This article is the first in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. They are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
Tempo Control: Is it the Origin of Connection and Collection?
The first tier of the USDF Training Pyramid is Rhythm(with Energy and Tempo). The description goes on to elaborate: “Rhythm is the term used for the characteristic sequence of footfalls and timing of a pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. The rhythm should be expressed with energy and in a suitable and consistent tempo, with the horse remaining in the balance and self-carriage appropriate to its level of training.” At this point I will point out that there is a major difference between the terms “rhythm” and “tempo”. Rhythm is defined above. Tempo is the RATE OF REPETITION of said rhythm. The words are not interchangeable and should not be used as such.
The Purpose stated on the Training Level Tests reads: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.” At its most fundamental level, Dressage training seeks to establish correct basics: the horse should have three clear gaits; he should accept his rider’s aids with calmness and confidence born of understanding; he should demonstrate freedom in his way of going; he should be balanced under his rider; and he should travel at a tempo that is sufficiently active and that remains steady. In examining Training Level Test 1, notice that “regularity and quality of (insert walk, trot or canter here)” is in EVERY SINGLE Directive Idea box. It is mentioned thirteen times in thirteen movements. While the “Gaits” score in the Collective Marks section is only a coefficient of 1, it is nonetheless factored into the score of each and every movement. This requirement holds true through Grand Prix.
Most horses seen in the Dressage ring today have reasonably clear and correct rhythm in all three gaits. By including “regularity” in the Directive Idea of each movement, today’s test writers have seen to that. Riders can’t really train correct rhythm into a horse, but, they can definitely train it OUT of the horse. That goes to Relaxation, and is a subject for a different article. What a rider CAN control with regard to her horse’s rhythm as it pertains to the Training Scale, is whether or not that distinctive footfall characteristic to each gait has sufficient energy, and, whether or not the tempo remains steady. It is this continuous, unimpeded flow of energy from the horse’s hind legs to the rider’s hand that creates the connection between the rider’s aids and the horses mind and body. Dressage is about movement. It is an athletic endeavor, an Olympic sport, and a discipline centuries old. It is at Training level that the young horse is educated to accept the rider’s driving, bending and balancing aids. It is truly the most important level, the platform from which springs all the beautiful movements we identify as “Dressage”.
A horse who moves freely forward, in a clear rhythm that has sufficient energy and balance is a thing of beauty. Horses like to move. It is up to the rider to teach him how to move in such a way that his gaits are enhanced, his balance improved, and his responses are instant. Stand ringside at the warmup arena at any dressage show, and observe how the horses move. Some are bold, active, and committed to the aids. Some are silly and inattentive. Some are hesitant, unsteady, and lacking in balance. Some are each of these at any given time. It is that steadiness of the tempo, the even push of each hind leg as the horse moves resolutely forward towards the bridle, or lack thereof, that will separate two otherwise equally talented horses. Any time a coach or rider concerns herself with where the horse’s head is before insisting that the horse’s tempo and energy become consistent is putting the cart in front of the horse. No amount of jiggling of the bit to create a false frame will teach a horse that his job is to keep the hind leg committed to stepping up to the hand at all times. But once the horse understands the level of energy required and willingly goes to the bridle, accepting it, the connection over the topline is simply the next step on the continuum. Connection is a gift the correctly ridden horse gives the rider, not something the rider demands. The “put your head down or you are going to the packers” mentality has no place in good training. It is this commitment to step into the rider’s hand, this establishment of a trusting connection, that is at the heart of collection. Horses will always come with different talents. Some find the extended paces easy. Some find the lateral work easy. Still others find the high collection easy. And then there are the rare horses that excel in all three areas and that is the stuff Olympic dreams are made of. However, it is the diligent rider who will take the time to solidify the basics on each horse, no matter his area of talent, that will have the most success with the widest range of horses. A horse who can piaffe, but cannot stay balanced enough in the canter to make even a single flying change, is not a Grand Prix horse. Some horses find learning the changes easy and will do them correctly no matter how poorly set up. Others will never make clean flying changes, no matter how many years they have been performing them, unless perfectly set up by the rider. But the problem’s root cause is a failure on the part of the horse to remain committed to stepping into the bridle, and/or a failure on the part of the rider to expect it. It is at the essence of everything we do from the beginning ride to developing the one tempi’s. The conversation goes something like this: Rider says, “horse, here are my driving aids.”; Horse replies, “here is my commitment to step forward towards the bridle.” ; Rider reciprocates, “here is your release, now please carry yourself.” Horse replies, “I can carry myself for this long today.”; Rider acknowledges, “Thank you for your effort today.” This conversation takes place continuously throughout every ride, every day, for the horse’s entire career.
The rider has to take the description of Rhythm in the USDF Training Pyramid to heart when developing the young horse or reschooling older horses. If the tempo is too fast, the horse will constantly ask the rider to balance him by leaning on the hand, or will hide behind the hand with a closed throatlatch and a chest that points down in spite of the high poll. If the tempo is too slow, the horse can avoid developing a real commitment to contact. If the tempo varies, it is a red flag that the horse is too crooked and unbalanced to sustain a steady tempo, and lateral suppleness needs to be addressed. Noticing variations in the tempo can help the rider identify a lack of symmetry, and, addressing the changes in tempo with steadying aids on the quick side and driving aids on the slow side will go a long way towards improving overall symmetry. If the rider further studies the Purpose of the Training level tests, she will see that it is not only the correct rhythm, with sufficient and steady tempo and energy that is crucial, but also that the horse is demonstrating acceptance of the bridle. The two go hand in hand: when the horse willingly and resolutely responds to the driving aids and accepts the bridle, the rider can then create a recirculation of energy that establishes the circle of the aids, and then she is in control of the tempo. It is this circle of aids, this recycling of the energy, that puts the horse “in front of the leg” and allows the rider to gradually influence the entire body of the horse and set him up in a balance and alignment that makes it possible to access both the thrusting power and the carrying power of the horse’s hind leg. It is the ability to access both trajectories of energy that creates, over time, the collection needed to perform at the highest of levels. If your horse is not willing-or you as the rider are too impatient-to meet the requirements as set forth in Training level, he will only learn tricks. His talent may take him a long way, but the tempo control established at Training level is what allows the rider access to all of the gears required to execute the most harmonious Grand Prix test.
To illustrate the relationship between tempo control, connection and collection, compare the following two canter photos.
Thanks to Pam Olsen of ProPhoto for the photo on the left, Andalusian World Cup for the photo on the right. The photos are of the same horse/rider, in the same show season, at Third level. The first photo was taken during extended canter, the second during collected canter. While this is by no means a perfect representation, it serves to illustrate the idea that a continuous flow of energy from the hind leg to the bridle has created a connection through the topline that has allowed me, the rider here, to open and close my horse’s frame to meet the requirements of each pace with almost no change in the reach through the topline or the degree of engagement. All that changed was the trajectory of the energy. There is nearly the same amount of separation of the hind leg, the trailing hind leg continues to work from the hip forward even in the extended canter, the saddle does not sink down as the he stretches out his frame, and his nose points to where his foreleg will land. Because my horse’s tempo is steady, and his energy flows towards my hand, I have the ability to adjust his outline forward and back again with no loss of balance, energy, or engagement. My hands are able to quietly receive and recycle the energy created by the hind leg. These are nice moments taken from reasonably successful rides. No ride is perfect every step of the way, but, studying your horse on film, either through video or still photo, is a very reliable way to assess how secure the elements of the Training Pyramid are in the daily work.
I hope this article helps the reader to recognize how important it is to notice her horse’s tempo, once the establishment of a correct rhythm has been assured. Assessing the tempo, expecting a steady flow of energy, and adjusting the tempo early and often will pave the way for a more honest connection, which creates the possibility of collection. My next article will discuss Suppleness from the Relaxation tier.