The last article discussed the importance of the three base layers of the training scale. This article builds on that, focusing on the top three layers — which do not stand alone or separate from the lower half and cannot exist without or disconnected from them.
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 further explores what the training scale is and how the top three layers work with the base layers to aid in the process of developing horses in the right way.
The second half, or the top three tiers of the Training Scale do not stand alone or separate from the lower half. However, while the first three tiers could be viewed apart from the top three, the top tiers cannot exist without or disconnected from rhythm, suppleness, and contact.
The lower half of the training scale is, in fact, “all good riding,” and necessary for all horses and riders to succeed in any given discipline. The upper half speaks more to upper level training. The reason these qualities live at the “top” part of the training scale is because they can only exist in the presence of the foundation below them. They cannot be worked on separately from that which is below them and they cannot even exist without the balance, suppleness, and communication that the lower parts create.
We do not just layer impulsion on top of rhythm, suppleness, and contact. Instead, it is interwoven within it. Additionally, impulsion is not one particular “dose” that is constant. It must be added and subtracted based on what is happening to the rhythm, suppleness, and contact underlying it. The same goes for straightness, and then collection (self-carriage) is a RESULT of all the other things happening consistently, in the right amounts, at the right times.
Although this interconnectedness may initially appear somewhat daunting to sort out, as you begin to understand how the pieces consistently work together and influence one another, you will gain greater insight into how to effectively manipulate each piece as well as when training is being done in the right way.
So let’s consider the top three tiers.
Impulsion (Horse power):
If you read the USDF dressage tests, you will see impulsion introduced into the tests at First Level through impulsion-building exercises– i.e. lengthenings. As impulsion grows through Second and Third Level, the test requirements are looking for increased engagement and uphill tendency, especially in the impulsion building exercises themselves—for example, the medium and extended gaits.
Impulsion is the horse’s ability and willingness to reach his hind leg under where the rider is sitting, carry the weight of his torso and rider (engage the hind-leg), and push his and the rider’s bodies forward (out the front) and up through the shoulders. Impulsion only exists in the correct rhythm of the gait, and with suppleness. Too much impulsion destroys the suppleness and the rhythm, and too little destroys the ability to collect (lift the shoulders and carry the weight of the rider).
Straightness (No, not like an arrow):
Certainly, there are moments and movements that, by necessity, must be ridden straight. But it is key to note that straightness does not mean perfectly lined up like an arrow. What straightness really means is that you have the rhythm, suppleness, contact, and impulsion to be able to ride your horse straight enough WHEN IT IS REQUIRED, in order to show the highest degrees of collection and impulsion the horse can attain at a specific level, and in a specific exercise. Straightness (like an arrow) cannot be sustained.
The exercises that require straightness are all types of lengthening in all 3 gaits, piaffe, passage, and one-tempis. Everything else is ridden in some larger or smaller degree of shoulder-fore after Training Level. The tests are written to ask the question “how straight can you ride each given moment/movement without losing your rhythm, suppleness, contact, and– eventually–impulsion.” If a rider tries to ride a horse too straight at the wrong times, the horse will do one or more of the following: become crooked, on the forehand, lose the rhythm, have the wrong contact, lose impulsion. These problems then create things like spooking, bucking, rearing, running away, stopping, pulling on or dropping the bit, breaking, etc.
So, there is no achievement of always riding straight (like an arrow) after a certain point. Straightness, like impulsion, is woven into the fabric of rhythm, suppleness, contact, and impulsion as needed in order to perform certain tasks without so much straightness— too straight at the wrong time, or too straight for too long – that it destroys any of the layers of the training scale below it.
Collection is the ability for the horse to carry more of his and his rider’s weight on his hind legs while increasing his ability to use his hind legs to spring/surge/push upward and forward through the shoulders and out the front by flexing the joints and creating greater “thrust” and balance. This can only occur as the result of the manipulation of all the other requirements that are listed before it. There is no one specific aid for collection. There is no one specific amount of collection that equals “attaining” this tier of the training scale. In actuality, the greatest degrees of collection are seen beyond Grand Prix (yes, there is a beyond Grand Prix). And collection, like impulsion and straightness, is never sustained consistently, or constantly.
The amount of collection that is required is based on the horse’s level of training and what exercise the horse must perform. There is no collection expected from a horse at Training or First level. It is starting to be noticeable at Second Level and is clearly evident at Third Level. However, the Third Level horse will not (and should not because he physically cannot) be required to perform in the same degree of collection as an Olympic Grand Prix horse.*
At this point it is completely appropriate to ask the question, why do we care about achieving collection? Why would we do all of this to a horse when (one might think) he would be happier to just plod around on his forehand and not have to put up with all this manipulation?
It has to do with what else we expect of the animal. All of this is irrelevant when we do not have a rider on a horse. The horse is perfectly capable of carrying himself around and doing what he wants to do. However, if we want a horse to be able to perform specific tasks or perform at high levels – all while carrying us – then we are asking him to be an athlete, and that requires manipulation.
In the case of riding, and especially in dressage-the-sport, but also any kind of jumping and many other activities we require of horses, we need them to be balanced and ready to perform the required tasks at any given moment. Think of any human athlete (figure skater, football player, wrestler, gymnast, tennis player, ballet dancer – just to name a few) and think about what they look like when they are in motion. They must stay in balance and be able to stop, start, jump, leap, run, and change direction at any given moment. To do this, they all start from a slightly crouched position, engaging their “hind-legs”, bending their hips, knees, and ankles which allows them to literally “spring into action.” The higher the level of athlete, the greater necessity for this ability and the greater the degree of it required. It is the same for the horse. This is ultimately the ‘why’ behind the goal of achieving collection and dressage itself: to enable the horse to better, or more athletically, do his job of carrying the rider.
Dressage training is meant to be a systematic approach to teaching horses what they need to be able to do while being ridden by a human. While riding and training in the right way requires the honing of many skills, learning the theory behind the skills is equally essential. Understanding the training scale then as a tool to order the rider’s thinking about how to approach the training, is a necessary part of the rider’s education. As with all tools, the basic purpose and application of the tool must be understood before you can try to use it. Whether you wish to participate in dressage-the-sport or simply ride and train in the right way, you must have a working knowledge of the training scale and be able to follow the principles it embodies to be successful.
* I will get into how the training scale is reflected in each level of US Dressage competition, along with what is generally considered to be the proper progression of training, whether you are competing or not, and how this is reflected in the competitive levels of dressage in another article.
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.