No matter what kind of saddle you ride, whether you compete or not, even if you don’t ride at all, relaxation and rhythm is the starting point for everything we do with horses. Without relaxation and rhythm, we can’t move forward with much of anything else.
Relaxation and rhythm go hand-in-hand. The uptight and fretty horse is not going to move rhythmically. Faulty rhythm is a symptom of tightness and tension. A relaxed horse is, by definition, moving with rhythm.
The Training Scale: A Crash Course
All of our work with horses should be based on the Training Scale. The Training Scale is the basis of classical horsemanship. If you come from a dressage background, you are probably well-steeped in this concept. However, a horse is a horse (of course, of course), and the basics of their psychology and biomechanics aren’t dependent on their tack or their job. Therefore, the Training Scale is as applicable to building a better reiner, or even trail horse, as it is to building a competitive dressage horse.
So, what is the Training Scale?
Simply put, the Training Scale is the progression of physical states of the horse as he moves correctly through his training. Although there are subtle differences between schools of thought, the general consensus on the steps of the Classical Training Scale is illustrated by the figure below.
Each step of the Training Scale builds on the previous one, and relies on the foundation of the lower steps to support the horse’s ability to progress to higher steps. Without Rhythm, the horse cannot be Supple, and certainly cannot be Collected. A horse that is moving with Impulsion must necessarily also be moving with Rhythm, Suppleness, and Connection.
Relaxation and Rhythm
Rhythm, as the first step of the Training Scale, is therefore the “foundation of everything.” If horsemanship has a “God Particle,” it is the state of Relaxation and Rhythm. Our first concern with a green or uneducated horse is to encourage him to a state of relaxation, which is both facilitated and evidenced by Rhythm.
Rhythm, Tempo, and “Takt?”
It is a subtle but crucial point to mention that in this case our word “rhythm” is translated from the German word “takt,” which encompasses an interconnected concept of rhythm (number of beats in sequence) and tempo (speed or rate of the rhythm). What we are searching for in horsemanship is a general correctness and regularity of pace. The number of beats per stride should be clear and correct for the gait. The rate of those beats in motion should be steady and regular, not speeding up and slowing down erratically.
Relaxation and Rhythm Begin on the Ground
We can start building this base layer of the Training Scale the moment we enter the barn by emulating the state of Relaxation and Rhythm in ourselves. If we zip around all frazzled and herky-jerky, our horses will mirror that tense and erratic nature in their own bodies. If we keep our own bodies and minds relaxed, and move in rhythm, the horse will mirror that more positive state instead.
Try This: Next time you’re grooming your horse, focus on bringing rhythm to your process. My favorite mental “movie” of this is the scene from the 1994 version of “Black Beauty,” where Beauty is laying in his stall sick after young and inexperienced Joe Green puts him away wet. He hears and focuses on every sound around him, including the groom in the yard outside. The groom is working the dandy brush and metal curry, swipe-clean, swipe-clean. Beauty’s illness-heightened focus highlights the natural and practiced rhythm of the action. Try grooming your horse with rhythm, and watch as he begins to relax into the process. Note that it is easier for you to find this rhythm if you are relaxed in your mind and body. Also note how the rhythmic action further relaxes you.
Keep that relaxed and rhythmic feel going as you tack up and move to your groundwork and lunging. As you work the horse from the ground, try mirroring his natural rhythms “in your skin.” Feel the 1-2-3-4 of his walk, the 1-2-1-2 of his trot, the 1-2-3 waltz of his canter.
Relaxation begets rhythm, and rhythmic movement promotes relaxation. It is really a lovely cycle.
Finding Relaxation and Rhythm In the Saddle
For a novice rider or a rider lacking in confidence, even this most basic foundational state can be difficult to achieve in the saddle. Have patience with yourself. Riders need time and experience to learn to accurately feel rhythm. It takes even more time to gain the seat and stability to allow relaxation and rhythm to happen in the horse.
It is interesting that relaxation and rhythm are also the basis of training of the rider. Just as we see with the horse, the tense and erratic rider will be physically stiff, lack in feel and connection, and be ineffective with the aids. In this way, the classically trained rider is educated with the same progression as the classically trained horse!
Encouraging a Relaxed and Rhythmic Horse
Factor 1: Rider Stability
Focus on improving your own stability in the saddle. Formal lessons are a tremendous help here, especially lunging lessons. An experienced ground-person will help you as you work on finding your seat and testing your balance. Try riding with “airplane arms” at all three gaits. Or ask your ground-person to call out parts of the horse or parts of the tack to touch as you work. Ride without stirrups. All of these exercises will improve your stability and balance, and your ability to not interfere with the horse’s natural rhythm.
Factor 2: Rider Feel
This aspect takes time and experience to acquire. The first step is an understanding of the basic mechanics of each gait. A walk is four beats. A trot is two. A canter is 3. Count the beats while you watch other riders. Count the beats of your own mount while you are in the saddle. Try riding with your eyes closed (ideally on the lunge!!) to isolate the sensation of the movement of each gait. Try setting a metronome, or selecting music to match your horse’s rhythm to help yourself feel the beat.
Factor 3: The Horse
Every horse’s rhythm is going to be slightly different; they are individuals! The rhythm of a Shetland is going to be dramatically different from that of a Hanoverian. Get a feel for what the individual’s natural rhythm is, and encourage that by your independent seat and sympathetic hands. It is not a simple or easy thing to stay out of the horse’s way; this is one of the reasons why starting a youngster is best left to experienced and skilled riders. It is not hard to disrupt the natural rhythm by riding out of balance or with interfering seat or hands. That disruption creates tension, and makes it impossible for the horse to move with suppleness, connection, etc. up the Training Scale.
As the foundation of the Training Scale, establishing and maintaining relaxation and rhythm are indispensable in the training of horse and rider. Without these elements, the horse is too tense and scattered to respond to the rider. A skilled rider, working with relaxation and rhythm in their own body, encourages the horse to relax and move with natural rhythm.
An important point to bear in mind that no step of the Training Scale exists in a vacuum. For example, a tense horse with a choppy rhythm will likely benefit from suppling exercises and improving connection with the aids. Rhythm and suppleness cannot be ignored when working on improving connection. Each step of the scale both supports and interweaves with each other step.
How about you? How do relaxation and rhythm relate to your riding discipline? What do you do to improve and encourage relaxation and rhythm in yourself and your horse? Let us know in the comments! And remember: you should be riding!