Monday, November 9, 2009

Horses Are Music

I'm an amateur musician - I've been taking recorder lessons and playing with a group for over three years now. Before that, I had virtually no musical background. The music school where I take lessons has a series of adult musicianship classes, that are free (!) to students taking private lessons. These classes cover things like rhythm, sight-singing (useful even if you're not a vocalist) and music theory. I took one class several years ago and now I'm taking another one. It's been immensely helpful with my music. We had class last night and some of the things the teacher said made me think about horses - well, pretty much everything makes me think about horses but this was particularly relevant.

We were working on rhythm, and in particular the difference between simple rhythm, where the beat can be subdivided into multiples of 2 - think 4/4 rhythm where an eighth note is 1/2 of a quarter note - and compound rhythm, where each beat is subdivided into three (or multiples of three, but that's a complication we don't need to go into). We worked for the whole 45-minute class on clapping different rhythms, and in particular in changing from a rhythm where each beat was subdivided into two (1-2, 1-2) into one where the beat was subdivided into three (1-2-3, 1-2-3), but keeping the same beat, so the 1-2-3 fit into the same time as the 1-2. Is this starting to remind you of something?

Our teacher said that many music students have a lot of difficultly with the switch between the 1-2 and the 1-2-3 and back again - say when triplets are in a piece that is otherwise in simple rhythm. He said often that's because we tend to think of the 1-2-3 as just a faster 1-2 and lose the pulse of it - if you do it right, it's almost like 1-2 is a pendulum and 1-2-3 is circular, with a bit of extra emphasis on the 1. Try thinking ap-ple and pine-ap-ple, with the beat staying the same - apple and pineapple fitting into the same amount of time - and you'll get the idea.

Now, here's where horses come in. I think one of the things many riders struggle with is trot/canter transitions - and it's the same thing! If we just ask for canter without thinking the new rhythm, we tend to get a faster trot or sometimes the horse just falls awkwardly into the canter. After my musical ahah moment, I think this has to do with the same problem that tends to trip people up in music. We walk on two legs and tend to think easily in twos. Threes are a lot harder. I always try to think the rhythm of the trot - 1-2, 1-2 - and then change my thinking to the canter rhythm - 1-2-3, 1-2-3 - as I transition. But what I may have not been thinking about is the circularity and pulse of the 1-2-3, which is exactly what the horse is doing! Think about how circular the horse's motion is at the canter (there's a diagonal element as well, but the circularity dominates), and how it has a pulse - outside hind, paired inside hind and outside front, inside front followed by suspension. The beat's on that outside hind, and the horse rolls through the other legs. This stuff may be obvious to you, but it's pretty exciting for me to realize and think about. So the route to good trot/canter transitions is to change the beat from the metronome-like 1-2, 1-2, to the circular, rolling 1-2-3, 1-2-3 (with no requirement at all to speed up or change the beat!) and focus on timing the new 1 with that outside hind leg as it steps into the canter. And even more - if I can shift my thought a moment before I cue for the canter, and then ask while that outside hind leg is on but just about to leave the ground so it'll be in position to step right into the canter, I'll bet the upwards canter transition will be much better.

Horses really are music!

What are your favorite horse metaphors/similes? The ones I've come up with, and done posts on, so far are horses are music, horses are the color of earth, horses flow like water, and I've been thinking about horses are mirrors. Do you have ones that you have come up with yourself or have read or heard that you particularly like?


  1. That's a neat analogy! I am NOT musically inclined. Maybe that's why we go 1-2 1-2 1-2, 15-34-87787696-5-97=pffffft, 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2-3...

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  3. I guess when I am collecting the canter, especially, I think of that circular feel. It also helps with the tempi changes.

    Also, if you think of the circle kind of "curling under itself" as you ride you can help your horse elevate his forehand and rock back on the haunches as you go up the training scale.

  4. Albigears, your comment made me laugh out loud!

  5. Fascinating stuff! I've never given it much thought, but it makes complete sense. Thanks for sharing this :)


  6. That was great!
    Mine can be a mirror and I am trying to see- what she sees at present!

  7. Kate, I love the idea of thinking of the rolling 1-2-3 before asking for the canter. You are exactly right. It is a different rythym entirely from the choppy, staccato of the 1-2-1-2 trot.

    The sentence in your post that really struck a chord (ha - pun) really didn't have to do with your music idea. I like when you said, "well, pretty much everything makes me think about horses". This hit home with me. I am quietly living a horse obsessed life where everything I do and think is about horses. I teach art history during the day and as I am lecturing, I find parallels with my horse life. I am not going to share them because they are a stretch. I think that I devise ideas just to lead me back to horses. All thoughts are somehow about horses!

  8. I think that is why people benefit from riding to music. I am a musician as well and often have internal musical counting going on in my head. I have been meaning to bring out the boom box and try riding to some music. I always fancied Bodhi would enjoy it. Have you ever done any riding to music?

  9. Albigears - loved your "numbers"!

    stilllearning - I wish I could have seen the hand-waving!

    Golden the Pony Girl - a very long time ago, when I was in college, I rode on drill team and we did lots of things to music - it was fun! I haven't done it since, but might give it a try.


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