The Difference Between Rhythm and Tempo

rhythm tempo

Confused about which is which? Do you use it interchangeably sometimes? I did, until I finally figured out the difference. Although I’ve already had a good grasp of rhythm and tempo in musical arrangements, it took some time for me to extrapolate that understanding and apply it to horse riding.


When it comes to horses, rhythm refers to the number of beats in a horse’s gait. So for example, a walk is a four-beat gait. A trot is two beats (diagonal pairs fall together) and a canter is 3 beats (outside hind, diagonal pair, and inside front).

The rhythm of the gait is non-negotiable. That is, a canter must be three beats while a trot must be two. Problems arise when the horse demonstrates what is called an “impure” or “irregular” gait.

Let’s say you are trotting along and you hear four beats per stride, something like a thud-thud-thud-thud in quick succession. This indicates that the trot is not in rhythm. If you were on the ground watching, you might even be able to see the legs hitting the ground at different moments. It happens quickly but a practiced eye can see it.

More often, we see horses four-beating the canter. Rather than maintaining the diagonal pair of legs for the second beat, the horse lands those legs in a one-two fashion – which results in four independent footfalls.

In both cases, the rhythm needs to be maintained. Chances are, the horse needs more impulsion, especially in turns or changes of bend. It is also possible that the irregularity stems from a physical discomfort, so you may want to call a vet to make sure there is no unsoundness.

There is one exception to these rules: the gaited horse.

Many horses have been bred over generations to produce distinct 4-beat gaits specific to their bloodlines. For example, the Tennessee Walking Horse is famous for its running walk. These horses shouldn’t move in two beats in these gaits. The four-beat is the rhythm of the gait.

Developing Rhythm

When working on any particular gait, you must maintain the rhythm of that gait. So if your horse four-beats the canter, you probably need to ask for better impulsion and engagement of the hind end.

First, work on getting and maintaining distinct rhythmical footfalls.


Once you can keep a consistent rhythm, the next area to focus on is the tempo, otherwise known as the horse’s leg speed. Tempo is the second priority only after the rhythm has been established. Incorrect tempo is possibly more difficult to recognize and correct than rhythm.

Think of tempo as the speed of the footfalls. You could be in a two-beat trot, but how fast you go would be due to how quickly the legs land on the ground. You can imagine that there are many tempos within one gait. So a trot may be two beats, but how quickly the horses move in those two beats can be dependent on the horse’s breed and conformation, and the rider’s skills.

Many of us are prone to letting the horse (or sometimes actually “chasing” the horse) into a too-quick tempo, which can result in the horse falling to the forehand, or even breaking stride. We get into a frantic one-two rising trot that speeds up the horse, which then speeds up our posting, which then speeds up the horse even more….

You get the idea. We end up in a never-ending cycle of speed and eventually it feels “normal” to rush along on the forehand, using the rail to keep the horse from drifting out too far.

The opposite can happen too, although not quite as often. If we work at slowing the tempo down to point that the horse loses energy, we run the risk of breaking rhythm. This is often why horses four-beat in the trot or canter. Too slow without additional energy can be as detrimental as too fast.

Try This

Listen carefully to your horse as you ride at each gait. Every horse has an ideal tempo that allows him to work with adequate energy – but not too much – so he does not lose balance.

Your horse’s best leg speed is probably slower than you think. But you can try an experiment. Increase the leg speed in a particular gait and feel for your horse’s threshold. At some point, your horse suddenly feels like he has to scramble to keep his legs underneath him.

Then do the opposite. Slow the legs to just before the point that your horse is going to quit. Maintain energy and see if he can soften through the body and breathe in better rhythm. Too slow, and he will likely break stride. But slow and strong might be just what he needs.

The ideal tempo allows the horse to move with less tension in better balance and in a steady, true rhythm. There is no speeding up or slowing down every few strides. Each step is deliberate and well placed. There is a sense of strong but calm energy from both horse and rider.

You can try this exercise several times. It doesn’t hurt for the horse to know what it feels like to increase and decrease the tempo in a gait. In fact, it might help as he progresses into more collected work. But in the meantime, remember that rhythm must be maintained while tempo can be adjusted. 

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More related articles:

The Benefits Of Cantering Round And Round The Ring: Even just one minute of consistent canter seems like an awfully long time when you aren’t used to it!

7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition: the canter departure doesn’t have to resemble a rocket launch.

Use The “Canter-Trot” To Truly Engage The Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement – but that is nothing further than the truth!

How The “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: There are many methods to teaching a good transition but the “not canter” works easily and well if performed with gentleness and empathy.

What “In Front Of The Leg” Feels Like: Although the phrase sounds fairly self-explanatory, knowing what it feels like can be difficult to ascertain especially when you’re just learning.

6 Things You’ll Learn While Riding On The Trails


Kayla was all pumped up, bright eyed and bushy tailed (for real!) as we flew on winged legs over the sandy terrain.  The footing reverberated deeply with each footfall as I heard the soft, hollow-sounding thumps from each of her steps.

These were some of the best trails in the province! I couldn’t believe that I was there, looking ahead but feeling the trees beside the trail fly by as my fearless steed kept up an eye-watering pace. Her attention was focused ahead to the horses in front but she was also keeping an ear back, listening to the rhythmical breaths of the horses behind.

There is nothing better than being involved in an activity you love, with an animal you love, with like-minded people all working toward the same goal. Although the above scene was a competitive trail ride, you don’t have to ride competitively to get the same level of enjoyment and challenge. Just head for the trails, with friends or without, and explore the surrounding natural landscape at your preferred speed.

The trail provides opportunities that you just don’t get in other riding venues. There are forested paths that weave through dense brush, or open fields covered in high, waving grass that surrounds your horse’s legs. There are hills and bogs and cleared tracks and bumpy root-encrusted trails.

There are also fairly flat, fairly clear fields where you can enjoy practicing your riding skills without the constraints of walls or fences, in the open air where your horse is inspired to move more openly and enthusiastically, covering ground with less inhibition or restriction.

It’s not like riding on the trails means you won’t learn anything. In fact, there are many things you can learn because of the trails. Here are six.

Don’t pull on the reins!

This is something that Kayla taught me really well, but is true for many horses. I know I’ve mentioned not pulling on the reins a lot, but it’s mainly because I learned the hard way that grabbing the horse’s mouth (or nose if you’re using something bitless) only positions the horse to lean forward into the pressure, lean forward in balance, and sometimes move along even faster.

Rather, use your seat and half-halts to balance the horse into a position that allows him to transition downwards. By all means, pull if it’s your last resort, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t bring the desired result.

It took a good amount of trail riding for me to really understand how to do a down transition from the seat and not the hands.

Feel the energy.

There is so much room for the horse to move in a more natural environment. So if you find your normally flattish, pluggish horse resembling a sprint runner (or doing a jiggy dance on the spot), see if you can “ride” that energy and put it to good use.

Feel the energy come over the horse’s back and use it as an opportunity to memorize what it really feels like when the horse tucks under and engages. You can try to emulate that feeling later on when riding in the ring.

Slow down to turn.

If you drive a car, you know that you need to slow down a bit before the turn, take the turn, and then speed up again after the turn if needed. Same goes with the horse.

Although you might not need to physically slow the legs down, you do need to shift the horse’s weight back before you head into the turn. Otherwise, gravity will work on your horse just as it does on a car – and you may discover that your horse has to scramble while careening around a turn. So if you have a little speed going, check your balance before the turn.

Know when to trust your horse.

There is no better place to learn about your horse than on the trails. You really have a chance to bond and get to know each other, while also “becoming one” with nature. The more you ride on the trails, the better you’ll know your horse’s signs and signals – when he’s on alert, when he’s truly relaxed, when he’s going to ignore your aids, and when he’s honestly tired.

The more I rode the trails, the better I got to know Kayla’s true personality. I learned that she was super honest and rarely acted up unless there was a reason (stampede of cows coming straight for us). I learned that she would go go go until she could go no further – which meant that I needed to stop her long before she was completely spent. I also learned that I could ride a bold, fast moving horse with full confidence in her.

Bend your horse – for a reason.

Bend – it’s often such a difficult concept, especially when riding in the ring. Try NOT bending when moving along a curvy trail, and you’ll know why instructors harp on it so much. There is a reason that your horse should step under with the inside hind and “wrap his body around your inside leg”: balance!

Be careful if you are approaching a curved path at speed because it’s easy to lose balance if your horse is rigid or counter-bent. It helps if you can get him to look into the turn (and see where he’s going), and to avoid leaning one way or the other. The trail is the best place to learn all about balance!

Smell the roses trees.

So far, I’ve talked mainly about riding the trails at trot or canter. That’s probably because of my horse’s competitive trail experience (you can’t really take the speed out of the equation once she gets used to it).

But there is another huge facet to riding on the trails – the beauty. Our often hectic lifestyles tend to reduce opportunity to simply be in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

Some horses love ambling along at a leisurely gait. Walking on the trails allows you to take in every aspect of nature – the smell, the breeze, the scenery, the squirrel scurrying off under the leaves…. We’re heading into fall here in our neck o’ the woods, and the brightly colored leaves and the swish of your horse’s feet through the foliage is enough to make a good day great.

Happy trails!

Well, those are some of the things I’ve learned on the trails. I’m sure I’ve missed many. If you have some experiences of your own to share, please add them in the comments below. 

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Read more here:

A Question Of Imbalance: Can You Tell? At some point, it becomes essential to be able to feelwhat is happening so that you can hopefully address it sooner than later.

Top Ten Reasons To Ride A Horse: There must be as many reasons to ride horses are there are people who ride.

What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.

4 Steps To Help Your Horse Through A Turn: I’m sure you’ve seen it before – there are many situations where a horse turns too abruptly, unbalancing himself and also the rider. Most often, the rider hangs on but other times, she might be unseated, losing balance, stirrups and/or seat.

How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.

5 Things Your Horse Doesn’t Know About You

horse doesnt knowWe ride our horses as if they should know what we want them to do. We know we’re perfectly clear in our aids as we go around the ring or on the trails, so surely the horse should have no problem interpreting our aids and answering “yes” to our questions.

To be honest, I regularly marvel at how well they do understand us. When I get on a horse for the first time, I am amazed that the horse can accurately interpret my aids and respond – even if the horse was ridden in a different discipline, or was trained in a different country. Horses are definitely better listeners than we are in that sense!

Having said that, it might be a bit different for the horse when it comes to other unknown facets of our lives. Although we often don’t think about these things, they do influence how we ride, especially in our “feel” to the horse. Our stress, or exuberance, or lack of energy affect our interactions with the horse from the moment we grab the halter and lead rope and head to the field.

The horse won’t have a clue that you had a seriously stressful meeting at work, or if you carried boxes around all day so that you’re physically exhausted by the time you get to the barn. By becoming more aware of your external life circumstances, you can improve your interactions with your horse.

Do a quick mental check of the things your horse won’t know about you – even as you head to the field.

Your Frame of Mind

Ideally, you’d be calm and reasonable each and every day. Horses have no idea about your life stresses or pressures that you have to face outside of the barn, nor do they really care. They are most concerned about things that relate to them – food, water, turnout, shelter, herd mates….

They don’t brace themselves ahead of time if you happen to be upset about an earlier event. Learn to live in the present and leave your woes in the driveway as you head to the barn.

Your Emotions

In this world of physical communication, how you feel while you ride is fairly easy for horses to decipher. This means that they will quickly pick up on mis-matches such as a sweet tone of voice but an aggressive body language. In general, you will likely convey what you’re really thinking through your physical actions and the energy you give off. It gets even easier for them when you’re in the saddle!

Learn to intentionally control your body language. The horse can feel any tension instantly. The trick is to catch yourself as you become tense, and actually teach your body to not reflect that tension. Keep your riding position open, soften through the elbows, loosen your gripping legs.

“Fake it till you make it!” Riding is supposed to be fun, after all!

Your Riding Goals

Let’s face it! Horses are not interested in your riding goals. Period.

And they have no way of even beginning to understand what you want out of a given exercise.

However, most horses can identify good work and bad work. If you can improve the horse’s way of going to make him feel better physically, the horse will learn to look forward to spending time with you under saddle. You can definitely earn trust through your riding skills and activities.

Your Preferred Riding Style

It would be great if you could know your horse well enough to know which discipline he would excel at. Then you could ride in that discipline yourself. However, most horses will go in any saddle assuming they have the ability and aptitude for the required movements. You could easily slap on a western saddle instead of a dressage saddle, or scrap both of them and go side saddle!

What’s more important is that the horse feels comfortable. Horses may have a preferred or special skill in particular riding activities but if you ride well and keep them comfortable, you can probably do what you want and your horse will happily accommodate you.

Your Riding Skills

How you ride is probably the most critical aspect to your horse. When all is said and done, an easy moving, well balanced human partner is more important than anything else to the horse.

The more educated you can be, the more you can serve your horse as he develops his own skills. No learning is ever wasted, even if it feels difficult or unreachable at first. What you learn from one horse can always be applied to other horses so there is really no such thing as “wasted” learning.

People often talk about doing activities that help us “live in the moment.” There is nothing more “momentous” than horseback riding, and the beauty of our chosen activity is that the horse offers us the opportunity to really let go of our daily lives and spend a few hours just doing and being with the horse.

Take some of the guesswork out of it for your horse. Become consistent in how you work with and around your horse, and develop the aspects that are really important. And above it all, have a great time!

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Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

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If you enjoyed this article, you might also like:

8 Ways To Help Your Horse Achieve His Highest Potential: Regardless of what we want to do with our horses, our first responsibility is always to the horse.

42 Ways to Learn, Play and Grow With Your Horse: Horses give to us in countless ways. We play, learn and grow with them, making horseback riding not merely a sport (which it truly is, like no other), but so much more.

Good Day For A Little Horseplay: Snort, snort, snort, SNORT! My gelding couldn’t tell me in any clearer terms how much he was enjoying the moment.

The Top 8 Perks of Horse Keeping: Here are a few positives that keep us going when everyone else is enjoying their leisure time.

Because of Horses: What has changed in your life because of horses?

Feeling Like A  (Dressage) Queen


Like many people, I have traditionally heard the term Dressage Queen used in a generally negative manner. When I think of those words, I often picture all the stereotypes that are depicted about dressage riders – stern, tight-lipped, maybe just a little overbearing. If you go by what you hear, aspiring to be a dressage queen is often a frowned-upon goal.

But something happened that completely flipped around the meaning of the phrase for me.

The other day, I had one of those rides we all dream of. Cyrus was energetic, confident and bold, bouncy-bouncy and just full of life. He was sharp and had a spring in his step as if he was going for gold (in his own mind). He felt so upbeat that he carried me right along with him, lifting my spirits and putting me on that pedestal that only a horse can do.

Here is my attempt to capture the feel of the moment.

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Soft, harrowed footing draws sweet patterns ahead

inviting the thumpety thump of my horse’s rhythmic footfalls,

making a hoof print trail in the untouched sand.


Blue sky;

gentle, warm breeze and

a wonderfully huge, open space

calling to us,

urging us to move, move, move!


Almost soundless footfalls

traversing over space and time

pushing, lifting, carrying two as one.

Walk/trot/canter merrily-we-go-along

making circles, lines, loops and turns,

bends and laterals, straights and engagement

taking us from flat to round to uphill-like-an-airplane balance.


Heartfelt snort from my horse,

steady breaths on my part,

moving to stay still but covering ground in leaps and bounds.

Lofty almost floating yet

welcomed back to the earth with soft cushioned landings

step by step, stride by stride,

until we’re both spent and needing to walk.


For a break.


Is this what being a queen feels like?

Not just a dressage queen –

but a Queen

riding dressage,

on top of the world

(on top of my black beauty)

savoring every fantastical moment,

enveloped by all that surrounds us in sound, sight, feel and movement

and welcoming it all



Into my being.


Maybe this is what being a queen really feels like.


Have you ever had one of these rides? Tell us about it in the comments below!


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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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If you liked this poem, you might also like:

A Recipe for Living: If life were a recipe, what would it look like?

Because of Horses: What has changed in your life because of horses?

Living in Flying Changes: I wrote this short poem after a wonderfully exhilarating night ride.

Caught: A short piece of horsey fiction.

Moment of Beauty: Caught in the moment and recognizing it.