Horse Training

Feel the Rhythm

December 10, 2008

Maintain consistent cadence for plus scores in the arena.

By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and Certified Horsemanship Association master instructor Carla Wennberg

Illustration by Jean Abernathey

Illustration by Jean Abernathey

If you’re maintaining rhythm, you’re maintaining a consistent cadence and pace in a gait. The cadence of a gait is the number of beats – like the three-beat lope or the two-beat jog. The pace is how fast you hear the beats.

The importance of rhythm and movement plays into a lot of different classes, not just horses that are judged on the rail – it’s important in reining, horsemanship, trail, everything.

In reining, for a large, fast circle, you increase pace and create a faster rhythm with a lengthened stride, and then collect down to a small, slow circle and a shortened stride, all without losing the quality of the gait.

In horsemanship, you’re not going to go as fast as a reining large circle, but when judges ask for large circles, we want to see you use your seat and lower leg to create a longer stride and a lot more drive in the horse. We want to see a lengthened stride, and we want to see you ask for it. That’s creating more impulsion, a longer stride, faster pace, quicker rhythm.

Maintaining the quality of your gait and rhythm is the foundation of accomplishing a high-level maneuver – you’ve got to have quality to get better. It’s in every class, really, anywhere we watch how horses go forward, backward, collect and extend.

Maintaining rhythm takes feel – education in the rider through the seat and leg. That’s really what you’re developing when you talk rhythm – you’re talking about feel.

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Common Problems

  • Poor impulsion. Every rider should understand the quality of each gait in footfall and cadence and how they relate. The most important part of achieving that quality is maintaining impulsion. When you have impulsion, you create energy from behind with your seat and leg. More drive and push with your seat and leg mean the horse should be more active and forward. When you stop using as active an aid, your horse should relax back to a consistent, slower rhythm. But if you just quit riding, he is going to quit. You still have to use your seat and lower leg some to maintain impulsion. You have to teach the horse to respond to your seat and lower leg. Each horse is going to be different in how much or how little aids you need to apply to get the desired impulsion. It takes a lot of homework on the rider’s part to teach a horse to react to subtle aids and cues.
  • Poor cadence. The walk, for example, should be four beats evenly spaced apart and evenly stressed. It’s “one – two – three – four.” It can’t be “onetwo – threefour,” or “one – TWO – three – four.” It’s hard to get a horse to walk correctly unless you practice it. Whether you’re going down the rail or walking up to a cone, the quality of your gait does make a difference, and it takes practice to get it right. You have to think about it and feel it – count what you feel under your bottom.
  • Unsteady rhythm. It relates back to the rider’s feel. A horse can be a beautiful mover naturally, that’s helpful. But if you can’t ride that beautiful mover, you won’t have rhythm. It’s the rider who creates that energy, impulsion and good movement. I think about it all the time in horsemanship. A good rider creates rhythm and motion in her horse because of the way she’s riding. She drives the horse up to a soft hand; She uses her seat and leg; She creates a lengthened jog or lope, and then she lets the horse come back down to a more balanced, collected motion.

Even if your horse is not a beautiful mover, you can still teach him to maintain and develop his rhythm. It takes a lot of homework, and work in your seat and leg with the rhythm of your horse.

What to Do

  1. Understand the gaits. Get some help to understand the walk, jog or trot, and the lope or canter. I know that sounds simple, but a lot of people just want to ride; they don’t want to really understand what is happening in the horse’s movement and its quality. You need to understand them so you can relate your seat and leg and your feel to what your horse is doing.
  2. Circles. I like to teach rhythm and pace on a circle first, because you can create a lot of balance in the rider using a circle, and it makes a rider use all her aids. It gives the rider a little more control than just going straight. With students who haven’t developed a lot of feel, I teach them first to ride a horse “up,” meaning forward to your feel, and then to steady the horse back. Make a large circle, say 40 feet across, and spiral* down to a 30-foot circle, using your outside aids to tighten down the circle. Then use your inside aids to push the circle back out to 40 feet. As you spiral in, the horse uses his inside hind leg more while you use your outside leg and rein to push him in. It requires more collection. When you push him back out, it gives him a chance to relax. You are teaching your horse to move forward and laterally from your seat and leg – your seat says go forward, and your leg says go sideways. Don’t try to work on it in a straight line. If you are having trouble, a straight line will push your horse to the forehand, and you will start pulling. It’s physically easier for the horse to hang on his front end when you’re going straight, whereas in a circle, you can make him go laterally in or out for collection. *For more on spiral exercises, see Carla’s Borrow A Trainer lesson on “Topline,” in the April 2006 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal, Page 76.
  3. Practice the walk. The walk is the first gait your horse should do well. Any type of activity over poles is good, and it’s true for walking, too. I think walking outside over uneven ground or up and down hills also teaches a horse a better walk. We live in a flat, sandy area, and we’ve built banks to walk and trot horses up to build their hind ends. When you take them out on ground that is not as good quality as your arena footing, like in a field, they learn to walk better. Get yourself out of the arena. You have to practice your pacing, too, asking your horse to move forward at the walk or go more slowly, keeping his steps relaxed and balanced.
  4. Work off the rail. I think you have to take a horse off the rail to teach a rider to use all her aids effectively. If you only teach a rider while on the rail, the rider is not going to use her outside aids as much and will use more inside aids. Try exercises with cones, as in a horsemanship pattern. For example, set up two cones, 30 feet apart. Lengthen the stride between them, and at the second cone, collect. Practice it in different places in the arena. You have to practice enough off the rail to make your horse confident with all of the things you ask him to do. It takes consistency and homework – that’s horse training. You have to spend the time.

As a judge, I can tell when a rider has a very good relationship with her horse and has done her homework. And I have to plus that and give it a lot of credit, because that’s really what this is all about.

Gait Comments

  • The walk – For judges, it has gotten more and more important, especially in western pleasure, to have a quality, consistent, four-beat gait in the walk. We are going to put more and more emphasis on judging the walk and taking more time to watch it. Riders need to practice the walk. I know that sounds silly, but it’s hard to keep a horse relaxed and steady at the walk and not anticipating anything, especially if you’re in a crowd, or to walk up to your first cone in a horsemanship pattern, or pull off a walk transition. Those are places where you really have to think about the quality of the gait.
  • The jog - I think we’ve gotten to the point where trainers have done an excellent job of training lengthening and shortening at the jog. We don’t want a hunt seat trot in the western jog, but we do want a lengthened gait and a shortened gait. I think at the jog we’ve done the best.
  • The lope – Where I see a weaker lope is really not in the lengthening of the lope, but the quality of lope when you shorten it. I see that all the time, a rider extends the lope and then when he collects and slows he goes to a four-beat lope and loses the rhythm. It’s easy to ride a horse that’s really four-beating because it’s smoother. As a judge, I think those are riders who simply haven’t educated themselves in the quality of the gaits.

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