7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #1 RHYTHM

As discussed in my last post, the SCALES OF TRAINING form the guidelines by which you should decide which aspect of training to focus on at any given point in your horse’s training, both within a single training session, and during a training phase that may be ongoing for several sessions, or even months.

Unless you address the scales in order your training will be less than effective, because each scale underpins the ones above, as depicted in the diagram below.

Without establishing the most basic of the scales at the base of the pyramid – rhythm – anything else you do with your horse will be worthless, because a horse without a correct rhythm can never develop any of the further scales, nor will such a horse ever find ridden work relaxing and enjoyable.

I often term this first scale ‘rhythm and relaxation‘, because the one promotes the other.


First, we need to consider what (in equestrian terms) constitutes good rhythm.

Rhythm has 3 aspects:

  1. Correct sequence of gait
  2. Regularity
  3. Tempo (speed of the rhythm)

[In many texts you will find regularity defined as the regular repetition of the correct sequence – in other words, nos. 1 & 2 together – but I feel it useful to drill down even a little further for clarity, hence my use of 3 aspects.]

When you assess a horse’s rhythm, from whatever viewpoint you are coming at this (rider, trainer or judge), you need to consider all 3 of these. Any lack in one should be addressed before you even consider moving forward to the next scale.

1. Sequence

Each of the horse’s gaits has a correct sequence:

  • WALK is a four time sequence with regular spacing between each footfall, in the order left hind – left fore – right hind – right fore. If you listen to a horse walking along a road, you should hear 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 evenly spaced beats.
Walk, showing a correct sequence: tip – watch the front leg, it appears to wait for the hindleg before lifting to continue the walk

When the even spacing between those footfalls is lost, you get what is called a ‘syncopated’ gait that looks more like the way a camel walks – with both legs on the same side moving almost at the same time, so the sound would be: 1,2 – 3,4. This is also called a ‘lateral’ or a ‘broken’ walk. Some horses do this by nature, or it can be caused by too strong a rein contact, not riding forward into the contact, walking too fast or too slowly.

A lateral walk – note how the legs on each side of the horse move almost at the same time. Also, how the front foot does not appear to wait for the hind foot to arrive before picking up. Many thanks to the rider for allowing me to share this clip.

Another variation of an incorrect walk is what is termed ‘short-long’, where a horse walks with a correct sequence, but takes persistently shorter steps with one hind leg.

  • TROT constitutes a two beat sequence, with the legs moving in clear diagonal pairs: left hind and right fore moving together, followed by right hind and left fore together, separated by a clear moment of suspension
I have slightly slowed this clip down to make it easier to see the clear moment of suspension (when all four feet are off the ground) between the diagonal pairs. Without this moment of suspension, the gait is technically not a real trot.
  • CANTER is a three beat action, with the legs moving: in right lead canter, left hind, followed by the diagonal pair of right hind and left fore together, then the right fore, followed by a clear moment of suspension before the sequence repeats.
  • Left lead canter is the opposite sequence: right hind, followed by left hind and right fore together, followed by left fore, then the moment of suspension.
Right lead canter

And the same piece, shown in slow motion for ease of watching the clear sequence, including the moment of suspension

Left lead canter

2. Regularity

Regularity is the regular repetition of the correct sequence.

  • Footfalls should land with the regularity of a metronome – an instrument used by musicians to set the beat
  • Each pair of legs (fronts and hinds) should step with even length and even height (see the description of the ‘short-long’ walk above – this is an example of a lack of regularity)
  • There should be no variation in the repeated sequence. An example of variation would be a trotting horse that shows clear suspension between the diagonal pairs most of the time, but loses suspension at others (most often seen during lateral work e.g. half pass).

3. Tempo

Tempo is the speed of the rhythm. For every horse, each of his gaits will have a tempo where he is both active and calm – the speed at which he will produce his best work.

One of the initial challenges of training a horse is discovering this correct natural tempo, and then maintaining that without variation, no matter what movement you are riding.

  • Example: horses find small circles (10m or less) harder work than large circles, and will often offer to slow down on the smaller pattern. The experienced rider will notice this immediately and keep the horse up to working tempo.
  • Example: he may offer to go faster when asked to lengthen his stride. This is incorrect, his tempo should remain the same whether he is doing collected, working, medium or extended.
  • Example: when first asked to collect the canter, he may slow down and lose jump (and possibly also the clear 3 beat sequence). He must be taught to maintain the speed when shortening the steps to preserve a true canter.

Tension may cause variations in tempo, so it may be more difficult at first with an inexperienced horse to produce the same tempo at a show as he works in at home. Over time, with relaxation, this should become easier.

As he progresses in his training, and the other scales are developed, so the rhythm and tempo will become more clearly defined, eventually producing the ‘icing on the cake’: CADENCE. At this time, his natural tempo may be slightly slower than at an earlier stage of training, due to extra power and balance producing greater suspension within the gaits.

Cadence appears when a horse moves with pronounced regularity and tempo, combined with power and lift to produce marked suspension, and is the measure of the quality of a horse’s gaits. Cadence can only occur in trot and canter (walk has no suspension), and is generally seen at the higher levels of training, although horses are being purpose bred these days to produce it more easily by nature, to be further enhanced by training. Cadence will only occur when horse is genuinely working ‘through’ its body, with harmony, balance and fluency – it can never be produced through tension.

A clear understanding of rhythm is perhaps a little more complex than you’d previously considered, so if you have any questions, please ask in the comments below, or message me via my contact page.

In the next post we will talk about scale #2, SUPPLENESS

Author: Deborah Jay

Deborah Jay writes fantasy and urban fantasy featuring complex, quirky characters and multi-layered plots – just what she likes to read. Living mostly on the UK South coast, she has already invested in her ultimate retirement plan – a farmhouse in the majestic, mystery-filled Scottish Highlands where she retreats to write when she can find the time. She has a dream of a day job, riding, training and judging competition dressage horses and riders, and also writes books and magazine features on the subject under the name Debby Lush. Her taste for the good things in life is kept in check by the expense of keeping too many horses, and her complete inability to cook. A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, she started writing her first novel aged eight, and has never stopped. Her debut novel, epic fantasy THE PRINCE’S MAN, first in a trilogy and winner of a UK Arts Board award, is available from most ebook retailers, and her Urban Fantasy (first in a series), DESPRITE MEASURES, a tale of a Scottish water sprite trying to live as a human, is currently available on Amazon. Find out more about Deborah at www.deborahjay.wordpress.com or follow Deborah on twitter https://twitter.com/DeborahJay2 and facebook https://www.facebook.com/DeborahJay

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