The Training Scale

There is no shortcut to quality. Two things make a dressage horse great: 1-quality breeding, and 2- quality training. If you seek international success at Grand Prix level, you need both a quality horse and quality training. But if you, like most people, run on an average budget and your horse is of average (or even below) quality, you do not need to expect that you cannot make a very good performer out of him. Quality training applies to all horses, regardless of type, age, breed, or background. And contrary to what you might think, quality training does not mean hiring an expensive trainer; it is something you can attain simply by following the Training Scale.

The Training Scale

Some time ago, I asked a renowned dressage trainer if he thought my four-year-old horse had potential to excel at Grand Prix. My horse had the bloodlines, conformation, temperament, talent, and all the things that are usually typical of horses trainable to that level. He smiled at me and said, “A good horse is made.”

His reply hit home. I may have had the best-bred horse in the world, but without good training, I had nothing. Bad training can make the best horse look terrible; good training can make the average horse a star. The question is, what is good training?

The best riders and trainers in the world will tell you that good training is that which is built block by block onto a strong, solid base. That base is comprised of the following six elements in that particular order:







Together, these elements make up what is known as The Training Scale—also known as The Training Pyramid, the German Training Scale, or the German Training System. It may help you understand how the Training Scale contributes to your horse’s training if you visualize it as a pyramid, with Rhythm at the base, and every layer built upon the other.

There are some variations of the Training Scale, but the above is the simplest. Variations may add an element or two, but those extra elements are already integrated into the ones mentioned above, such as ‘Relaxation’ being part of or leading to ‘Rhythm’, or ‘Looseness’ as a synonym for ‘Suppleness’. Because the order of the elements is based on logic, there are no variations of the Training Scale that alternate the position of one element over the other.

The Elements in Brief

1- Rhythm: It is the result of mental and physical relaxation. When the horse is relaxed, he is able to step into the natural rhythm of the four natural gaits: walk, trot, canter, and the rein-back. The walk is a 4-beat movement, the trot 2-beat, the canter 3-beat, and the rein-back 2-beat. A horse that trots in rhythm is trotting in a clear 2-beat rhythm in a steady tempo. There is good rhythm and bad rhythm: Good rhythm is when the horse’s canter is a true 3-beat, bad or incorrect rhythm is when it becomes a lazy 4-beat. Rhythm faults in the walk are when it comes close to 2-beat, and in the trot when it resembles a lame, hopping horse.

2- Suppleness: A dressage horse is ultimately an athlete, and every athlete requires a certain degree of flexibility. Suppleness is the looseness and flexibility of the horse’s body. There are two types of suppleness: longitudinal and lateral. Longitudinal suppleness is the looseness of the horse’s haunches, back, neck, poll, and jaw, giving him the ability to swing forward while remaining fairly on the bit. Lateral suppleness is the degree to which a horse can bend his body and neck sideways, either to produce a circle or to move sideways.

3- Contact: When the horse is accepting the rider’s hands, seat, and legs, it is said that he is offering good contact. Many people mistake contact for the horse being on the bit. That is not necessarily true and denotes riding with the hands alone. A horse moving under a rider is in contact with his seat, legs, and hands. Good contact is when the horse accepts and responds to seat and leg aids while maintaining a round outline with a mouth that is relaxed and accepting the bit. You can point out good contact when the horse’s back is raised, his quarters engaged, his poll the highest point, his jaw relaxed, and his nose a hint in front of the vertical (That is also a sign of good riding and training).

4- Impulsion: Free-flowing energy initiated by the rider, causing the horse’s back to swing, his quarters to engage, and his forelegs to articulate is impulsion. Good impulsion is mirrored through a horse that appears to have an innate desire to go forward with active, lively steps. How far the horse steps underneath his barrel and how much he engages his hocks are both measures of impulsion. Basic training regulates the horse’s engine so that impulsion becomes second nature to the horse and the rider does not have to push all the time.

5- Straightness: Horses are naturally crooked, so straightening them is the job of the rider/trainer. For example, many horses canter with their quarters slightly in. Crookedness is caused by uneven lateral suppleness, i.e. one side stiffer than the other, and a weaker hind leg. Good training focuses on developing both sides and hind legs of the horse equally, which eventually leads to absolute straightness. A horse is truly straight when the hind foot steps in the line of the front foot (or sometimes a little deeper to the inside in the event of collection).

6- Collection: The pinnacle of the Training Pyramid, collection is the ultimate goal for the dressage horse. When all the previous elements are present, collection just happens! Collection involves the lowering of the croup, lightness of the forehand, and shorter and higher steps. Collection is possible in the walk, trot and canter, and is achieved by collecting exercises and refined by little half-halts. A rider on a horse doing a great collected canter feels as though he/she can let go and the horse would still maintain perfect rhythm and self-carriage without any interference from the rider.

How the Training Scale Works

The elements of the training scale describe the essence of dressage training whether you are working at backing a 3-year-old or perfecting your piaffe-passage transitions. Any problems encountered during training, provided they are not due to physical or psychological problems, can be traced to a weak link among the building blocks of training.

The first and most important building block is rhythm. Because rhythm is at the base of the pyramid, you cannot be focused on improving straightness if the rhythm at any gait is poor. In fact, you cannot be entirely focused on suppling exercises (building block #2) if the rhythm is poor. Likewise, you cannot be entirely focused on contact (building block #3) if the horse is tight and tense (absence of suppleness). The key to adopting the Training Scale is to understand how each block or element is related to the next.

Training Scenario #1: Let us assume you have been trying to teach your horse shoulder-in. As you trot up the long side of the arena, the trot becomes sluggish, the horse stiffens, offers you the neck instead of the shoulder, and goes above the bit. It is a mistake to jump to the conclusion that the horse is resistant. Okay, he may be resistant, but not necessarily due to stubbornness. Let’s examine all the things that went wrong:

The horse lost impulsion caused by lack of response to the rider’s leg (no contact) and/or tension of the back (no suppleness). No suppleness and contact lead to no impulsion.

The horse became stiff in the neck and jaw means an absence of suppleness.

The horse went above the bit means an absence of contact with the rider’s hands, legs, and seat, also leading to loss of impulsion.

Let us look at the training scale once more:

1- Rhythm, 2- Suppleness, 3- Contact, 4- Impulsion, 5- Straightness, and 6- Collection.

The above scenario describes an absence of suppleness, which lead to loss of contact and impulsion. The rider had been trying to teach the horse a movement that is impossible to perform if the first four elements of the training scale are not established. Because the horse was initially stiff, it was physically impossible for him to offer a correct shoulder-in. In this situation, the rider must go back to developing the horse’s suppleness, and try to establish a more confirmed contact.

Training Scenario #2: You have been struggling to get your horse on the bit in the trot. You heard that lots of impulsion from the hindquarters helps bring the horse on the bit, so you chase the horse around the arena, sponging, see-sawing, vibrating, and restraining the bit with your hands. The horse drops his back, stiffens more every time you kick him forward, and throws his nose up higher. Furthermore, the trot becomes uneven, and the horse starts short-stepping with one foreleg, almost resembling a lame horse. What is going on?

The horse was becoming stiffer and more tense in the jaw. The absence of suppleness has made the presence of contact impossible.

The horse was also stiffening against the rider’s leg, which was asking for impulsion during the absence of suppleness and contact.

The rider’s struggles with contact during the absence of suppleness created loss of rhythm in the trot, resulting in what is called, “rein-lameness”.

The rider had been trying to bring a horse on the bit when the horse was not supple and loose, therefore not mentally or physically ready to accept contact. As the rider struggles with contact in the absence of suppleness, the trot rhythm is also sacrificed, and the entire training structure collapses. In this situation, the rider must abandon all attempts to force contact upon the horse, and simply try to re-establish true rhythm while relaxing the horse.

The Training Scale for Young Horses

The young horse is often started on the lunge with side-reins. As he walks, trots, and canters around in circles, he is learning the first four elements of the training scale. Rhythm is achieved by relaxation; suppleness through stretching on the circle coupled with frequent change of rein, circle size, and transitions; contact through side-reins which are set to mimic the rider’s steady hand later on; and impulsion through free-flowing energy generated by the trainer’s voice and gestures. When the horse begins to carry a rider, he more or less re-learns these elements, but at a much quicker pace since they are already integrated into his system.

Provided that rhythm is there, a skilled rider can begin teaching the horse the next three or four elements (suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness) almost simultaneously, but must be always prepared to simplify things for the horse if he feels over-faced. For example, in a typical riding session for a 5-year-old, the rider begins by stretching the horse at the walk and trot to relax and loosen the horse, riding transitions and circles throughout, thereby confirming rhythm and suppleness. Then the rider shortens the reins and works furthermore on transitions between gaits, thereby confirming suppleness and contact. When the rider has a good feeling that the horse is relaxed, in good rhythm, is fairly supple, and accepting contact, he/she can ride transitions within gaits, i.e. working to medium and back to working, thereby confirming suppleness, contact and impulsion. During this work, the rider makes sure the horse does not fall in or out, and moves straight on straight lines, and bends evenly on curves, thus improving the horse’s straightness.

If things go wrong at any point, the rider can always take a step down to the previous element and work on it a little more until the horse settles. For example, if the medium trot comes out irregular, the rider leaves it out for a moment and tries to re-establish the horse’s rhythm and suppleness.

Intelligent riding involves understanding of theory, and good analytical skills. To improve your horse, be always prepared to examine the situation and accept that there might be a gap in his training here or there. Know where you and horse stand and clearly define the problems you are facing, then find out to which element of the training scale they are related. In the next articles, each element will be extensively detailed along with tips and exercises that you can implement into any horse’s training.

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