The dressage training scale is meant to serve as a guideline for training all horses from the beginning. It was created in Europe and has been the foundation of the German training system from its inception. It is set up in a pyramid format to help people easily understand the development of a horses’ training and encourage each level to be a building block for the next. The pyramid is made up of 6 levels of progression. Depending on the horses’ potential muscle and mental development they may move up the scale quickly or need more time than others.
The 6 levels of progression
Starting with the lowest part of the pyramid, we have what is called rhythm. Rhythm is the characteristic sequence of footfalls in a horses’ gait. This means a horse should have a four beat walk, a two beat trot, and a three beat canter. Rhythm comes with energy and tempo. Tempo is the speed of the footfalls. A horse’s rhythm should always stay the same within the gait while the tempo can increase or decrease. Many people think the next part of the pyramid, relaxation, and rhythm should be on the same level. A horse has to have some rhythm before he can achieve relaxation. Once he develops a clear gait, he will relax.
As we just briefly discussed, the next step on the pyramid is relaxation. Relaxation is achieved when the horse is swinging his back and working over his topline. The horse must be supple in the contact meaning the mouth is closed, but not rigid, his neck is relaxed and stretching outward to the bridle, and the ears are usually floppy and draped somewhat to the side of the horses head.
If a horse has an even rhythm and is relaxed the next part of the pyramid is connection or contact. Simply put this is the acceptance of the bit and aides. It means the horse is relaxed over his topline and willing to take the connection. It is often combined with the horse being “through” which is another term for connection. A through horse is connected in harmony with his rider, accepting of the bridle and reins, and responds to any aid the rider applies.
A horse that has achieved the basics of the training scale can move on to more advanced training with a little more ease. Level 4 on the training scale is impulsion, also known in German as schwung. It is when the horse is relaxed and supple enough to push to the contact with his hind legs. It is shown in every part of his gait from the hind to front as a kind of forward, lifting energy.
Level 5 on the pyramid is straightness. Many people think they can ‘cram and jam” a horse into a frame and with enough bodily strength create a somewhat straight horse. This isn’t so. The horse needs to have his front end in line with the hindquarters. When the rider is crooked, often the horse follows suit. For a horse to be truly straight they must employ the foundations of the training scale. A horse that is truly relaxed, in rhythm, and is pushing through from his hind end will naturally travel straighter than a horse that is being placed there by his rider. If he has achieved all of these points in his training then most riders will try to reach the top tier of the training scale, collection.
Collection in its simplest form is the combination of all the levels of the training scale. The horse is moving effortlessly with energy created from the hind end pushing forward, the neck is raised and the horse is lighter on its front end. It is increased self-carriage and engagement. It is seen at the highest levels of the sport of Dressage demonstrated in the piaffe and the canter pirouette.
It is important to note for a horse to be successful one should not ignore prior training to get to the highest levels. This creates “holes” in the horses’ education. For the horse to truly become well trained in this school all parts of the training pyramid have to work together harmoniously. From everyday warmup to schooling for a show, the pyramid should be used. If you and your horse remain faithful to the principles of basic training then you will achieve greater goals.
For more information check out the newest edition of the United States Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship: H-B to A levels. More in- depth information on the dressage training scale can be found in Chapter 3.