“Go forward,” “faster,” “lengthen,” “slower tempo.” Has your trainer yelled any of that at you as you’re completing a pattern? Mine sure has. The problem is that these words are often hard for riders to understand. I’ll just come out and say it…horse vocabulary is about as clear as mud! In future articles, we’ll try to include a Horse Talk/English glossary. For now, let’s start with the basics—tempo, speed, and stride length.
Riders speak Chinese…
I’ll be honest. I’ve often had private lessons with incredible trainers during which I could have sworn they were speaking Chinese. “Your mare doesn’t have a good enough tempo.” “Speed up the back legs and slow down the front end.” “Drop your center of gravity without changing your position.” You wouldn’t believe what else I’ve heard! The problem is that, physically speaking, these instructions often don’t make any sense at all. So, let’s do a bit of taboo-breaking and dig down into these definitions.
Cadence, speed, and stride length: Definitions
Speed is easy. It’s the distance traveled in a given time. In equitation, we measure speed in m/min (or ft/min). In the real world, you’re more likely to see m/s or even km/h (or ft/s and mph).
To give you an idea, here are the speed ranges for all three gaits as measured on a high-level dressage horse .
- Walk: 84 – 108 m/min
- Trot: 192 – 296 m/min (trotters can go up to 852 m/min, i.e. 32 mph!!!)
- Canter: 196 – 358 m/min (up to 1,200 m/min at a full racing gallop, i.e. 45 mph. For comparison, a professional, elite-level cross-country race involves speeds of 550 to 570 m/min, and a stadium jumping round clocks in at 375 m/min)
- Passage: 96 m/min
- Piaffe: 12 m/min
Stride length is the size of each stride. This is the distance between two successive hoof falls of the same leg. It’s measured in meters (or feet).
Be careful, though. It’s easy to mix up strides and half-strides with the walk and trot. These two gaits are symmetrical, so we often talk about half-stride length. As a reminder, a stride means everything that happens between two successive hoof falls of the same leg.
To give you an idea, here are the stride length ranges for all three gaits as measured on a high-level dressage horse .
- Walk: 1.57 – 1.93 m
- Trot: 2.50 – 3.55 m (trotters can reach up to nearly 6 m!!!)
- Canter: 2.00 – 3.47 m (up to 7 m at a full racing gallop)
- Passage: 1.75 m
- Piaffe: 0.20 m
Cadence is the frequency of the horse’s strides. In other words, it’s the number of strides taken in a given time . It’s measured in strides per minute. Using a metronome, set it so the same leg falls with each beat. You can also call it tempo.
It’s the same story as with stride length. We talk about the frequency of half-strides at the walk and trot, which is two times the frequency of the full stride.
To give you an idea, here are the cadence ranges for all three gaits as measured on a high-level dressage horse .
- Walk: 52 – 56 strides/min
- Trot: 77 – 83 strides/min
- Canter: 99 – 105 strides/min
- Piaffe and passage: 55 strides/min
To make things trickier, we like the cadence to be regular (meaning it always stays the same), even when the stride length changes! That’s simply called having a consistent cadence. Cadence consistency can be measured, but there isn’t a consensus about what qualifies as a consistent and inconsistent cadence. At Equisense, we’ve set our own thresholds after observing lots of horses with varying levels of consistency to help you work on your own cadence. We’ll give you a score out of 10 indicating how stable your cadence was throughout your ride.
Example of a warm-up session with a cadence at trot of 77 strides/min and an excellent regularity (8/10). For the same session, the walk is at 49 strides/min but a lot less regular (2,5/10)!!!
How are they related?
I’m sure you’ve picked up on it by now. These three terms are related to each other through a very simple formula:
Speed = cadence x stride length
That means if you want to go faster, you have to either increase your stride length, maintain the same stride length while increasing your cadence, or increase both your cadence and stride length.
Example no. 1
Imagine you’re walking down the street listening to a great song on your headphones. You’re walking in time with the music, and you want to pass the person in front of you who isn’t walking fast enough. You don’t want to walk out of sync with the song, so you’re going to take bigger steps while still maintaining the same cadence.
→ You went faster because you increased your stride length while keeping the same cadence.
Example no. 2
Imagine you’re walking down the street again. This time, you don’t have music, but the sidewalk is paved with identical blank and white squares. Since you’re still a kid at heart, you can only walk on the black squares, but you still want to pass the slowpoke ahead of you. Since the white squares are lava, you have to go faster by increasing the pace of your steps.
→ You walked faster because you increased your cadence while keeping the same stride length.
From here on we can give you some exercise ideas to work on these three parameters. For the exercises we are going to use our tool: Equisense Motion. You know, this small sensor that is fixed on our girth and connected to an app in order to measure the movements and improvements of your horse.
Two tools and 6 exercises to work on speed, cadence, and stride length
First tool: Ground poles at the canter
Exercise #1: Place two ground poles 20 m apart and try to change the number of canter strides between each pole, switching between 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 strides. This will help you work on changing your stride length (and your cadence too, probably, but don’t worry about it for this exercise).
Exercise #2: This time we determine the parameter: the cadence. Same exercise but this time try to keep the same cadence for every passage. Use your Equisense Motion to measure your cadence. You will see that this exercise is more difficult. Macha explains how to do it:
Don’t forget to switch on the English subtitles 😉
Exercise #3: Now we’ll focus on another factor—the number of strides (i.e. stride length). Decide on how many strides you want (six strides, for example), and try to change your cadence each time. If we look back at the video with Macha, you’ll see we’re switching between 6 strides at 97 strides/min and 6 strides at 100 strides/min. It’s really hard to do on purpose!!!
Second tool: Ground poles at the trot
Exercise #4: Place four poles on the ground with 2.5 m between each one. Trot over them so that the horse is always using the same back leg to step over each pole. As you go around, increase the spacing between the poles. You can increase it to over 3 m, or even 3.5 m for a very good horse. In this exercise, you’re changing your stride length.
Exercise #5: This time, we’ll work on our cadence. The idea is to change the stride length by adjusting the distance between poles while maintaining the same cadence. The Equisense Motion will be a big help!
Exercise #6: This time, we’ll maintain the same stride length (keep the poles at 2.7 m or 3 m apart, for example) and change our cadence! Try to hit 75 strides/min and then 80 strides/min. These figures are just examples—adjust them to match your horse.
Note: Exercises #3 and #6, where we use the same stride length and change the cadence, are a great way to develop your feel for the cadence since it’s sometimes really hard to realize when it changes.
Now when your trainer yells, “Faster,” you can answer, “Wait, do you want me to increase my cadence or my stride length?”. When he or she says, “Your horse sped up a bit at the extended trot,” you can say, “No, he increased his cadence—that’s not the same!”
I bet all the trainers out there are going to end up hating me.
With that, I’ll leave you. Until next time!
R&D Manager at Equisense