Pyramid of Training Series: In-depth look at Rhythm and Tempo

In last month’s Training by Degrees article, we learned that rhythm and tempo is the result of relaxation, both mentally and physically. We also learned that when the horse is relaxed, he will travel forward in a natural free flowing rhythm of the four gaits: the 4-beat walk, 2-beat trot, 3-beat canter, and 2-beat rein-back. However, this is a very broad description, rhythm means much more than just the number of distinct beats per stride sequence.

Rhythm is the recurring characteristic of beats and timing in the foot-fall sequence. Tempo is the rate or speed of the repetition of beats in a foot-fall sequence. Rhythm and Tempo are so closely related that you cannot have one without the other present. In addition to the Rhythm/Tempo relationship, there is also another variable, the Stride length. These three main components are the basis of the horse’s gait. Each component can be varied to some degree by the rider, who is responsible for the regularity of all three.

The Pyramid of Training was first compiled at the beginning of the 20th century and its original purpose was to serve as an instruction manual for the cavalry as they prepared for battle. The Pyramid of Training rests on the foundation of Rhythm and Tempo, along with a consistent Stride length. Impurities or irregularities in Rhythm are usually due to loss of balance. Without balance there is no Relaxation or Suppleness, the next building block in the Pyramid. When Relaxation and Suppleness are missing from the equation, Rein contact deteriorates. Without a solid base of Rhythm and Tempo, the horse will not achieve Impulsion and Collection. It is important that the rider does not override the gaits or shorten the horse’s frame in an unhealthy manner, as this will causing tension in the horse’s back causing loss of balance.

The Tempo of the horse’s gait often varies at certain moments, giving the horse an opportunity to avoid flexing their haunches or thrusting with their full capacity. When this happens, there is a loss of balance and the horse will hold tension in his back, not allow the rider’s aids to go through and he will tend to speed up in response to the driving aids. It is up to the rider to maintain the proper Tempo through transitions to avoid shifts in balance.

Stride length will also be affected when a horse losses their balance. In some instances, the hind leg seems to take a quick, short stride, which does not leave enough time for it to flex, since it does not spend enough time on the ground in front of the vertical. The natural reaction is then for the horse to push his croup up and thrust with the grounded hind leg, which increases the stride length of the airborne hind leg. The horse’s stride length is also affected when the hind leg is not strong enough to continue transporting the body forward. Some horses will shorten their strides and possibly stop altogether when this is the case.

In the end, it is all about balance on the part of both horse and rider. The rider must have a good seat allowing the horse to find his correct balance. If the rider leans too far forward and gets in front of the movement of the horse, the horse will likely try to quicken his steps to support the rider’s weight. Likewise, if the rider leans too far back or sits too heavily, the horse will tense his back to support the weight and, in turn, will then interfere with the horse’s nature ability to move with freedom. To find balance is to find harmony, freedom of motion, and expression without tension.

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