You may have heard the term “cadence” mentioned when describing the way in which a dressage horse moves.
So, what is cadence? Why does the dressage horse need cadence? And how do you create cadence in your dressage horse?
Here are the answers to those questions and more!
What is cadence?
Cadence is shown in trot and canter. It cannot be shown in the walk, as the walk has no moment of suspension.
To the onlooker, a horse that is working with obvious cadence is supremely athletic and light on his feet, appearing as if he is dancing on air. The trot and canter are expressive and full of energy and lift.
According to the USDF Glossary of Dressage Judging Terms, cadence is defined as:
“The marked accentuation of the rhythm and (musical) beat that is a result of a steady and suitable tempo harmonizing with a springy impulsion.”
The FEI Rule Book 2021 states that:
“Cadence is shown in trot and canter and is the result of the proper harmony that a horse shows when it moves with well-marked regularity, impulsion, and balance. Cadence must be maintained in all the different trot or canter exercises and in all the variations of these paces.”
How is cadence created in the dressage horse?
To create cadence, you need to develop the horse’s paces.
You must add impulsion and energy to the steps, increasing the moment of suspension and making the rhythm more clearly defined, and you do that by activating the horse’s hindquarters.
Essentially, it’s the hindquarters that create the power that you need to develop and maintain cadence.
Some horses are naturally gifted in that they are loose in the back, and their paces have natural suspension. Horses that possess natural cadence find the collected work very easy because they are naturally engaged, which makes life much easier for their riders.
However, even if your horse has “ordinary” paces, you can still improve his paces and develop cadence.
Although a horse working at a novice level won’t have the same degree of cadence as a Grand Prix horse, he can still have the basics in place that allow you to develop it.
Developing cadence in the dressage horse
Before we look at some exercises to develop cadence in your horse’s trot and canter, there are two basic prerequisites that you need to have in place:
1 – Rhythm!
Your horse must work in a correct two-time trot rhythm and three-beat canter rhythm.
The horse’s back should swing underneath you when you ride in rising and sitting trot with no signs of tension or resistance.
Until your horse is physically strong enough to maintain that quality consistently, you shouldn’t try to work on anything collected.
Related Read: How to Get a Good Rhythm
2 – An effective half-halt
You can’t develop collection and cadence in the trot or canter until you can ride an effective half-halt.
To ride the half-halt, sit in the deepest part of the saddle, close your hands, emphasizing your outside hand, and hold the horse with your upper thighs. As a result, the horse’s hindquarters should become more active and engaged.
The horse should remain quiet and elastic in the contact through and after the half-halt.
Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt
Exercises to develop and improve cadence
Using cavaletti or raised poles is an excellent way of strengthening your horse and developing cadence, especially in horses with a flat stride.
The following cavaletti exercises are designed to be ridden in trot, but can also be ridden in canter.
Generally, the distance between cavaletti for a trot stride is between 3′ and 5’, and canter is 9′-11′. However, you’ll need to have a helper on the ground to adjust the distance to suit your horse, and also to be on hand in case your horse knocks any of them.
Exercise 1 – Ride a straight line
Set out a straight line of five to eight cavaletti at the lowest setting.
(You can use more if your horse is confident and you have enough cavaletti.)
In a lively working trot, ride over the cavaletti.
Start in rising trot, keeping the horse working forward through his back into an elastic contact. Focus on the rhythm.
You should feel the horse’s stomach muscles lifting and his back coming up underneath you as he steps over the poles.
Ultimately, you want to get that same feeling without the cavaletti.
Exercise 2 – Ride an arc
Set the poles in an arc.
The correct distance for your horse’s stride length should be measured at the center of the cavaletti.
Ride through the center of the cavaletti in a rising trot.
Now, ride through the cavaletti in sitting trot, guiding your horse around the inner part of the arc where the distance is shorter.
That will make the horse lift his back and carry the weight more.
NOTE: Only ride sitting trot if you can follow your horse’s movement without causing him to shorten his stride or stiffen through the back.
Raise the cavaletti slightly and repeat the exercise.
That will encourage the horse to take more elevated, cadenced steps.
If your horse is more advanced, you might try placing the cavaletti on a 15-meter circle and riding through them in sitting trot.
Exercise 3 – Forward and back
This exercise uses transitions within the trot or canter to create greater engagement, elevation, and cadence.
You can ride the exercise in a 40-meter or 60-meter arena.
In trot or canter, on the right rein, ride shoulder-fore from C through the corner.
Half-halt with the outside rein while closing your inside leg to balance the horse.
Keep your outside leg slightly back to guard the quarters and prevent them from swinging out.
After M on the long side, make the horse straight, and ride five or six strides of medium trot or canter.
Keep your legs on and ease your hand as you go.
As you approach B, put the horse back into shoulder-fore. Sit deep, ride a half-halt with your outside rein, and use your inside leg to create more impulsion.
At B, ride a 10-meter circle.
That rebalances and collects the horse.
After completing the circle at B, ride shoulder-fore for a few strides, and then ask for a medium trot or canter again for five or six steps.
Before you reach the F marker, collect the horse and put him back into shoulder-fore.
What should happen?
Repeat the exercise a few times, and you will find that your horse will step underneath himself automatically, staying light in your hand when you ride the transition back into the collected pace.
The result should be a more collected, elevated, expressive, and cadenced pace with maximum energy and lift.
The development of light, elegant, cadenced paces is the ultimate goal of all dressage riders.
Creating cadence takes time, as the horse must be well-established in the basics of the Scales of Training, as well as being physically strong enough to carry himself and his rider with lightness, athleticism, and in perfect rhythm and balance.