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The Dressage Training Scale
The dressage training scale is arranged in a pyramid fashion, with “rhythm and regularity” at the bottom of the pyramid and “collection” at the top. The training scale is used as a guide for the training of the dressage horse (or any horse, for that matter). ‘Dressage’ is French for Training.
Despite its appearance, the training scale is not meant to be a rigid format. Instead, each level is built on as the horse progresses in his training: so a Grand Prix horse would work on the refinement of the bottom levels of the pyramid, instead of focusing on only the highest level: “collection.” The levels are also interconnected.
For example, a crooked horse is unable to develop impulsion, and a horse that is not relaxed will be less likely to travel with a rhythmic gait. However, this training scale as presented below is a translation from the German to the English. As such, it is possibly not as accurate as it could be. It has been suggested, for example, that Losgelassenheit might be more accurately translated as "Suppleness."
Rhythm and Regularity (Takt)
Rhythm, gait, tempo, and regularity should be the same on straight and bending lines, through lateral work, and through transitions. Rhythm refers to the sequence of the footfalls, which should only include the pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. The regularity, or purity, of the gait includes the evenness and levelness of the stride. Once a rider can obtain pure gaits, or can avoid irregularity, the combination may be fit to do a more difficult exercise. Even in the very difficult piaffe there is still regularity: the horse "trots on the spot" in place, raising the front and hind legs in rhythm.
The second level of the pyramid is relaxation (looseness). Signs of looseness in the horse may be seen by an even stride that is swinging through the back and causing the tail to swing like a pendulum, looseness at the poll, a soft chewing of the bit, and a relaxed blowing through the nose. The horse makes smooth transitions, is easy to position from side to side, and willingly reaches down into the contact as the reins are lengthened.
Contact—the third level of the pyramid—is the result of the horse’s pushing power, and should never be achieved by the pulling of the rider’s hands. The rider drives the horse into soft hands that allow the horse to come up into the bridle, and should always follow the natural motion of the animal’s head. The horse should have equal contact in both reins.
The pushing power (thrust) of the horse is called "impulsion," and is the fourth level of the training pyramid. Impulsion is created by storing the energy of engagement (the forward reaching of the hind legs under the body).
Proper impulsion is achieved by means of:
· Correct driving aids of the rider
· Relaxation of the horse
· Throughness (Durchlässigkeit): the flow of energy through the horse from front to back and back to front. The musculature of the horse is connected, supple, elastic, and unblocked, and the rider’s aids go freely through the horse.
Impulsion can occur at the walk, trot and canter. It is highly important to establish good, forward movement and impulsion at the walk, as achieving desirable form in the trot and canter relies heavily on the transition from a good, supple, forward walk.
Impulsion not only encourages correct muscle and joint use, but also engages the mind of the horse, focusing it on the rider and, particularly at the walk and trot, allowing for relaxation and dissipation of nervous energy.
A horse is straight when his hind legs follow the path of his front legs, on both straight lines and on bending lines, and his body is parallel to the line of travel. Straightness causes the horse to channel his impulsion directly toward his center of balance, and allows the rider’s hand aids to have a connection to the hind end. Working in an arena can be tricky: the horse moving along the sidewall will respond to the sidewall and bring the shoulder 'out' (the inside front hoof will be nearer to the sidewall than the inside hindhoof).
At the apex of the training scale stands collection. It may refer to collected gaits: they can be used occasionally to supplement less vigorous work. It involves difficult movements (such as flying changes) in more advanced horses. Collection requires greater muscular strength, so must be advanced upon slowly. When in a collected gait, the stride length should shorten, and the stride should increase in energy and activity.
When a horse collects, he naturally takes more of his weight onto his hindquarters. Collection is natural for horses and is often seen during play in the meadow. A collected horse is able to move more freely. The joints of the hind limbs have greater flexion, allowing the horse to lower his hindquarters, bring his hind legs further under his body, and lighten the forehand. In essence, collection is the horse's ability to move its centre of gravity more backward. This should be shown during each transition to a lower gait, even by a novice horse.