There are many parallels between riding horses and dancing. Dressage is often compared to a choreographed dance piece and freestyle dressage is ridden to actual music. It is common to use words such rhythm, tempo and cadence to describe the movement of the horse and all of those are terms that are also used to describe music. We call their foot falls hoof beats unlike our own footsteps. When I was a child I had a riding instructor who always used to say “your body is a metronome”. My instructor was teaching me to use my body to keep time for my horse in order to maintain a steady pace just like a metronome keeps time for a musician.
Music and dance are languages that speak to everyone and everything. They can be found in every culture and in nature. I have never been musical or played an instrument until recently. I began taking West African drumming lessons and I’ve started to learn a lot more about rhythms and beats. Playing the drums has also challenged me to use both sides of my brain and strengthen my non-dominant hand which are great skills to have for riding. This week we started to learn a traditional rhythm from Africa on the djembe drum. If you were to sing it, the rhythm would go:
Boom – Da,Da – Boom – Da,Da – Boom – Da,Da – Boom
The “Boom” is a base hit played on the down beat and the “Da,Da” are slaps played in quick succession on the up beat. As I started to play, I realized that it is the same as another ancient rhythm that I am very familiar with – the horse’s canter:
Gung – Gidda – Gung – Gidda – Gung – Gidda – Gung
The horse’s canter is a three beat gait. The sequence of the footfalls looks like this:
Canter Right Lead:
Left hind, right hind and left fore together, right fore, moment of suspension, repeat
Or, if you were to sing it:
Canter Left Lead:
Right hind, left hind and right fore together, left fore, moment of suspension, repeat
Or, if you were to sing it:
If it helps you to follow the rhythm, you can clap along – your hands come together when you say “Gung” and apart when you say “Gidda”. You can speed the rhythm up and slow it down the same way you do with your horse’s tempo.
For clarity, I’m going to use the right lead canter as an example. If you watch a horse canter (it helps if you watch it in slow motion) you will see that the right front hoof hits the ground on the down beat. There is then a space where all four legs are off the ground. Then the left hind hoof hits the ground closely followed by the right hind and left front hooves together. There is then a space as the horse rocks forward and extends the right fore leg before that hoof touches down. Gung – Gidda – Gung.
It is interesting to note that, in the same way that you can clap, snap or tap your foot to the beat, your body naturally moves up and down to the beat as you ride. With each stride your weight comes down into the saddle on the down beat – when the leading forelimb hits the ground. You are then pushed up, out of the saddle as the horse shifts his weight back onto his hind end. You are lighter in the tack with your hips moving back to counter balance the movement on the up beat – as the left hind and right hind/left fore hit the ground. As your horse rocks his weight forward you ride down the wave moving your hips forward and sinking into the saddle. You have no choice but to follow the rhythm with your body.
The same is true for the walk and trot. The walk is a four beat gait and the trot is a two beat gait. The sequences of the footfalls look like this:
Left hind, left fore, right hind, right four, repeat
Right hind and left fore together, moment of suspension, left hind and right fore together, moment of suspension, repeat
In the walk, there are four separate footfalls per stride. The down beats are when the hind hooves hit the ground. The front hooves are playing the up beats of the rhythm. On the drums this would sound like a base beat for the down beat and a snare on the up beat. You could notate the footfalls like this:
And (1) And (2)
Your body moves to the rhythm of the gait. Your hips move in a figure eight shape as you ride the walk. Your left hip comes down into the saddle as the horse’s left hind hoof hits the ground. Then your left hip swings forward and up as the horse’s left front hoof hits the ground. Meanwhile, your right hip has been swinging back to come down as the horse’s right hind hoof hits the ground and then your right hip swings forward and up as the horse’s right front hoof hits the ground. Again, your body is moving down on the down beats and up on the up beats. There are four footfalls to one stride at walk but only two down beats – one on either side.
The trot is a little different. You can change the pattern of the rhythm depending on whether you sit the trot or post. When you sit, each diagonal pair – right hind/left front and left hind/right front – are a down beat. The weight of your body sinks down into the saddle with each beat. Down – Down – Down – Down. This means that you would clap twice per stride. However, when you post, you sit when one diagonal pair hits the ground and stand when the other hits the ground. Down – Up – Down – Up. This changes the tempo so that there is one down beat and one up beat per stride. You would clap once per stride.
Thinking about each of the gaits in this way allows you to effect the rhythm, tempo and cadence of your horse’s movement. If you understand the rhythm of the stride you will know when one of the footfalls is slightly off. For example, you will be able to feel if your horse is short on one leg at the walk because the timing of the rhythm will change. This will give you a clear feel for the soundness of your horse and the purity of each gait.
You can also start to use your body as a metronome to effect the tempo, or speed, of each gait. As you change the tempo of the movement in your own body you can affect the speed at which your horse is moving without having to pull on his mouth or kick him forward. For example, while riding the posting trot you can slow the trot down by slowing down the rate that you post. Your horse can learn to respond to the rate at which you move your body.
Once you have established a good rhythm and tempo, you can add impulsion to the stride. This is known as the cadence – it is the power behind the stride or the spring in the step. I think of cadence as revving the engine – you want more RPMs rather than more speed. You encourage the horse to push off the ground by closing your leg at the right moment of the stride. That moment happens to be the down beat I just described for each gait. At the walk you use an alternating leg (right, left, right, left) to tap the horse as he pushes off with his hind legs. At the trot, you close the leg on the down beat to encourage the horse to spring off of the diagonal pair that is on the ground. At the canter, the thrust of the stride comes as the horse rocks over the leading leg and pushes his body onto his hind end.
Each stride in a gait is the sequence of a rhythm. As you put together consecutive strides you put together the beats of a song. From there you can dance to the music created by your horse. You maintain the rhythm while doing circles or leg yields. You can change the tempo by speeding up or slowing down. You can change the cadence by lengthening or shortening the stride. An exaggerated form of changing the cadence would be piaffe – it’s just a dance move to the beat of the trot. You can also mix up your song by transitioning between the gates. Get creative and ride a dance to the rhythm of your horse.
Notice the rhythm of your horse the next time you ride. Can you begin to sense the down beats in each stride? Learning to feel your horse’s movement will drastically improve your timing and feel in the saddle.