Riding the rhythm

The intent of this blog is not just to keep a record of where I am and what I am doing, but also to share some Insights regarding horse training, primarily in dressage, that I have gained through my work.  I hope this finds an audience that appreciates it, though it is largely for my own purposes. This is such an entry. 

At a basic level, the training scale is the basis for dressage. Each lower rung needs to be achieved in order for the next rung to be developed.  Though, as we work our way up the scale towards collection, we also revist the lower rungs, the "basics," and fine tune in order to get the best performance from our horse.  I will give a general description of what is meant by rhythm, and then show how it applies specifically to training my own personal horse, an 11 year old 15.3 hand Trakehner gelding.  Specifically, how improving the rhythm has helped in overcoming specific training hurdles - medium trot and flying changes. 

Preston schooling half pass

Preston schooling half pass

Rhythm is the first and most important rung on the scale.  Without a clear and consistent rhythm, our horses gaits do not improve, they become muddled and unclear. It is the ultimate goal of dressage to develop our horses as athletes through improving upon their natural gaits. Each gait has it's own rhythm. The walk has a 1-2-3-4 rhythm, which should be even and clear. If the horse displays a 1-2, 3-4 rhythm, it shows that there is tension in the walk and that it has probably gone lateral. The walk is the easiest gait to ruin, and the hardest to improve. 

The trot has an even 1-2 rhythm as one diagonal pair of legs hit the ground at the same time followed by a moment of suspension, then the next diagonal pair of legs strike the ground. With young horses and green riders, it is important to focus on keeping the tempo (an element of rhythm, which addresses how quickly the horses feet strike the ground) the same.  It is often seen at this stage of development that the trot rushes forward (quickens) and then slows down before quickening again. Without keeping the tempo the same and the rhythm clear, the horse will never get to the next stage, which is relaxation. As the horse develops, rhythm and tempo need to be revisited, as many horses will tend to quicken when asked for medium and extended trots, which cause the hind leg to step short rather than fully stepping under and supporting the combined weight of horse and rider, which is an issue I have been working on with my own horse. 

The canter has a 1-2-3 rhythm, followed by a moment of suspension. Horses that have a good canter will easily display this rhythm. Horses that tend to run on the forehand or not fully step under with the hind leg will often add a fourth beat in the canter, as the second beat of the canter is the inside hind and outside foreleg striking the ground together, and in these horses they will hit at slightly different times. This rhythm fault is usually corrected by riding the horse more forward.  An extremely collected canter may display four beats, but this is not considered a rhythm fault necessarily, as the horse has shifted it's weight so far back that the inside hind leg has to hit the ground before the outside foreleg because of the elevation of the forehand.

With my personal horse, Preston, we have touched on all the elements of the training scale, but in order to improve on the collected work, the medium trot, and the flying changes; we needed to go back a bit and fine tune the rhythm.  He tends to be a sensitive horse who wants to please and work hard. This is a great attribute in a horse!  But this attribute also lends it's own training challenges.  I hope my insights will help others who are working with similar horses.

He often overthinks the exercises we are doing, and this mental tension results in physical tension, which is displayed through him getting too quick in his tempo.  This quickness results in tension through his topline, and in moments of extreme tension he grinds his teeth and swishes his tail.  The natural inclination is to slow the horse down with the hands and try to alleviate topline tension through suppling the horse and lowering the neck.  Without supporting the horse with the leg, this can be considered "front to back" riding, and is incorrect and ineffective.  But HOW do you support the horse with the leg when the horse is already too quick and seemingly running away from the leg?  WHY is the horse running from the leg in the first place?  These are questions that I have been seeking the answer to. 

I have worked hard to teach my horse to listen to my seat, which is part of the answer.  He listens to half halts and full halts from the seat.  I understand keeping the rhythm with the seat and have developed a kind of metronome in my head.  However, when working on something new or challenging, my horse would still get tense and at that point he would begin to run through my half-halts and would not want to take the weight and flex the joints in his hind legs.  Trying to use my leg on him at this point would worsen the problem, which meant I was back to trying to fix him in the front again.  I would usually go back to doing a lot of walk/trot transitions and get him listening to my "go" and "whoa" aids.  Sometimes I would be able to go on from there, but usually I would stop when he was listening to my seat again, and try to maintain the relaxation from the beginning on my next ride. 

I know that instructors in the past have tried to teach me about lower leg contact, but it was not until I rode with Andrew Palmer that I finally understood different technique of using my lower leg, which helped slow down the tempo and increase leg acceptance - both things which contributed to helping my horse relax and accept the work.  It's funny about lightbulb moments, you usually have to be in the right place at the right time and have someone tell you something in just the right way for it to sink in. 

Most horses I have ridden are not as sensitive and forward thinking as my horse, and I have learned to make the horse more sensitive to the leg by riding with lower legs "off" unless I was asking something.  This makes the horse quick to respond when you put the leg on, which is the feeling I prefer.  I have found myself to be pretty effective in using my leg this way.  However, my horse is already quick to the leg and quick in the hind legs.  Riding him this way was causing the tension problems we were having.  It would surprise him when my leg was suddenly there, when it wasn't there a second ago.  He couldn't relax, because he never knew when I was going to ask something of him, which caused him to anticipate.

Andrew taught me to improve my horses rhythm by slowing down my seat and slowing down my legs aids - keep my legs on LONGER each time I ask for something.  I am very aware of the timing of the aids and let my horses rhythm dictate my leg aid, so it's a new concept to me to keep my leg on for a split second longer that what feels natural in order to slow the hind legs down, which helps them to step further under.  In fact, it seems to improve the rhythm (and therefore relaxation) when I ride with my seat, keep leg contact, and just pulse my aids.  I use a lot of changing of positioning between shoulder-in and haunches-in to increase my horse's acceptance of the leg, and slide my legs along the horse when changing positioning rather than taking them off and repositioning.  Having my horse more accepting of the leg allows me to control the rhythm with my seat, which I really need when asking for medium trot - he tends to want to just run and get flat.  Now I am able to slow the tempo with my seat, and pulse my leg aids and ask for more suspension. 

It is the same in the canter, which has helped me to improve the flying changes, since they were often tight and tense from my horse anticipating so much.  Now I make sure to keep both legs in contact with him.  In both the trot and canter, you want to ride the "UP" phase of the gait, and ask the horse to stay off the ground longer.  When schooling the changes I often ask for a little haunches in, which helps me control the hind leg and also ensures that I have my outside leg on.  With my inside leg (and my seat) I ask for more jump in the canter.  I like to think "jump, jump, jump, straighten," and then ask.  Again, make sure to slide the legs along the horse when asking for the change, rather than taking the legs off and kicking him with the new outside leg. 

I have only been riding at Royal Palm farm for just over 2 weeks now, and I am so excited about how much my riding has improved already.  Please let me know if these insights are valuable or interesting to you, and I will keep sharing them!