Students of horsemanship will be familiar with the three tenants of what is commonly referred to today as Natural Horsemanship. Much like the Christian Holy Trinity, Feel, Timing and Balance are as difficult to really grasp as they are to explain and are best taken with a good deal of faith. Those three little words that seem so simple on first glance could each be the subject of a large book themselves, with Feel being the mystery novel with shady characters all speaking in different languages. I am a believer in these three tenants of horsemanship and believe that everything that we strive to do with horses can be improved or understood more fully in the context of either Feel, Timing or Balance and as aspects of the same circle of horsemanship 'guruness' they are difficult to separate for individual consideration. There is considerable overlap and it is difficult to discuss one without the others.
While it is easy to lose the forest for the trees I find that sometimes looking at the individual trees makes the forest easier to understand, so I like to break things down to ruminate and explore on a more minuscule level before taking it back to the big picture. With that in mind, I would like to turn your attention to a piece of just one of the big three today and discuss a tool that we can use to come closer to developing and understanding Timing.
One of the trees in the forest of timing is Rhythm. Today's blog is all about rhythm and I would like to invite you and your bongo to sit in on our drum circle and explore Rhythm and it's implication in horsemanship and advancing your horsemanship through the application of Rhythm in your riding.
Music is such a basic part of being human. All cultures have some form of music unique to their indigenous rhythms and traditions. Whether it's the basic drum beat rhythms of an African tribe, the overlapping beats of a Native American drum circle, the droning cross rhythms of the Aborigines or the high stepping fiddle and banjo beats of the Appalachians; all cultures that I am aware of have music. Dancing and moving to the rhythm happens in children sometimes before walking. We all strive to move to that same rhythm. While we aren't all dancers, I believe we can all feel the basic rhythms of music. If you have ever experienced a techno Rave with the hard pounding bass beating so loud that it seems to control your own heart beat you have felt how your body can be consumed by music.
I don't believe this to be a solely human trait either. There have been many studies on animal behavior documenting animal's responses to music. Interestingly enough, many animals seem to have better taste than we do often preferring the classics and masters that rely on complicated musical melodies and beats rather than much of contemporary music that is more lyrically driven. Of course animals will respond to the music itself and not the lyrics that we often respond to.
Dairy cows will produce more milk when certain soothing music is played in the parlor (that should obviously be called MOOsic). If you would like to get the most out of your dairy cow there are playlists available on the internet. Elephants in captivity seem to develop less bad habits when classical music is played in their environment. Cats and dogs in shelters seem less stressed when there is music playing and you can even buy CD's designed to leave on for your pets when you aren't home.
What about horses and music? Like the dairy industry, most barns seem to feel that some music left on in the breezeway soothes the horses in their stalls. We play music in our barn overnight and it does seems to quiet restless horses. I don't think this is just "white noise" to the horse. Not all music seems to have the same effect on the horse.
Riding to music is nothing new. In many different disciplines, preforming to music is a common thing. If you haven't tried playing music while you ride, I recommend you try it out. I don't think head phones are the right approach as I believe the horse should be able to hear the music as well. I think if you and the horse each reach for the same rhythm in your riding you will soon be riding towards each other's rhythm which will improve your timing in your cues and the performance of your horse.
I used to ride in a drill team. We would practice our routine first on foot, then on horseback at a walk and trot long before ever bringing the music in. Obviously when you have multiple horses moving towards each other at high speeds, getting the timing just right was a matter of safety. I will always remember that feeling when after weeks of practice we first performed our drill to the accompaniment of music. Invariably it improved our overall timing as a group. While preforming the drill over and over again to the same music can become somewhat tiresome depending on the song choice, that very first time your movements were put to music was magical for both horse and rider.
Playing music while schooling your horse in cadence at walk, jog and lope can help you feel the foot falls of your horse. As your body moves to the rhythm your horse will move with you and soon you are moving as one. From that instance of joined rhythm you can move forward in perfect cadence. We speak of the movement and cadence of the horse already as if it were a musical piece. The walk is a 4 beat gait, perfect for music in slow even 4 count rhythm. The trot is a two beat gait perfectly ridden to an even 2 or 4 count rhythm at a faster pace. The lope, is a 3 beat gait that is perfectly ridden to a waltz. If you have ever had the distinct pleasure of watching a large Morgan horse show with the music being played at the center of the arena you can see how changing the rhythm of the music seems to get the horses all in time in the arena. I love watching how the horses will each be on a slightly different rhythm when the change of gait is announced and as the music plays they are soon all moving as one.
The classical dressage folks have made it a science, of course, and there is endless information on the internet explaining how to choose music for proper timing of your freestyle and how to discover what timing your horse has. This is cowboy dressage and we don't need to be quite that complicated! I urge you to ride your horse to music that has a cadence. It doesn't matter if it's Ricky Scaggs or Eminem. If you can feel the rhythm your horse will too. Find a song with a nice steady even cadence that fits the feel of your horse and how you want your horse to move. Experiment with Rhythm and moving in time with your horse.
I believe that if you and your horse seek the rhythm rather than attempt to confine yourselves to it you will find more success. Think outside of the box and try several different styles until you and your horse find the style that suits you best. It's a great way to teach you how to match a rhythm and teach your horse to rate to your seat and energy. Seek a rhythm with your horse, then time your cues to that rhythm with the proper feel and balance and you are well on your way to dancing through that forest.
Horsemanship is art, and when you allow the art to consume you, oh what beautiful music you can make.