When you first heard the term “training scale”, did you think it was the place you weigh yourself before and after a workout at the gym? Perhaps you imagine it as the rough, calloused skin that players of racket sports develop on their racket hands. Is the title of this article the first time you have ever heard of the dressage training scale? If so, don’t be embarrassed. You are not alone.

“The training scale is the progressive system with which riders and trainers correctly develop a horse from training level to grand prix,” says Cara Whitham, the only FEI judge in the world who holds Olympicdesignation for both dressage and eventing. If that brief description sounds too high falutin’ for those of you who aspire to reach no further than third level or a nice clear 1.1 meter show jumping round, read on.

As sophisticated as it appears with its cut-and-dried pyramid shape, the training scale is at the core of all good training, in any discipline. Even the word “collection” at the very top is not reserved just for grand prix dressage horses. The training scale is also not the series of sequential, unrelated steps the pyramid seems to suggest. A better image for the training scale might be a tree, where the roots are essential to feed the entire plant as it grows upward. If those roots die, the whole tree will, too.

Riding is a sport that is not learned in the classroom, and there is no required reading along the way. The training scale is represented in some form in most writings on classical dressage; it even has its own section in Wikipedia’s dressage entry. But riders often fail to be formally to the training scale, even though they may be practising it in their lessons or training without fully realizing it.

It ain’t rocket science

You see, the training scale isn’t rocket science. It’s a combination of what you already know and what the masters of long ago once sat down and defined on paper. For Joni Lynn Peters, Canada’s only Level III coach in both dressage and eventing, introducing the training scale to her students is an important part of their education. “For me as a coach, the training scale for the horse can only be successful if the rider is educated. A good seat and correct, consistent aids are important, but an understanding of the training scale is also important. You cannot produce the results otherwise.”

Whitham, who learned to ride in her native England, says she did not have a true understanding of the training scale until she moved to Canada as an adult. “In England I was being instructed without really understanding the foundation of what I was doing, though I had excellent instruction. In England, like in Germany, you have to ride well on the flat before you are allowed to jump. But I didn’t really understand the basics of it.” Whitham’s first introduction to how the levels of the training scale apply to the development of a horse was through six-time Canadian Olympian Christilot Boylen. Opportunities to learn from other masters like Willi Schultheis, Johann Hinnemann and Reiner Klimke further cemented Whitham’s appreciation for the training scale.

Peters came into contact with the training scale as she came up through the levels of Pony Club, and from former Canadian Three-Day Eventing Team coach Michael Herbert, but she says her real understanding of the training scale’s significance took place in the saddle. “Through my career I’ve developed most of my own horses from a very basic level. As soon as I started getting horses to the lower levels of collection I began to really feel the importance of the training scale.”

Defining the scale

Descriptions and explanations of the training scale abound, but dictionary definitions can be a bit dry on the palate. They can also be incomplete, especially when you are talking theory about an activity that involves such an intimate physical relationship with an animal. There is also inconsistency in the way the training scale is portrayed. The bottom block on the pyramid is always rhythm, but some diagrams have “suppleness” on the next layer while others have “relaxation”. For Whitham, there is no question that “suppleness” is the correct way to look at the second block. “Relaxation is related to the first step, rhythm. Without proper mental and physical relaxation, a horse will not settle down and find his correct rhythm.”

Peters says confusion is sometimes created by the fact that so many skilled dressage trainers are not native English speakers who use terms like “rhythm” and “tempo” in ways that blur the distinction between the two. “Rhythm has nothing to with speed,” she says. “Rhythm is the beat of a footfall like the beat of a drum. We can have a good fast or slow rhythm.” The rate of rhythm, which is tempo, is going to vary according to the physiology and level of training for each horse. What is perhaps most important to understand about rhythm, which can take place only within relaxation, is that it never diminishes in importance throughout the horse’s career, whether that career culminates in a grand prix dressage test or a good hunter round.

Suppleness, the level that both Peters and Whitham agree is the correct term for the second block, arises directly out of the successful achievement of rhythm, but it also gives back to the block beneath it. “While we are working on the first step, we are also improving suppleness,” says Peters. “In order to improve rhythm we are going to change gaits and speeds, which works on longitudinal suppleness at the same time.” The other type of suppleness, called lateral, is “the even bending of the horse to the right and left,” says Whitham. She stresses that the key word is “even”, which means the goal is to develop a degree of flexibility on both sides of the horse’s body.

When you look at the next block on the training scale, contact, it becomes even clearer how the individual levels are as inseparable as the knitted strands of wool in a sweater. It is also completely dependent on the preservation of the two previous steps. ‘As you are working your horse through into contact, the moment you begin to lose suppleness or rhythm you must take a step back and re-achieve them before you go forward,’ says Whitham. “This is the most difficult, and riders may call boring, part of the horse’s development – and unfortunately, the most ignored.”

Most people associate contact, the relationship between the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hand, with having the horse in a frame. “I like to use the term “outline”, rather than “frame”,” says Whitham. “Frame to me is set, while outline is flexible and can change.” There are several visible signs when the horse has good contact: “The horse’s back is raised and swinging, his hind legs are carrying, and his poll is the highest point. The jaw is relaxed so that his nose has a hint of being in front of the vertical,” says Whitham. We are already halfway up the training scale, but Whitham says that as a judge she expects to see the presence of all three of the first blocks already at training level. “Any dressage test must show the first three steps. At training level we expect to see acceptance of the bit, as opposed to being “on the bit”, but lateral and longitudinal balance requires acceptance of contact with the bit.”

Impulsion, the fourth step on the training scale, is a word much bandiedabout in dressage. “Needs more impulsion” is one of the most commonly made comments on dressage tests.Peters defines impulsion as “contained energy. I may diverge a little from whatothers would say, but if I were asked if we can have impulsion at the halt, I would say that we can. My concept of impulsion includes the ability to move forward lightly from the halt.” The image of a horse responding to invisible aids from a stationary position to a forward, uphill trot certainly captures the idea of what it means for a horse to have impulsion.

For Whitham, impulsion represents a quality that is trained into the horse through the correct progression up the training scale. “A horse is born with a natural impulsion – some have more than others – but when we talk about impulsion in the training scale, it is more manmade than natural in the horse. It can be gained only if the first three steps have been developed.”

Probably the most perplexing level of the training scale, at least in terms of its position, is straightness, up there on the second-highest tier. Aren’t horses already supposed be going in straight lines right from their first months under saddle? ‘People may question why a horse is not straight from the minute he hits the ground at birth,’ says Whitham. “But horses are naturally crooked. Straightening them is the job of the rider.” The term “straightness” is not so much what the word suggests, but the even lateral suppleness on both sides of the horse that allow him to be straight.

When she gives clinics, Peters encounters problems that have arisen out of a misconception of what straightness means. “People sometimes don’t understand or follow the training scale and work on straightness before the other steps by overcorrecting and riding too much on the hand, which creates huge gaps in the training. We need to be able to bend the horse in order to make him straight.”

The final little triangle on top of the training scale seems to represent the ultimate achievement in the training of a grand prix dressage horse, but collection is more humble than its elevated position suggests. The entire training scale is not a representation of the progression from basic to grand prix levels, but a base that can be found in any horse correctly developed to the beginning levels of collection. “In modernday eventing tests, a degree of collection is required,” says Whitham. “The most difficult eventing test could be compared to the highest third level test.”

As Peters points out, the word “collection” first appears at second level, “but the collection of a second level horse is very different to that of a prix St. Georges or grand prix horse.” Even a young horse can exhibit brief glimpses of collection from time to time. “A little bit of positioning of the shoulder to the inside will cause the horse to transfer the weight onto his hindquarters,” says Peters, “but we would expect a young horse to maintain it only for a few steps at a time.” A horse that can show collection, whether it’s a walk-canter transition or a canter pirouette, is a horse whose education includes the entire training scale, with not a single missing block. Peters says that with all her students who are riding beyond the very lowest levels, she tells them that every ride begins with working on the first three steps of the training scale. “That’s what our warm-up comprises. Our work begins as we begin to go through the top three.”

The next time you take your horse for a lesson or for a school in the ring at home, think about the six steps of the training scale. You just might discover that you knew more about it than you realized.