Rhythm is the first of the dressage Scales of Training and is the most important of the Scales. If your horse does not work in the correct regular rhythm and appropriate tempo, you cannot hope to progress through the levels successfully.
In this article, we explain how to ride your horse in a good rhythm, as well as giving you some helpful exercises to help you to correct problems with your horse’s walk and canter rhythm.
First of all, let’s address a common cause of confusion for newbie dressage riders, the difference between rhythm and tempo.
Rhythm and tempo
The terms “rhythm” and “tempo” are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to two completely different things.
Rhythm refers to the footfalls of the gait. In dressage, the rhythm must be correct and regular:
- The walk is four beats
- The trot is two beats
- The canter is three beats
- The rein-back is two beats
If the rhythm does not clearly have the correct number of beats in the correct sequence, it will be marked down by the judge as being “irregular.” Irregularity is always heavily penalized in each movement and also in the collective marks at the bottom of the test sheet.
The word “tempo” refers to the speed of the rhythm. The tempo should remain the same throughout each movement, with no increase or decrease in speed.
That said, the tempo may change slightly, depending on the movement being executed. For example, the collected trot has a slower tempo than that shown in the medium trot or extended trot. Note that, at the advanced levels, the difference in tempo between movements is minimal.
Other terms that refer to rhythm
As you progress up the dressage levels, you will hear other terms that are used in the same breath as rhythm. These terms further define the quality of the gaits and will be more easily understood when you have a firm grasp of the concepts of rhythm and tempo.
The first collective mark (Paces) refers to the “freedom and regularity” of the horse’s gaits.
Regularity refers to the purity of the gait. The steps should be even in length and height, and there should be equality of time between the steps of the right and left forelimbs or the right and left hind limbs.
Common faults that are penalized under the regularity collective include a lateral or pacing walk and a two-time or four-time canter where there is no clear moment of suspension, and the gait appears flat and camel-like.
Cadence is the marked accentuation of the gait’s rhythm and beat that arises because of the correct tempo in harmony with a springy impulsion.
The moment of suspension occurs in the trot, canter, or passage when the horse has no feet in contact with the ground.
Check your horse’s rhythm
The quality of each individual horse’s rhythm is determined by his natural paces. Most horses work in a clear rhythm naturally, whereas others can lose the purity of the gaits from time-to-time. Also, the rider can have a strong positive or negative influence on the horse’s rhythm.
The rhythm in the walk should be clearly four-beat.
Sometimes, tension causes a horse to lose the clear four-beat rhythm, causing the legs on the same side to swing together, creating a lateral or pacing movement.
That’s a serious fault in a dressage horse and always receives a mark of 4 for each exercise in which the fault is present. Often, if the horse is very tense, the medium walk becomes lateral, but as soon as the rider releases the contact in the free walk, the rhythm corrects itself as the horse relaxes.
A lateral walk will also earn a very poor score for paces in the collective marks, usually a 5.
You should be able to count out loud, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four when the horse is walking. If you can’t do that, the walk rhythm is most likely incorrect.
The trot should have a two-beat rhythm with a clear moment of suspension. So, you will be able to count one-two, one-two, as the horse trots around the arena.
If the horse’s trot rhythm is not clearly two-beat, he is probably unsound or is a gaited horse. For example, a horse that has been trained as a trotter.
The canter should have a three-time rhythm with a clear moment of suspension, so you will be able to count, one-two-three, one-two-three.
In dressage horses, the canter can sometimes be four-beat. That occurs when the rider slows the canter too much and loses the impulsion and jump as a result.
When a horse is tense or very unbalanced, the rhythm can become two-time, and the pace becomes a mixture of the trot and canter.
Other ways of checking your horse’s rhythm
A pair of eyes on the ground is invaluable when it comes to checking your horse’s rhythm. If you’re unsure about the purity of your horse’s paces, ask your trainer to watch your horse working.
Watching your horse working on the lunge will help you to see whether the rhythm is correct. If everything is fine without the addition of a rider, but problems occur when the horse is ridden, look to yourself and your riding before you decide that your horse has poor paces!
A video is an excellent tool that you can use to assess your horse’s rhythm. Ask someone to video you when you’re schooling your horse. You may notice that your horse loses rhythm when executing specific movements, such as turns or small circles. In that case, the problem could be balance or suppleness-related. If you’re unsure, ask a professional trainer to review the video with you.
Is your horse out of his depth?
Sometimes, problems with the rhythm occur because the horse is being pushed out of his comfort zone too early in his dressage career.
Be sure to progress systematically and steadily up the levels, keeping the Scales of Training to the forefront of your mind. Pushing your horse for too much too soon usually results in a loss of balance or excessive tension that eventually corrupts the correct rhythm.
So, if you discover that your horse’s previously good rhythm has deteriorated, do some detective work to find out why that could be. For example, if there are no soundness issues to be considered, the problem could be balanced-related. Alternatively, perhaps the horse is not sufficiently laterally supple to execute a half-pass without losing rhythm. But does that problem only occur on one rein, or does the rhythm fail on both?
Once you’ve figured out where the problem lies, you can work with your trainer on how to fix it.
How to fix problems with the walk rhythm
As previously mentioned, if the walk rhythm is incorrect, you will receive very poor marks. Unfortunately, the walk is the most challenging of the paces to improve. However, there are a few exercises that you can try to help fix a broken walk rhythm.
Tension through the horse’s back and neck can corrupt the walk rhythm. That can be caused by tension in the rider’s thigh and hips, which transfers to the horse, affecting the gait immediately. You can check that you’re not tipping forward onto your crotch with a tight thigh and locked hip by practicing the following exercise:
Exercise 1: Leg loosener
- Ride this exercise in halt.
- Keep sufficient pressure in your stirrup to prevent it from slipping off your foot.
- Lift one knee off the saddle, leaving a few inches of space between the horse’s side and your leg.
- Allow your leg to drop back into place so that you have less weight on the front of your thigh than on the back.
- Check that your seat is positioned just behind your knee, rather than right on top of it.
- Keep your hip aligned with your heel.
- Make sure that your seat is relaxed, feeling the contact between the saddle and your inner thigh, but without gripping.
- Repeat the exercise with the other leg.
Once you can do that comfortably, practice lifting both legs away from the saddle at the same time, balancing on just your seat bones.
This exercise can be ridden at walk, trot, and canter, depending on how good your balance is. Ride the exercise with one leg at a time or both together, and use a neck strap to help you balance, never the reins.
Never use a pushing or driving seat in the walk, even if your horse is not marching forward. Always ask for more activity with your leg. Also, be sure to allow the contact forward toward the horse’s mouth, never pulling the rein back toward your body. That will cause the horse to tighten through his back and neck, often resulting in a lateral walk.
Exercise 2: Shoulder-fore in the walk
If tension is not the issue that’s corrupting the walk rhythm, using shoulder-fore can help to address the problem.
Create a good inside bend by using your inside leg on the girth. Turn your body to the inside, taking both hands toward the inside and bringing your horse’s shoulders slightly in from the track. At the same time, use your outside leg slightly behind the girth to prevent the quarters from swinging out to evade the bend. Make sure that you do not use too much rein contact, which could create tension in the horse’s neck.
By creating extra bend, you will encourage the horse to be supple though his body while using his hind legs correctly. That can prevent the horse from walking in a two-beat rhythm.
By riding your horse in a slight shoulder-fore position in your dressage tests, you can achieve just enough bend to keep the walk rhythm pure.
Fixing problems with the canter rhythm
The four-beat canter is a common problem that usually stems from a lack of impulsion and weakness in the horse’s outside leg. If the horse does not have his outside hind leg underneath his body, his quarters can escape to the outside, forcing the inside leg to take more weight and creating a disconnected, four-beat gait.
So, you must keep the outside leg working actively and pushing off the ground quickly. If that’s not happening, there are two useful exercises that can solve the problem.
Exercise 1: Control the hind legs through a corner
When riding through corners, be sure to keep your outside leg on to guard the hindquarters and prevent them from swinging out, Alternatively, keep your inside leg on to stop the haunches from coming in, depending which of the horse’s hind legs is weaker.
Keep in mind that, at all times except when executing lateral work, the horse should be moving on one track with his hind legs directly behind his shoulders.
Exercise 2: Shoulder-in to quarters-in to shoulder-in
One of the most effective ways of fixing a canter rhythm is by improving your horse’s suppleness with lateral exercises.
- In canter, ride the horse in shoulder-in or shoulder-fore from the corner down the long side of the arena for six strides.
- Then put the horse into travers (quarters-in) for six steps, and then back into shoulder-in.
- Repeat the exercise on both reins.
- You can make the exercise more challenging as your horse becomes more supple by riding the exercise on a 20-meter circle.
This exercise ensures that you have the horse’s forehand to the inside with the correct bend, but then you move the forehand back to the track and ask the horse to yield behind you, placing his outside hind leg directly beneath his center of gravity, increasing both activity and suppleness.
A correct, regular rhythm is essential if you are to make progress up the dressage levels and be successful in competition.
Without a good rhythm, you will never be awarded good marks in a dressage test and you will have no foundation to build upon.
Have you ever had problems with a horse’s rhythm? Tell us about it in the comments below.