BILL— The right tempo depends on what you are trying to accomplish at that moment. If you are in the show ring, there will be a tempo – not always the same for each horse – that shows off his gait the best. There are always a bunch of qualities which factor into your choice. While you don’t want your horse to be quick, sometimes one which has a less engaged, expressive trot will track up a bit better if his tempo is slightly faster. If you make it too rapid, however, it just looks tight and unsightly. At the other extreme if he has lift but not much thrust, he may appear to hover. Then a bit more tempo can invite him to cover more ground.
There are similar decisions to make for the canter. Often if the canter is too fast, it’s because the horse is out of balance and running to catch up with his center of gravity. A slower tempo while maintaining energy can let you increase engagement which leads to self carriage.
All that aside, there will be times in training where a tempo other than the finished one can be useful. If you have a tense horse, a slower tempo will often help him relax and settle into the contact. A horse who rushes and runs against the hand can never really be ridden correctly from back to front. By riding under the normal tempo, it’s possible to “make him wait for the leg,” which allows you to push him together from behind.
Here is an off the track thoroughbred who had been tense and hollow. We slowed him down and asked him to drop his head towards the bit. Pushing him more actively would simply have turned him farther inside out. Now, however, in this photo we are riding him intentionally up-tempo. It’s a short term decision to put the softness of his jaw aside and ride him energetically to solidify the physical contact. As he understands and becomes confident in working more in one piece, we can keep that connection while slowing the tempo back to normal. In short, when schooling the ability to adjust your horse’s tempo to your needs is a great tool to remember and employ.