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Dressage Terminology: The Scales of Training

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

This training article is all about the basic fundamentals of dressage that we call the Scales of Training. I realise that i have spoken about these quite a lot and wanted to explain what the different scales are and how the system of training works.

Were going to go through what the scales of training are and how they work before we go a bit deeper into each scale and how they all link together.

  1. What are the scales of training?

  2. How do the scales work?

  3. Scale One: Rhythm

  4. Scale Two: Suppleness

  5. Scale Three: Contact

  6. Scale Four: Impulsion

  7. Scale Five: Straightness

  8. Scale Six: Collection

I want you to think of the scales of training almost like a path to a Grand Prix horse. There are two sides to training a Grand Prix horse: you need to teach them the movements but you also need to teach them how you want them to move. With both it is a journey, we dont get on a young horse and think "right i need you to ride a collected trot and then go and ride a half pass and then pop into canter and go and ride a line of one-time-changes". It doesnt work like that, its a process. But that doesnt mean we dont still have Grand Prix in mind its just we need to think of the steps that we need to take to get us to that stage where we have a horse that is able to do the movements and go in the way of going that we need for Grand Prix. The scales of training are those stepping stones, they are the steps that we will take to create a 'Grand Prix' way of going and a horse that is (at least physically) able to do the grand prix movements.

But, that doesn't mean the scales of training are just for riders aiming for Grand Prix. The judges will score your tests in relation to the scales of training as well as obviously the accuracy and presentation.

What are the scales of training?

There are 6 scales, think of them as 6 elements that make up a successfully trained horse. They are you 6 aims that, if you have each one, will mean that you have a fantastic way of going for the level you are at.

  1. Rhythm:

  2. Suppleness

  3. Contact

  4. Impulsion

  5. Straightness

  6. Collection

Well go through each one of these individually below but think of each of them as stepping stones. And you cant achieve one without having another.

How do the scales work?

Each scale needs to be achieved to some degree at each level but as you progress up the levels of dressage the degree to which you need each scale increases. For example, the amount of suppleness you need for Prelim is just enough to be able to do a straight line, 20m and a 15m circle and for the horse to be able to work over their back. But then as we get to medium they need to be able to do half passes, shoulder ins and travers but also be able to open and extend their back and compress their back. By the time they get to grand prix they need to be able to compress their body for Piaffe and open their body for extended as well as ride steeper half passes. And the same applies for all the scales, as you go through the levels it gets harder to maintain these 6 basic fundamentals as we ask more of our horses so we need a higher degree of rhythm, suppleness, contact and so on.

1. Rhythm

This is the one that most people argue about as some people say that you cant have a rhythm without having a contact and impulsion and a degree of suppleness so they think it should come later on. But, again, we need to think that what 'rhythm' means at Prelim is very different to what it means at Grand Prix. At Prelim, rhythm just means we want regular paces so a four beat walk, two beat trot and three beat canter and that this beat should remain the same so we shouldn't be seeing any unlevel or uneven steps. At prelim the horse is expected to maintain this same beat (or tempo) in a medium or free walk and a working trot and canter. In other words, they just need to maintain the same trot. But when collected, medium and extended paces get introduced the horse needs to be able to maintain that same tempo even though they may be covering more ground or less ground and keep the tempo in those transitions into and out of our different walks, trots or canters.

2. Suppleness

At the beginning when we look at suppleness at Prelim level we are just looking for the muscles to be relaxed, that they are being used correctly and that the muscles don't get tense and tight when the rider applies the aids. As we progress through we begin to want to see the muscles over their top line working (the top line are the muscles that run from the hind legs, over the quarter and loins up the whither and all the way up to the poll. This is why we see the free walk and the trot stretch come into the tests at Prelim and Novice level so the judge can see if the horse is truly relaxed and using those top line muscles.

We then start to look at a horses 'lateral' and 'longitudinal' suppleness. The lateral suppleness is simply the horses ability to bend their body left and right for our leg yields. shoulder ins, travers, half passes and so on. And then the longitudinal suppleness is the horses ability to extend and compress their body which we need for the medium and extended paces as well as the collected and pirouettes, piaffe and passage. Again, as we go through the levels we need the horses to have more longitudinal and lateral suppleness to complete the movements as well as still have those muscles free from resistance.

3. Contact

When we talk about the contact its really important to mention that the contact should not be created from the rider pulling back on the horses mouth to create the pressure but instead its supposed to be the rider using their legs to push the horse into the contact, its going to mean the horse brings their hindlegs more underneath them and pushes through those top line muscles that we spoke about before; over the back neck, through the poll and out the front end; its then that energy that the rider feels and holds onto. For this we know we need a certain level of suppleness for our horses to be able to have a good contact.

When we have this kind of contact it should feel light, soft and elastic almost like the horse is lightly pulling your hand forward. When this happens, we have what we call a 'connection'; almost imagine it like a box, you use your leg to push the horse forward meaning you have control over the back end, and the light contact means you have control over the front end. It then feels like your horse is in a bubble, working underneath you and not falling out the front end and leaning on the forehand and not falling out the back end with the hind legs trailing. This 'connection' completely changes a horses paces, because they start to become more rhythmical, more balanced and able to cover ground and

As we progress through the levels, we start to expect the horse to be in self carriage, all this means is that the horse is able to balance themselves off the hindleg and doesn't need to rely on the rider to hold them up. This is why we see the give and retakes in tests so the judge can see if the horse is able to balance themselves or if they are leaning on the riders hand. As we go up through the levels, we start to ask the horse for more collection which requires them to put more weight onto their hindlegs. This means they then have more weight on the hindleg which requires them to have to push more to maintain that contact, when we come to the piaffe and passage and canter pirouette work the strength needed from the hindlegs is even greater because even more weight is put onto those hindlegs requiring even more energy to be able to push forward.

4. Impulsion

Think of impulsion as the power or energy. It is created in the horses hind end which should push and propel the horse forward. It is this energy that goes through the horses body to create a secure elastic contact and this contact is the thing that we use to stop the energy falling out the front end and the horse getting faster and faster. Without the contact we would never be able to create enough energy because all that energy would just fall out that front door with our horses racing around everywhere.

At Prelim, we, as the rider, need to have the ability to be able to turn the energy on and off for our transitions. At Novice and Elementary we then need more control to not only turn the energy on and off but also turn the energy up or down for the medium and extended paces. It isn't just a case of how much energy or activity we create in the hindlegs but where that energy goes. We always need that energy to be pushing forward into the contact otherwise the horses energy gets stuck underneath the rider resulting in paces that look like they don't travel anywhere or cover any ground.

The ultimate aim for any rider when it comes to impulsion is to be able to ask for more and more energy and activity whilst still being able to control the energy as well as where that energy goes. The more controlled energy we can create the more athletic and able our horses will be. But it cannot be at the expensive of the relaxation, suppleness and the rest of our scales so it is a fine line. We've said already that as we go through the levels we ask our horses to carry more and more weight on their hindlegs and this requires more and more energy to be able to push off of them. This means that as we progress through the levels our horses need to get stronger in the hind end.

5. Straightness

Straightness is the first thing we will get judged on in every dressage test with that first centre line. When we think of straightness we think about the horses back end following the same line as the front end; those hind legs should follow the tracks of the front legs. And this applies to both a straight line and a circle. But to have a straight horse we need that connection that we spoke about where we need control over the hindlegs to make sure they are pushing forward (without this the horse ends up pushing sideways through the quarters) and a consistent even contact (without this the horse ends up falling out or in through a shoulder).

Most riders tend to favour a side and this can result in crookedness and, as we always say, a crooked rider makes a crooked horse. A crooked rider might sit more to one side, might lean one way or might have a stronger contact in one rein than the other. All of these will mean that the horse needs to compensate for this otherwise they wont be able to balance themselves. This compensation generally will be that falling in or out in the shoulder or pushing in or out with their hind end. In this case it is very important to make sure we as the riders are straight first before we look at our horses.

When we look at how much straightness we need as we go through the levels, it is similar to what we said about the impulsion and contact (obviously because we know our straightness is created by a good level of impulsion and a secure even contact). As we start to ask our horses to take more weight behind it requires our horse to use more energy to keep pushing themselves forward into the contact. What quite often happens is that the energy gets stuck underneath the rider so it doesn't keep pushing forward through to the bit. This then results in the horse not being connected and the rider then not having that control over that back and front end in that little bubble meaning the horse is more freely able to move their body around how they want to.

Not only that but as we progress through the levels, we expect our horses to be more supple so our horses end up with a greater ability to be able to move their hindquarters or shoulders independent of the rest of their body. This both makes it harder and easier to maintain a straight horse. The horse finds it easier to move their body and easier to not be straight but the rider should be better able to move those shoulders and hindquarters around so should find it easier to fix.

6. Collection

Collection is just the amount of weight that the horse holds on his hindlegs. As we progress through we aim to get our horses progressively taking more and more weight onto their hind end. A horse needs to be able to be relaxed first, able to push from the hind end into an even contact over a soft and supple back before they are able to ride in any form of collection.

When we start in dressage at Prelim we see the horses moves relatively horizontally along the ground, the paces are quite flat with the horses generally more on the forehand. When we get to novice, whilst we are not expected to ride collected paces we see the start to develop the collection, asking the horse to take more weight behind even just for a few strides on a 10m circle or a transition to halt or the transition from medium to working trot for example. By the time we get to Grand Prix the majority of the horses weight is on the hindlegs to the point where they are able to trot on the spot for the piaffe and sit and bring their shoulder around their hindlegs for a pirouette.

There's always a point with collection that happens normally around the Prelim/Novice time where the rider feels like the medium trot strides are just their horse running faster and they feel like they have to really pull their horse around a small circle and the transitions from trot to halt feel like youre trying to stop a steam train. This is the point where you need to start thinking about that collection because this will just be where the horse is carrying their weight on their forehand and trying to do movements that need him to sit on his hindquarters at least a little to be able to do the movement properly. It takes time for the horse to be able to get stronger in the hind end so they are able to carry more weight behind.

So i hope I've made it clear that when it comes to the Scales of Training, you need to almost imagine you need to progress through each scale from 1-6 each time you complete a level in dressage and then when you go up a level you need to go back through the scales again but this time a higher degree of rhythm suppleness and so on is needed. Working like this will help you to think about what you actually need from your horse for each level and will also really help you to know when it is time to progress up a level too.

Its really important to know that some of the scales your horse might find easy and some they may find more difficult. Every horse and rider is different and its also okay if you feel you need to jump between the scales. For example, if you struggle with your horse taking the contact you might find it is because your horse isn't pushing forward from the hindleg. In this case you would work on the impulsion (which is scale number 4) before going back and looking at the contact (which is scale 3).

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