Updated: Jul 19
Rhythm and tempo are probably the two terms most often confused in dressage. They are also two terms that are so important to dressage training. Rhythm is the first scale of training, its one of the most basic, fundamental building blocks of dressage so if you want to become the best rider you can be and train your horse in the best way you can its really important that you understand what they mean, what the differences between them are and how you can apply all your new understanding to benefit your training and improve your scores at the same time,
What s Rhythm?
So what do they actually mean firstly. Rhythm in music terms is the placement of sounds in time, in a regular, repeated pattern. So its a beat. But the rhythm or regular, repeated beat when we ride is different depending on whether we are in walk, trot or canter. Walk is a 4 beat pace, in other words, there are 4 sounds in a regular, repeated pattern. Trot is 2 beat, so there are 2 sounds in a regular, repeated pattern and in canter there are 3 sounds in a regular, repeated pattern because its a 3 beat pace. So when we say we want our horses to have a correct rhythm what we mean is, is the horse trotting in a regular 2 beat, is it cantering in a regular 3 beat and walking in a regular 4 beat.
What does a rhythm issue mean?
If a horse has an issue with the rhythm it will mean the horse isnt moving in the beat they should be. So if the walk is not 4 beat as it should be and is instead walking in a 2 beat rhythm then the horse has what we call a lateral walk. Or the canter might have a 4 time beat instead of 3 time beat. If this happens then this signifies either an issue with the suppleness stopping the horse from being able to move correctly or ive had saddles that have caused horses to feel like they can't move in their backs or it can be a conformational or strength issue too. Another issue you can get with the rhythm is that it isnt regular, so the gap between each beat isnt the same so instead of it being like 1-2-3 1-2-3 its 1-2-3 1-23 1-2-3 so regular, repeated pattern is not regular or repeated. This normally highlights a lameness or soundness issue.
So rhythm is the repeated regular beat of the walk trot and canter.
What is tempo?
So now we can look at tempo. Again, I think the best way to do this is to go back to music. Tempo is all about how quick or how slow the music is, or when it comes to dressage; how quick or how slow the rhythm is. So, in trot how quickly or how slowly are those hooves coming down in that 2 beat rhythm, or in walk, how quickly or slowly are the hooves touching the ground in that 4 beat rhythm,
What does an issue with tempo mean?
When people talk about having an issue with the rhythm, a lot of the time the issue is really with the tempo. Riders can have issues with the tempo being too fast or too slow or simply that they cannot pick or find the right tempo or struggle to maintain a consistent tempo. Getting control of the tempo generally takes time but can be done through things like half halts and transitions within the paces. All of these things teach a horse how to increase and decrease the tempo in relation to the riders aids. But its really important to say that increasing the tempo is not the same as a medium or extended, and decreasing the tempo is not collecting. When we increase the tempo the horse takes a quicker step but when we do a medium or extended we want the horse to take longer step. This is why judges are really hot on commenting when they see a horse rushing in a medium trot. Similarly when we decrease the tempo this is a horse taking a slower step whereas when we collect we want the horse to take a shorter step but definitely not a slower one. If your horse does rush in the mediums or slow in the collected this is where you need to work on your horses strength and suppleness to extend and compress their body.
Similarities and differences between tempo and rhythm
Tempo and rhythm are two completely different things. Rhythm is the regular and repeated pattern of the footfalls of a horse. If correct, this is a 4 beat walk, 2 beat trot and 3 beat canter. The tempo is the speed of the rhythm, how quickly or slowly the horse moves in their 4 beat walk, 2 beat trot and 3 beat canter. So, they are two very completely different things. The only thing that is similar is that the aim is for both to be consistent, the rhythm should always be the same, if the walk isnt 4 beat or the trot isnt 2 beat or the canter isn't 3 beat then that is a serious issue that needs to be worked on. Similarly, the tempo should always stay the same no matter whether you are on a straight line, a circle, in working, medium, extended or collected. The tempo should stay the same because the horse should be extending and compressing their body to take a shorter or longer stride.
So why is there so much confusion?
So, if tempo and rhythm are two completely different things why is there so much confusion between them both? I think it starts from the fact that a lot of people tend to use words like rhythm, tempo, regularity, beat and so on to mean all the same thing. In actual definitions rhythm and tempo are two very different things, they mean totally different things. But then when it comes to rhythm as a scale training, both rhythm (as it actually is) and tempo are included as part of that first scale of training we call rhythm. So if you google British Dressage's definitions of the scales of training and take a look at the first one - rhythm it talks about the rhythm needing to be regular an correct for each pace (which is what rhythm is, thats your 4 beat walk , 2 beat trot and 3 beat canter) but under rhythm it also talks about the rhythm being the same tempo so the speed of the rhythm needs to be the same. So the rhythm itself but also the tempo comes under the same first scale of training called rhythm. So then when a coach or judge talks about rhythm there can be confusion about whether they are talking about rhythm rhythm (as in the repeated sound patterns for 4 beat walk, 3 beat canter and 2 beat trot; or they could be talking about the tempo and the speed of that repeated sound pattern.
I was at the Area Festivals warming up some riders and time and time again I heard coaches saying that the rhythm needed to be quicker or slower or more consistent which isnt really right. The rhythm is either correct or not, its either a 3 beat canter or not. When it comes to the speed of the rhythm this is the tempo and the tempo can be quicker or slower. So, its the tempo of the rhythm that can be quicker or slower. ideally though no matter whether you are in medium or collected, on a straight line or circle the tempo and the rhythm should stay the same, The difficult bit is that both of these terms, rhythm and tempo (speed of the rhythm), come under the 1st scale of training called rhythm. The first scale of training looks for correct footfalls, maintaining a consistent speed (in other words combining both the rhythm and the tempo together). Arguably, whilst it can be really helpful to know about what rhythm and tempo actually means because it will help you understand judges comments and trainers comments and so on, all of this is really just a technicality, if you are aiming for regular, repeated footfalls (thats your rhythm) and maintaining the same speed, not speeding up or slowing down (thats your tempo) then you are on the right track with your training.