However, if you're a hunter/jumper, you might be absolutely familiar with it because you simply can't navigate through the jumps without doing it.
What is it?
The difference between dressage counting and the jumping kind is that there is no jump to count up to. So it's easy to forget about it and just go along however things work out. But there's so much to be gained from the count!
All you have to do is count. 1,2,1,2,1,2... and so on, with each step of the front feet. You can count in all the gaits, in their own rhythm. But the 1,2... must stay consistent in each gait.
Of course, the tricky part is to get your horse to keep that same 1,2... in the gait. If you take some time to watch riders from the ringside, you might notice the tempo speed up and then slow down and then speed up again. The horse scrambles in speed, then quits through the turns or circles, then speeds up again when a leg aid is applied. Usually, the horse just goes along and the rider changes tempo to meet the horse's changes.
But the idea is to let the counting help you maintain tempo. Consistency is key for so many reasons!
How can counting the strides help? Here are five things that might improve for yourself and your horse.
First off, keeping a steady tempo will quite certainly help you maintain your horse's rhythm in each gait. Change of leg speed almost always throws the horse's weight to the forehand, and can cause variations in the footfalls. If you focus on tempo, your horse will have a better chance of maintaining "pure" gaits - that is, keeping a walk to an even 4-beat, keeping the trot to a consistent diagonal pair 2-beat, and the canter to a 3-beat with the moment of suspension.
So, the first focus of your count should be to ensure that the horse has an even and consistent rhythm at each gait. Feel for the strides and listen to the footfalls to gauge the quality of the rhythm.
Lack of tempo often causes balance changes in the movement. Have you ever felt like you were going just great at the trot and then suddenly there's a small whiplash dive to the forehand, then a sudden blocking of the energy? Your upper body falls first forward and then backward. The tossing around you feel is connected to balance changes as the horse also falls to the forehand or loses engagement.
Balance is the second almost natural result of the 1,2... count. When you stabilize the leg movement, the horse will have plenty of time for each leg to come through. This allows for a stronger and more consistent weight bearing from the hind end, which will allow the horse to keep better balance. You won't be flung around as much, and soon enough, you will both float along as if "one."
As the horse relaxes in the gait, he will likely find more opportunity for "free movement." You might notice more bounce in his stride, more reach through the shoulders, and more swing through the back. To me, it feels like a trampoline. Beware! If you cannot become loose yourself and ride that motion, you will likely block your horse from continuing in this manner. So you have to feel for the looseness, recognize it and ride it!
Once you have a steady rhythm, consistent balance, and looseness, the horse's posture will just fall into place seemingly on its own. The back will rise and fall, the body will round and the horse will begin to tilt a little more in the hind end. Your horse's neck will assume a height that is natural to his conformation. No more high heads, no more diving down necks.
The next step is an improved sense of connectedness between the horse and rider. The horse may reach more for the bit. The rider might be able to keep her own balance better and therefore stay better with the horse's movement. There will now be an opportunity for the aids to become more subtle.
The communication will be much more pronounced and clear than it ever can be when the horse is inconsistent. This means less rein aids are needed even while the contact is improved.
Finally, you might notice an amazing increase in athletic ability, both from the horse and the rider. All it takes is a small change of aid for anything - downward transition, sharp turn, change of bend, lengthen. Any movement becomes easier because the basic balance is already in place. The horse is stronger, looser, maybe slower than before - these will all contribute to better comfort in movement for both the horse and rider.
One last note: use the half-halt! Initially, keeping that absolutely consistent gait will likely be difficult. If you aren't used to counting strides, you will have to work hard to identify when the tempo speeds up and slows down. Then you will have to figure out how influence the horse to not let him rush but also not slow into disengagement. The half-halt is definitely an integral part of the puzzle.
All this with a simple 1,2,1,2... count?
Try it and see what happens for you and your horse.
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