Rhythm is the first stage in the Scales of Training, so I thought it was worth writing a blog post about it so that everyone understands the equestrian version of the word.
The Oxford Dictionary gives many definitions of the word rhythm, one if which is:
“A strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound“
Now to equestrians, this is extrapolated to mean “the regularity of the gait” and that means that the speed of the horse`s gait does not change whether the horse is going around a corner or on a straight line. Rhythm also means that the gait is regular – four beats in the walk, two in the trot, and three in the canter.
When I first start riding a horse, or teaching a lesson, I assess the rhythm of the horse in walk and trot.
In the walk I`m looking for the horse to be walking purposefully, and have an active stride. That means he`s not dragging his toes. Often people mistake active for fast, and the horse develops a rushed, choppy stride whilst dragging themselves along on the forehand. When this happens I look at transitions between walk and halt. By slowing the speed of the walk the horse begins to take the weight off his forehand and stops rushing. This improves the horse`s balance as well. Then by pushing the walk on, but remembering to keep a consistent rein contact so that the energy doesn`t flow out the front end. Almost imagine you are filling a sink with water. If the plug isn`t in then the sink doesn`t fill up. If the rein contact is slack or non existent then the horse doesn`t fill up with energy. Back to improving the rhythm of the walk. A transition from halt into walk will encourage the horse to push with their hindquarters so it will improve the quality of the walk from the off. Once the walk becomes regular you can wrap your legs around and generate a bit of activity into the strides, whilst being careful not to change the rhythm. Adding in circles and changes of rein will check that your horse can maintain this level of walk consistently, and not lose his balance on a circle.
Moving up into trot. The principles are the same, and I like to use transitions within the trot to help the horse find his natural rhythm in the trot. Again, you want to keep the trot steady until the rhythm is established, and then you can generate a bit more activity and energy as the horse is less likely to fall onto the forehand. Once the rhythm is established around the arena I start putting in some 20m circles and once the horse can maintain his rhythm on this size circle I begin making things harder – smaller circles and serpentines. All the time checking that the horse can maintain the quality to his trot. When they rush or slow down they have lost their balance, so take the time to re-establish the rhythm and try again, or make the movement slightly bigger until the horse finds this simple.
The canter is a three beat rhythm, which can be harder to improve. Initially, I look at the horse maintaining the speed of the canter in straight lines, corners and then half circles across the school. I build this up and sometimes add in a little counter canter with shallow loops to make sure the rhythm is fully established. Then I look at ensuring the canter is three beat. Again, counter canter can help this as the inside hind leg (being the one which is part of the diagonal pair) has to travel further in counter canter, so the muscles and tendons are stretched. Then back on normal canter the diagonal pair tend to hit the floor in sync.
Poles can be used to help improve the rhythm of a gait, as well as improving the arc of the stride. I used raised poles with a client in canter to improve the rhythm of the horse`s canter. The horse tends to fall into a four beat rhythm, so the poles encouraged him to step under with his inside hind, as well as encouraging him to use his abdominals and lift his back. With his back lifted slightly more there is a bit more room for his inside hind leg to come through, so he is more likely to have a correct three beat gait. My rider felt the improvement for a few strides after the raised poles, and it gave her the correct feeling to strive to achieve around the rest of the arena.
Once the three beat canter is established the rider can bring the canter back and push it on, to help the hindquarters become the motor and then to generate some impulsion – that is, energy without speed. Then of course the whole thing can begin again on circles of decreasing sizes.
Hopefully the word rhythm is now clearer in your head, and each schooling session can have time spent on ensuring that your horse has a good and consistent rhythm and then from there you can look at the second stage of training, suppleness.