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2015 NWHA First Level Dressage Champion

Naturally gaited TWH Gift of Freedom ridden by Jennifer Klitzke was named 2015 NWHA First Level Champion.
Naturally gaited TWH Gift of Freedom ridden by Jennifer Klitzke was named 2015 NWHA First Level Champion.

By Jennifer Klitzke

When I bought my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Gift of Freedom (Makana) in 2007, I had no intentions on showing her—especially in dressage—because I thought dressage was only for horses that trot. I just wanted a smooth horse to ride that would be easier on my aging body. Since dressage had been the only riding style I had studied since 1988, that’s what became our training language.

Since I lived on a hobby farm with no gaited dressage instructors nearby, I rode by myself and applied knowledge from 12 years of traditional dressage lessons and attended clinics when gaited dressage instructors traveled to my state.

In 2010, I saw that a USDF schooling dressage show would be held ten miles away. I contacted the show manager and asked if I could ride my TWH but replace trot with flat walk. She agreed. (Little did I know that the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) had already written dressage tests which did exactly that.

Getting to the show that day, I thought I would be laughed off the planet, because I’d be the only one riding a horse that didn’t trot. But I didn’t care, because it meant more to me to receive feedback from a dressage professional as to where we were at in our training as it related to rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, balance, and harmony. The feedback we received that day was meaningful, challenging, and affirming. It gave us something to work toward.

Both Makana and I enjoyed the day. My mare was relaxed and curious. I made significant connections with owners of gaited trail horses. Many of which had never considered applying their dressage training to their gaited horses until seeing gaited dressage in action. Two women even invited us to join their next trail ride. As long as Makana and I had fun, we’d try it again.

After that show I became introduced to the NWHA dressage tests which are the same as the USDF tests with flat walk in place of trot.

Five years and fifty-five gaited dressage tests later, USDF schooling dressage show judges have provided constructive feedback to help us grow in our training from Intro through Training to First Level and have challenged us to face all of the required movements in both directions. This would be easy to avoid if we were just hacking at home.

In 2015, the NWHA launched a dressage awards program. I have so much gratitude for the NWHA. I appreciate all of the hard work in getting the tests approved through the USDF every four years. If it weren’t for these tests, I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to show at open USDF schooling dressage shows the last five years. For these reasons I became a NWHA member to support the dressage awards program.

In 2015, Makana and I showed at five USDF open schooling shows as the only gaited horse among the trotting horses and rode 10 NWHA tests (two at Training Level and eight at First Level). Five scores were required from three different “L” (or higher) judges within a level to qualify and one test being the highest of the level. The horse with the highest median score would determin the winner.

2015 Gaited Dressage Show Record

May 2, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Jodi Ely
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 68.2%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 70.4%

May 9, 2015
Arbor Hill Schooling Dressage Show
Stillwater, MN
Judge: Molly Schiltgen
NWHA Training Level Test 3: 67.27%
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.56%

May 30, 2015
Northwoods Schooling Dressage Show
Corcoran, MN
Judge: Colleen Holden
NWHA First Level Test 1: 65.926%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 70.294%

August 2, 2015
Carriage House Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Hugo, MN
Judge: Jennie Zimmerman
NWHA First Level Test 1: 64.07%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 62.06%

August 15, 2015
Wildfire Farms Schooling Dressage Show
Maple Lake, MN
Judge: Nancy Porter
NWHA First Level Test 1: 66.5%
NWHA First Level Test 3: 63.9%

I’m happy to announce that Makana and I were named Champion in First Level, followed by Banner’s Dixie Belle ridden by Scot MacGregor, and Heat Stroke ridden by Pamela Polydoros.

For complete dressage award results visit www.NWHA.com.


From Trail to Rail to Dressage?

Jennie Jackson and Cynthia Priebe
Pictured left to right: Dressage en Gaite Clinician Jennie Jackson, Heritage Walking Horse Temp’s Red Rascal, and Cynthia Priebe.

By Cynthia Priebe, Guest Writer

If you Google “Dressage,” you will learn it is a French term most  commonly translated to “training.” To most horsemen it conjures up
images of horse and rider teams such as Charlotte DuJardin and the great Valegro. We think of FEI, USEF, WEG and the Olympics.
We may think of Levels, tests and Freestyle performances. We recognize and may even understand a leg yield, shoulder-fore or shoulderin. We may not however think of our gaited horses doing these maneuvers, but we should!

Dressage at its most fundamental is a standardized and progressive training method intended to bring out a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to do what its rider asks of it. At its peak, the horse will respond ably to a rider’s minimal aids. The team performs together and it looks effortless. It is NOT breed specific. All horses can benefit from its principles and techniques.

However, over the years if I would discuss dressage as could be applied to my TWH, I would receive odd looks, wrinkled up noses, scoffs or comments of “Dressage does not and cannot apply to a Walking Horse.” If I was referring to the Equestrian sport of the FEI, USEF or USDF, they are correct, but I was referring to its principles and exercises for training.

The last few years have changed that. Gaited Dressage though not widespread is now recognized. Facebook and Web pages are dedicated to the subject. Clinicians and trainers of the gaited horse have written books, posted videos and sell DVD’s.

This past April, Temp’s Red Rascal and I attended a Jennie Jackson’s Dressage en Gaite Clinic. A day of watching other riders learn how to apply dressage principles to their gaited horses, and a one-on-one session of our own. Rascal and I haven’t really done anything but ride around the barn for the last few years. Improving health and other factors have revitalized my energy. Rascal’s abilities, temperament and patience have revitalized my confidence. My goal – use dressage to get us both back into shape.

Cynthia and her Heritage Walking Horse Temp's Red Rascal
Cynthia and her Heritage Walking Horse Temp’s Red Rascal

Jennie is so good at communicating with any and all levels of rider experience. She is patient, and really understands the gaited horse. She helped me understand where we are in the training pyramid and what we might be capable of. We successfully performed leg yields and shoulder-in and learned a new way to warm up for focus, muscle elasticity and increased responsiveness to the aids all without expending the energy Rascal would need to perform properly. May not seem like much, but what we learned that day has completely changed our relationship and what we have been able to accomplish together since.

Most of the Walking Horses at the clinic were from show bloodlines, and Rascal presented very differently so I seized the clinic as an
opportunity to discuss the Heritage Walking Horse. Other than Jennie, no one was familiar. Jennie explained how Rascal’s temperament, build and “On/off” switch where hallmarks of
the Heritage horse. She took the time to explain that though Rascal’s build kept him from having a big over stride, it was not what he was bred for. He was bred for a steady and consistent 4 beat gait that would cover uneven ground safely. So proud that Temp’s Red Rascal could be an ambassador for the Heritage Walking Horse that day!

Since the clinic, Rascal has been improving in all aspects of his condition, responsiveness and ability. He has actually increased his stride length which I attribute to our lateral work and the conditioning that dressage provides. We plan on showing again this year in Halter, Western Pleasure and Horsemanship (Equitation.)
I am not sure where we will pin, but I know we will have more fun this year than we have had in long time. And I am looking forward to the growth of Gaited Dressage and the possibility of testing in the near future on Temp’s Red Rascal.

So next time you hear “Dressage,” think Dressage en Gaite!

For more about the International Heritage Walking Horse Society, visit IHWHA.com.

To learn more about Jennie Jackson and her dressage en gaite clinic schedule, visit Jennie Jackson’s Dressage en Gaite Facebook Group.


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


Naturally Gaited Dressage

naturally gaited dressage by jennifer klitzke

By Jennifer Klitzke

To me naturally gaited dressage is a humane method of training and communicating with a horse that brings about beauty and harmony, balance, rhythm, relaxation, and suppleness, which results in gait quality. It develops a connection of trust and respect between horse and rider, and as the relationship grows in trust, understanding, skill and refinement, the horse and rider transform into a wonderful dance partnership without the use of heavy shoes, big bits and spurs, and mechanical devices.

I took my naturally gaited walking horse Makana to North Run Farm for our last schooling dressage show of the season. We were the only gaited entry among trotting horses. I bring her to schooling dressage shows because I like to get feedback from a professional eye as to where we are at in our training as it relates to balance, rhythm, gaits, impulsion, submission, harmony, rider position and effective use of aids, and accuracy of the required movements. It helps confirm areas of improvement and areas we still need to work on.

At the North Run show several spectators were given an introduction to dressage as it applies to the gaited horse. After every two test rides, the arena opened for ten minutes of schooling, so Makana’s expressive head shaking movement was quite the contrast as we warmed up with the trotting horses! Many onlookers had never seen a gaited horse ridden dressage style, barefoot and in a snaffle bit (without mechanical devices, big bits, and heavy shoes). Plus, the SMOOTH ride was evident in comparison to the bouncy sitting trot.

Thanks to the fine coaching I had received from Jennie Jackson this summer, the dressage judge remembered us from last year and commented on how we had made a noticeable improvement. We placed 5th of 9 in Training Level with a score of 67% and 4th of 6 in First Level with a score of 68.966%.

A huge thank you to my wonderful husband who volunteered to film my rides. (Wow, I love that man!)


Video: Warming up with the Trotters

Video: 2011 NWHA Training Level Test Three