The Raw Material
Before a horse carries a rider for the first time, before his first longeing, before you ever put a saddle or any piece of tack on him, you have an animal with no suppleness, no ability to offer contact, no swinging impulsion, no straightness, and certainly no collection. But you have an animal with pure, natural rhythm. Although the 2-year-old horse cannot possibly offer any of the top five elements of the training scale, he can offer correct rhythm in all three gaits without anyone’s interference.
Unless hindered by lameness or soreness, nearly all unbroken horses will walk, trot, and canter in a natural rhythm. Our job as trainers is to preserve this rhythm while building upon it layers of education. That’s it! All we have to do is preserve rhythm! Rhythm is the very essence of training; if we were to lose it, our horses simply would not progress.
When we talk about rhythm, we only address it as either correct or incorrect—pure versus impure. Unlike impulsion, for instance, we cannot say “need more rhythm”. But we can criticize by saying “canter shows incorrect four-beat rhythm”. In other words, rhythm is either black or white … there is no gray area.
Sometimes a horse is too tense to maintain, say, the walk, and breaks it frequently with short trot steps. In that case, we may say that the horse is showing irregular rhythm.
The walk has a four-beat rhythm. A very lazy walk will still have four beats, but a too fast or tense walk runs the risk of becoming two-beat, which is also known as a ‘pacing walk’. Correct walk rhythm is when the horse takes diagonal-tripedal steps, i.e. left fore forward, right hind forward. A pacing walk is when the horse takes lateral steps, i.e. left fore forward, left hind forward. If you show a pacing walk in a dressage test, you will not only lose points on the walk score, but also on the collective marks.
The trot has a two-beat rhythm. The right fore and left hind swing forward simultaneously, followed by the left fore and right hind. Sometimes when the horse is anticipating the canter, he may hop in the trot, reaching farther forward with one foreleg, and short-stepping on the other. This may also occur if the rider is too restrictive with the reins, causing what is known as ‘rein lameness’. Of course, a horse may also hop in the trot if he is physically lame. Any unevenness or short-stepping is considered a rhythm fault.
The Canter has a three-beat rhythm. In a left lead canter, the sequence is as follows: right hind, left hind and right fore together, then left fore. That creates the three beats. Incorrect rhythm is when the horse is too slow or too lazy in the canter; instead of the natural three beats, he goes in four beats. A restrictive hand could also have the same consequence.
Quite often, if no physical causes are present, rhythm faults are attributed to bad riding or training. It is not very hard to break a horse away from his natural rhythm. All you would have to do is pull the horse’s neck in with a tight rein and an unyielding contact. The results will be almost instantaneous.
But since we want to protect the rhythm nature has gifted us with, we allow the horse freedom of movement. This is paramount at the beginning of his education. Young horses should be ridden at least 90 percent of the time in a relaxed frame, using the length of their neck for balance. Such a frame allows the horse to step forward freely, maintaining correct rhythm, and also teaches him to stretch over his back and swing. Additionally, the stretch and swing helps develop back muscles, which are necessary for carrying the rider.
The relaxed frame can be anywhere from long and low to just right on the bit (with the poll being the highest point). At all times, the rider should not have the feeling that she is supporting the horse’s front end in her hands, neither should she end up with sore fingers due to excessively short reins. Riding freely forward with a gently guiding contact is the way to go when teaching a young horse balance and self-carriage under a rider.
If the horse is hopping at the trot and you are positive he is sound, let him stretch a little and open out his trot. Usually, a little relaxation and suppling would solve the problem. To correct a four-beat canter, send the horse forward, and allow the energy to flow through with your hands. It may help to adopt a forward jumping seat for a moment. Never attempt to collect the canter by pulling back on the reins, as that kills the energy and consequently results in a four-beat canter. After all, collection is about building up energy, not letting it go.
At the walk, a yielding contact is most important. Follow the horse’s neck movement with your hands—never block it! If the walk is pacing, relax in your seat and sit deep, and let the reins out a little. When the horse’s senses your relaxation, he will relax a little himself, and will likely walk naturally.