Establishing Rhythm, Don’t Interrupt Me

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Executed and linked together in a flowing rhythm, the individual movements in a dressage test or reining pattern become an expressive dance between horse and rider. Without rhythm, that same sequence of movements becomes a mechanical sequence of gymnastic exercises. It can be as uncomfortable to watch.

Just to review, rhythm means the beat, the regularity of the horse’s footballs. Think of it as the cadence set by the signature in a piece of music. We want to hear and feel four even, steady beats at the walk, two at the trot or jog, and three at the canter. Tempo is the measure of the time between the beats while a stride is the distance covered by all four feet within a given gait before the pattern of footfalls repeats. The tempo may vary as the length of the horse’s stride changes from normal to extended (longer stride) or to collected (shorter stride) but the rhythm should remain regular and consistent.

In our program at Meredith Manor, the rhythmic relationship between horse and rider begins on the ground. It starts as the handler catches the horse then continues while she grooms it then leads it to the arena. If she does anything that startles the horse such as jerking on the lead rope or letting the hoof she cleaned just drop to the floor, she interrupts the rhythmic feeling she wants to create from the moment she arrives in the horse’s pasture or stall. When we do ground work with our horses or longe them, we continue working in rhythmic patterns. The horse mirrors the rhythm we present to him. Rhythm is the bottom rung in our training tree because it is the essential tool we use to establish relaxation, the second rung.

Rhythm not only helps the horse remain relaxed at all gaits. It is also essential if the horse is to become balanced and able to execute smooth up or down transitions. Without rhythm, the horse will be unable to advance in its training. Those even, regular footfalls create a ride that, to an observer, flows smoothly from movement to movement with seamless transitions regardless of changes in tempo or gait.

The rider carries the responsibility for establishing rhythm into the horse’s saddle work. It takes a good rider with a truly independent seat to help a green horse learn to use its body rhythmically. Anything that the rider does to interrupt the evenness of the horse’s footfalls interrupts the horse’s rhythm. If the rider momentarily gets out of balance and grabs at the reins for support, she interrupts the horse’s rhythm. If the rider is unable to follow the horse’s motion, she interrupts the horse’s rhythm whenever she falls forward or gets left behind.

An independent seat is critical to helping a horse establish rhythm because it is the seat that is the primary aid a rider uses to establish rhythm. If a horse becomes nervous or excited, inexperienced riders often try to correct the problem with stronger rein aids or they instinctively grip with their legs. From the horse’s standpoint, these things only raise the excitement level and interrupt the rhythm even more. The rider with an independent seat can use her seat to reestablish rhythm without necessarily changing whatever she was doing with her rein and leg aids when the horse became excited. In doing so, she helps the horse relax.

A rider with an independent seat can show a green youngster what rhythm feels like. In the beginning, the horse may have difficulty finding its balance while carrying a rider. Or uneven muscling may mean it has uneven gaits. The rider who can set a steady rhythm with her seat can help the green horse through these awkward stages.

Sometimes horses lose their rhythm because their riders confuse “forward” with “faster.” The rider interrupts the natural flow of the horse’s footfalls with leg aids that are too strong and the horse leaps forward into a faster tempo instead of smoothly transitioning into it. A careful observer notes that the interruption of the strong aid has created tension in the horse and his muscles look tight and hard. When a horse is moving rhythmically, its muscles not only look strong but also relaxed and soft.

The green rider can begin to get a feel for rhythm by counting the beats in the gait out loud. Humming or singing a song that matches the horse’s rhythm also helps. If an insecure seat interrupts the horse’s rhythm, longeing exercises can help develop balance and the ability to follow the horse’s motion.

Once the rider has a basic feel for rhythm, she can begin to work on walk-trot transitions and half halts in all kinds of combinations. This is an excellent way for the novice rider to learn to use her seat rhythmically and to get her horse paying attention to her seat as an aid. Once horse and rider are working rhythmically on the flat, they can repeat these transition exercises on uneven ground or while working up and down hills. Working over ground poles or cavaletti is a classic training technique to teach the horse a sense of rhythm and to teach the rider to allow the horse to move forward freely.

Establishing good rhythm is a difficult without the help of an experienced observer. Setting and changing the distances between ground poles or cavaletti, for instance, must be done with careful consideration of the individual horse’s normal stride and current level of training. When the rider does something that interrupts the rhythm, an experienced instructor can pinpoint whether the cause was a lack of balance, an inability to follow the horse’s motion, an incorrectly applied rein or leg aid, or a problem with coordinating the aids. Then he or she can find an exercise prescription that addresses the rider’s specific problem.

While rhythm may be a simple concept to describe, it is a complicated goal to achieve. Good rhythm depends on the ability of the rider to fully coordination all the aids and to use them to influence the horse. It also requires that the horse’s muscles be gymnastically developed so that he can carry himself in a steady rhythm over a period of time. In order for a horse and rider to flow rhythmically through a dressage test or reining pattern, they must first put in a lot of hours of hard work. Just keep riding.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

MM has opened many doors for me. As a graduate with top honors, I recommend MM to anyone interested in pursuing a career in the horse industry. Along with my fellow graduates, I have serviced top of the line facilities, run successful programs & have ridden with international riders & trainers. Thanks Meredith Manor!
Catherine Butski: 2003 Riding Master VI Graduate