Rhythm quite often is just considered to be the four-beat in walk, two-beat in trot and three-beat of the canter, but that is not where it ends. Rhythm is also the perfect symmetry of the movement through the horse's body. The similarity of the mechanism in all of the horse's four legs.
For me personally it took a long time to figure out that the perfect rhythm is the key to the perfect ridability. When the horse is always maintaining an equal rhythm, it means that the muscle work he is doing in his body doesn't change in quality. The self-carriage, collection, impulsion, thoroughness - all the wanted qualities - have an impact to the rhythm and the rhythm has an impact to them. All these go hand in hand.
|A pony-sized Finnhorse stallion moving with a parallel action in the back and in the front. Photo Henna Haapaniemi.|
A horse in the perfect rhythm always moves with parallel legs. The literate riding community has been very concerned about the "show movement" of the modern day dressage horses. This type of movement is asymmetric in the front and in the back: the front leg is more expressive than the hind leg. The concern is justified as the biomechanical research done amongst horses has given reasons to believe that this working position is in many ways harmful to the horses. The critics say that the horses moving with a high front leg are not ridden from back to front. Partly so, some of them are even pulled backwards with the hand, but my conclusion is that this is not the case with all of them. Quite a few asymmetrically moving "top" horses are ridden from back to front, in some cases also with quite a lot of forward driving leg, but they are held up in the front. They show energy that an only backwards pulled horse wouldn't, but still the unevenness in the mechanism of the movement. To me the reason is not in the back, the reason for the asymmetry is in the front. Why do I believe so? Have you ever seen a horse doing "show trot" with loose reins? There you go. It doesn't happen. Horses naturally choose to do a sustainable, symmetrical movement in the whole of their body - also when they spook and do passagey-type-of-steps alone in the field. A show trot requires someone to hold the front up.
|An artistic image of a horse who is showing a lot of front leg lift, whithout the equal amount of hind leg action. Notice also the short neck and the horse being behind the vertical - held up in the front by the rider's hand.|
What happens in the horse's body is that the rider tries to ask for more collection and impulsion than the horse is capable of doing, the rider ends up supporting the horse in the front with the rein contact and the horse uses this contact to help to lift the front up. If you read my previous text about horse's natural balance issues and how the rider should correct them, you know by now that the horse has different muscle groups for the front and the back. The high, flashy front leg doesn't mean collection. It's just a high front leg. Collection is what happens when the back and front of the horse are united with the activity in the horse's core muscles. Collection means a higher level of body control and strength in the whole of the horse's body.
One of the biggest problems in the field of dressage is the hurry that the people are in. A young horse might be ridden in with too little preparation, too soon. Then when he feels unbalanced, the rider starts to help him with the contact - carry him. The horse doesn't learn to carry himself with the right set of muscles. Quite often the trapezius muscles are underdeveloped. Sometimes the whole upperline all the way down to the tail, depending on how much the horse was ridden backwards. The pattern of the muscle work is set. The rider increases the level of collection, holds the horse's front up with the contact and the situation just gets worse by the years.
I personally have rehabilitated a large number of horses with these symptoms. Some of them might even have lost the regularity of their gaits, some just are not really ridable anymore. At least 80% of my new pupils need to start by fixing some problems in the upperline and rhythm of the horse. Although I'm somewhat specialized in this type of work, I do not believe that these numbers are abnormal. There is a huge amount of horses who do not move parallel in their daily work. Regardless how much or little they are being balanced and collected in their work.
|An adult warmblood moving in a very moderate level of collection, where the horse is still able to move with a solid upperline and self-carriage symmetrically through the body. Photo Cat Loose.|
How does the rhythm fit into all of this? It tells us what is possible and what is not. It should always be the rider's guideline when working with different levels of collection, with different body positions. If the horse looses the symmetry of the steps, if the horse looses the rhythm in a way that the rider is not able to correct it fairly easily, it means that the horse is not yet prepared to do what it is being asked to do. Maybe the horse lacks strength, maybe he lacks suppleness, maybe he is tired, maybe he is anxious... may the reason be anyone of these or a different one, the rider should always go back to that level of work, where the rhythm is solid. Only on that level the work is beneficial to the horse's body and its future.
Another challenge that the rider is always facing is riding within the rhythm. How to time the aids so that it enhances the horse ability to stay in rhythm instead of disturbing the rhythm? That we talk about another time.
And I almost forgot to talk about the other group of horses, who don't collect or move their feet. The asymmetry of the movement can also happen, when the horse is on the forehand. The lack of movement in the front legs blocks the whole body. As long as the front legs are on the way and not stepping forward, the horse can not step underneath its body with the hind legs. Here the remedy is simple: get the horse to go forward off from your leg. Sharply!