Understanding Rhythm and Lift
You can pick up most any book, magazine, or video on training horses and you’ll always find some key “buzzwords” that embody our perfect performance horses. No matter what the discipline may be; even crossing over into the hunter or dressage world, there are several key words that people come to know. Where the problem lies, for me, is when people easily rattle off these words without having a true understanding about what they are and their significance to your horse’s performance. I’ll use the example of a beginner hunt seat rider learning proper equitation: You can probably visit any barn in the country that gives hunt seat equitation lessons and you’ll hear some version of “heels down.” Everybody knows this is important, but it’s the great teachers and trainers that know and can teach why it’s important and how to achieve it in a clear and concise way that makes sense. I try to leverage the expertise of the best in the business whenever I can, if somebody is good at their craft, I’m always anxious to listen and learn even if it’s a different discipline; there are often things that can be carried over from one to the other. For example, in preparation for last year’s congress, we took one of our youth equitation riders for a brush up lesson with one of the best in the business within the hunter/jumper world. During the lesson, the trainer reinforced and elaborated on what we had been working on at home. He brought new pieces into the equation that all made sense. I feel that if you can take away even one thing from a person, you’ve increased your understanding and made yourself better.
I tell people all the time that “horse training is a lot of common sense.” In any learning process it’s key that the student (whether human or equine) understands what’s being taught. Most good trainers will tell you that a good pleasure horse (whether western or english) has cadence, rhythm, balance, lift, body control…the list goes on. Some of these words are redundant but they all go hand in hand and they all encompass what we look for in prospects and try to achieve and maintain in all of our horses.
If you look up rhythm in the dictionary you’ll find “recurring at regular intervals,” among a slew of other definitions. Rhythm is a key player in building a solid foundation for our performance horses. To the untrained eye, a successful pleasure horse is slow-legged. Slow legs are part of the whole package, but it’s not so much that the legs are slow but that they are staying on the ground longer. With each stride, the horse should hit the ground with regularity and uniformity…. “Hit…Hit…Hit…Hit….” I also like a horse to match up or hit with the front and back legs at the same time. It should take on the feel of a clock ticking and we as riders need to train ourselves to always make our horses find and maintain a rhythm. A good horse will keep that rhythm and stay on the ground each time it hits. A horse that hits the ground and immediately comes back off the ground for the next stride appears to be more quick- legged when it actually is just not staying on the ground as long.
When starting colts it’s important to not try to slow them down until they’re ready so as not to interfere too much with the way they move. One of the first things I try to establish is a steady rhythm. Each horse is different and some will naturally have a slower rhythm than others. I focus on getting them to hit the ground the same each time. To somebody watching, the whole picture should be one of consistency. It shouldn’t appear that the horse is speeding up or slowing down, just maintaining the same cadence. As the horse gets farther along in its training I gradually slow the rhythm down, not the speed. So how do we ensure that our horses keep that same consistent tempo? Any time they change, I get in, get a result and get out. I create discipline so that horse learns to always stay at the same tempo. If they change, I make a correction and then turn loose once they’ve given me the response I’m looking for. It’s also important to use your hands and feet in rhythm. If I need help achieving a steady jog or trot rhythm, I’ll get in and out with my hands and feet with the same 1-2 beat of the jog. When I need to pull and apply leg at the lope, I get in and out with the same rhythm of the lope, I pull and add leg as they hit the ground and then release and repeat; get in, get out, get in, get out… It should have rhythm and flow
like waves rolling in and then receding back into the ocean. It’s important in the training process to not turn loose excessively…giving your horse no help. It’s equally important to not hold excessively, giving your horse too much help and creating a crutch. By using your aids with rhythm, you are helping your horse to achieve overall rhythm.
A way to describe lift in horses is to say that they possess self-carriage. When a horse has lift, they keep their body up so that their legs can swing freely. We’ve all seen or ridden a horse or horses that are heavy on their front end. Since their weight is all shifted down onto their front end, the movement up front (and normally in the back as well) is disrupted. Picture yourself carrying a heavy load that upsets your balance…you’re going to be more apt to take quick, shuffling steps instead of a more swinging, lofty step. If a horse lacks lift, it’s generally going to have a shuffling step, it’s going to skim the ground, and frequently have more knee than a horse with a lot of lift. Picture your horse’s legs like pendulums on a clock. They swing smoothly forward and back. We want our horses’ legs to swing like that from the shoulders and hips. The only way they can achieve this swing is to possess lift, so their back, rib cage, body- or however you’d like to say it is up out of the way…freeing up their legs.
Lift, rhythm, balance…they all go hand in hand. It’s important to look for these attributes when selecting horses and maintain them through the training process. It’s also of great importance to have a true understanding of what we’re trying to achieve with our horses so that we can be better riders, better teachers and better horsemen.
Troy Green is a firm believer in the importance of a good foundation for every horse with balance, rhythm, and self-carriage being key. A good foundation equals longevity in the show pen. Troy has won over two dozen All American Quarter Horse Congress Championships in western pleasure, versatility, reining, halter and western riding, and has coached clients to over 50 Congress championships. Troy has three AQHA World Championships and two National Championships under his belt, and has won at all major futurities. He spent three years on the national board of the NSBA.
Troy Green has an extensive background working with youth and amateurs at all levels and of various disciplines. He specializes in pleasure futurity and all around horses.
Now is your chance to have your questions answered by Troy! Just submit your question using the comment section below or the email link, and he will respond to select questions in future posts.