While we may describe them that way in order to explain and teach them, they are actually interrelated learning tracks. An experienced rider who can follow the horse’s motion is able to allow a green horse its freedom in whatever gait they are working and to introduce rein contact without interrupting that free, forward motion. An experienced horse that is balanced, supple and moves freely with impulsion can help a green rider learn to follow the motion in perfect balance with the horse. The interplay between horse and rider is a dance that can only be as good as the lowest rung on either the Riding Tree or the Training Tree that either partner has achieved.
The first level of the 10-level Training Tree we use to teach our horses, the start of everything else, is rhythm. Although we don’t specifically list rhythm on our Riding Tree, it is just as critical for riders to cultivate a sense of rhythm as the basis for everything else they do.
A steady, uninterrupted rhythm has an element of predictability to it. That predictability can help an anxious green horse stay calm and relaxed. The horse begins to trust that nothing abrupt or startling is going to happen. Relaxation is the second level on the Training Tree and the first level on the Riding Tree. Riders who discipline themselves to work rhythmically with their horses on the ground will develop a critical habit that they can carry over into their riding.
Dancers must step in time to a steady beat in order to coordinate with one another and turn in a smooth performance. A rider with a good sense of rhythm will walk, turn and stop to a steady beat. She’ll maintain a sense of rhythm as she catches her horse, pats him, and leads him back to the barn. Watch the blissful expression on the face of a horse being groomed by a caretaker wielding curries and brushes to a steady inner beat and you’ll see the power of rhythm.
Developing a good sense of rhythm requires concentration. To make rhythmic movement an ingrained habit, you need to pay attention to the beat of your walk, the pattern of your breathing, and the bend and swing of your knees, your hips, and your shoulders. You can’t "multi-task" and be thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner or talking to a friend at the same time that you are leading your horse or grooming him or even standing and waiting with him. You have to keep your attention on your horse and your rhythm relationship to him.
In the beginning, don’t be afraid to count the beat or to hum or sing to help you find a steady rhythm on the ground or in the saddle. Singing or humming is one of the things we do to get riders to feel rhythm and they can help nervous riders relax. Eventually you will develop an inner sense of a steady beat without an external crutch.
Rhythm is a powerful training and riding tool. It helps riders communicate more clearly with their horse through their aids. The horse that is always ridden rhythmically begins to seek out and pick up on its rider’s rhythm. It learns to mirror that rhythm. When the rider’s joints move in a specific "walk" or "trot" or "canter" rhythm, the horse feels that rhythm or beat and responds in a way that matches it. A sense of rhythm is not just essential within a gait, it is also necessary for smooth transitions between gaits. If a horse spooks or runs away, a rider who has cultivated a strong sense of rhythm can use rhythm to regain the horse’s attention, calm him, and reintroduce control.
Some people misunderstand or misuse the terms rhythm, tempo, and stride. Rhythm means the beat, the regularity of the horse’s footfalls. We want to hear and feel four even, steady beats at the walk, two at the trot or jog, and three at the canter. Tempo is the measure of the time between the beats or the steps of the gaits. It will be slower when the horse’s gaits are extended, faster when they are collected. When we talk about a stride, we mean the distance covered by all four feet within a given gait.
Even though these are all distinct concepts, they are interrelated. Rhythm is the base point of a good dressage or reining performance that includes multiple changes of tempo and changes of stride. Without a strong sense of rhythm, the dressage horse’s transitions would appear abrupt. The performance would seem jerky rather than flowing smoothly from movement to movement. The reining horse’s performance would seem mechanical rather than gracefully athletic.
The horse cannot move with any better sense of rhythm than its rider. Think about working rhythmically whenever you are around your horse, not just when you are riding, and watch your riding take a giant step forward.