The Training Scales of the Horse

A Guide to Progressively Schooling the Horse


Why a Training Scale?
1 Rhythm
2 Relaxation
3 Contact
4 Schwung
5 Straightness
6 Collection
(7 Throughness*)

Why a training Scale?

Isn't that a little like ABC? You know, I DO ride better than a kindergardener. I'm not exactly geen.

Have you ever heard anyone say such a thing in response to the training scale? Neither have I. But I'm sure many riders question it without saying so. Like they would somehow need help, or anything. Duh?

But the training scale is not like ABC. That would be more equivalent of sitting correctly, maintaining balance and aiding correctly. The training scale is the horse's carrer plan, and your contract. It is like a document for going back to when things go wrong or you are having trouble.


Each step of the scales stands firmly on the one before. If the step before crumbles, you fall down. If it's shakey where you are, you step down. It is really more apropriate to speak of a training pyramide. Because the image of the stages of the pyramide says something about their importance. The fact that you return to the base of the pyramide as soon as something goes wrong higher up, also says something about its importance. And that professional horse trainers all over the world keep this simple scale in their heads while they ride. So the basics is not something you and the horse learn, and that's that. It's never THAT.


The horse needs to move forward in some kind of balance, even its natural balance. As soon as the horse has achieved regular forward movement and limbered up enough, his legs will move forward rhythmically in every step. Loss of balance will result in loss of rhythm, because the horse is falling forward or to the sides and needs to catch himself with a quick step to that side. Losing balance backwards usually leads to stiffening of the grounded hindleg and a slowing down of rhythm. So any kind of balance, even one on the forehand, is necessary for good rhythm. It’s a starting point.

With most horses this is the warm-up phase. Modern sport horses usually have almost built-in clockwork rhythm, but not all.

Tension which comes from fear or pain usually leads to irregular rhythm because the muscles are tense and cannot contract and relax smoothly. Also, a horse who is fearful or in pain will want to flee and thus has surplus energy out in his muscles, and adrenalin and other messenger substances that say GO! And create tension. These horses have also shut down their sensory system to a certain degree and with it proprioception (feeling where ones limbs are).

Generally calm but not sluggish forward movement (in trot or canter) in natural balance helps the horse to get rid of some adrenaline and tension, wake up the proprioception system and begin to breathe. All of these are prerequisites for good rhythm in the majority of horses.


So really, when a good rhythm has been achieved, the horse is basically relaxed. In the beginning of a young horse’s education, this is the only goal for a session, and the first sessions don’t even achieve that goal. When the horse has been schooled enough that it does not feel pain or fear when mounted and starting work, this phase should be quicker. With some horses, because of their temperament, it takes longer, and some find it a piece of cake.

Then relaxation can improve to include all bends of the neck and body and the legs in sideways movement. Bending left and right, as well as leg-yield at walk (no contact - just moving away from the leg) will help limbering further. This is where the shoulder-in volte can be useful, to get a lateral as well as longitudal stretch. When the horse can stretch his entire outside on a volte both left and right as well as move its inner hindleg across the path of the outer hindleg, the horse will stretch down, essentially making contact. As the horse stretches and the hand limits the stretch contact is made. The horse makes contact – the rider receives it.


The horse should stretch his neck and back and make contact with the bit, not the otherway around. The horse must be the active part, and nor be pulled down and round by the reins.

On a bent track, such as a volte, the horse stretches his outer side and comes to the bit with the outside jaw. To help this the inside rein can vibrate to make the neck bend to the inside. The vibration also stops the horse from clenching his jaw. The jaw must be relaxed and moving, not clenched and boring on the bit.

When the horse has begun tostretch his whole body towards the bit and relaxed the topline, he will be manageable. He can be steered and rebalanced because he is always out there meeting your hand. He needs to be rhythmical, relaxed and in contact. The horse is still not very fast or energetic, because if he were he’d lose balance and relaxation, which would cause the rhythm to become irregular, and lose relaxation because he would have to deal with being plunged forward. It is also probable that he will be heavy onto the bit with a subsequently clenched jaw, or come above the bit or creep behind it.

Schwung (Verve)

Schwung is hard to translate from German. It can be translated as "momentum" or as "verve". I don't find any of the translations adequate for use in discussion of the horse's movements, anyway. "Schwung" itself will have to do.

So, from moving calmly and in balance on the bit, we start to make the horse go more schwungfully forward. Now, this is the most important thing in the training scale: Forward IS NOT fast, as in miles per hour. Schwung is the quick protraction of the lifted legs and their springy movements all the way up into the highest joints of the extremities, the shoulders and hips. The large muscles governing the upper parts of the legs work springily and in their full range of motion, so that the horse swings through the back and grasps forward eagerly. This quickness of protraction is schooled as a function of the leg aid. The horse must answer the leg aid (which must be given with precise timing) when the hindleg is in the air, by pulling it forward/up. The leg aid on the side of the barrel triggers a reflex for the horse to crunch its side and pull the leg forward. For this reaction to be conditioned into the horse, it must be done precisely timed, it must be rewarded, not done too frequently and not be annulled by the reins.

Precisely timed is “as the hoof lifts”. Reward is given by the release of the aid or non-repeat of the aid, and too frequent is to nag the horse in every step for 3 or more steps. It must be done with periods of no demands inbetween, although not lone ones.

It can, for example be done twice on the long side, once on the shortside for 1 lapse. Then the horse can stretch long and low. Then it can be done again for a lapse and the break is a lapse of walk.

The rein contact must become slightly lighter as the hindleg grasps forward, but not so light that the rein slacks. If the horse wants to lower his head, let him.

As I think you have figured out by now, this precise aiding for schwung is done to the inside leg. The release in the rein is also primarily on the inside rein. From this “inside leg to outside rein” it is very close at hand to “put the forehand in front of the quarters” which is one of the most efficient ways of achieving straightness. The hindquarters which always stray to the inside get the forehand placed in front of them, by action of the outside rein on the shoulder and the slight weighing of the inside seatbone. The inside leg also places the hindquarters a tad more out on the track so that they come behind the forehand.

As long as the horse is not forward enough (not moving schwungfully off the inside leg) there is no purpose in trying to put the forehand in front of the quarters. First of all, the rein aid for moving the outside shoulder to the inside will have a braking effect that is devastating in a horse not honestly forward. Second, the extra work that the hindquarters suddenly get when they have to push the forehand in front of itself, is too much and the horse will slow down. Before the horse works schwungfully forward, doing this will be like pulling on the hand brakes. With such a horse, it’s better to try to work the horse to work schwungfully forward off the inside leg while moving the hindquarters out behind the forehand. This is not at all as efficient as putting the forehand in front of the hindquarters, but the efficiency lies in the forward grasp of the hindleg, which is in that way a prerequisite for straightness. Without schwung, you can never get the horse to work straight.


Horses are naturally crooked, that every horseperson knows. Wether this is in-born or in-schooled is an issue for discussion. But there's one fact that is quite clear regardless of what side of the discussion you are on. The freshly started green horse will move with the hindquarters skidding to the outside in corners and turns.

Straightness Straightness is, naturally, not stiffness. Unfortunately a lot of horses are held straight and stiffly compressed like a block of concrete in the name of straightness and collection. But it is not true straightness.

There are two parts to straightness. First it’s the equal manageability of the two sides: the horse must be able to bend to both sides from jaw to dock. Bendability, pliability of the muscles and joints as well as absence of stiffness. Then the horse must also be able to step in under the body to an equal amount with both left and right hindlegs and be able to smoothly carry the load with slightly bent haunches and push off to an equal amount. These two are intimately linked together, since stiffness in the bending and carrying abilities of the hindlegs, usually show in the horse’s avoiding working bent on a curved line. It may not be the side that is stiff, it may be that the hindleg cannot do its job.

A horse that is, for example, weaker in its left hindleg than in its right, will hold the quarters to the left and push the right shoulder out. This helps the left leg in that it does not have to step in under the body and bend so much, since it lands beside the center of mass of the horse. The weight is then instead directed to the(diagonal) right foreleg.

As the hindquarters are to the left, the right hindleg is more or less right behind the centreline of the horse. This leg would take more of the lioad, if it was not that it cheats by taking shorter steps with this leg, not stepping in under the weight. In this position, the hips are not at a right angle to the line of travel. The left hip is forward of the right hip, so the right hip is slightly back and steps under less.

Now, in a horse that works schwungfully forward this is a small problem. As the weaker left hindleg (held to the inside) grasps forward so does the diagonal right foreleg. When they are both lifted and in the air, it is quite easy to push the shoulders in with the rein. This all of a sudden places the body right over the landing weak left hindleg. Bam! It HAS to take the load. The frontleg of the sticking out right shoulder is relieved of some burden that was previously pushed over from the weak left hindleg. We are catching up on collection.


Now, just because you can hold the horse “straight” with an iron fist on the outside rein and the inside leg kicking the horse out to the outside rein it doesn’t make your horse straight. The horse must be able to hold himself straight with a minimum of reminders from the rider in order to become more and more straight. So there’s a more or less vigilant moving in of the popping shoulder, release, guarding, moving in, release… The weak hindleg must also be strengthened by special exercises, like shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, voltes and turns, transitions, canter-on, etc.

Usually, on a relatively soft and pliable horse, the syndrome of butt-to-the-inside-shoulder-to-the-outside is evident in both direction. The horse goes crooked to both left and right.



This is something the ridden horse learns to do to avoid work. A green horse will skid all over the place, usually with his quarters to the outside because of centrifugal forces, and because the rider turns round and round with the inside rein. As soon as the horse has found out a way to manage his balance under rider, the butt goes to the inside to relieve it self of working too hard.

The horse learns this because it’s available, and the rider is not straight enough to be able to feel that the hindquarters are to the side. They are not themselves straight enough to be able to feel the difference of the horse’s hindlegs through the saddle because they are not straight enough, balanced enough, or snug in the saddle.
Most horses never get past 3rd level. This is why.

When the horse is strong ans supple enough to be able to remain grasping schwungfully forward while being aligned with the forehand directly in front of the quarters so that two equally strong hindlegs carry/push the spinal column straight ahead, collection will drop into your lap like a bill in the mail. The horse will honestly have difficulty getting away from collection. But there it is quite evident just how important the training scale or pyramide is.

The horse can get out of collection in all the different ways of the steps of the training scale: By going crooked, loosing impulsion, creeping behind the contact and not stretch stiffening and beginning to take irregular steps. Irregular steps is usually evidence of stiffness and creeping behind the bit happens when the horse loses impulsion, and a crooked horse is stiff and the list goes on and on.

But when you are training for collection and the horse does any of the previous things, you know you have to go back through the training scale as far back as necessary for the horse to work appropriately at each level. If you get rhythm problems when trying to collect, you go down from collection to straightness. The horse still does not respond with good rhythm, so you skip straightness and go for schwung. If it works you go up and try to achieve straightness using the schwung, and there you run into the problem again. OK, we need to work on impulsion and schwung. Maybe cavalettis (to pick the hindlegs up) or cantering on or transitions within trot? Not collection by any means…

Throughout one session, the entire training scale is checked off. You begin with getting some regularity into the free gaits so that the horse doesn’t fall all over the place with stumbling and irregular steps. Then the horse relaxes, snorts and starts to seek contact. Then you ride forward, transitions and stuff to get some schwung. And finally place the forehand in front of the hindquarters. Then you train your 10 minutes of collection, and then back down the scale again, finishing off with some free, rhythmical paces long and low around the arena.


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