Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a friend about improving cadence. She is a Western Pleasure rider working on graduating to three-gait classes from the walk / trot division. She asked specifically about cadence beads and bells. She wanted to know if I’d ever used them, and what I thought of them.
Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that the terminology here may be confusing. As far as I know, there is no universally accepted generic name for cadence beads. Sometimes they are called “cadence bells,” “rhythm beads,” or “rhythm bells.” They’re all the same thing.
Whatever it’s called, the device in question is essentially a strap of some sort that fits loosely around the horse’s neck. A clip or buckle at one end attaches to the horse’s mane or to the saddle. A series of bells adorns the neck strap.
The theory behind them is that both horse and rider can tell by the bells whether or not the horse’s gaits are regular and rhythmic. Proponents claim that using the bells teaches a horse gait consistency faster. In my opinion, many so-called “cadence bells” are more ornamental necklaces than training tools. However, I’m not at all advising against them. On the contrary, I think they can be quite useful.
I've never used the necklace thing for teaching cadence, but I've used sleigh bells for years when breaking young ones. I like several things about them -- they get the horse used to hearing something move every time he moves, so they help desensitize him. And they also jingle in time and help the horse learn rhythm. It's similar in concept to riding to music with a very definite beat (two or four for trotting, three for cantering). I think they're a good idea. Besides – I like how they sound!
When discussing cadence, or rhythm, or consistency of gait, however, the key is not using something that jingles in time to the horse’s step. The key is “practice.” A horse can’t canter well until he gets the opportunity to practice cantering. And that doesn’t mean letting him go halfway around the arena and then shutting him down.
When teaching a horse to canter under saddle, give him plenty of exposure to it. In the early stages of training, canter him a lot. Let him get a little bit tired. Let him discover that he can’t just stop and start when he wants to. Let him realize that it’s in his best interests to conserve his energy, rate his speed, and pay attention to what you’re telling him to do.
In a very few sessions, you’ll find that you’re on your way to a smooth, consistent gait with perfect cadence – with bells on. ☺