‘Started From the Bottom Now We Here’

The bottom of the training pyramid, that is.

We’re deep into “training season” and we’ve been toiling away, installing some new figurative bells and whistles on our ponies. As spring approaches, many of us are growing increasingly excited to show off our horse’s new skills. Some of us might even be thinking of signing up for a horse show in the not too distant future.

Well, before you start bustin’ out those fancy new half passes and lead changes you’ve been working on, let’s take a moment and check in with our basics. You see, we take the time making sure our basics are solidly in place before we begin building upon them, but similar to the foundation of a house, without regular care and maintenance, the structure will begin to crumble. So today we’re going to talk about the very bottom of the training pyramid: rhythm and relaxation.

Let’s start off by defining rhythm in riding terms (because words matter, gosh darnit!).

Your horse has steady rhythm when he consistently maintains the correct number beats (steps) per stride for each gate. For example, the walk has four beats per stride, the trot has two beats per stride, and the canter has three beats per stride. In addition to a consistent rhythm, a steady tempo is (speed of footfalls) is a necessary part of this training pyramid base.

The term relaxation is pretty simple to understand: the lack of unwanted tension that allows horses to soften over their topline, bend their bodies through figures and remain attentive to their riders. Rhythm and relaxation are so frequently lumped together because a lack of relaxation often presents as rhythm/tempo irregularities.

Lengthen/shorten frame while maintaining consistent rhythm and tempo

A good measure of relaxation is the ability to lengthen/shorten your horse’s frame all while maintaining steady rhythm and tempo.

The transition from free walk to medium can be a tricky one and tension can often lead to some minor jigging. What’s generally happening is that your horse takes a step or two of trot, thus interrupting the walk rhythm. Try riding this transition several times focusing on rhythm and tempo. Be sure to keep your elbows soft so your hands can move with your horse’s balancing gesture, and use the lateral swing of your seat to reinforce the walk rhythm.

If your horse does take a tense step, quietly come to a halt, take a deep breath, and then walk on. You can similarly transition between stretchy trot and working (or collected) trot which will not only check your rhythm and regularity, but also stretch your horse’s topline leading to increased relaxation.

Helix stretching through his free walk. Photo by Alanna McPartlin.

Walk lateral work

Similarly to the transition between free and medium walk, tension in the shape of rhythm irregularities can often appear when lateral aids are applied. Try starting off with a baby leg yield from the second track to the rail applying the leg aid in time with your horse’s steps to reinforce the walk rhythm. Also remember to keep your low back loose so you don’t interfere with the swing of your horse’s back. If your horse gets tense, abandon the lateral movement, reestablish the walk, and then try again!

Posting to sitting trot with no change of tempo

Just as important as keeping tension from interfering with rhythm and tempo, a consistent energy level will also improve regularity. Ideally, we want to be able to use our seat to influence our horse’s gait, but we want to be sure our horses are able to differentiate between an allowing neutral seat, a restraining seat, a lifting seat, and a driving seat.

A solid neutral seat that causes minimal interference to your horse’s motion is key to having a seat capable of affecting change. It will also generally stabilize your horse’s energy level. You can test your neutral seat and your horse’s response to it by alternating between posting and sitting trot. If your neutral seat is correct, there should be no change in the trot when you go from posting to sitting. If your horse hollows, speeds up, or slows down when you sit, you are most likely eliciting an unwanted response with your seat, and it might be a good time for lunge/equitation lessons. Who am I kidding?! It’s ALWAYS a good time for lunge/equitation lessons!

Add some music to your ride!

A great way to increase your horse’s rhythm and regularity is to add some rockin’ tunes to your ride. As much as I love experimental music, let’s stay away from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard for this particular purpose and stick to choices with simpler time signature — you want songs that match your horse’s gaits. I find you can’t go wrong with the steady 4/4 beats of bands like The Clash and the Ramones, but if punk isn’t your scene, pop on your favorite playlist and see what works for you.

I prefer using a small Bluetooth speaker opposed to headphones so my horse can hear the music as well. It might surprise you, but horses are shockingly good at latching onto an audible beat. Here is one of my favorite songs to rock out to while I’m riding!

Now that you’ve done some maintenance to your riding foundation, you can be sure that the structural integrity of your dressage pyramid is strong, and are free to get fancy with complete confidence.

Go riding!

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