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The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm

dressage rhythm scales of training


We all know what ‘rhythm’ means, right? But in regard to horses, it encompasses more than just what we might put in musical terms as ‘beat’.

Rhythm is the foundation of good equitation, and in short, if your horse does not have rhythm, you have nothing to build upon and no way to progress.

In this article, we explore the reasons why rhythm is so important, what makes up a correct rhythm, and what causes an irregular or incorrect rhythm.

RECAP: The scales of training

The scales are designed to provide a systematic and logical framework for training the dressage horse.

When used correctly, they create an equine athlete who works in a perfect balance and makes the most of the movement they naturally possess.

They are usually depicted as a pyramid, with rhythm as the foundation through to collection as the pinnacle.

The scales are meant to be approached in this order, although there are occasions when one can be skipped over in order to work on improving another, there are no shortcuts!

For your horse to achieve its maximum potential, it’s crucial that you work methodically through the scales, making steady progress.

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Why is rhythm important in dressage?

Rhythm is the first official scale in the dressage scales of training.

As the first of the training scales, you need to have a really clear understanding of what is required before you can consider that you have fulfilled this scale, because without it, moving on to the subsequent scales is pointless.

When the rhythm and/or tempo are irregular, the horse’s back cannot swing. This prevents energy from flowing through the horse from his hind legs to the contact.

A horse with an irregular rhythm will not be able to be supple, maintain a consistent and elastic contact, or engage his hind legs correctly for balance and collection.

In contrast, a good rhythm will provide the following benefits:

  • Helps to keep the horse both mentally and physically loose (relaxation)
  • Promotes confidence in the horse
  • Helps to maintain balance (in both horse and rider)
  • Enables the rider to correctly time their aids
  • Creates a more effective half-halt
  • Promotes harmony between horse and rider
  • A self-perpetuating rhythm helps to make the work easy
  • A good rhythm is essential for cadence (an accentuated rhythm with springy impulsion and expression)

What makes up a correct rhythm?

The FEI (the international governing body for equestrian sport) defines rhythm as the following:

“The rhythm is the regularity of the beats in all paces. The regularity is the correct sequence of the footfalls and the tempo is the speed of the rhythm.”

From that definition, you can see that there are three main aspects to rhythm:

  1. Regularity of the beats
  2. The correct sequence of footfalls
  3. Tempo

Let’s go through each one individually.

1. Regularity of the beats

Each of the horse’s gaits has its own number of beats.

  • The walk is four-beats
  • The trot is two-beats
  • The canter is three-beats
  • The rein-back is two-beats

The beats should be regular and consistent and have a metronome-like quality.

2. The correct sequence of footfalls

As well as the correct number of beats (as above), the horse’s footfalls must land in the correct sequence.

  • The walk – outside hind > outside fore > inside hind > inside fore
  • The trot – diagonal pair of outside hind and inside fore > moment of suspension > diagonal pair of inside hind and outside fore > moment of suspension
  • The canter – outside hind > diagonal pair of inside hind and outside fore > inside fore (leading canter leg) > moment of suspension
  • The rein-back – diagonal pair of outside hind and inside fore > diagonal pair of inside hind and outside fore

EXAMPLE: A horse that is in canter on the left rein should start the canter sequence with its right hind leg (outside hind). However, if the horse is cantering on the incorrect lead, this will mean that the canter sequence is started with its left hind leg (inside hind). Therefore, even though the canter will have a 3-time beat and may be in a suitable tempo, the sequence of footfalls are incorrect.

3. Tempo

The tempo refers to the speed of the rhythm.

EXAMPLE: A horse may have a 2-beat trot with the correct sequence of footfalls, but the trot could be too fast, too slow, or inconsistent.

The ideal tempo should be brisk, but not hurried, and it should remain the same throughout each movement, with no increase or decrease in speed.

Rhythm in the walk, trot, and canter

The walk – The ‘marching’ gait

A correct walk has four evenly spaced footfalls. If you listen to a horse walking along a road, you should hear 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 beats.

It has no moment of suspension, meaning that the horse always has a foot on the ground. Because of this, the walk can never be said to have cadence.

The correct tempo for the walk will depend to some extent on the size of the natural groundcover, ie. a bigger walk will have a slower tempo.

The easiest image of a correct tempo is encapsulated by the old hunting term, ‘he looks like he’s going home for lunch.’ Another way to imagine it is to picture soldiers marching; purposeful and brisk, but unhurried.

Problems with the walk rhythm

When the even spacing between those footfalls is lost, you get what is called a ‘syncopated’ gait that looks more like the way a camel walks, i.e. with both legs on the same side moving almost at the same time, so the sound would be, 1,2 – 3,4.

This is also called ‘lateral’ or ‘broken’ and is usually caused by tension in the horse’s back disrupting the natural neuro-muscular sequence.

The walk pace requires each of the two long back muscles (longissimus dorsi) to relax alternately; when there is no relaxation, the walk sequence is corrupted.

It is a serious fault, and a hard one to fix, so has a big impact on the paces mark in a dressage test. A correct walk, on the other hand, is one of the best indicators of good training.

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The trot – The ‘swinging’ gait

In the correct sequence at trot, the legs move in coordinated diagonal pairs with a clear moment of suspension between the two sets of footfalls. This gives the pace its clear two-beat regular rhythm.

As a horse progresses in training, that moment of suspension will increase and become more clearly defined as a result of the horse’s improved strength and balance producing more upward thrust and forward travel. This is where tempo becomes important, as that greater cadence should never become ‘dwelling’ or ‘hovering’, but still maintains the forward impetus.

Problems with the trot rhythm

Loss of rhythm in trot can be seen in either uneven height or uneven length of steps with one or more legs.

If mild, this would be termed ‘irregular’ (length) or ‘uneven’ (height) and may be caused in odd moments by loss of balance, suppleness, or variations of impulsion or acceptance of the contact. When pronounced it indicates lameness.

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The canter – The ‘bounding’ gait

The correct sequence of legs in canter is outside hind, diagonal pair (inside hind and outside fore together), inside fore (leading canter leg), followed by a significant and clear moment of suspension (all four feet off the ground).

The sequence then re-commences.

In right lead canter the right foreleg is the last footfall of the sequence, and vice versa for the left.

As in the trot, the quality of the gait is enhanced by a pronounced moment of suspension, or ‘jump’, when all four hooves are off the ground, giving the potential for the development of flying changes.

The tempo should be crisp but unhurried.

Problems with the canter rhythm

Common problems with the canter include:

  • A four-beat canter – Where the diagonal pair of the canter sequence is broken, and the gait becomes “rolling” and stiff, appearing as a cross between the trot and the canter (sometimes nicknamed a “tranter”).
  • A disunited canter (also known as ‘cross cantering’) – Where the pair of legs moving at the same moment are both on the same side, instead of diagonal pairs.
  • Cantering on the incorrect lead – This indicates an incorrect sequence of footfalls because the correct canter should start with the horse’s outside hind leg. If cantering on the incorrect lead, the sequence would start with the horse’s inside hind leg.

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Causes of an incorrect or irregular rhythm

There are many reasons why a horse may display an incorrect or irregular rhythm. Here are a few of of the most common causes, in no particular order.

1. Tension

A tense horse who is not physically and mentally relaxed will find it difficult to stay in a regular rhythm and tempo.

They may speed up or slow down, show irregularity in the rhythm, or break the rhythm altogether (e.g. break into canter when they should be trotting).

2. Pain

A horse that is experiencing pain in one of its limbs will display irregularity in the rhythm, more commonly known as lameness.

Other pain-related problems can also include gastric ulcers, kissing spines, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal issues.

3. Poorly-fitted tack

If a piece of tack (such as a saddle, bridle, bit, boots, or bandages) is not fitted correctly to the horse, it can pinch, rub, and/or cause general discomfort.

To reduce the tenderness, soreness, and/or irritation from the piece of tack, the horse may move in an unnatural and irregular rhythm.

4. Loss of balance

During work, if the horse loses his balance and/or falls onto his forehand, this can cause the horse to speed up or slow down, resulting in a varied tempo.

A loss of balance almost always reduces the quality of the horse’s rhythm.

5. Poor riding and training

When a horse is left to his own devices in the field or arena, he will usually demonstrate a correct rhythm with metronome-like regularity. Most of the problems with rhythm occur as soon as we add a rider to the mix.

It is the rider’s job to maintain the horse’s purity, regularity, and looseness of the horse’s gaits.

Sadly, riders who ride too much from the rein and those who try to collect their horses too early, and/or incorrectly, can create serious faults with the horse’s natural rhythm, namely a lateral walk and a four-beat canter.

6. Gaited horses

Gaited horses do not have the three natural gaits of the walk, trot, and canter. Instead, they have been trained to move in different ways for a different purpose.

When it comes to dressage, the horse must show the rhythm and sequence of footfalls as set out above.

In conclusion

Rhythm is the first official training scale and is made up of three parts; the correct sequence of footfalls, the regularity of the beats, and a suitable tempo.

The clarity of the correct sequence and tempo of the footfalls makes for a good quality rhythm, which in trot and canter can be enhanced with increased suspension.

A good rhythm will promote relaxation, confidence, and balance, resulting in a more harmonious partnership and clearer communication between horse and rider.

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    1. Hi Donna,

      Unfortunately, we do not. The closest thing that we have is three articles about the standard gaits of walk, trot, and canter, which does detail the footfalls of each gait, but is not specific to gaited horses.

      Here are the links if you want to check them out:
      – About the Horse’s Walk Gait: https://howtodressage.com/the-horses-gaits/horses-walk-gait/
      – About the Horse’s Trot Gait: https://howtodressage.com/the-horses-gaits/horses-trot-gait/
      – About the Horse’s Canter Gait: https://howtodressage.com/the-horses-gaits/horses-canter-gait/

      Sorry we wouldn’t be of any more help, but we may look at adding articles for gaited horses in the future.
      HTD x

    1. Hi Sandi,
      It’s a little hard to explain without being able to physically show you, but we’ll do our best 🙂

      So, when we talk about RHYTHM we mean the footfalls/beats. For example, the trot has a two-beat rhythm, you can count ‘one, two, one, two,’ as the horse trots and as you rise up and down.

      The TEMPO is how quick that rhythm is going.

      Imagine riding rising trot on a small pony compared to on a huge horse. On the little pony, you would probably have to rise up and down much faster because the pony would take shorter but quicker steps than the huge horse. Both of them have the same RHYTHM in trot – which is a two-beat rhythm. The difference is that the TEMPO (speed) of the trot is quicker on the little pony than on the large horse.

      We hope that helps explain it, but please let us know if you have any other questions.
      HTD x

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