Coming from the traditional trotting horse dressage camp to gaited dressage, nothing sounded more foreign to me than desirable attributes as ear flopping and teeth clicking.
What I have discovered since I began my gaited dressage journey in 2010 with my naturally gaited Tennessee Walking Horse mare, Makana is that it’s not so much the actual ear flopping and teeth clicking that’s important as what these attributes represent: relaxation and rhythm. Both relaxation and rhythm are what we seek in good dressage training whether riding a gaited or trotting breed. Along with this is relaxation of the jaw.
In breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Foxtrotter and others that offer a natural and even four-beat gait, such as the flat walk and running walk, the horse will begin to click their teeth with each head nod in rhythm with the hind leg steps as the horse settles into relaxation of the jaw. Along with this relaxation, the horse may also begin to flop its ears with each head nod up and down.
This is something that doesn’t happen with trotting horses because the horse’s head and neck remain stationary in the trot. And when the trotting horse walks, it is too slow to produce the head nod that produces the same teeth clicking and ear flop seen in the flat walk and running walk.
Now, it is important to recognize the sounds: teeth clicking and the grinding of teeth are not the same things. In fact, they are on the opposite spectrum. If a horse is grinding their teeth, it is because the horse is tense and unhappy, not relaxed. The source for the grinding of teeth may be a tight fitting nose band, ill-fitting saddle or bit, or teeth that need to be looked at by a veterinarian or equine dentist.
In any case, the video below will provide the sound of teeth clicking as a result of relaxation and a happy mouth. (And yes, it is possible to train your naturally gaited horse to do a four-beat gait on a loose rein, barefoot, and in a mild snaffle bit.)
Video: Teeth Clicking Flat Walk in the Tennessee Walking Horse
Next to the 2017 August Cow Sorting League with our personal best by leaps and bounds (5th of 17), I’d have to say that riding the Trail Challenge at Governor Knowles State Forest on September 3, 2017 with Stephanie, Brian, Indy, Lefty and Lady was one of the best memories of the summer.
Earlier this year, I made the heart-felt decision to sell my Spanish Mustang Indian’s Legend back to his previous owner, Stephanie. My Dad had passed away after an illness and my life circumstances had changed. Indy wasn’t happy as a backyard dressage horse. He missed our weekend-get-aways.
As much as I miss him, my heart is happy and at peace knowing that Indy is with Stephanie and Brian who love him like I do. Not only that, but Indy is living in his happy place and in the trail horse dream: miles and miles of mature forests and river crossings every weekend with lots of pasture space to goof off with his fellow Spanish Mustang comrades.
Stephanie had checked in with me a couple weeks prior to the Trail Challenge at Governor Knowles State Forest. I quickly got naturally gaited foxtrotting horse Lady up-to-date on a Coggins so that I could join her and Brian.
What an amazing day: enjoying their great company, great scenery, great horses, great weather, and challenging obstacles, with the added bonus of several river and bridge crossings to boot! A first for Lady.
It was so fun to watch Indy and Stephanie eat up those trail obstacles. They gave Lady and five-year-old Spanish Mustang Lefty courage to give them a try. There were six obstacles along a 10-12 mile trail through scenic mature forest, ferns, wildflowers, butterflies, and songbirds. The footing was perfect for naturally barefoot horses like the three of us were riding. It was a comfortable temperature and the sun made its brilliant appearance mid-point of the ride.
There were two divisions, the just-for-fun and the jackpot. I entered Lady in the just-for-fun since this was her first obstacle challenge. Stephanie and Brian opted for the jackpot—why not—no doubt Indy was up for the challenge!
The first of six obstacles was opening and closing a gate without letting go. After closing the gate, then maneuvering to a barrel and picking up a clanger. Then navigating through two poles and ringing the “come-an’-get-it-dinner-is-ready triangle three times in two minutes or less. I was amazed how afraid Lady was of the gate. At home, all she wants to do is open and close the gate herself! Dang! We danced around the gate until the two minutes ran out.
The jackpot level had to back out of the rails after clanging the triangle in the same amount of time. Indy and Stephanie did this obstacle really well.
The second obstacle was navigating the horse through a wooden ladder in two minutes or less. The horse had to step within the narrow ladder prongs, turn on the fore and return through the narrow ladder prongs. After Lady realized that the ladder wasn’t going to eat her, she killed this obstacle—even on a loose rein!
For those in the jackpot level, they had to side pass the ladder in the return. Indy rocked this obstacle! I wish I had video to show for it!
The third obstacle was broom balling a heavy soccer ball with a wispy broom through a goal in two minutes or less. Sound simple? Yes, in reality. Yet, it was very difficult. Lady as well as many of the horses seem to have ball phobia. (Peeps, practice makes perfect! Until next time. Right!)
The jackpot level had to WEAVE the ball through a set of cones and into the goal. Stephanie and Indy made it look easy and received the fastest time thus far. WAY TO GO!
The fourth obstacle was a ring toss. The horse and rider needed to pick up rings placed on a barrel next to a super spooky skeleton. Then the rider needed to position the horse at a rail and toss a ring to loop onto a steer horn, then advance to the next rail and do the same.
The just-for-fun level had four rings and the jackpot level had eight rings to pick up and toss in two minutes or less.
I congratulate Lady for her effort. Me, on the other hand, ugh. I did not navigate the rings anywhere near the horn. Stephanie and Indy ringed several on the horn. Well done!
The fifth obstacle was a log maze. The just-for-fun level had to pivot through the log maze, do a turn on the fore and return through the log maze. Lady rocked this obstacle. We’ve been working on these exercises all summer and it paid off.
The jackpot level had to pivot through the log maze and then rein back through it. Stephanie and Indy killed this obstacle as well!
The final obstacle was picking up a pole where the end of it needed to remain in a hoop while the horse and rider rode in a circle and over two rails and back to the starting point in two minutes or less. Lady’s initial try didn’t go very well as she ran away from the pole that was chasing her. Since we had two minutes, we had time to give it another shot and we maneuvered our way through the obstacle with flying colors and time to spare.
The jackpot level had to do this obstacle with a turn on the fore after the first circle and then ride the opposite direction before returning to the starting point. Indy and Stephanie rocked it again! I was sure that they would be in the money!
Between obstacles the horses rode together terrifically. Spanish Mustang Lefty has such a large, scopey walk that Lady and I fox trotted the entire 3-1/2 hour JOY ride! (I don’t think that Stephanie minded trotting and cantering Indy to keep up!)
I know that there are strains of Spanish Mustangs that have a natural four-beat gait. I wonder if Lefty is one of them. He is a stunning example of the Spanish Mustang. Several riders along our route stopped and asked what breed of horse Brian and Stephanie were riding. I was so happy, none of them asked: “Is that a Norwegian Fjord?” (Really, I have nothing against this breed. I really do like them. It’s just that Spanish Mustangs are not Norwegian Fjords.)
One woman asked what type of horse I was riding. (Yes, it is clear that Lady is NOT a Norwegian Fjord). Of coarse, Lady is anyone’s best guess since she isn’t registered. When my friend bought Lady, she was told that she was a Tennessee walking horse (in part). This woman replied, “I think the horse you’re riding is a Tennessee walking horse/Morgan cross.” Hallelujah! This affirms my thoughts in movement, intelligence and temperament. When Jennie Jackson was in Minnesota giving us lessons, that was her thought, too.
It was a great time had by all—people and horses. Walking Lady back to the trailer, I could hear Indy whinnying through the trees, “Until next time, my friends, until next time!”
Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) is a non-profit that supports the sound and humane training of gaited horses and is on the front lines fighting against soring and abuse. FOSH publishes the Sound Advocate which is filled with informative, well-written articles and stories.
I was elated when I received the 2017 September/October issue of Sound Advocate and read the story written about me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) who were named the 2016 Western Dressage Champions.
In 2016, Makana and I gave Gaited Western Dressage a try through the North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) Virtual Shows.
While we have been gaited dressage award winners since 2014, this was the first time we have won in the Gaited Western Dressage division.
To be eligible for awards in the FOSH Gaited Dressage Program, three scores of 60% and over must have been recorded in any level of Dressage competitions with a recognized judge. Tests must have been specifically developed and written for gaited horses. Recognized tests include IJA, NWHA, WDAA and Cowboy Dressage.
Twenty-two years ago Dominique Barbier traveled to Minnesota for a clinic and introduced me and my German warmblood, SeilTanzer, to the French dressage method of riding with lightness and harmony. Not only did I become acquainted with Barbier’s dressage methods, I came to know a fun-loving fellow and clinic participant named Fred Kappler, who traveled from Michigan with his American warmblood, Aden.
I never imagined that our paths would cross again. And when they did, Fred helped me see that Barbier’s methods still apply—even to a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse.
In 1995, I felt like a traitor attending Barbier’s clinic. You see, Seili and I had invested several years studying the German dressage system. That’s all that what was offered in my area. Yet my heart yearned for lightness, partnership, and harmony with my horse. I got a taste of this at the Barbier clinic.
The last few years I began studying the French dressage work of Philippe Karl and Jean Claude Racinet, and I have ridden at a few French dressage clinics with traveling clinician Susan Norman who has been a long-time student of both Karl and Racinet. I also rode with Nicole Walters at Cadbury Farm who has passed her first leg of certification in Philippe Karl’s School of Légèreté.
Flash forward 22 years after the Barbier clinic. (Yes, Seili is still alive at 33!) A Facebook friend informed me about a French dressage clinician coming to Minnesota named Fred Kappler. French dressage isn’t common around here, so I looked into it. Fred has studied Philippe Karl and Jean Claude Racinet’s teachings, has ridden with Dominique Barbier, and is familiar with gaited horses.
The clinic had filled quickly, but thankfully they made room for me and my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse, Makana. This would be the first non-gaited dressage clinic I have taken a gaited horse to. Turns out there were two other Tennessee walking horses riding at the clinic. (It’s a good thing Fred has had some knowledge with Walkers!)
During my first lesson, Fred mentioned that he rode with Dominique Barbier at Jacqurei Oaks. That’s the moment I realized Fred and I had ridden together at this clinic. Now 22 years later Fred is coaching me in Barbier’s methods of lunging and working in hand. Yes, 22 years later still applies—even with a gaited horse. What a moment!
I must confess that Barbier’s methods of lunging and working in hand are two things I haven’t continued with the gaited horses I work with. I tend to saddle up and ride. Fred helped me see the benefits of lunging and working the horse in hand before riding.
One side rein attached to the snaffle ring and girth at the inside of the circle; allow the side rein to be long enough for the horse to stretch forward without bringing the nose behind the vertical and short enough to keep the horse from getting strung out
A lunge line looped through the snaffle ring and attached to the girth buckle on the inside of the circle
A lunge whip to encourage the horse forward with a “snap” if the horse ignores your “cluck”
We lunged long enough to loosen up the horse (about 3-5 minutes each direction) at a walk, trot (yes, quality trot on cue) and canter with lots of transitions between gaits. Our circle size was about 15 meters. A relaxed and forward rhythm is the goal.
Teaching the gaited horse how to trot on cue, in a quality way of going, on a lunge line and in saddle, will not ruin the gait. Trot on cue will improve rhythm, balance, engagement, and strengthen the top line muscles. The benefits a quality trot on cue offers will break pace and improve the natural four-beat gaits and canter.
The in-hand exercises are done in both directions. The exercises are shoulder in on a square; turn on the forehand where the horse pivots around me; halt along the wall, rein back, walk forward and repeat three times; and bring the horse to a square and balanced halt.
The riding exercises we did are all exercises Philippe Karl uses in his training which I need to focus on more. After watching all of the riders (gaited and trotting) I realize that beautiful gaits come after working the horse through lateral exercises which supple the horse, bring the horse into balance, engagement, and into a round and connected frame onto the bit.
I tend to focus so much on depth of stride and head nod that lateral exercises have taken a back seat. After experiencing this clinc, my approach has been backwards! Fred’s clinic clearly demonstrated that the lateral exercises done in a SLOW collected walk improve the gait quality (whether it be trot or gait). This is a game changer for me!
Fred guided Makana and I through a course of fun and interesting exercises:
Changes of rein through the half circle
Changes of direction through bends—shoulder in to haunches in to shoulder out
Shoulder in to half pass to walk pirouette to half pass to reverse half pirouette to half pass
After Makana found her balance, softness, engagement, and suppleness through these exercises at a collected walk, Fred released us along a straight line into a flat walk and WOW it felt terrific!
The two lessons I had with Fred Kappler have set me on a new course of training gaited dressage. Going forward, I will spend more time riding lateral exercises at a collected walk before releasing Makana into flat walk along a straight line. I will add more transitions between exercises, more transitions between directions of bend, and more transitions between gaits. All of these exercises improve balance, engagement, connection, roundness, strength, and quality of movement.
Adding to the education was the amazing feeling of community I felt with the people who attended this clinic. Fred is unique when compared with most clinicians. He enjoys sharing his wealth of experiences outside of lesson time and is an entertaining storyteller. Deb, the owner of Amity West Stables, is an inspiring rider and trainer with amazingly talented horses. I watched her lessons with Fred and was impressed with witnessing piaffe and passage, canter pirouettes, tempe changes, extended trot, half pass, and more. Not to forget that Deb is a lot of fun to hang around with, as well as the many boarders there.
It was great to meet Facebook friend, Louisa, for the first time in person. She organized a marvelous matching set of four black Tennessee walking horses on a beautiful trail ride along Lester River the day before the clinic. I enjoyed reconnecting with a Walking horse friend, Becky and an eventing friend, Amy, and met new friends Nikki, Michelle, Pam, and the barn staff at Amity West Stables.
I hope it will be the first of many re-connections with this fun-loving group of dressage riders—both gaited and non-gaited. (As for Fred, will he and I live another 22 years for a reunion? Awe, maybe. Hopefully I will get a chance to ride with him sooner than later!)
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.