We’ve Got the Beat

We’ve Got the Beat
In a good freestyle the horse will seem to be dancing to the music. What makes it look so? Dancing to the beat, and that can be accomplished whether you are Training Level or Grand Prix.

Every time we see the front legs strike the ground in the trot, walk or passage or when we see the lead leg strike in the canter, we should hear—or, at the very least, sense—the  underlying pulse of the music.

Understanding the Terms

I’m sure Beethoven would be dismayed to find that in German horsemanship, there is only one word for both rhythm and tempo. As it is in music, we split them here.

Rhythm is a repeated pattern. We know the rhythm of a trot is 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. The most common rhythm of music is 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

Tempo refers to the speed or rate at which the action is happening. While a very collected Grand Prix horse and a small pony may have the same trot rhythm, their rate of action or tempo will be very different. Since we are always trying to maximize our horse’s performance, we would not alter the gaits to fit the music, but rather find music that matches the gaits. That is the first step in creating the feeling of the dance.

Keep It Simple
Rather than trying to analyze tempo while riding live, it is better to first video your horse. Later, while you are viewing the trot on the video, count the front legs as they strike the ground. This counting of footfalls should be done for 60 seconds (or for 30 seconds, multiplied by 2), in order to get a rough estimate of your horse’s beats per minute (bpm).

I highly recommend getting a digital metronome with a “tap” feature. It is a handy tool to have in your box of tricks, and it is easy to find one. Musical instruments stores carry tangible metronomes, but you can also download one (some are free), or even check the app store. The metronome on my phone is in constant use—especially when I am out with a client.

Digital metronomes can be an instrument (far left) or an app for your phone or tablet.
Digital metronomes can be an instrument (far left) or an app for your phone or tablet.

What is the “tap” feature? The tap is a great short cut where you literally tap the counter every time you see the leg strike. After a few taps, a number will come up indicating the bpm. This allows you to by-pass the first step of manually counting.

Regardless of which method you use, set the metronome to that tempo (bpm). If the ticking of the metronome matches the footfalls, your job is done. If not and your horse seems to be moving faster, adjust the metronome up until it is in sync with the footfalls. If he seems to be moving more slowly, adjust the metronome down until it is in sync with the footfalls.

If you get close, but just can’t seem to pin it down, it could be that your horse’s tempo is a bit uneven. In that case, find a spot where he is moving at his best (not lengthenings since they tend to be quicker) and keep replaying the video in that spot until you find the target tempo.

The procedure you used for trot is very similar to the one you will use for canter. First count the strike of the lead leg for 60 seconds to get the rough bpm (or use the tap feature), then set the metronome to that count. If the metronome beat matches the footfalls—that’s great. If not, move the metronome up or down accordingly, until the metronome and horse are in sync.

For passage and walk, we are back to watching the front two legs. While it is true that the rhythm of the walk is 1-2-3-4, it is not only simpler to count just the front two legs, but the result will be the music tempo you want for a more relaxed feel.

As long as you are on a music search, start a catalog of your findings. Not all of them will be usable for the horse for which you are planning your freestyle, but perhaps some might be usuable for another horse—maybe you can even help a friend sometime.

What’s Right?
Don’t worry if your results are not close to what another horse in your barn is doing. There is no right or wrong. Tempos come in a large range depending on the size of the horse, impulsion, degree of collection, and so on.

Regardless, one of the goals is to keep your horse at a constant tempo, so if your horse is uneven, try riding to the metronome. This is a good aid in helping you reach that goal. Later on, after you have done your music search, music will be a far more interesting guide.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if the tempo changes over time, so be sure to check periodically. As your horse moves more forward or spends more time in the air, tempo may change—especially at the trot. I once had an Intermediare horse slow his trot from 142 bpm to 136 bpm in one season (that’s a lot!) as he became stronger in his passage work. The canter did not change.

Music Has Tempo Too
Beat is the underlying pulse of the music and is most easily felt in rock and roll—particularly songs such as “Gangham Style.” If you tap your foot or clap your hands to the music, every tap or clap is a beat.

While you are searching for music, pay attention to that beat. To avoid purchasing a song you cannot use, imagine yourself riding as you are listening. Is the speed way too fast or too slow for your horse’s tempo? If so, dismiss it; but if it feels close, purchase it as a prospect.

Use your home computer for (left to right) online music search, establishing a personal catalog, determining the tempo of the horse's gaits.
Use your home computer for (left to right) online music search, establishing a personal catalog, determining the tempo of the horse’s gaits.

With today’s technology, there are better options than guessing. While perusing iTunes, Amazon, or any variety of Internet sources, keep your metronome at hand. Employ the tap feature to determine the tempo of the music by making one tap per beat.

As it was in finding the tempo of your horse’s gaits, set the metronome to the tempo you just tapped. If it is faster or slower, move the metronome up or down until the beating of the metronome and music are in sync. That is your music’s bpm. If it is within a 10-beat range of your horse, the music can usually be altered to match.

In older pieces or more orchestral works, there may be some variation in the tempo of the music. If the swing has small variation (2-3 beats), it will still be OK to use without too much fuss. Most current music is recorded to a click track (a metronome the musicians can hear in their headsets), so the tempo is amazingly consistent.

Feel the Beat in Your Seat
Once you have altered the tempo (we’ll cover this in another article), ride to your music. When you have done your homework well, you will literally feel the music in your ride. You may even discover that some pieces are easier to ride to than others because, like a good dance partner, they “lead” you better. That kind of music will help you stay in a regular tempo when you ride too.

If your endgame is to find music for freestyle, enlist a ground person to help you determine what looks good with your horse. You may have several trot selections that all match the footfalls, but some may make your horse appear lighter, while others make him look rushed, or elegant, or heavy. Choose music that enhances the look of your horse’s gaits. There is no way to predetermine exactly what the illusion will be by merely listening to music. Playing the music over your video will give you some indication, but the real test of suitability (a judging criteria in freestyle) is in the riding.

On Your Way
Matching the beat of the music to your horse’s gaits is the first and greatest component in looking as if you are “dancing with your horse.” Of all the steps in putting together a freestyle, this is the most time-consuming, but the results are well worth it.

Terry Ciotti Gallo established Klassic Kur in 1989. Since that time, her freestyles have appeared in the Olympics, World Equestrian Games, Pan American Games, and hold two World Cup titles. She currently serves on both the USDF Freestyle Committee (six years as chair), and Judges Committee.

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