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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.




Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

Regularity: Rhythm, Tempo, Stride Length, Energy Level
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2005 All Rights Reserved


The training scale or training pyramid begins with "Takt" = Rhythm, referring to the purity of the rhythm of each gait. This means that the walk has to have four distinct hoof-beats, not the two-beat rhythm of the jig or amble. The trot has to be a clear diagonal two beat gait with a suspension phase. And the canter has to have three distinct hoof-beats with a suspension phase, not the four hoof-beats of a disjointed main diagonal (inside hind leg and outside front leg) or the irregular footfall of a horse who seems to be cantering behind and trotting in front.

But the reference to the Rhythm is merely a convenient abbreviation, because the category contains much more than just the number of discernible beats per stride sequence. As in music, the Rhythm of the footfall sequence is inextricably linked to the Tempo, the number of beats per minute. In addition, both Rhythm and Tempo are connected to another variable, the Stride length. These three main components form the cornerstones of the horse's gait. All three can be varied along a certain range, and the regularity of all three has to be carefully monitored by the rider.

There is a fourth variable that is usually not subsumed under the same heading, but in practical riding it falls into the same category. The fourth element is the Energy level, which is closely linked to Impulsion. On the next few pages I want to try and explain the importance of all four elements.

When the training pyramid was first compiled by general von Redwitz and colonel Hans von Heydebreck for the German cavalry instruction manual at the beginning of the 20th century, the simple entry Takt was understood to refer to the purity of the Rhythm and the regularity of the Tempo as well as the consistency of the Stride length. The reason is that impurities or irregularities in these areas are indications of serious flaws in the horse's gaits and performance. They are essentially due to a loss of balance, which always leads to a loss of Relaxation/Suppleness, the next element in the training pyramid. A loss of balance and Relaxation/Suppleness automatically leads to a deterioration of the Rein contact, the next item on the list. And without any of these basic components properly in place, Impulsion and Collection will never become possible either. In other words, there is a chain reaction that is set in motion by the quality of the variables that are so conveniently subsumed under Takt.

Let us take a closer look at the different aspects of the gait. The walk is the gait that is most susceptible to impurities. E.g. the clear four beat footfall sequence can be destroyed in two ways. The four beats can either be changed into the two beats of the amble or the two beats of the jig. In the amble, the lateral pairs of legs move in unison, i.e. both left legs advance and touch down together, followed by both right legs. This impurity is caused by tension in the horse's back.

Some horse's whose back is conformationally weak show a natural predisposition towards a lateral walk. In a dressage horse, this is a highly undesirable trait, whereas other disciplines value the amble, because it feels very comfortable for the rider. The lateral walk can also be induced by faulty influences on the rider's part. If the rider overrides the walk and tries to push the horse into a faster, bigger walk than the horse is capable of, the horse falls onto the forehand and tightens his back, which can lead to pacing, as it is also called. In other cases, attempts to "collect" the walk beyond the horse's ability also create tension in the horse's back, especially if the rider uses predominantly the reins. This back tension can then lead to lateral strides. The tell-tale sign to look for if the impure walk was created by the rider is the walk on a long rein. Some horses will show a clear, pure, four-beat walk as long as the rider is not touching reins. As soon as the rider begins to pick up the reins, the horse responds with lateral strides. When this happens, the rider was using too much rein, not enough leg support, and possibly too heavy a seat. The remedy is therefore not difficult to figure out. Relaxing more and reducing the demands will in most cases restore the clear four beat rhythm.

The diagonalized strides of the two-beat jig have a similar cause. They are also the result of tension in the horse's back that is generally induced by the rider's attempts to shorten the horse's frame in an unhealthy manner and to collect the horse more than his present stage of development allows him to. In both cases, weak backs compound the problem. Stiff hips and gripping legs can also lead to jigging. Some horses are conformationally so weak in the back that only the most tactful riders can prevent them from pacing or jigging, while others are built so strong that even the most tactless riding can hardly destroy the purity of the rhythm. In the case of the jigging horse, the hind legs do not spend enough time on the ground behind the vertical, i.e. thrusting and propelling the body forward. So they get overburdened by spending too much time on the ground in front of the vertical, i.e. carrying the load. As soon as the balance between thrusting and carrying is restored, the jigging will go away. Rein aids that are aimed at increasing the collection will therefore compound the problem. The safest way out of the jigging is a fresh working trot. When the hind legs have started thrusting and the back has started swinging again, the walk will most likely be improved as well.

The trot is the gait that is the least vulnerable to impurities of the rhythm. There are two main impurieties that occur. The connection between the diagonal pairs can be broken, e.g. if the hind leg touches down before the diagonal front leg. This is traditionally called "rushing hindquarters" and typically shows short strides as well, i.e. the hind leg does not reach toward the center of gravity enough. The opposite case is the "rushing forehand", in which the front leg is retracted in the air and has to touch down before the diagonal hind leg. This incidentally also leads to the toe-flick. The underlying cause for the toe flick is tension in the horse's back. The front leg is thrown up in the air, but instead of following through and landing where the toe points, the horse pulls his front leg down and the stride is cut short. The downward acceleration of the front leg in combination with the mass inertia of the foot then provokes the toe flick. Another impurity that can occur in the trot as well as in the walk is forging. In this type of arrhythmia a front leg is so overburdened that it cannot leave the ground and move out of the way of the lateral hind leg. The toe of the hind leg then touches the heel or the sole of the front leg on the same side. In other words, forging is always an indication of a loss of rhythm and balance.

The canter shows two common problems in that area. When the rider tries to collect the canter predominantly with the reins by slowing and shortening the strides without maintaining the necessary impulsion, the outside front leg starts to touch down before the inside hind leg. This breaks up the main diagonal that forms the second beat of the pure three beat canter stride. The result is an uncomfortable, jarring four beat canter. It is always a symptom of a lack of impulsion and balance. The same thing applies to the anomalous canter which looks as if the hind legs were cantering while the front legs are trotting.

Tempo

Horses often vary the tempo of the gait by speeding up or slowing down at certain moments in order to avoid having to flex their haunches or thrusting with their full capacity. There are certain prototypical situations in which these undesirable tempo variations occur most frequently:

  1. Slowing down in approaching the short side. Speeding up again at the beginning of the long side.
  2. Speeding up in response to a driving aid.
  3. Speeding up the walk or trot just before a transition to a higher gait.
  4. Slowing down the canter or trot just before a down transition.
  5. Speeding up when changing direction.
  6. Speeding up in lengthenings.
  7. Slowing down when trying to collect again after a medium or extended trot or canter.
  8. Slowing down in the transition from a single track movement to a two track movement.
  9. Speeding up again in returning to a single track after a lateral movement.
  10. Speeding up or slowing down in the transition from a straight line to a volte and vice versa.

In every single case, the uninvited change of tempo originates in a loss of balance and a lack of permeability. When the horse's hind legs continue to thrust, but they stop carrying and flexing for some reason, the croup is raised and the horse has to increase his tempo in an attempt to regain his balance. In the opposite case, when the hind legs continue carrying, but stop thrusting, the horse sucks back and slows down of his own accord. This loss of balance can be triggered by a variety of different factors, such as changing the direction of travel, the bend, the angle of the horse's body in relation to the chosen track (single track to two tracks and back), the stride length, or the gait. All of these transitions involve certain shifts in the balance, which makes them the most likely candidates for slipups. Furthermore, when a horse holds tension in his back and does not allow the rider's aids to go through, he will tend to speed up in response to the driving aids. By the same token, half halts will also get stuck, and the horse will slow down while remaining behind the aids with unflexed haunches. Some horses will, e.g., slow down the canter, when you are trying to ride a transition to the walk or trot. They seem to be avoiding the transition, because they are behind the aids and the slower and slower canter allows them to avoid flexing their hindquarters.

Stride length

Some horses vary the stride length uninvited when they lose their balance. There are two basic varieties. In some instances, the hind leg seems to take a quick, short stride, which does not leave enough time for it to flex, since it does not spend enough time on the ground in front of the vertical. The natural reaction is then for the horse to push his croup up and thrust with the grounded hind leg, which increases the stride length of the airborne hind leg. Since the horse has lost his balance, he has to quicken his stride in order to be able to support himself with his hind legs and to avoid falling down. This is usually accompanied by inversion, since the hind legs are touching down too far away from the center of gravity, so that the pelvis rotates back and outward, instead of tucking.

In other cases, the horse may step under almost too far, so that the hind leg gets stuck underneath the body mass. The hind leg is not strong enough to continue transporting the body forward. In other words, the leverage is so strong that the hind leg cannot thrust hard enough and gets overwhelmed by the body mass. Some horses will shorten their strides and possibly stop altogether. They often stretch and lower their head and neck, trying to push themselves backwards, to liberate their hind legs again. This scenario is mostly due to a lack of strength in the horse's back and haunches, whereas the previous scenario can typically be attributed to a lack of suppleness and agility.

There is another mistake that can occur, involving the stride length. There are horses whose legs seem to be moving vigorously, especially during extensions, yet the horse does not seem be going anywhere. These horses are tight in their backs, they are so-called leg movers, as opposed to back movers. Their legs can be flailing, but since their back is not processing the energy, there is neither real thrust nor true carriage. Consequently, the horse does not cover any ground. The stride length is too short for the degree of extension that the rider is aiming for.

Energy Level

Impulsion is a separate element on the training pyramid. But its "raw material", the energy, or effort, that the horse puts into his work, plays a role at this elementary level as well. Most younger horses and retraining horses need to be reminded periodically not to slack off. Left to their own devices they will gradually fade after a few strides with good effort. That means the power with which their hind legs thrust decreases, the gait loses its brilliance and becomes dull. As a result, the back stops swinging and starts to sag. To the observer it looks as if the horse were using only the lower part of the hind leg, from the hock down, for locomotion, while the upper joints, that are embedded in powerful muscles, remain relatively uninvolved. The trot, e.g., then deteriorates to a jog or shuffle and loses its gymnastic value. The horse will not develop the musculature of his haunches, back, and top line.

To some extent, the energy level is linked to the tempo and stride length in the horse's mind. As an example, most uneducated horses assume that the driving aids mean "speed up", so they increase the tempo as soon as the rider drives. It is up to the rider to "explain" to the horse that the driving aid means "put more effort into your work, but keep your tempo". The reason for separating the tempo and the energy level or impulsion is that speeding up enables the horse to keep avoiding to use his entire hind leg and, in fact, his entire body. In terms of the efficacy of the horse's muscle use the status quo would be maintained at a higher speed. In order to improve the efficiency with which the horse uses his body he has to maintain the same tempo while increasing his energy level.

Conversely, many horses will slack off and decrease their impulsion when asked to slow down the tempo if they were rushing, which leads again to an insufficient use of their musculature. Through systematic training the horse learns to adjust the tempo, stride length, and energy level independently of each other, and eventually to maintain each parameter independently on its own. This issue is of central importance. If the horse does not learn these fundamentals, he will never develop gymnastically and he can never truly be called trained.

The regularity of the parameters rhythm, tempo, stride length, and energy have to be practiced on simple arena patterns on a single track at first, including changes of direction and bend and transitions between the gaits. When the horse has mastered this challenge, we add more complex arena patterns, including smaller circles, voltes, tighter turns, and the movements on two tracks.

Lateral movements often lead the horses to lose impulsion and to slow down their tempo, because done correctly they require more strength of the horse.

It is of the utmost importance to pay the closest attention to the regularity of the basic parameters throughout all exercises, patterns, and movements in order to develop the purity of the gaits to the highest level of perfection and to develop the horse's strength and suppleness to its fullest potential in the process.





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