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Dressage Terminology: Cadence

Cadence seems to be a word that people relate a lot to how big a horse moves. If a horse is big moving it has cadence and if it doesn't move big then it needs more cadence - but there is so much more to it than that!

We're going to take a look at what 'cadence' is; what it looks like and what it feels like; the 4?? things you need to be able to introduce more cadence into your horses paces; and how to teach your horse to have more cadence.


What is Cadence?

We'll start with the most official definition of 'cadence; which comes from the FEI dressage handbook and it says:

"Cadence: the marked accentuation of the rhythm and musical beat that is the result of a steady and suitable tempo harmonising with a springy impulsion'.

Now i don't know about you but when i read that it takes me a while to dissect it and actually work out what it means. So lets translate it into layman's terms. From the FEI definition we know it has something to do with the rhythm, tempo and impulsion (in other words its related to those scales of training we bang on about a lot!). This is a big call to say that if you aren't training in line with the scales of training then you will not be able to achieve cadence. A little like throughness or connection, cadence can only be achieved when a horse is rhythmical, supple, in an elastic contact, has impulsion, is straight and able to collect and balance of their hindlegs.

I like to think of cadence as air time. The time the horse spends in the air, having pushed off the ground with their hindlegs. So to help you visualise this, imagine a horse passaging, you can physically see the horse pushing off the ground into the air and then back to the ground again, then compare that to a normal collected trot, the horse spends less time pushing into the air. So, the passage is more of a cadenced trot than a collected trot is. Similarly you see a horse that is rushing around on the forehand, strong in the contact, fixed like a plank of wood; they will spend a lot more time on the ground, not in the air. Compare that to a horse that is balanced on their hindlegs, carrying themselves and is sat on their bum, uphill and up in their shoulders; that horse is going to trot spending far more time in the air, pushing from their hindlegs.

So, cadence isnt necessarily about how big a horse moves, its not about them trotting with their knees above their ears but it is about the horse being able to push up into the air whilst still maintaining a consistent rhythm and regularity with the 4 beat walk, 2 beat trot and 3 beat canter without the horse rushing or becoming slow.

What do you need before you think about cadence?

Like with all things in dressage, cadence starts from the rhythm, if your horse doesn't have an established rhythm then any cadence you create will result in the rhythm becoming more inconsistent.

We also then need all those Scales of Training to be in place. If you dont have suppleness, then adding more cadence will just create tension; if your horse isnt in self carriage then adding cadence will create a horse that leans or drops off the contact; no impulsion and you cannot create the spring you need for suspension; an un-straight horse will end up falling out or in through the shoulder or curling their hindquarters in more; and if theres not collection then the horse will become more unbalanced and may rush onto the forehand more.

So, all in all, adding cadence, essentially will make bad things worse. And this is all because essentially we end up pushing the horse to the point where they lose balance; and its very much like a knife edge, tip them over that edge and it takes a while to get everything back. If your contact isnt create, or your suppleness is an issue or your horse isnt straight, making your horse unbalanced only makes things worse. This is all because we are asking our horses to essentially do more, move more, with more sit and more push and more suspension and more engagement and more self carriage and more collection and so on. But if your horse doesnt have the necessary strength or understanding to do that and stay balanced it will all go to pot.

But, if those basics are in place then you can end up creating a bigger trot, a more uphill canter and a more impressive picture. Its difficult to know when is the right time to start working on cadence, and i always find its a little like finding the sweet spot. You will find naturally when you start to add in more cadence that the basics start to become less consistent, like we said, little blips, moments of losses of balance, or moments of contact issues or moments of loss of suppleness; and this is all fine as long as you can get it back. Its normal , as you start to make your horse move differently that they need to work it out first and moments where things go to pot are fine as long as they are moments. There's a point where you add in too much cadence and power and you'll find suddenly everything gets lost, your horse becomes really unbalanced, really strong or light, really fixed and you've lost everything and it takes you a while to get it back; that's the point where you've pushed too much. Its a constant balance, making sure your horse is physically able to add in as much cadence as you're asking for; and also making sure that you add it in, whilst maintaining (at least mostly) those basic fundamental scales.

How does your position affect cadence?

This ties in a lot when we start introducing the collected work. The position of a rider riding a young horse is very different to a rider riding an advanced horse. The young horse rider should rider vet light encouraging her horse to be soft and round over the back, lift in the ribcage and move freely. Then when we introduce the collection we want the horse to carry far more weight on those hindlegs. But making that transition in your own position is hard. The change is simply for you to carry your weight more on your horses hindquarters and a lot of the time when i have someone come for a lesson that is struggling with their collected work or getting their horse to sit more on their hindlegs, making those small changes to your position can have a huge impact.

So, if this is you, make sure you are not tipping yourself forward, whether thats in your pelvis or in your upper body. make sure your hands dont rest on your horses shoulders or that you are looking down. All of these things push the riders weight onto the horses shoulders. Whereas when a rider sits back and into the saddle, sits tall with their upper body and carries their hands whilst looking forward or slightly up then you start to carry your weight in the middle or slightly towards the hind quarters. This leaves the shoulders free which encourages your horse to take more weight behind and sit more on the hindleg.

A great tip if youre struggling with your collected work is to, when you ask your horse to come back is to look up a little more, this will help you transfer your weight onto your horses hind end helping your horse to do the same.

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