Becoming Infatuated With Rhythm

You'll remember Katharine Stancliff and her Connemara/Trakehner cross Poppyfields Tristan from the tearjerker helmet cam of their first Prelim completion. Her trainer, Eric Dierks, recently helped her have a light bulb moment about the walk, and now she's sharing the wisdom with us! Many thanks to Katharine for writing, and thanks for reading.

Eric and I at the Gibbes Farm for schooling. Photo by Nathan Stancliff. Eric and I at the Gibbes Farm for schooling. Photo by Nathan Stancliff.

I recently was watching my trainer, Eric Dierks, as he worked with one of his up-and-coming competition horses, Monty. I was astounded at how much time and patience he was able to spend at the walk in his warm up. He took Monty for a nice walk around the fields, up and down hills, then came into the arena and spent more time on circles, changes of direction, and collecting and lengthening the walk.

Being a bright young thing, Monty would occasionally leap about, wiggle instead of going straight and generally try to talk Eric out of working. In response, Eric would just sit quietly as if nothing had happened and continue asking Monty to walk. This went on for at least an hour before they moved on to a bit of trot and a short canter set before ending the workout. Even though the work hadn’t been very “fast,” Monty came back to the barn steaming from head to toe and exhausted.

I made a comment to Eric about how I couldn’t believe the level of patience he possessed to focus on such a (let’s face it) boring gait. Wouldn’t he rather be trotting, cantering, galloping or jumping? The answer he gave really made me reevaluate my mindset while riding (FYI I’m paraphrasing): “I was waiting for him to find his rhythm and balance at the walk before we moved onto the trot, then find his rhythm at the trot before we cantered. Once we had consistent results during all three gaits, the session was finished.”

During the several lessons I’ve had with Eric since that lesson, he rounded out the idea of rhythm for me. Just like the phrase “no hoof, no horse,” if the horse’s gait is not rhythmic, he is also out of balance. Instead of hopping on, pulling on his mouth until you achieve a false headset and heading into the dressage ring, more beneficial results can be gained by, as Eric puts it, “becoming infatuated with rhythm.” 

If the horse raises his head, that’s not him telling the rider to shove it where the sun don’t shine; instead he’s saying “hey mom, I’m having trouble finding my balance right now, can you help me out?” Maybe the horse is shuffling forward in a quick walk because his back isn’t properly warmed up and needs the rider to help him slow down the tempo and relax. Maybe the horse is dragging his toes and drudging along because he’s waiting for the rider to find her intent and lead him on to the next goal.

Once you shift the focus from the end goal — a soft and responsive horse on the bit — to the horse’s actual rhythmic footfalls, it’s amazing how much changes in the quality of work.

To achieve more productive training sessions, I began to ask myself certain questions in the warm up. What is the horse’s current rhythm? If I quicken or slow his tempo, does he fall out of balance? If he does, can I help him regain it by a supportive straightening aid or slight suppling inside bend?

Am I using too many aids and need to quiet down my body to just move with the horse? Do I have clear intent of where I want to go and how quickly I’d like to get there that I’m communicating clearly to my horse? Can I change directions without him falling out of balance? Do I have a trot ready to move immediately off my leg within this walk?

After trying to understand the walk with more depth, I was amazed to find how much time I spent warming up and analyzing my horse’s rhythm. Even for a Prelim horse coming back from winter vacation, I’ve found that my horse spends a considerable amount of time needing my help to balance and greatly benefits from longer sessions at the walk before continuing on to other work.

I love just being able to focus on relaxing in the saddle, feeling Tristan’s four-beat gait at the walk and trying my best to tune in together so we are both walking in the same mindset. Thanks to Eric, I am becoming increasingly infatuated with rhythm every day!

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