A look at the Dressage Training Scale

It is through centuries of trial and error, training successes and failures, and discovery of effective riding that led to the understanding of the training scale. It is not a list that was drawn up and followed; first it had to be discovered and understood. The training scale is a formula for riders of all disciplines to understand the priorities for successful training. It is often drawn as a pyramid, for the basics must by firmly in place to create a strong foundation for future achievement. Successful training is not directly focused on winning ribbons, but rather to achieve harmony through a gradual development of challenge for the horse’s athleticism and mental capacity. By following the guidelines of the training scale, a rider will find a healthier, happier, more athletic partner. Then, if it is that rider’s ambition, the ribbons will come.

There are several variations on the precise words of the scale, but generally, it is as follows:
1. Rhythm/Forward
2. Suppleness/Relaxation
3. Contact/Acceptance of Bit
4. Straightness
5. Impulsion/Engagement
6. Collection

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These steps are not necessarily to be focused on one at a time. While developing consistent rhythm, for example, a rider should already be considering suppleness and trying to maintain relaxation of the horse as he accustoms to the bit. However, the expectations should be limited to allow the horse, particularly the young horse, time to adjust and get used to each new progression. The scale also provides the rider an understanding of priority. A rider should not demand acceptance of the bit if the horse is traveling in an irregular rhythm and has little desire to move.

1. Developing & Understanding Rhythm & Forward

It is a common misconception to believe that going fast is forward. The tempo, or speed, of the gait should be regular and consistent. Speed should be unchanging. A horse traveling forward will have freely flowing gaits. A general guide is to observe the tracks and see that the hind feet are “tracking up” (the hind foot lands in the same print as the forefoot for walk and trot, and is parallel to the print of the forefoot in the canter). This is a good rule of thumb to check that the horse is indeed traveling correctly over his back, and is beginning to have engagement through the hindquarters. The hind foot tends to be longer and more angular than the rounder fore foot, and so can be identified if there is lack of engagement (not tracking up), or even over tracking (where the hind foot lands beyond the print of the fore foot).

* Note that draft breeds rarely have a moment of suspension in the gaits due to their weight and the concussion that would incur if they did become airborne in each stride. It is, therefore, impossible for them to track up if the forefoot is still grounded when the hind foot strikes down on the same side.

Rhythm should be punctuated by the seat of the rider and legs of the rider. This isn’t to say that the rider should slam his weight into the rhythm of his choosing, but rather feel what the horse is providing and adjust his posting trot or “give” in the hips in the walk/canter to affirm to the horse, “this is the rhythm you should keep.”

2. Suppling and Maintaining Relaxation

Throughout all training, the goal of relaxation should always be present in the rider’s mind. When the horse can relax physically as well as mentally in his work, he is more able to perform to his best. Suppleness, therefore, is not targeted solely on the horse’s jaw. Suppleness occurs along the entirety of the horse’s spine when he becomes relaxed in his work. It is what enables the horse to bend through his body when riding on the circle, performing leg yield, half pass, shoulder-in, etc. Suppleness is what makes the horse’s body “malleable” for the rider to adjust and position to prepare the horse for more advance movements later. In the early stages of training, suppleness is encouraging bend form the horse’s poll to tail accordingly to the direction of movement and degree of bend to keep his body in line with his line of travel. This is considered “lateral” suppleness, since it is giving of side-to-side movement. Longitudinal suppleness is defined as the give over the horse’s back from hindquarters to jaw. It is longitudinal suppleness that is especially necessary to develop proper collection later.

3. Earning Acceptance of the Bit

Once the horse is moving forward willingly and is soft through his body, it will (usually) have become natural for him to accustom to the bit. The bit and reins should be nothing more than a guide, defining boundaries – NOT for pulling. The hands should not demand suppleness in the jaw or poll by constantly pulling backwards from the inside rein, or “see-sawing” in the vain hope of loosening the jaw. Overuse of the rein leads to stiffening, hollowing the back, and going behind the bit. It is a rider’s fingers that do the asking for developing acceptance which is as simple as the horse softening the jaw against the rider’s hand. Forcing the head and neck into a “frame” is counter-productive at this stage, since it will restrict movement in his shoulders and therefore block his self-carriage and prevent proper engagement. If the horse softens to the hand when his rider gently rolls his fingers to massage his gum via the rein, that is enough! He understands it, so relax the hand to a soft, steady contact and move on.

Only when the jaw tenses against the hand should subtle massage be done to soften him once more. It is important to give right away when the horse softens. Too much hand for a willing horse will cause him to come behind the vertical and behind the bit, which is a hard habit to break and will rob him of his movement.

4. Straightness

Developing correct straightness is reliant on suppleness. This is where lateral (side to side) suppleness is increasingly important. It is not rigidity through the spine to keep the horse’s body perfectly straight; it is his body bending in the right ways for the movement he is performing, the track he is traveling on and the direction he is moving in. But it is not as complicated as it sounds. When he is supple in his body and accepting of the rider’s aids, he will move through the path of least resistance (away from the leg, with the seat, and channeled through the hand).

If the horse’s body begins to stiffen as he learns new movements, it is important to bring him back into a basic exercise (such as 15 metre circle) to re-encourage softness and relaxation. Here, you can redevelop the suppleness in the body and peace of mind, and try again. Each time you confront negative tension or resistance, find a way to encourage suppleness. When his body is relaxed, the movement will be easier and closer to being correct. It becomes increasingly challenging for your horse, since each step is one increment more “packaged.”

5. Developing Engagement & Impulsion

As mentioned earlier, engagement is partly identified when the horse’s hindquarter’s are stepping under the horse as seen when “tracking up.” Impulsion, however, is a step beyond that: it is when the horse is taking weight with each step on his hindquarters, working over his back and is therefore able to lighten his forehand. (This is partly why using too much hand to create a frame is detrimental. It blocks the shoulders which drops the horse’s back, and in turn, disengages the hind end.)

Impulsion is where power comes from, and it is up to the rider to only ask for as much power as s/he can handle. Too much impulsion tends to “over-collect” the horse onto his hind end and reduces his “forward.” Because of the strength required, it can also cause irregularities in the rhythm (and clearly shows any imbalances in the horse’s musculature).

The best ways to maximize impulsion is to do simple exercises (after warming up) that mobilize the forehand and require the horse to take weight on his hindquarters. Downward transitions into walk pirouettes back into upward transitions are helpful. Transitions between the gaits are excellent for refining “listening” skills and exercising longitudinal suppleness. Also, transition from canter or trot to walk for half a step then push off into trot/canter again is a good way to work the muscles of the hind end as long as he is performing the transitions correctly.

A good rider knows how much his horse is ready for, and knows when enough is enough.

equine-Wellenbewegung-pferd

6. Collection

Words cannot easily describe the sensation of true collection. But it is when the horse is eager and intent off the rider’s legs and seat and channeled through soft hands. His body is packaged longitudinally and his hindquarters are dominantly weight-bearing in movement. His back is rounded upwards and the neck arched upwards and forward. The shoulders are raised via the supporting muscles deep within the chest of the horse which also serve to raise his ribcage. The poll should be the highest point and the nose should be slightly in front of the vertical. Tempo tends to slow down between the early stages of learning “forward” through collection as it allows the horse more time to reach with his hind end and take weight on his hind legs. The slower rhythm also lends to greater punctuation with each step and, to ride it, it feels as though each step is an articulate, precise movement. There will be much greater tension through the body in collection, but a degree of it is required for the horse to carry himself in such a manner.

It is important for riders to have a hand that gives so that the horse’s neck can still stretch slightly forward, allowing the shoulders of the horse the liberty to swing forwards and upwards. Blocking the neck, or trying to hold it into a frame, again, blocks the shoulders and that true collection will be lost. At this stage, the rider should be able to guide and control the horse with seat, legs and body. The hands are merely there in presence, not so much for active purpose.

To look at the scale in such terms can be intimidating, but it is possible! Understand what it takes to achieve collection, and ride through each stage believing it and trusting that belief. Patience is important, and respecting your horse’s learning rate, as well as psychological, emotional and physical development are of utmost importance to prevent souring or pain. The training scale has been developed in terms to entrench the importance of the progression. It is for the betterment of the horses that time be taken to ensure the horse’s ability to keep up. With strong basics, further development is possible and the sky is the limit.

(c) Sheri Spencer.

Please contact the author to obtain written consent for use or duplication of any kind.

A look at the Dressage Training Scale
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