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The Scales of Training are a system of six points – or building blocks – that are used by trainers and riders in the schooling of a horse. In this article, I would like to explain in more detail what the Scales of Training are and why it is important to follow them.
I often feel that riders lack a long-term plan of how to school their horse. Pupils might have a lesson because they want to work on their position, or learn how to get their horse in a better outline or simply master exercises required in an elementary dressage test. I find that when people lack the theoretical knowledge of riding, they will listen to the instructor's commands without knowing what it is he or she wants to achieve. Riders can waste a lot of time listening to advice that they don’t really understand or, worst case scenario, can acquire bad habits without knowing it.
I do feel that it is important to teach riders to think and become self-sufficient. A more advanced rider has to learn not only HOW to ride an exercise, but they also need to know WHY these exercises are ridden and how to teach them to a horse. They need to learn how to train a horse so that it’s nice to ride, because it listens to the rider's aids. A horse needs to be willing, supple and safe. It needs ‘throughness’. The Scales of Training explain how to get to this throughness.
There are three phases of development that the horse has to go through, to become “well schooled”. This article is about the theory behind these phases, which should be learnt and used by every instructor, trainer, judge and rider who wants to develop their horse. The Scales of Training are also used in the process of judging a dressage test.
The main goal is throughness
The schooling of a horse can be divided into 3 phases. These phases all complement each other, but don’t necessarily have to be completed in any specific order. The 3 phases are divided into 6 points, which are also dependent on each other, but these too can overlap and are interchangeable. The main goal of the Scales of Training is to achieve throughness, which results in harmony between horse and rider and promotes a healthy horse.
The more each point is accomplished, the more throughness we get. Every dressage horse should achieve this, but also show jumpers or even “happy hackers” should go through this systematic training. Schooling a horse according to the Scales of Training will help to strengthen and supple it, so that it can fulfill the tasks we ask it to do, without getting injured. Every shortcut in schooling can cause big problems. Pulling the horse’s head down into an outline will make the horse tense in his back and he will lose the regularity of his gaits. Often he will open the mouth to avoid contact. He will tilt his head or go behind the bit to avoid the annoying hand of the rider. The result will be an unhappy horse with a sore back and mouth.
The term ‘rhythm’ refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait: They should cover equal distances and also be of equal duration.
We have to keep a good rhythm, not only on straight lines but also in all transitions and in all turns. No exercise can be good if there are problems with the rhythm.
The walk is a four-beat pace. The legs move; offside hind, off side front, near side hind, near side front. You can see the four beats when looking at the horse from the side. When moving, the front and hind leg form a “V” for a short moment, they must not be parallel – that would be a serious problem. Another mistake that can happen when the rider doesn’t push forward evenly or the horse is stiff to one side, is that the hind legs make long, uneven steps.
In the walk we differ between:
The walk can be improved by riding over poles or by riding lateral movements. Training the walk is often neglected, despite the fact that it is very difficult to ride it well enough to get a good score in a dressage test.
The trot is a two-beat pace of alternate diagonal legs (left fore and right hind leg and vice versa) separated by a moment of suspension. This moment of suspension gets longer when the horse is more advanced in its schooling, because the horse will be stronger and more balanced. He will then push upwards, not just forwards. Uneven, long or high steps in trot will indicate loss of rhythm.
In the trot we have:
The canter is a three-beat pace where, in canter to the right, for example, the footfall is as follows: left hind, left diagonal (simultaneously left fore and right hind), right fore, followed by a moment of suspension with all four feet in the air before the next stride begins. We can have left or right canter. The following canters are recognized: working canter, lengthening of strides, collected canter, medium canter and extended canter.
The rider can only influence a relaxed horse and only a relaxed horse is able to understand his rider. The relaxation of a horse has to be felt, it is impossible to define it exactly. But there are signs of a relaxed horse we can look out for:
The horse needs to look mentally calm and content. The rider is able to sit and use his/her aids.
And how does a tense horse look? Eyes look scared, nostrils blown up, tense neck muscles, the neck carried unnaturally high. The horses back muscles are tense, the rider cannot sit to the trot. The tail is carried away from the body, sometimes crooked or restlessly spun. The paces lose their secure rhythm, the horse starts to hurry or gets lazy.
Correct suppling has to be the start of each session. We have to always check if our horse is relaxed. Which suppling exercises to choose, or how long to ride them for, depends on how well our horse is schooled. Most exercises included in a novice test are suppling: Medium walk without any contact and then on a long rein, working trot (rising), transitions and changes of rein, riding on bend lines, working canter, leg yielding and letting the horse stretch.
Contact is a light, even, elastic connection between the rider’s hand and the horse's mouth. It’s important that this is not forced by the rider, but sought out by the horse. A beginner might find it hard to understand that it is easier to get a horse on your aids by giving instead of pulling. When the contact is right, the horse is on the bit. The poll is the highest point and the line from nose to forehead is slightly in front of the vertical.
When using too much hand, the following mistakes can happen:
When the horse has enough balance, he can more actively push forward with his hind legs. Forward pushing aids will – on a relaxed horse, in a good contact – help the horse push off more with his hind legs and increase the time spent off the ground.
Impulsion exists only in trot and canter. At no point in the walk is the horse off the ground with all four feet, that’s why we cannot talk about impulsion in this pace.
Impulsion is the result of schooling a horse, where we add suppleness, activity from behind and throughness to the natural paces of the horse.
If the horse rushes too much, it will quicken its steps, so the time in the air will be shortened. When going fast, a horse can still be in a good rhythm, but impulsion will be limited.
A horse is straight when he steps with his hind legs into the same track as the front legs. Straightness is necessary to equally distribute the horse’s weight on both sides of its body. We can achieve straightness by thoroughly exercising both sides of the horse. Most horses are born crooked, that’s why we talk about natural crookedness. This crookedness causes uneven weight distribution on the horse’s legs and will also be felt in the contact or rider’s position.
On top of that, natural crookedness is also caused by the fact that the horse is narrower in the front than the back. Most horses will step with their right hind foot to the right of the track of the front foot. The right hind leg has to then push more and the left hind leg has to bend more. As a result, the front fore will be put under more strain.
The way a horse is built makes it carry a bigger part of its weight with its front legs. The rider sits just behind the shoulders so increases the weight on the forehand. For the long-term health of the horse it is necessary for the horse to learn to carry more weight with its hind legs. Some degree of collection is therefore good for any horse.
In collection, the hind legs take more weight, whilst at the same time the hip, knee and hock joints have to bend more and step further under the point of gravity (core) of the horse. The front legs have less to carry and their movement can be freed up. The rider and spectator feel as if the horse moves up hill.
Phase of understanding and confidence
The first goal is a secure rhythm. We choose a basic pace, one which suits the horse. We have to make sure that we keep pushing forward and have a steady and supple hand. Misunderstood forward riding can lead to rushing and spoils the rhythm. “Forward” doesn’t mean speed, but activating the hind legs of the horse.
When schooling a horse, we have to never forget about suppleness. If there is ever a problem, we have to return to suppling exercises.
In this phase we ride with a light contact, we must not try to get the horse on the bit by only using rein aids. If we keep pushing forward and have a perceptive hand, the horse will seek the bit and contact itself.
Development of pushing power
In this phase, the horse develops more activity in the hind quarters and starts pushing the hind legs more under its center of gravity (core). Only now will it be able to lift its back more and loosen the poll, so the line from forehead to nose of the horse’s head comes closer to the vertical. If we try to get our horse on the bit without thinking about these connections, we could block the activity of the hind legs and back. A correct contact has to include a supple back and elastic movement of the horse.
To develop the correct muscles, we can let the horse stretch on a long rein and change the rein often. We should never shorten the neck of the horse, that just leads to balance problems.
To create more impulsion, it helps to ride transitions. These should be fluent and when shortening the rein, the horse still needs to be able to move its hind legs forward.
The development of pushing power is important for show jumpers too. A steady and elastic contact is necessary to be able to ride a horse with control, especially in turns and distances. The rider pushes the horse's hind legs more underneath its center of gravity and only then can a good canter develop, which in turn improves the jump.
Development of carrying power
Exercises for improving the straightness of the horse are riding on bend lines, leg yielding, and further on all exercises that improve the horse's obedience to leg aids, for example shoulder in.
All exercises that make the horses hind legs take more weight are collecting exercises. Correct half halts are very important here. We can improve the carrying power of the horse by increasing the forward push and not letting the energy out in front with our hands. A rein aid that effects the hind legs “through” the back of the horse will increase carrying power.
We can talk about throughness when the horse goes equally on both reins, is supple and obedient, and reacts to the rider’s forward, sideways and holding aids. Throughness is an important characteristic of a well-schooled horse.
Balance is a prerequisite for harmony in riding. A horse has to learn to balance himself under the rider in every situation. Only then can he move supple, regular and with impulsion. The rider has to be relaxed and balanced too of course, so as not to disturb the horse's movement.
References: The Principles of Riding published by the German Equestrian Federation.
For further reading, see my article 'The Scales Of Training - For The Rider'
The author of this article, Mariana Broucher, is a BHS accredited coach who originally qualified as an instructor and judge in Germany and The Czech Republic. She is also a qualified Bowen practitioner and has over 20 years experience of teaching internationally. To find out more about her and her work, please visit her website, or read more of her informative articles via her Horsemart Author Page.