When my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana was four years old, I took her to her first gaited dressage clinic with Bucky Sparks. I was so excited to be there and soak in all I could in beginning our gaited dressage journey.
I love Bucky’s teaching philosophy, because he blends traditional dressage with practical elements of natural horsemanship.
Most of the time Makana stands perfectly still for me to get on, but not when she is nervous or tense. When my lesson time came I literally had a panic attack before the auditors, because every time I put my foot in the iron, Makana would walk off. I was so frightened.
Thanks to Bucky, he showed me a profoundly helpful tip that worked that day and has helped me every time Makana doesn’t want to stand for me to get on.
How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand:
1. Teach the horse to flex their nose to the side by drawing one rein to the saddle. Reward the horse by releasing as soon as the horse gives. Relaxation is what is the goal, not making the horse flex. Signs of relaxation include a lowering of the head and neck and when the horse licks its lips and chews.
If the horse has tension in the poll, neck or shoulder, address these areas individually to release the tension before expecting a soft and relaxed flex to the side.
2. Once the horse understands how to flex to the side and is soft and relaxed in doing so, then flex and release the horse a few times until the horse chews and lowers its head and neck.
3. Then flex the horse to the saddle and keep the horse flexed while repositioning the mounting block and get on. Then release the flex as a reward and encourage the horse to remain standing.
While I was at the clinic my horse kept walking off while in a flexed position. Bucky said, “You can’t make a horse stand.” Don’t punish the horse. Just remain calm to encourage relaxation, keep the horse flexed and gently follow the horse around. He said, “Pretty soon the horse will discover it is a lot easier to stand while being flexed than to walk around being flexed.” Bucky was right. It didn’t take long and as soon as my horse stopped, I repositioned the mounting block, got on, and released the flex. Then we moved on to the gaited dressage lesson.
This tip worked for me at the clinic and continues to work for me each time my horse doesn’t stand when I try to get on.
Video: How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand
I believe that riding fear is very common, and if you struggle with it, I certainly relate with you.
After a few scary falls in my early twenties, I became gripped with uncontrollable and paralyzing riding fear to the point of hyperventilation. The fear controlled me because I felt out of control whenever my horse did something that MIGHT result in me falling off and getting hurt again. I only felt safe riding in an indoor arena with no distractions on a calm day riding to the left at a walk.
I faced a cross roads: give up riding horses, my passion, or meet this fear head on. Thankfully the latter won out!
During the course of the last 26 years, I have developed a theory about spooky horses and nervous riders which is based upon my plight with riding fear, coupled with the people (and my faith) who have made a difference in helping me manage it. Most helpful to me are a blend of teachings from these great mentors: Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer who have taught me how to become a trusted leader, Jennie Jackson who has taught me gaited dressage and riding confidence, and Mary Wanless who has taught me a secure riding position.
My theory begins with this: I don’t believe that there are bomb-proof horses. I think some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider will heighten a horse’s reactivity. I’ve seen it dozens of times when an owner turns over a spooky horse to a clinician and the horse relaxes as soon as the clinician takes over.
My husband proves it to me each time I lose my focus and struggle with my naturally gaited Walking horse when she spooks at a swaying bush on a windy day. My darling husband hops on and in a matter of minutes he’s riding by the disco bush without a care. I’ve had hundreds of dressage lessons over the last 27 years and he’s had a handful. So how does he do it?
For starters I believe that God brought horses into my life to mirror my soul and help me get in touch with what’s really going on. I used to run to horses as an escape from a rough day only to have had the worst ride of my life. Over the years God has used horses to teach me about myself and lean on Him as my Source of Life. From time to time I lose sight of this and horses continue to humble me and keep my priorities in order. My faith has given me life purpose, meaning, identity, and the courage to persevere and not give up.
Secondly is the leadership I convey to my horse which I have learned from Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer. My Walking horse mare tends to be reactive to noise and sudden movement. How I react to her makes all the difference. When I maintain myself as a trusted leader by calmly bringing her back to balance and relaxation and redirecting her attention through transitions every few steps (walk, halt, rein back, walk, shoulder in, etc.), that’s when we are successful. BUT when I react to what she MIGHT do, irrational fear springs up in me, I tense up, make a high pitch scream, and pull on the reins (something like the top photo), and it only exacerbates the nervousness in my horse.
Most recently God has aligned my path with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson. She is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse to the highest levels of dressage with her naturally gaited stallion Champaign Watchout. I am honored to have brought her to my state for two years in a row for intensive lessons which have catapulted me and my naturally gaited mare into a fearlessly forward moving flatwalk in connection. Jennie has challenged me to confidently ride through the storms, not react to them, and train myself to replace a high-pitched scream for a low growl. These tips have increased my riding confidence and have reduced my mare’s spookiness.
Finally, developing a secure and balanced riding position builds rider confidence like none other. Right after facing my cross roads in 1988, I began studying riding bio-mechanics from Mary Wanless when she published her first book, The Natural Rider. This book addresses riding fear in a way that makes sense to me.
Since then I have purchased Mary’s Ride With Your Mind DVD series, several of her other books, and have audited her clinics whenever she comes to my region. I was fortunate enough to have ridden at one of her clinics three years ago. Mary brought the book and DVD learning to real-time application. She taught me the importance of aligning my external anatomy, breathing deep into my stomach, and the isokinetic effort of bearing down my internal anatomy and sealing my seat and thighs alongside the saddle for a more secure position while distributing my body weight more comfortably along the horse’s back. Instead of fixing the horse, she challenged me to become aware of my riding position to fix myself which naturally restores my horse’s way of going.
Mary’s riding bio-mechanics have taught me a more secure and balanced riding position. Because of this I am better able to confidently ride through spooks. As a result, there is less fear in me and I produce less reactive fear in my horse. This translates into less overall spooks and a more harmonious riding relationship with my horse.
So what is my darling husband’s secret to calmly riding my mare by the disco bush? I think he is deeply grounded in his priorities, he presents trusted leadership with the horse, and a naturally balanced riding position. If the horse were to spook, he wouldn’t get rattled by all that the horse MIGHT do. (In fact, his mind doesn’t even go there.) His secure position would keep him in the saddle, he would bring the horse back to balance and relaxation, and the horse would look to him as the trusted leader.
The example between my husband and I riding the same horse within minutes of each other with the same conditions and completely different outcomes reinforces my theory: Some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider heightens a horse’s reactivity.
If you struggle with riding fear, hang in there and persevere. I’m sure glad that I did. My struggle with debilitating fear didn’t disappear overnight. But today I enjoy showing my naturally gaited Walking horse at open schooling dressage shows, trail riding, team penning, sorting cows, endurance races, jumping courses, cross country, and trail obstacles.
Fear no longer controls my life—thank God—I am FREE!
Twenty-plus years ago fear paralyzed me to the point of panic attacks at the thought of riding and I faced a cross-roads: Do I give up my passion for riding horses or face my fear? That’s when I picked up the book The Natural Rider written by Mary Wanless. She teaches how to ride from the right side of your brain using abstract visual concepts, details how to effectively reposition your inner anatomy in ways that impact the balance point between you and your horse, and she outlines the importance of breathing while riding and its place in overcoming fear.
When I heard that the England-native author/instructor was coming to Minnesota to teach a three-day bio-mechanics riding clinic, I had to go and watch. I soaked in profoundly effective concepts like “conveyor belt,” “sling shot,” and “strings” and couldn’t get home fast enough to try them out with my naturally gaited Walking horse.
Instead of fixating on manipulating the horse each time they move off course, Mary’s approach is more about teaching the rider how to ride in state of balance and awareness that the horse is more likely to mirror.
For me, it is developing an awareness of and repositioning my inner anatomy and symmetry between the front and back, right and left sides of my body, and when bringing it all together into correct alignment have a profound impact on my horse’s way of going. Riding from this isokinetic core brings balance, stillness, power, and impact in my riding and my horse becomes lighter and more balanced with less rushing.
Mary’s clinics feature trotting horses, but her riding paradigm works equally well for riding gaited horses. When applying a few of the body repositioning concepts I learned while auditing, I felt more still without being tense, my naturally gaited walking horse felt more through from the hindquarters to the bit, and she took deeper steadier steps under her belly at a flat walk. Being more still reduces the “noise” to my horse where my aids are more clear and she becomes more responsive.
Two decades after reading The Natural Rider I am grateful to have finally met Mary Wanless in person whose concepts have helped me push through fear instead of giving up. And now she’s rekindled a love for riding like I’m learning how to ride for the very first time!
Mary Wanless is best known for her ground-breaking approach to riding known as “Ride With Your Mind.” Her teachings focus on the bio-mechanics of riding, improving the riding position, bringing the horse into self-carriage, becoming more flexible and supple, achieving harmony with your horse, and bringing joy into your riding. Her books include: The Natural Rider (1987), Ride With Your Mind (1987), Ride With Your Mind Essentials, Ride With Your Mind Masterclass (1991), For the Good of the Rider, For the Good of the Horse, Ride With Your Mind Clinic: Rider Biomechanics from Basics to Brilliance (2008).
The seasons’ dark and cold was getting the best of me, and then winter socked us with another foot of snow—just when I have been planning for upcoming shows and clinics! I have had to figure out a way to enjoy winter before cabin fever burned me alive or before I lose last summer’s weight loss.
I live in the frozen tundra where winter imprisons us for up to six months. No indoor arena. No deep pockets to travel South. If I want me and Makana my Tennessee walking horse to stay in shape, I have to get creative.
Winter riding is not new to me, but using the snow to improve and condition my horse’s gaits is a new concept. The snow has encouraged my gaited horse to lift her shoulders and engage from behind, so much so that I now know what the rocking chair canter feels like. I’m hoping that winter riding will ingrain muscle memory in Makana and for me, the “feel” of the rocking chair canter.
The snow has also introduced Makana and me to the Tennessee trot. Yes, I know that I’m crossing the thresh holds of taboo, but I believe that my Walking Horse is established in her naturally smooth four-beat gaits enough to develop another gait on cue. So adding to the free walk, medium walk, flat walk, running walk, canter and counter-canter, we are tackling the trot. After all, I’ve enjoyed 25 years of riding traditional dressage horses, so trot is a welcomed gait. I believe that as long as the trot is trained on cue, it will not disrupt Makana’s naturally smooth four-beat gaits.
Here are my cues for flat walk and trot:
For flat walk and running walk, I encourage Makana to lift in the shoulders, and I follow her head nod with a light rein contact. At the same time, I lighten myself in the saddle by distributing my weight into my thighs. This allows Makana to neutralize instead of hollow her back.
For trot, I hold my weight in my thighs and hug my calves through the upward transition while holding a light steady contact with the reins. This holding the reins with a steady contact discourages the head nod and encourages the trot. Then I post instead of sit each trot step. Every stretch of trot on cue is followed up with flat walk and canter.
Not only is riding in the snow an utter blast, but it has been a good workout for both me and Makana (especially the posting trot). Who knows, if I can develop Makana’s trot on cue in and out of the snow, nothing will stop us from entering the traditional dressage shows!
Remember, dressage is more than trot (but gaited horses can learn trot on cue, too, and it won’t ruin their naturally smooth gait!)
Video: Walkin’ in Wonderland
Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!