Training in the Right Way: The Training Scale as Seen Through the USEF Levels – Part I

This week’s article takes the importance of the training scale and looks at how the training scale aligns with, and is woven throughout, the competitive levels, as designated by USEF. Part I will focus specifically on training and first level.

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 how the training scale is seen (and used) within the USEF levels of competitive dressage.

Knowledge of the Training Scale is a necessary piece of training equipment for every rider. The upper half of it (Impulsion, Straightness, Collection) is specialized to dressage training, but the lower half (Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact) applies to all riding of all types.

Dressage-the-sport is not the same as dressage-the-training-system. However, it is meant to be the means by which dressage the training system is judged. In other words, the original intent of dressage-the-sport was to reward the horses and riders who showed proper progression through the training process and provide feedback to the riders who needed to improve their approach. Its purpose then was entirely educational and it was supposed to provide the means by which average people could determine who the top trainers were, and thereby learn from competitive results who to seek training from.

These days, however, much of dressage-the-sport is (albeit unintentionally) promoting the riders who have the fanciest moving, most talented for the sport dressage horses, and the result is that the training quality has become secondary in the scoring. To be clear, I am NOT saying that all our top scoring riders are bad trainers, or can’t ride. I am also not saying that all our judges are biased or do not know what they are looking at. What I am saying is that the waters have been muddied for the average observer because rider capability and the training process are extremely hard to separate from natural horse talent when scoring a dressage test.

How this is possible is really the topic for another article, but to summarize briefly, this has occurred not by intention, but because the quality of the horse’s natural talent for suppleness, impulsion, and collection can be great enough to cover for a certain amount of lack of skill by the rider and/or a lack of adherence to the training process. This might sound like a mildly positive situation but unfortunately there are ramifications as it does eventually cause physical and mental problems for these talented horses. Additionally, there are many more not-so-talented horses out there that will benefit greatly from good training and will be able to hold their own against the more talented ones because of it. But, like I said, that’s a different article. Here we will explore how the training scale fits into the competitive levels as designated by the United States Equestrian Federation.

Before we explore the specifics, there are a few important concepts to keep in mind. First, a horse that is ready to compete at any level is already training at at least one level above his competition level. Remember these are tests of the training. This means that the horse has already accomplished these skills and is using them to develop the next level. So, a horse that is ready to compete at Training Level is schooling leg yield, lengthenings, counter canter, and 10m and 15m circles. This proves that he is ready to “test out of Training Level.” In other words, being ready to compete at Training Level is NOT remotely the same as schooling Training Level.

Second, these “levels” are a device to organize how the training process (and the training scale) are to be followed, as written by the USEF (in this country). Other countries with competitive dressage have their own “ruling bodies” that manage how competitions are run and have their own names and ways of sequencing the levels of training. The process remains the same, however.

Lastly, the levels are intended to relate to age and the related developmental stages of the average horse. It is not necessary to be “perfectly on schedule,” because the developmental process remains the same regardless. This organization is very similar to how our school systems are developed. If you don’t know how to read and add and subtract (first grade), you cannot learn at the high school level as you simply do not have the tools to be successful. It’s the same for horses. If you are a horse and you did not learn the qualities tested in Training Level, you cannot do Third Level exercises. Training Level is the beginning era of the horse’s training.

So, let’s begin.

Training Level:

Westphalian stallion, G’Dur and GWYNETH MCPHERSON, 1987, competing at Training Level. Photo (c) Susan McPherson

The stated purpose (the overall directives that the judge is judging) at Training Level is “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.” (As published by USEF on 2019 Training Level tests).

When you apply those ideals to the bottom half of the Training Scale, it looks like this.

Rhythm = The horse can consistently maintain the forwardness and tempo of the working gaits, and a free walk, with fluid transitions within and between these gaits (which can only be performed if the horse is supple enough to do so and can maintain consistent contact with the bit.

Suppleness = The 20m circle provides a continuous mild curve to produce the beginning of suppleness in training (at this level of training, there is no lateral work yet). The horse can steer well-enough to maintain a 20m in a consistent rhythm and shows fluid transitions between walk and trot and between trot and canter (fluid transitions cannot be done without enough suppleness and in a consistent and productive contact).

Contact = There is enough connection to keep the head and neck in front of the horse’s body (not overly bent left or right and not really high or really low*). Steering is consistently possible enough to stay in the arena and follow a pattern. Transitions between gaits can be performed without loss of suppleness and rhythm.

*How we know where “not too high and not too low” is based on the “thrust  line.” The thrust line is where the bit needs to be in order for the horse to engage his back and abdominal muscles to “be round and over the back.” The thrust line is individual to each horse and is not the height of the neck at which the horse will be ridden forever, but is where he must be ridden (especially in the beginning of his training) to develop the muscular strength needed to eventually be able to show collection. This is one reason why upper-level horses are warmed up (and often cooled out) in a longer, lower frame. They are only brought “up” into collection after the neck, back, and abdominal muscles have been warmed up and suppled.

The thrust line can be gauged by the angle of the femur, between the pelvis and the tibia of the horse. It is a unique and individual measurement based on the individual horse’s anatomy. The bit must be at the same level as the thrust line for the horse to learn how to engage his neck, back and abdominal muscles to produce roundness and throughness. 

As discussed in previous articles about the Training Scale, rhythm, suppleness, and contact are completely interconnected and cannot be trained individually. This is illustrated by the repetition of each of these three concepts within the descriptions of each other. Also, you will note that the Training Scale is judged in all the movements of the test at Training Level. As we move up the levels, and the second half of the training scale come in to play, those concepts will be found more specifically in some exercises, and not as much in others. While the bottom half continues to be judged throughout all of the test movements.

At this point a word on scoring is necessary. If you are familiar with dressage competition you know that all movements in the tests are scored from 0 to 10. Then the total from all the movements is added up and the final score given is a percentage out of 100%. It is absolutely accepted that there is no 100% as that is perfection and no living thing can sustain perfection through everything that it does (however, it is possible to get close).

The scores on your dressage tests can be interpreted as follows. Anyone can have a bad day and get a low score (59% or less). If you are consistently not achieving scores in the 60s however, you/your horse are not prepared to compete at that level. Scores above 65% are an indication that the horse is properly trained and has enough physical ability to perform at the level that they are competing at. Any score close to 70% is excellent. Any score beyond that is exceptional.

How each score for each movement is determined is based on the Training Scale. Using Training Level as an example, therefore focusing on the bottom half of the Training Scale, scoring for a 20m circle at the canter would be calculated as follows:

If the circle is the right size (steering = suppleness and contact), is uniformly round (suppleness), starts and ends at the prescribed letter (contact/suppleness), the horse shows the amount of bend in its body that is the same as the curve of the circle (suppleness/contact), the horse is on the correct lead (rhythm/suppleness), is clearly showing a 3 beat canter (rhythm), maintaining a consistent forward energy (rhythm), with the appearance of willingly continuing to canter (rhythm, suppleness and contact), his head is not too high or too low (contact/suppleness), he is close to or on the vertical throughout the exercise (contact/suppleness), and the rider does not give the impression that they are struggling to make any of these things happen, it is considered a “10.” The judge’s job is not to “be mean” or unnecessarily critical of you as a person or what breed of horse you are riding (this falls into the discussion of “Dressage is for all horses, but not all horses are for dressage”- a future topic). Nor is it to make you feel better about yourself or be able to determine “how much better it is now than 2 months ago,” or to judge “what it feels like.” The judge’s responsibility is to remove 1 point for each thing (that indicates the presence of rhythm, suppleness and contact) that is not happening in that exercise, on that day.

It is only a way by which to give the training a numerical value. If the horse is trained in the right way every day (barring unfortunate unforeseen events), it will show in the dressage test. Likewise, it will show when the horse is not trained consistently in the right way. While it is almost impossible to get a 10, it is also almost impossible to get a zero. If you did something that appeared to be an attempt to circle somewhere near the prescribed letter, regardless of where the horse’s head is, or if he is bent correctly, or is even cantering, you can achieve a “1.” Likewise, if your horse is in a 4 beat rhythm while he is making a perfectly round, precisely placed 20m “canter” circle, he is going to receive a very low score (probably something close to a “4”) because he is totally not in canter rhythm, which indicates multiple problems with suppleness and contact, as well as rhythm.

First Level:

GWYNETH MCPHERSON competing at First Level on Flyer (5 year old Westphalian gelding). Trot lengthening showing the beginning of impulsion. Photo (c) Icon Studios.

The purpose as stated by the USEF on all the 2019 First Level tests is “to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust [impulsion] to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.”

At First Level we see the introduction of “impulsion” through the addition of lengthening of the stride in the trot and canter. This is not meant to be shown separately from rhythm, suppleness, and contact, but in the consistent presence of them. Also, the degree of suppleness expected is increased with the use of smaller circles, leg yielding, more complex transitions and shallow loop counter-canter.

Rhythm = Working gaits and lengthenings, transitions within and between gaits. Medium walk.

Suppleness = 10 and 15m circles. Leg yield. Counter canter. Canter-trot-canter transitions

Contact = Head and neck stay in front of the horse’s body, and not too high or too low, steering is consistently reliable through more complex exercises, between gaits and with added impulsion. Rider can change neck length to denote lengthening of frame while lengthening strides.

Impulsion = Lengthenings are required in trot and canter.

Straightness = More long straight lines (lengthening on long sides and diagonals)

Hopefully this initial article helps begin to solidify how the training scale fits into the competitive levels themselves, as well as why the understanding of it is entirely vital to training in the right way and ultimately showing successfully. Training Level and First Level are just the beginning of training. A very wise teacher once told me “Grand Prix is the [competitive] goal,” but he also said “Grand Prix is just the beginning [of the trainer’s knowledge].” The more trainers and riders that know how to manipulate the Training Scale, and how it pertains to competitive riding, the more riders and horses can be competing at or close to Grand Prix.

In my next submission, I will discuss Second through Fourth Level where impulsion, straightness, and collection come more into focus.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

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.