The training scale is a method with which to order your thoughts within the training process. It is a logical progression of how a horse is developed from untrained (feral) to fully trained (mostly civilized).
Gwyneth McPherson is an FEI rider with over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage. Her education began in the 1970s and was developed largely by Lendon Gray, Carol Lavell, and Michael Poulin. Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage, is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and the art of dressage, as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.
This article explores what the training scale is and how it — specifically the three base layers — fits within the process of developing horses in the right way.
Most riders who are involved in dressage have heard of the Training Scale, but not many know why it exists or how to use it. This article will hopefully shed some light on that.
The training scale is not a recent creation; the scale itself and the concepts within it have evolved with dressage training over the centuries. Of course, we must remember that dressage is only recently thought of as a sport, isolated and separate from all other riding. Historically, dressage simply was how you trained horses to do all riding. In actuality, that has never changed. An understanding of the training scale then helps all riders understand what they are doing and how to make their horses perform certain tasks and exercises. It also sheds light on why certain training methods are considered to be done in the right way, or “correct riding,” vs. other styles that may be considered negative or hard on horses.
Essentially, the basis of dressage training—not the sport, but the concept— is to produce an educated animal who carries his rider efficiently and (relatively) comfortably, with longevity as a working animal through being ridden in balance and with understanding of the horse’s body mechanics and psychology. The training scale takes these ideas and helps the rider put them into action.
Although the imagery used might have you believe otherwise, the training scale is not a ladder requiring achievement or completion of one layer before moving on to the next; you will never complete one level, never to touch on it again. Instead, it is an explanation of what needs to be achieved every day, in order to build upon it and create the next layer in the horse’s training. The term “enough” becomes very important in the understanding of how the training scale works. The achievement of each layer is not a final accomplishment, but a moment in which the horse and rider are able to do “enough” of each layer to produce a specific task or result.
Training cannot be successful without the rider understanding how the rider’s body interacts with the horse’s body and which of the horse’s physical abilities must be fostered to allow for the horse’s greater understanding of being ridden and therefore developed. This understanding is largely fostered within the first three layers of the scale. The upper half of the training scale deals with the refinement of good riding and the horse’s subsequent greater understanding of being ridden. Because an understanding of the lower half of the training scale is the basis for all good riding, regardless of your discipline, we will first focus on those layers in this article.
The bottom of the training scale is comprised of three layers, Rhythm, Suppleness, and Contact, which can also be described as “lower level’ dressage, but also just simply “good riding.” The upper half of the training scale, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection, is descriptive of “upper level” dressage and is more specialized to high level dressage training. The main purpose of the training scale is to clarify that the horse cannot develop any of the upper three layers, without being ridden consistently within the lower three layers. Every horse that has ever been ridden in all of history has had a challenge with being ridden within the bottom three layers of the training scale.
There are no exceptions to this fact. Every horse starts out under saddle having a problem with rhythm, suppleness, or contact. Possibly with repercussions within the other two layers. All horses need training to manage these issues and all horses will develop “undesirable” habits to make up for the problems they face within the layers of rhythm, suppleness, and contact. Examples include breaking from the canter (rhythm and/or suppleness), tripping excessively (rhythm, suppleness and/or contact), rearing (contact), excessive shying (contact), “laziness” or not going forward (rhythm but probably really suppleness).
As you may have inferred from the last paragraph, the bottom three layers of the training scale are completely interconnected and cannot be worked on individually. It is very much a circular process (also known as “The Circle of the Aids”). The horse must be enough in the right rhythm in order for the neck and back to be supple enough, that the rein connection (contact) is consistent enough, and not too heavy and not too light enough that the rhythm isn’t affected in a negative way. If the contact is too strong or too light, the horse will lose the necessary suppleness to stay in the correct rhythm. And if the horse becomes too stiff, the contact will become too strong or too light, and the horse will have trouble maintaining the gait he is supposed to stay in.
The reason the training scale is shaped like a pyramid is more to explain the importance of each layer than to imply that it is a ladder. Meaning that everything must be ridden in rhythm. If this is not achieved, nothing else can happen. But, riding in rhythm can only be achieved if there is enough suppleness for the contact to be good enough that the rhythm is clean and correct for the gait is it representing. Rhythm, suppleness, and contact are the mechanisms that work together to promote the horse’s balance under the rider while in motion and performing certain tasks. All horses, of every kind, must be ridden in the right rhythm, with the right amount of suppleness, and the right rein contact to be in the right balance to perform what is being asked of him. This is true of all riding. Whether you are cantering down a hill to a jump, in piaffe, riding a Western Pleasure lope, or a Paso Fino going down the sounding board. Each of these instances require the horse to be in a specific balance, assisted by the rider, through the maintenance of the rhythm, the amount of suppleness necessary to perform that task, and the contact that supports and connects the horse in that balance.
Interconnectedness of the bottom three layers being noted, let’s look at what each of those layers actually is.
When the horse’s back and neck are not too tight, stiff, or “locked” the horse will move in one of three gaits: walk (4 beats), trot (2 beats), or canter (3 beats). Explaining why these are the three rhythms in dressage training can actually be done by discussing gaits other than walk, trot, and canter. For instance, gaited horses have a hereditary tendency to “amble” which was desirable when people who didn’t ride for a living had to travel long distances on horseback. The amble was less jarring because the horses were more naturally inclined to hold the necks and backs still, and “shuffle” in a different rhythm because of it. All our modern-day gaited horses are descended from these “amblers.” All gaited horses must lock their back and neck enough to maintain their clean 4th gait. When they are ridden through, however, on-the-bit and supple, they walk, trot, and canter. This is why there is not a gaited horse division in dressage competitions. The rhythm is affected by suppleness and contact and therefore, when done to produce throughness, there are only 3 rhythms left.
You might consider why the gallop is not included in the appropriate rhythms, but galloping is basically just a modified canter. When a horse is sprinting at full speed, he must lose a degree of suppleness in his neck and back, which explains why gallop in not inherently part of dressage training, and how gallop exists separately from the gaited horse discussion.
So, at a minimum, a horse who is supple enough under saddle, will be in a contact that is consistent enough that he will show a 4 beat walk, a 2 beat trot and a 3 beat canter. He will also show a degree of energy and willingness to move freely in the direction of forward, or out the front, and his hind legs will swing underneath the rider’s weight (directly under where the back of the saddle is) in all three rhythms. IF he does not show these qualities (if he has a rhythm problem) this also means that he has a suppleness problem and/or a contact problem. Tempo (speed of footfall), forwardness (as a direction), and speed (velocity) all play a part in rhythm, but are distinctly separate concepts.
Most riders focus on bend in the neck as proof of suppleness and most riders prefer the “hollow” or “short” side (easy to bend toward) of the horse over the “strong” or “long” (hard to bend toward) side. Much like people, horses are better at doing things to one side than the other. There is much speculation as to what exactly causes this, but one explanation relates it to how a foal lies in its mother’s womb. The foal must curve either left or right to fit within the abdominal cavity of the mare and some believe that curve creates the strong and hollow sides of the horse (which is only important to us as riders, it never bothers the horse in his natural daily activities).
However, suppleness, in fact, is not defined by the horse’s ability to bend his neck equally well both ways. Instead, it can be defined in two ways. First, suppleness is the ability of the horse to PERFORM equally well in both directions, not FEEL the same to the rider, or even react identically to mirror image aids in each direction. To the knowledgeable eye, the horse (under a rider) must be able to do everything to the left and to the right with the same level of ability to be considered supple. In addition to that, suppleness can be defined as FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT while being ridden in contact and the desired gait (rhythm). This is visible in the horse’s ability to move all of his parts independently from one another, but within the same rhythm.
The rider has contact with the horse’s body through their hands, seat, and legs. The torso (back) of the rider influences this connection to the horse’s body through balance and control of the rider’s appendages. When the rider’s body loses contact with the horse’s body the hands, legs, and seat of the rider will bump and bounce outside of the horse’s rhythm. This creates a lack of meaningful aids and therefore a lack of understanding.
Every wiggle and bounce the rider creates against the horse’s rhythm requires the horse to interpret whether it was supposed to mean to do something or must just be ignored.
Contact also refers to the connection the rider feels in their hands through the reins from the horse’s hind legs, and whether it is manageable and creative or out of the rider’s control and disruptive. When the rider is bouncing out of the horse’s rhythm, pulling back on the horse’s mouth, and compressing and locking the neck of the animal, the rider is disrupting not just the contact but also the suppleness and rhythm.
Contact, in the correct sense, promotes balance and understanding between horse and rider, and freedom of movement. The horse cannot be supple when being ridden with the reins too tight or too loose. How much is too much? It depends on what is being asked of the horse and what the intended result is. The contact that is correct for extended walk is not at all the same as the contact required for clearing an oxer.
Understanding the definitions of each layer of the training scale and how those concepts influence one another is key to developing your horse in the right way. Effective training can only occur when there is a solid foundation of forward, through riding that’s been consciously developed with an eye towards, and understanding of, the training scale. Bear in mind that all training problems are ultimately problems with the bottom three layers of the training scale. Thus, taking the time to train your horse in the right way is paramount to not only your success in any discipline, but certainly if you’re looking to progress beyond that to the upper levels.
Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage. She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.
In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.
In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.
Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.