Dressage – Thoughts on the Training Scale

Although there has been plenty written about the Dressage Training Scale, I’d like to offer some thought on the “Why do we need a scale?” question and how creatively interpreting the sections can aid our training.

The most commonly used scale is the German Training Scale, shown in pictures and English + German terms to the left.

When we start development of the horse, we begin with rhythm, followed (to some extent or at the same time) with relaxation or suppleness.

It is useful to follow this progressive scale at the beginning since it advocates that we do not need to achieve contact right away. This is because we can upset the attempts by the horse to find stability and evenness in their strides by initiating too much contact. At this stage, less is more. The horse will need work on their horizontal (head to tail), lateral (side to side), and vertical (hoof to spine) stability to carry a rider well. At the later stages of the training scale, when these dimensions of balance are refined, this is referred to as “Straightness”.

The first and most important foundation to achieve is rhythm and relaxation.

Rhythm allows the horse to be even in the amount of energy that they transfer from each hind leg. As the horse begins to relax and supple, they will also reduce the amount of pushing with the hind legs, which is an important step in achieving balance.

Push must be translated into spring so that the hind legs are able to come more under the horse in order to balance while at a slower rhythm. The slower and more manoeuvrable horse will be able to shift their weight backwards to the center of mass (rather than on the forehand which requires speed to keep themselves from tipping over).

In my mind the training scale is more like a house. Not all of the middle section is absolutely required to be completed in order and may be completed as a set of exercises, but the foundation is always the first step, to which omission or improper attention will cause disintegration at the next stages.

The Training Scale – Middle Section

I have noticed that contact in some disciplines is of utmost importance, take dressage for example. However, you can train a very well balanced horse without any contact in the reins. In those cases the seat and body position become the aids to the horse. Therefore, we could interpret the “Contact” training phase as not applying only to the reins and bit, and with a more open interpretation to the training scale, be progressing in conjunction with impulsion and straightness.

Manolo Mendez is a highly skilled classical trainer who advocates using different speeds in the gait to develop the horse. This will improve both suppleness, which needs elasticity, and impulsion, which needs spring.

Although impulsion is defined as energy and thrust in the training scale diagram above, I use the word spring as it conveys a slightly more comprehensive imagery for envisioning a horse that is developing collection. The horse must go upwards in order to collect, and therefore the time for each hoof above the ground in suspension is lengthened. Thrust and energy in some cases can be misinterpreted for push. An anxious horse pushing into forward movement is an incorrect way to view impulsion.

Since the classical masters viewed impulsion as two steps below collection, this most certainly should not be confused with forward speed and push, which horses do not need a high level of skilled training in dressage to be able to sustain.

Nuno Oliviera says that “If your horse goes from walk to trot without changing the head and neck position, the walk had good impulsion.” This is useful to remember as the walk is a difficult gait to judge impulsion since it does not have the pronounced suspension of trot and canter.

Pushing into the movement of the gait instead of using a controlled and elastic thrust is also evident in the contact, showing either resistance or heaviness into the riders hand. This is most obvious when horses do not have body stability at the gait, and cannot maintain balance (straightness) without speed or leaning on the rider.

So, in my view those three middle sections of the training scale are interconnected whereby one can help achieve the other, but all must be at a refined level in order to develop a state of collection.