy.

My favorite way to learn each time I navigate uncharted territory as I apply dressage to my head shaking, four beat flat walker is to take lessons. In between lessons, I sift through my treasure chest of note books, dressage books, video and DVD library, and if I don’t find an answer, I scour the Internet.

While I’m blessed with an abundance of online resources and much of it free, it gets tricky knowing which ideas to consider and which ones to discard. Often times one philosophy contradicts what I’ve been taught. For me, that’s when becoming a critical student comes in to play. I’ll listen to an idea, think it through. If it has merit, I will try it out. Evaluate it, and if it shows promise, I will add it to my treasure chest. If not, I’ll pitch it. If I’m in question, I’ll ask my riding friends what they think and pick my instructor’s brain during my lesson time.

Trying out a new idea doesn’t replace everything I’ve learned up to that point. Nor does it mean that by embracing ideas from a new training philosophy or instructor means that I will scrap everything I’ve learned from another. I merely add workable ideas to my methods of getting to my final outcome—which is a work in progress.

In the end, my intention aims to bring about a harmonious partnership with my horse, moving together in balance, bringing out the best movement, frame, and lightness of aids, establishing consistent rhythm, relaxation, and engagement as it relates to the gaited horse.

You see, I’m passionate about learning and will always consider myself a student—even in my grandma age.


A Trusted Leader

A Trusted Leader

By Jennifer Klitzke

“Let the horse know you’re the boss.” Did you grow up with this phrase?

This crude understanding accompanies cues like “kick to go” and “pull to stop.”

Just after purchasing my first horse in 1988, a fellow boarder gently asked me, “Who are you going to take lessons from?”

In ignorance I replied, “Why would I need to take lessons when I own a horse!?”

Back then I thought lessons were for horseless people looking for an opportunity to ride—not for horse owners learning how to interact well with their horses.

Then my kindhearted boarder friend invited me to watch a nearby dressage show. We got there just in time to see Kathy Theisen riding a horse named Bullwinkle in an upper level dressage musical freestyle. I get goose bumps just thinking about Kathy and her horse dancing as one to the rhythm of a waltz, skipping along the diagonal in tempe changes and soaring across the arena at an extended trot. She rode with an effortless finesse I had never seen before. This was my introduction to dressage.

That was the moment I realize there was a better way to interact with my horse than “kick to go” and “pull to stop.” No wonder my boarder friend asked me about lessons—no joke, I needed them!

Back then the German method of dressage riding was predominant in my area, so I learned how to drive my horse forward with my seat and legs in a mechanical way of going. While I learned how to become a technically correct dressage rider for the show ring, I didn’t learn much about leadership or why it is important to the horse.

Then after being dumped a few times, I became a very reactive rider. In terms of leadership, I was always on guard for the “what if’s”. Unknowingly, this transmitted insecurity to my horse and a lack of trusted leadership. So I rode in a very controlled environment—mainly in an indoor arena with few distractions.

Then a few years later Dominique Barbier, a French classical dressage trainer, rider and author of Dressage of the New Age began traveling to my region for clinics.  It was the first time I had seen a harmonious human-horse partnership demonstrated with lightness, balance, relaxation, joy, connection, rhythm, impulsion, and engagement. I took my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding to a few of his clinics. Dominique confronted my reactive riding head on and taught me the importance of riding with a plan and to visualize it for the horse’s sake.

Also during this time, I believed that only dressage riders practiced the art of riding. My arrogance was met head on when I was invited to a Pat Parelli event and introduced to the philosophy of natural horsemanship. I was blown away watching Pat ride his horse alongside a black stallion dancing at liberty alongside him mimicking the movement his mount performed as he rode. I left the event deeply inspired and awestruck with what is possible in a relationship with a horse!

I am humbled to say that if it weren’t for the cowboys I would never have learned how to become a trusted leader with my horse. The cowboys have taught me how a horse thinks and relates with a rider. No matter how many 20 meter circles I do or how technically correct my riding may become, it will not develop a trusted leadership with my horse until I begin to understand how my horse thinks and relates with me as a leader.

In 2008 I became acquainted with the work of Larry Whitesell who combines French classical dressage with natural horsemanship for gaited horses. In fact, I was interested to learn that Dominique Barbier is one of Larry’s dressage mentors.

I’ve learned the most about trusted leadership from Larry Whitesell as a student at his 3-day and 5-day clinics. His unique riding philosophy is based upon French dressage, years of showing and training gaited horses, and understanding how the horse thinks and relates with its rider. He helps teach riders to understand what the horse’s needs are and meet these needs.

Larry says, “Don’t teach the horse what NOT to do. Teach the horse what TO do.” Instead of punishing the horse for making a mistake, redirect the horse to find balance and relaxation and at the same time the horse’s need for security will be satisfied, and the horse will better trust the rider as a reliable leader. This translates into less spooks, bolts, bucks, buddy sourness, and rears. The more a horse trusts the rider to keep it secure, the more the rider can trust the horse on the trail. It’s a win-win training method.

Learning how to become a technically correct rider is an excellent place to start. I’m so glad that I didn’t stop there. I yearned for more: I wanted the relationship Kathy had with Bullwinkle waltzing along the diagonal; the harmonious human-horse partnership Dominique has with horses; the inspiring connection Pat Parelli has with horses at liberty and while he is riding; and the trusted leadership Larry has with his horses.

It empowers me to know that my horse counts on me to lead her to balance and relaxation. Thanks to Dominique, I am reminded to visualize a plan for my horse’s sake. Thanks to Larry who taught me how to become a trusted leader for my naturally gaited Walking horse that will help her find balance and relaxation which in turn will help her become a safer and happier mount on and off the trail. Thanks to great teachers such as riding bio-mechanics coach Mary Wanless who have helped me develop a more secure riding position which gives me confidence in the event my horse does spook. And thanks to God for the courage to perseverance and press on to meet whatever lies ahead.


Gaited Dressage: Riding Position and its Effect on the Horse

Gaited dressage: Rider position and its effect on the horseBy Jennifer Klitzke

Did you know that there is more than one way to ride a gaited horse? Did you know that riding position has an effect on the horse’s well being and way of going? Did you know that some riding positions place you in a more secure position to help you confidently ride through spooks?

Over the last 25 years, I’ve taken hundreds of dressage lessons, ridden at dressage clinics, read many books and watched dozens of dressage videos. In regards to riding position, I’ve encountered various methods. The most common method teaches balance by remaining loose and relaxed following the horse’s movement. This position teaches ear, hip and heel alignment and focuses on growing tall with the upper body, stretching down and long with the thigh and calf (a nearly straight leg), and pressing the heel down into the iron. The focus of the seat is the three seat bones. There is a feeling of leaning back with the upper body. This is the way I have ridden the majority of my life.

Jennifer Klitzke riding at a Mary Wanless Clinic
Jennifer Klitzke riding her Spanish Mustang at a
Mary Wanless Clinic and getting established in the
A,B,Cs of riding bio-mechanics.

Another dressage position I learned when I rode at a riding bio-mechanics clinic with Mary Wanless. She teaches balance through stillness made through the isokinetic bearing down of the inner anatomy and holding of the thighs and knees along the saddle. This position teaches an ear, hip, heel alignment as well, but with a 90-degree bend in the knee from thigh to calf, and a lightly resting toe in the iron. The seat includes the knees, thighs and seat bones where the majority of the rider’s weight is held in thighs and not pressed down into the heel. There is a feeling of pressing forward from the sternum as if resisting someone’s push.

Mary’s theories have been developed through her education in physics, bio-mechanics, riding through the upper levels of dressage, and studying the best dressage riders of her time. She’s coached top riders such as long time student and successful Grand Prix rider Heather Blitz. Mary has a knack for communicating to the common dressage rider how talented dressage riders ride. While I have been studying Mary’s books and videos for decades, it wasn’t until this clinic where the riding position described below really clicked.

Here are ten steps to rider alignment and body awareness I gleaned from my lesson:

  1. Stirrup length: Adjust my stirrups so that there is a 90-degree bend in my knee. Initially this felt too short.
  2. External alignment: Sitting on my horse, I align my ear, hip, and heel. (The picture above shows that my heel is slightly too far back.)
  3. Toe in iron: My toe lightly rests in the iron as my thighs hold the majority of my weight (not my heel). Mary described to me the feeling of kneeling at a church pew.
  4. Thigh and knee position: Then I rotate my thighs inward so that my thighs and knees seal to the saddle. The thighs and knees lightly hold to the saddle to distribute my weight along the horse’s back instead of resting my weight on my horse’s spine.
  5. Rotate tailbone: Next, I rotate my tail bone forward as if I were drawing it between my thighs.
  6. Position in motion: I remind myself of the ear, hip, heel alignment, my thighs and knees lightly holding the saddle, and my tail bone as if it were between my thighs. Then I ask my horse to walk. In each walk step I feel one hip slightly rotate forward with the horse’s movement and then the other.
  7. Bear down: Next at a walk I add what Mary refers to as “bear down.” This lowers my inner anatomy and engages my core. As Mary puts it, I “suck in my stomach and push my guts against it.” Then I become aware of my three seat bones and lower them evenly to the saddle.
  8. Breathing: Adding to the bearing down of my inner anatomy and lowering of the seat bones to the saddle, I add deep breathing and fill up my stomach as if it were my lungs.
  9. Resisting the push: Next, I imagine that there is someone pushing against my closed hands gripping the reins, and someone pushing against my sternum as I resist that push which further engages my core.
  10. Awareness of sitting surface: Now I become aware of the lowering of my inner anatomy and seat bones closer to the saddle and my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle.

While Mary teaches riders of trotting horses, I’ve found that her riding bio-mechanic principles have worked wonderfully when applied to my naturally gaited Walking horse, Makana. I’ve noticed that each time I realign my position with my weight distributed through my thighs (instead of resting on her spine), she immediately rounds her back and neck, and comes onto the bit and chews.

This riding position has taught me to become more aware of my riding. While doing so, I’ve noticed that my horse need less fixing. When I’m correctly positioned, Makana moves more comfortably forward and happy, and each time my old habits creep back, she lets me know by dropping her back and lifting her head and neck which reminds me to reposition myself.

Mary’s riding bio-mechanics have also taught me a more stable and secure riding position. When comparing my former riding position to the one Mary taught me, I notice that the angle my knees and thighs have to the back of my seat offer more stability when compared to a straight leg. Plus the isokinetic lowering of my center of gravity closer to the saddle with my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle give me more security than when my upper body grew tall with my legs growing long into my heels pressed down. Now Mary’s riding position keeps me in place each time I ride through an unexpected spook which builds my confidence.

Yes, there is more than one way to ride a horse. After 25 years of riding one way, I’m sure glad that I gave Mary’s riding bio-mechanics a try. This riding position has made me a more effective, aware and confident rider which has translated into becoming a more trusted leader to my horse.

Video: Naturally Gaited Flat walk and Canter

Visit: mary-wanless.com for educational videos, published stories, books and DVDs. You can even become a cyber student and find where she is teaching world wide near you.


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.