Remember Goldilocks and the three bears?

Porridge wasn’t the only issue.  There was also the chairs.  And the beds.  It was hard to get it right.  Too hot, too cold.  Too big, too small.  Too hard, too soft.  Burn your mouth or bruise your behind or strain your back until you find the one that’s just right.

Kind of like tempo.

Tempo is tricky.  It’s not that it’s a particularly complicated concept to understand, but it’s a word that’s often misused.  Transport it over the ocean, and the waters get even more muddied.

The USDF defines tempo as the “rate of repetition of the rhythm, the strides or of the emphasized beats — beats per minute, as may be measured by a metronome.”   Okay, that sounds relatively simple now, doesn’t it?  However

The USDF glossary makes mention of the fact that “tempo” is historically often used in Europe to denote what the USDF defines as Pace. From the USDF glossary comes this definition of Pace:

“1a. Named variation(s) within a gait…characterized by a given length of stride as well as by other attributes listed under the individual definitions of the various paces.
b. MPM within a gait as determined by stride length while maintaining essentially the same tempo.

2a. Gait in which the lateral pairs of legs move in unison (not a dressage gait).”

In its definition of Pace, the USDF makes mention of the fact that the FEI uses the term “Pace” synonymously with “Gait” and uses “Variation” to refer to the concept of Pace [definition 1a.] as defined by the USDF.”

Okay, so now something you thought was relatively simple is sounding pretty confusing, isn’t it?

Go on with the USDF’s soliloquy, and you’ll get to the root of the problem, if not how to fix it.

“Note 1: “Rhythm” is sometimes used mistakenly to mean “tempo [rate of repetition of the rhythm”…
Note 2: In English, there is no one term that covers both the rhythm and the tempo, as does the term “Takt” in German. This has caused confusion because “Takt” has commonly been translated as rhythm…”

Are you more confused now, or less?  I’m guessing the answer is “more.”

See why tempo is something a lot of people would rather not talk about?

But if you’re brave — like Goldilocks (and me) — that’s not going to stop you. And it shouldn’t.  Because tempo is really important.  Even for beginning riders. Not to play with, the way the Dutch Olympic Dressage Team does, but to understand.

Let’s go back to basics, and put the USDF’s academics behind us.  You can think of it this way:  rhythm is the consistency of the horse’s steps and tempo is how those steps are timed.

When we talk about rhythm, we’re looking for purity of the gaits.  When we talk about tempo, we’re talking about things that have more in common with your remote control when you’re watching something from Netflix.

You can play your DVD at regular speed, or you can fast forward.  You can go “slo mo” or you can freeze-frame.

As far as I’m concerned, there is an ideal tempo for whatever it is you’re doing, and a natural tempo for the horse where balance is the most natural. That’s what you get when you push “play” on your DVD player.

Riding “under tempo” (the slow mo) or “over tempo” (the fast forward) is often thought to be a better way to obtain balance.  But what is “under tempo” and what is “over tempo” is subjective.  The “under tempo” camp is highly critical of the “over tempo” camp and the “over tempo” camp” is highly critical of the “under tempo” camp.  And then there’s the camp that thinks of tempo as neither “under” nor “over,” but rather as something that is adjustable.

So what do you do if you just want a comfortable chair to sit in and eat a bowl of porridge in peace?

Here’s what I say:  Find your horse’s true tempo, and ride that.  It’s the one that’s going to feel forward and easy at the same time.  Don’t be intimidated by all the talk.  It’s no harder than figuring out your horse’s stride when you introduce cavaletti.  If you have no idea what your horse’s true tempo is or his true stride, it’s time to get some good eyes on the ground and work on your feel.

Aren’t we all happy that the USDF hasn’t attempted to define “feel” yet?  So for now at least, we can think we know what it means.