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Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Six Scales of Dressage Training – Part 1: Rhythm

Photo credit: Paul Dobson Photography

How many of us understand the word rhythm and what it really means? Because without understand something, it becomes very difficult to learn about it and improve your own skills, right?

Well, just in case, put very simply, rhythm is a regular pattern of movements, sounds or words, according to the Cambridge dictionary. Yes, of course, most of us understood that basic definition, but what does rhythm mean when we talk about horse, and especially when how it plays a part in dressage training.

The FEI definition becomes
 “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”
Rhythm is the first scale in dressage training, and is one of the most important as without it, you’ll be heavily limited in progressing through the other five scales when advancing your training. You need rhythm to progress up the grades in your dressage, so it’s well worth spending time getting this “basic” scale correct!

So let’s look at the rhythm training scale in all three paces.

Rhythm in the walk

Starting with the walk…Most equestrians will love the clip clop of a horse walking down the road. It’s a sound that can help bring a smile to most faces. But have you ever stopped to listen to the beat, how even the hoof fall, is it a regular 1…2…3…4? Have you ever noticed how an excited or tense horse doesn’t walk to this rhythm and it becomes more syncopated (or shortened) with the breaks between the hoof fall becoming irregular? This is when the correct rhythm has been lost even though there is still rhythm present.

So what does it take to have correct rhythm? It actually comes down to the mechanics of the horse and how he can use his muscle to move correctly. A nervous or excited horse will hold a lot of tension in his back which interfere with the signals that are sent around his body muscles to move his body. What he needs to do is have the two long muscles that run along his back to become relaxed.

Louie often has comments about ‘relaxing across his back’ in our dressage sheets, particularly in the walk as he is waiting to transition up to trot again. It will probably be work in progress forever for us, but thinking of how his rhythm changes during these movement is a good reference point for how tension in the back muscles can disrupt the correct rhythm.

Don’t forget that not all horses will have the same rhythm & that’s an important factor to note. A horse with a naturally larger stride will have a slower tempo to his rhythm, whereas shorter walking horses have a quicker rhythm. This doesn’t mean that either is incorrect.

Correct rhythm is a true medium walk – a purposeful march that is brisk but not hurried.

Rhythm in the trot

What about the trot – what is correct rhythm in this pace?

Firstly, movement on the legs should always be in diagonal pairs with a very distinct suspension between the two sets of hoof fall. This is a correct trot before we even consider whether the rhythm is right.

Cadence is key. As you progress through your dressage training and make improvements, the moment of suspension should increase and become more defined. This is your cadence. It is built from strength and balance, enabling the horse to push up and forward more definitely. The more that your cadence increases, the more that your rhythm becomes crucial to maintain – the horse should never hover or pause as it enters that momentary of suspension.

Incorrect rhythm in the trot pace is relatively easy to identify as it becomes visibly irregular through varying stride length and height of suspension. It’s important to remember that not all losses of rhythm in the trot are from incorrect or failed training, so don’t be to disheartened if it happens to you. It can also be a result of lack of suppleness, balance or acceptance of the contact, and in severe cases can make a mechanically sound horse appear lame.

Rhythm in the canter

Now the canter and how the rhythm should be in the final pace. Similarly to the trot, a moment of suspension is key to the quality of the pace, so balance & suppleness are key to maintaining good rhythm in the canter.

The canter (confusingly) has four beats to its correct rhythm, but only three beats of hoof fall. The forth is the moment of suspension, so it’s clear how crucial it is that you get that final beat. Although we always talk about canter leads as to which front leg is leading the pace, the canter correctly starts with the outside hind, followed by the diagonal pair of the inside hind and outside fore leg, before finally the inside fore leg.

Exercises and dressage training techniques that improve the moment of suspension for the trot, should also be effective when improving the canter rhythm as both concentrate on the moment of suspension (in the canter, it is commonly referred to as the jump).

The importance of rhythm across dressage training

Rhythm is all about ensuring your horse’s legs are working in the correct sequence and in the correct regular motion. Helping your horse to have a relaxed back will significantly improve the quality of each pace, and together, they will enable a good quality rhythm. All dressage training should be continually working on this scale of training throughout to maximise progression later on. Developing cadence throughout each pace is a good way to enhance your’s and your horse’s ability to perform in a correct rhythm.

Discover the other scales of dressage training

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