Confused about which is which? Do you use it interchangeably sometimes? I did, until I finally figured out the difference. Although I've already had a good grasp of rhythm and tempo in musical arrangements, it took some time for me to extrapolate that understanding and apply it to horse riding.
When it comes to horses, rhythm refers to the number of beats in a horse's gait. So for example, a walk is a four-beat gait. A trot is two beats (diagonal pairs fall together) and a canter is 4 beats (outside hind, diagonal pair, and inside front, suspension). However, because the canter has that moment of suspension, you hear only three footfalls with a quiet moment in between.
The rhythm of the gait is non-negotiable. That is, a canter must have three footfalls and a moment of suspension, while a trot must have two. Problems arise when the horse demonstrates what is called an "impure" or "irregular" gait.
Let's say you are trotting along and you hear four beats per stride, something like a thud-thud-thud-thud in quick succession. This indicates that the trot is not in rhythm. If you were on the ground watching, you might even be able to see the legs hitting the ground at different moments. It happens quickly but a practiced eye can see it.
More often, we see horses four-beating the canter. Rather than maintaining the diagonal pair of legs for the second beat, the horse lands those legs in a one-two fashion - which results in four independent footfalls.
In both cases, the rhythm needs to be maintained. Chances are, the horse needs more impulsion, especially in turns or changes of bend. It is also possible that the irregularity stems from a physical discomfort, so you may want to call a vet to make sure there is no unsoundness.
There is one exception to these rules: the gaited horse.
Many horses have been bred over generations to produce distinct 4-beat gaits specific to their bloodlines. For example, the Tennessee Walking Horse is famous for its running walk. These horses shouldn't move in two beats in these gaits. The four-beat is the rhythm of the gait.
First, work on getting and maintaining distinct rhythmical footfalls.
Once you can keep a consistent rhythm, the next area to focus on is the tempo, otherwise known as the horse's leg speed. Tempo is the second priority only after the rhythm has been established. Incorrect tempo is possibly more difficult to recognize and correct than rhythm.
Think of tempo as the speed of the footfalls. You could be in a two-beat trot, but how fast you go would be due to how quickly the legs land on the ground. You can imagine that there are many tempos within one gait. So a trot may be two beats, but how quickly the horses move in those two beats can be dependent on the horse's breed and conformation, and the rider's skills.
Many of us are prone to letting the horse (or sometimes actually "chasing" the horse) into a too-quick tempo, which can result in the horse falling to the forehand, or even breaking stride. We get into a frantic one-two rising trot that speeds up the horse, which then speeds up our posting, which then speeds up the horse even more....
You get the idea. We end up in a never-ending cycle of speed and eventually it feels "normal" to rush along on the forehand, using the rail to keep the horse from drifting out too far.
The opposite can happen too, although not quite as often. If we work at slowing the tempo down to point that the horse loses energy, we run the risk of breaking rhythm. This is often why horses four-beat in the trot or canter. Too slow without additional energy can be as detrimental as too fast.
Listen carefully to your horse's footfalls as you ride at each gait. Every horse has an ideal tempo that allows him to work with adequate energy - but not too much - so he does not lose balance.
Your horse's best leg speed is probably slower than you think. But you can try an experiment. Increase the leg speed in a particular gait and feel for your horse's threshold. At some point, your horse suddenly feels like he has to scramble to keep his legs underneath him.
Then do the opposite. Slow the legs to just before the point that your horse is going to quit. Maintain energy and see if he can soften through the body and breathe in better rhythm. Too slow, and he will likely break stride. But slow and strong might be just what he needs.
The ideal tempo allows the horse to move with less tension in better balance and in a steady, true rhythm. There is no speeding up or slowing down every few strides. Each step is deliberate and well placed. There is a sense of strong but calm energy from both horse and rider.
You can try this exercise several times. It doesn't hurt for the horse to know what it feels like to increase and decrease the tempo in a gait. In fact, it might help as he progresses into more collected work. But in the meantime, remember that rhythm must be maintained while tempo can be adjusted.
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Use The "Canter-Trot" To Truly Engage The Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement – but that is nothing further than the truth!
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