FEEL THE RHYTHM!
Much to do with the process of riding involves a sense of rhythm and incredibly precise timing. What I’m most interested in talking about here is tempo. Finding the right tempo for the horse in a given moment on a given day in a given gait in a given exercise in a given direction is amazingly important. I have often been heard on riding clinics saying to a rider something like “Increase the tempo by only five percent,” or “Slow that trot by literally one percent.” The change in the horses can be wonderful. It is by looking for what happens when we adjust the tempo by these small amounts that we often find new shiny sides to the diamond, as a little more or a little less speed can make all the difference to the balance of the horse and consequently his way of going. It often makes it a darned sight easier for us to sit on too!
Horses have a lot of rhythm in them from birth, they walk in four-time, trot in two time and canter in three and bit time! But, and here is the but, not all horses have a brilliant natural regularity to their gaits. That means it is we who must decide the tempo and then, with every fibre of our being in every moment of the work, maintain that tempo consistently and regularly in our seat, body, legs and mind. Over a period of training (maybe minutes, weeks, months or years) the horses learn to maintain a solid consistent tempo and then we can relax a little about that subject.
Some horses habitually try to go too fast, and some horses habitually try to go too slow. Either way I think the most common reason for these things is that they are trying to make life easier for themselves. Horses are energetic creatures but in general they don’t like wasting energy unnecessarily. So if going quicker means they can push themselves briskly around without engaging their hindquarters under their centre of gravity, or they can shuffle along taking economic idle little steps with the back legs then they will do. To 'gymnasticize’ a horse or help it to go better and last longer we have to encourage the horse to assume a tempo that helps with its balance and improve its use of itself.
It is usually quite easy to feel if a horse needs to go a little quicker or a little slower. It is also fairly easy to notice if the horse is changing the speed all the time, when we pay attention to it. If we aren’t sure about the speed, then doing as I suggested above and ‘seeing what happens if…’ we adjust the speed up or down by small amounts can lead us to the answers.
A WORD ON ‘FORWARDNESS’
Impulsion and forwardness are often discussed and misunderstood. Who hasn’t had a dressage test where the judge (at any level!) has written ‘horse must go more forwards.’ Does that mean we always have to push the horse to go faster and risk pushing the horse ‘out of his gait?’ Does it mean the horse should be pushed to take longer strides to cover more ground than he is naturally capable of? (Hopefully not, but that could be what they want to see!).
A horse that is nicely forwards and has good impulsion feels like there is instant energy and response to the lightest leg aids. A horse with some training to cover ground will willingly lengthen its stride and ground cover by the rider lengthening the scope of movement of the seat and back. But these things don’t often come along all by themselves and, like every other aspect of riding, the results depend entirely on the natural ability of the horse - not all horses are born equal in terms of their way of going and it is important to approach every horse as a unique individual, rather than try to squash them all into the same box of what is the perceived idea of what is ‘right.’
Simply riding a gait and thinking about the tempo, playing with its speed and establishing metronomic regularity can make an enormous difference to the pleasure of riding and the way the horse goes. An additional upside is that it enables the horse to relax in his mind and find a certain comfort in his balanced rhythmic movement… And “trot on.!”