The Fundamentals of Rhythm in Dressage Work

Eckart Meyners explains how to establish the young horse’s natural rhythm under the weight of the rider.

The first objective when schooling the young horse is to reestablish his natural rhythm under the rider’s weight. The rider must be able to correctly drive the horse in the rhythm of the basic gaits and be able to follow the horse’s swinging back movements with her pelvis. During the familiarization phase, which follows the Training Scale and includes rhythm, suppleness and contact, the rider creates the prerequisites for subsequent schooling work. When these preconditions do not exist, subsequent schooling will be riddled with problems. 

The first goal during the early schooling phase is to reestablish the natural rhythm of the horse in each basic gait. Mandy Zimmer trains with German Olympian Klaus Balkenhol. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books )

The “familiarization phase” is a technical term that incorporates the first three abilities of the horse’s Training Scale: rhythm, suppleness and contact. For the education of a young horse, this is the early schooling phase when the horse is made familiar with the fundamentals of riding. He should be taught to carry the rider’s weight without losing his balance and also must learn the essential body-language signals of the rider: the aids. 

Most of all, however, during this familiarization phase the horse should be able to move just as naturally and freely under the additional weight of the rider as if he were not carrying a rider at all.

The term “familiarization phase,” however, does not only pertain to the basic training of a young horse, but to every warm-up phase: The goal of having the horse initially get used to the rider’s weight, go in rhythm, be supple and look for contact with the rider’s hand equally applies to the beginning of every riding figure.

In this article, I will explain the significance of rhythm. In addition, links between classical riding theory and biomechanics are meant to provide numerous tips for making this part of the riding education successful.

Rhythm in the Young Horse

The first time the young horse starts moving under the rider is the difficult time in his development: He is “loaded” with the rider’s weight. In principle, horses are able to carry weight, but only when the functionality of the musculature—especially the back and corresponding abdominal muscles—is developed for this purpose. The unfamiliar load on the horse’s back (comparison: backpack on your back) can initially lead to upsets in rhythm. This disturbs—to various degrees—the naturalness of the horse’s gait and thus the way movement is transferred to the rider.

Initially, the horse’s back musculature arches toward the rider. Since the musculature is not yet fully developed, however, it will fatigue quickly, leading to slackening or sagging of the muscle groups. As a result, the back will start to sway and the hindquarters become parked out. When the horse is now asked to move in the walk, trot or canter, the swayback will have a negative effect on the gaits. What was a trot with a clean rhythm without the rider’s weight will now become a gait with an uneven rhythm (no fluid movement from the back to front and vice versa).

Based on these facts, the rider is clearly required, first of all, to have a regulating influence on the horse’s rhythm. This means, in detail, that the horse is brought back to his original situation (moving in rhythm without rider weight), but now with the rider’s weight.

Regulating the Horse’s Rhythm

Only a rider who has already developed proprioception (awareness of your body’s position) is able to have a positive influence on the rhythm of the horse’s gait; that is, to help the horse recover his rhythm under the rider.

In the opposite situation—an untrained rider on a schooled horse—the beginning of the familiarization phase means that each riding situation must begin by having rider and horse find and align their natural rhythm during the movement, to have them find a common rhythm.

Conclusion: The first objectives of the basic training of the horse and at the beginning of each riding exercise are for the horse to find his rhythm and for the rider to adjust to this rhythm or create rhythm by skillfully influencing the horse in each gait.

Rhythm in the Three Basic Gaits

In each of the three basic gaits, the horse has a different rhythm, a different sequence of footfalls and a different number of phases.

For a rider who wants to acquire the feel for half halts during her riding career, knowing about phases is important, but it is even more essential to feel what happens to the horse under her.

Many are able to recite the phases by heart, but they are unable to feel them and to draw conclusions for their application of aids. The rider must learn how to feel which one of the horse’s legs is pushing off, when it is in the suspension phase and when it touches the ground again in order to find the right moment to apply her aids.

If the rider does not register the right moment, her influence—especially her driving aid—will be without effect. For example, when the rider doesn’t drive at the moment when the horse flexes in the joints and is about to push off, but instead drives at the moment of suspension, it is anatomically impossible for the horse to react to the rider’s aids.

Rhythm at the Walk

The walk is a four-beat gait consisting of eight phases. It is the only gait without impulsion. This means that the walk does not have a phase during which all four of the horse’s legs are in suspension; there are always at least two feet on the ground. In principle, the walk is well suited for teaching movement sequences. This slowest of the three gaits is the easiest in which to comprehend and practice new movement sequences for rider and horse. For this reason, the walk—within the framework of rider and horse education—is called “the gait with educational character.”

The sequence of footfalls at the walk: There are always two or three feet on the ground. There is no suspension phase. Therefore, the walk is considered to be the only gait without impulsion. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

The walk is also important for the production of synovial fluid before the warm-up. The walk is also used to incorporate active recovery phases during a riding lesson in order to allow the horse to recuperate.

Take a deep breath: During a riding lesson, rider and horse should repeatedly incorporate active recovery phases. Here, the reins are completely dropped so Kerstin Niemann and her horse can enjoy a brief time of relaxation. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

Feeling Rhythm

There are a number of exercises done from the saddle to help riders develop a feel for the rhythm of the horse.

1. Bending forward: Eyes closed, bend forward to the horse’s neck and touch the left and right sides of his chest. You should say out loud when the left or the right front leg moves forward.

Bending over forward on the longe line at a walk is very helpful when teaching beginning riders a feel for the horse’s movement sequence. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

2. Bending forward and feeling the sequence of footfalls: Remaining in the same position, you should say when the left or right hind foot pushes off. If you have problems, your instructor can help you and announce when the horse’s left or right hind foot pushes off. This aid will help you feel the horse’s movements more consciously and after that, you will most likely be able to identify them more quickly on the basis of feel.

3. Feeling the sequence of footfalls at the walk: Ride in walk (also with closed eyes) and follow the horse’s footfalls. First, announce the movements of the front legs, then those of the hind legs. Afterward, you should also try to feel the sequence of footfalls as they relate to one another. For this purpose, you will assign each leg a number. The left front leg, for example, will be 1, the right hind leg 2, the right front leg 3, and the left hind leg 4.

Practical Notes

Drive alternately at the walk: The horse steps forward with alternate hind legs, which creates a palpable pendulum movement in his rib cage. The pendulum-movement sequence requires the rider to drive alternately. The intensity of the driving aid depends on the extent to which the walk criteria (rhythm, eagerness, freedom of movement, length of stride) are fulfilled.

Allow the nodding movement of the horse’s head: At the walk, the horse’s neck is of special significance in its function as a balancing rod. In this gait without impulsion the forward movement is supported by a nodding movement of the neck. Therefore, it is essential that you allow this nodding movement. Otherwise, the horse’s movement is unable to flow through his entire body. You must be able to follow the movement of the horse’s head with your hands while continuously maintaining a soft, elastic connection from the hands to the horse’s mouth. Therefore, when riding the walk, it is your hands that move the most.

Rhythm in the Trot

The trot is a two-beat gait with four phases, meaning it is a gait with impulsion and a suspension phase. The trot is most suitable for basic work. The rhythmic contraction and relaxation of all muscle groups make it comparatively easy for the rider to adjust to the rhythm of the horse or even to stabilize the rhythm by skillful application of aids. For many horses, the trot is the best gait for suppling work.

The sequence of footfalls in the trot: One diagonal pair of the horse’s legs lands at the same time then pushes off into a suspension phase, then the other diagonal leg pair lands and, again, pushes off into a suspension phase. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

Feeling the sequence of footfalls at the trot: At the trot, say out loud when the left and right front legs and left and right hind legs push off and land on the ground.

Practical Notes

Driving correctly: In principle, driving should encourage the hind leg to step forward, thus creating an even flow of movement throughout the body. In the trot—a gait with impulsion—do not activate the hind leg on the same side; instead, always drive equally on both sides. Only later can the intensity of aids on the inside and outside be different.

Sitting and rising trot: No matter whether you sit the trot or rise, the basic structure of driving is the same. During the rising trot, both of your lower legs move away from the horse while you are standing up. When you are sitting down, your legs touch the horse’s body: Both legs give the aid at the same time and influence the same side. During the rising trot, every second stride is supported by means of a driving aid; when sitting the trot, the driving aid can occur with every step when needed. Just as in the walk, the intensity and frequency of the driving aid depend on the individual situation.

Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books
During the rising trot, Langehanenberg alternately sits down and rises. Therefore, only every other trot step is supported by a driving aid. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

Rhythm in the Canter

Only when the horse moves forward securely and rhythmically under you in the trot can you add the canter work—at least in most cases. But the exception proves the rule: From time to time there are horses that have difficulty in becoming supple in the trot and feel much better when you give them the chance to first become supple in the canter and then in the trot. It is important for you to find out which gait the horse prefers.

The canter is a three-beat gait with six phases and—compared to the trot—a distinct suspension phase. In this gait, you must consider that the horse can be ridden on the right or left lead.

The sequence of footfalls in the canter on the right lead: The horse lands with the left hind leg, followed by the right hind leg and the left front leg at the same time. Then the right front leg lands while the three remaining legs are in the air. Finally comes the moment of free suspension before the left hind leg lands once again. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

Feeling the sequence of footfalls in the canter: As in walk and trot, in the canter, say out loud when the inside/outside hind foot lands. There is no limit to the variation of these exercises. The goal is for you to become aware of the horse’s movement: to feel what goes on in the horse. This can help you conclude when to apply the various aids. Only when you clearly perceive the horse’s movements will you be able to consciously influence them.

Practical Notes

Strike off at the canter: Your guarding outside leg secures the horse’s outside hind leg (supporting leg of the canter), which begins the canter. Use the half-halt technique to alert the horse to the coming new situation. Give the horse the necessary flexion, and guide his inside shoulder in front of the inside hip. This secures the positional requirements so that the horse “jumps” into the canter after you shift your weight to the inside seat bone in combination with the driving aid of the inside leg. 

Professor of Sport Physiology and Body Movement at the University of Lüneburg in Germany, Eckart Meyners has spent more than two decades researching how people learn movement in riding and has worked closely with the German National Federation to develop curriculum for professional and amateur riders, trainers, instructors and judges. Meyners is also the author of Rider Fitness: Body & Brain and the DVD “Movement Awareness for Riders.” 

In his most recent book, Rider + Horse = 1, Meyners, along with Hannes Müller, head of the German Riding School in Warendorf, and Kerstin Niemaan, editor of the German equestrian magazine, St. Georg, offers advice on how to achieve the fluid dialog between the horse and rider that leads to harmonious performance. In the accompanying excerpt, Meyners explains what he calls the “familiarization phase” and expounds on the significance of regulating a horse’s rhythm. Used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.






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