Among the serious students or participants of Dressage there are few who are not aware of the Training Scale and its importance in training and riding a Dressage horse. Ask about the six steps of the scale and their ascending order and you will be surprised how few actually can answer that question correctly. Of those who did come up with the correct answer many will have to admit that during their daily work the training scale rarely enters their mind.
It is clear to me that many experienced trainers will follow the guidance of the scale without consciously thinking about it. Theirs are the lucky horses and fortunate owners. The rest of us just have to stop and think every now and then to evaluate our horse’s progress against the demands of the training scale and make sure we are still on the right track.
In 1912, the German army published its new service manual Hdv 12. It not only wanted to provide its Cavalry with a description of the best way of training the remounts from the first saddle through about second level, the army was also very much interested in keeping the young horses sound. This service manual did not contain the training scale the way we know it today, but the entire manual was an explanation of the Training Scale. By 1936, the soldiers using the manual had condensed its content to those six words. Look at the steps of the training scale as goals the trainer must achieve to have the best system working for her. Just as importantly, she must reach them in the order described by the scale.
Of the many reasons why the training scale does not quite receive the attention it deserves, I would like to discuss the three I consider to be the main ones. First, in my opinion, is the trouble with the translation of the words. “Takt” is the German word for the first step, while the American version says, “Rhythm.” While they do not really mean the same thing exactly, they do conjure up the same picture in the reader’s mind. That is a horse moving with a correct and clean beat in a rhythmic fashion. In this case the translation worked. In my opinion it missed its mark by a great margin at step two.
The term, “Losgelassenheit,” step two on the scale, describes the condition of the horse “having let go.” For the rider this means that the horse is hard at work without any physical or mental tension. That is a far cry from what most people think relaxation means. We associate the term relaxation mostly with kicking back and drinking a beer. Yet relaxation is what the second step on the scale is called in English. To me the term suppleness would much better describe the condition the rider is looking for in step two of the scale.
“Anlehnung” is translated as “Contact.“ That is not even near what the German rider means. I have, however, also seen it as “Connection.” This comes much closer to the intent of the German word. “Anlehnung” actually means, “leaning on.” If we now look upon connection as the horse connecting with the rider by stretching into the bit, both the German word as well as the English translation describes an action of the horse. In many of the mental and emotional aspects of the horse’s training I like to compare the horse to a child. Both are dependent to a large degree on their partner, parent or rider, for their well being. So they are tuned in to the emotions of their partner and will react to them. How often do you experience horses that are quite strong willed at home become careful and submissive at a strange place? Just like the child that wants to run free as long as it can keep an eye on mom, it will be quite glad to hold mom’s hand in a crowded mall. Their insecurity demands a connection with a confident person to settle their anxiety and allow them to feel secure. The rider establishes the contact with the horse but it is the horse’s desire to stretch to the bit and connect with it’s rider that satisfies the intended meaning of the word, “Anlehnung”.
“Schwung” is the next step. “Impulsion” covers the physical aspect of “Schwung” quite well. A German would, however, also say that someone who went about a task with a great deal of enthusiasm worked with much “Schwung”. The German word has a physical as well as a mental aspect to its full meaning and that is often hard to translate with just one word. To me the condition that we are trying to describe in step four of the training scale is a horse with power and a great desire to move forward. The willingness to have this desire controlled by its rider, was established in step three.
Just about all horses naturally travel crooked. That is to say, their front and hind legs are not perfectly aligned. For a horse to be considered straight its inside front and hind leg must travel on the same track on straight lines as well as on circles. Like us, horses are one sided. We have the need to train them to where they work equally well on both sides and this process is also a part of straightening the horse. Such a straight horse is much more capable of using its strength efficiently and obeying its rider equally well on both hands. The German term, “Geraderichten” and the English term, “Straightness,” have the same meaning and there should not be any confusion because of translation.
For the English speaking rider as well as the German speaking rider the terms, “Collection” and “Versammlung,” seem perfect to describe the condition of the horse we expect in step six. Yet ask the person on the street and the closest he will come in Germany is a “meeting,” while a religious American might reach for his wallet when he hears “collection.” So, riders have given the word a meaning quite different from Webster’s definition. This then needs to be explained to the person new to riding. What we mean by a horse working in “Collection” is a horse that has adjusted its center of gravity a bit further back by stepping more forward with its hind legs and bending more in its joints. This creates a relative elevation and a greater lightness in the forehand. This way of moving allows the horse to instantly execute the order of its rider and to do so with more power. “Collection” also makes the horse more comfortable to ride and more beautiful to watch.
I do not know exactly when the term, “Versammlung” was first used by German horsemen to describe what we now call “Collection.” It was many centuries ago at a time when just about everybody who rode or otherwise worked with horses also had grown up with them. Most of today’s riders do not grow up with horses and therefore are not familiar with horsemen’s terminology. Today’s professional cannot expect that she is being understood when she speaks horse lingo to a person new in her world. Please do not assume, but explain.
Reasons two and three why the training scale has not gained the attention it deserves from so many riders, even professional trainers, is that many do not necessarily agree with the order in which these goals must be achieved. I for one believe that there is a compelling logic in the training scale. I hope I can convince you to agree with me by having you look at the scale from the top down.
Start with “Collection,” which is stepping farther under the center of gravity to carry more weight, bending more in the joints and lightening the forehand. It is so much easier to carry weight when the base of support is under the center of gravity, not along side of it. If you have any doubts, put a heavy backpack over one shoulder and carry it for a while and then place it over both and feel the difference. The horse will always want to work the way Mother Nature intended it to and that would be just fine if we did not want to ride it. It is up to us to help the horse carry us and itself by making it straighter before we weigh its hind legs down more.
This now brings me to reason number three. Please stay with me, I will return right back to the logic of the order. The reason is that all the terms, except “Rhythm,” describe a condition of the horse that is variable. You could put them on a scale from one to ten. Let us look at “Suppleness.” Compare the degree of suppleness necessary to fulfill the requirements of a training level test vs. a Grand Prix test. The four-year-old horse will stay physically and mentally relaxed while working hard at maintaining self-carriage on the straight lines. Ask the same horse to Passage and the result will be tension. This horse’s suppleness is maybe a two or three but it needs to be a ten for the horse to stay cool at Passage. The same holds true for the other conditions, including “Collection.” We will talk more about this when we discuss the practical application of the scale. Now back to the logic of the order of the Training Scale.
We agree, that a horse can “collect” easier the “straighter” it is. In order to help the horse to travel more straight, we must work it a great deal on bent lines. That, however, tends to slow a horse down and, therefore, we must have created in the horse the desire to go forward (“impulsion”) to maintain a good “rhythm.” This impulsion is the result of correctly ridden transitions particularly within the gaits. That again is impossible to accomplish with a horse that is not properly “connected” and on the bit. Remember we established that this connection is the result of the horse accepting the rider’s contact and stretching into the bit. In order to do that, the horse must have let go of all tension and work with “supple” muscles. This suppleness is best achieved through “rhythmic” movement. “Rhythmic” movement also is necessary for good circulation in the muscle which is needed for the muscle to grow. This looks like good logic to me.
Up to this point I have explained the theory behind the training scale. Next we must discuss the practical application of the steps. Before I do that there is one more term that needs to be translated and that is, “Durchlaessigkeit”. We, the horsemen, have for lack of a satisfactory English word created a new one. It is called “Throughness.” My computer immediately complained about my spelling, as it likes to do a great deal, but this time I was right. We define “throughness” as the complete absence of resistance in the horse, so that it will allow the energy created by its hind legs to travel over its back through the neck to the bit and into the rider’s hands. At the same time allowing the signals of the rider to travel through neck and back to the hind legs and there responding correctly to the will of the rider. “Throughness” is also a variable and increases along with the other conditions as the horse progresses in its training. While it is not a part of the training scale, it is the ultimate goal of the trainer’s work and a great indicator of the progress the horse is making.
If for some reason you should feel that this is something only trainers need to know, you are mistaken. Every time you ride your horse, you should warm it up according to the scale and then ride it in such a way that it will maintain the conditions you have created in the warm up. This way you will receive maximum results of your work and keep your horse physically and mentally fit.
To breathe some life into this theory and make it outright exciting, we need to get on our horse and give it a try. Unfortunately it is late, but we will get started first thing in the morning.
It is a beautiful morning and you can hardly wait to get on your horse. This future Olympian is four years old and you have ridden him for the past two months. At first he did not want to walk, and when he did, it was with stiff legs and unable to follow even a straight line. Once he mastered the walk you asked him to trot and he seemed to struggle with the same lack of balance. That too became better but he still drifts and leans in the corners or on circles. You did not ask for any circles smaller than 20 meters, for that was obviously difficult enough for him. When he offered a canter, you took it and he handled it well. This time his trouble with his balance showed as a heavy leaning on the bit. To assess your horse one would say he is unbalanced, weak, and therefore a bit tense. This is typical for a horse his age and level of training. Due to his willing attitude he has already shown a great deal of improvement and should have a bright future.
What are you going to work on today? My suggestion is to strive towards pre-riding looseness and rhythm. What I mean by looseness is the total absence of tension in his body and mind. This is not to be mistaken for suppleness (step two on the scale). The loose horse is using its muscles just enough to keep moving while the supple horse is relaxed in its mind but its muscles are hard at work. You have observed your horse in his pasture or paddock and know that his gaits are clean; he has a 4-beat walk, a 2-beat trot and a 3-beat canter. These beats repeated at equal intervals create the rhythm that is the absolutely necessary basic requirement for successful training. Working with gaits that are clean in their beat and rhythmic is just as important for him today as it will be the day when he is at the top of his game.
One of the reasons I gave for your horse’s problems in dealing with the weight of the rider was weakness. This lack of strength is what slows training down so much. We can teach a horse the aids for all the movements in a short period of time. It is the development of the strength necessary to execute them correctly under the rider that takes so much time, patience, and hard work.
Strength is another variable in our system of training. As we work our horses with rhythmic gaits and supple muscles, these muscles grow both in strength and in volume enabling the horse to perform the ever more difficult exercises without tension. While this seems like stating the obvious, it must not be considering how often we see riders with problems on a 20m circle try to fix it by forcing the horse onto a 10m circle. Unfortunately such actions often appear to help. Rest assured they do not. By forcing a horse to execute a task beyond his physical ability, you have given him the option to either endure punishment or find an evasion. Given the same option, what would you do? One of his evasions would be to reduce the strain on the muscles by stiffening the joints. Unless this rider returns to the basics and starts to strengthen her horse before she asks for more difficult work, this action will show negative consequences every step of the way. A less noticeable but more pervasive and more difficult result to correct may also be the horse’s loss of confidence in both himself and his rider.
The term, balance, has made its way into this article on several occasions, so I believe it is worth a closer look. When we first mount the young horse, we upset its natural balance. The horse was moving on the forehand, shifting its weight back onto the hindquarter only at moments of excitement, either playing or fighting. This arrangement served the horse well and will always be its first choice. When under saddle, the horse must carry additional weight and obey the will of a rider. For these reasons this balance is no longer sufficient and the horse must rebalance itself towards its hindquarter. The horse does not know that and would continue to struggle with the additional weight and the need to obey instantly even when it is physically unable to do so. We all have seen the pictures of frustrated riders and horses with pained expressions on their faces. You, the rider, however, do know that your horse must rebalance to be prepared to do the job. The first and absolute minimum requirement would be that you restore the horse to its natural balance with you, the rider, on board. That means that the horse must carry the same percentage of the total weight on the front legs that it did before you added your tack and yourself to its weight. Naturally he would not move with this distribution of weight, but it is also not unnatural for him to shift his center of gravity back a bit since he has done that many times playing.
You may remember the question I asked at the beginning of this article: What are you going to do today? You are going to let your horse discover his new natural balance. You can not teach him since you do not yet have a common language. You just get on, establish a light contact with his mouth, and carefully prod him forward. Under any circumstance avoid the attempt to form him. His system can not yet deal with it and resistance would be inevitable. You are up there in a light seat, you feel a gentle contact with his mouth, and you are using any means you think will make him move better forward without frightening him. As soon as he responds, you will feel the contact become stronger. Do not give in to this pressure! Instead, resist it with steady hands and massage slowly with the inside rein to encourage him to relax the poll and push himself off the bit and start to chew. This pushing off is the first step of his to move his center of gravity back just a little bit. This action must be rewarded instantly by you in that you stop asking for more forwardness and allow him to be in harmony with you. Many positive effects are happening now. His mind settles, his muscles learn to work slightly differently and grow in strength. He learns that if he tries to please, this work is not all that bad. He is getting the first hints of a language; prodding legs mean move forward. Little by little he is letting go of the tension in his back, the neck drops down a notch, and his movement is becoming rhythmic. So by returning the horse to its pre-riding looseness and balance you have fulfilled step one of the training pyramid; Rhythm.
Here we already have the first example of how, although concentrating on one step of the pyramid, we also improved upon the requirements of other steps. To help our horse rebalance, we pushed it forward and asked it to relax its back and stretch into the bit. By doing that we turned the natural looseness of the horse into the suppleness of muscles that are working correctly. By making sure that the horse kept its rhythm this suppleness caused it to stretch and accept the contact with the bit, turning it into a connection. Please do not let that distract you from working the pyramid in its given order. Remember experience has shown us that you can not, for instance, perfect step two to a ten until you have trained step one to the best your horse is capable of. Let me try that again. Your horse can not become as supple in his movement as he can be at this stage of his training unless he moves in rhythm. Another way to look at it is that a horse can move in rhythm while still tense, but it can not be supple while its movement is erratic. This means that the pyramid requires of the rider to be as firm in some things as it is and at the same time to be as flexible as necessary to move your horse along. This then defines the pyramid as a guideline for training and not an absolute prescription.
Reading the last chapters carefully, you probably have already noticed the close connection between the first three steps of the scale. Before we can start forming the horse we must have rhythmic movement, supple muscles, and a horse willing to accept the rider’s aids through a soft connection. Steps one to three have been called the familiarization phase of the scale. During this part of the training, strive to help the horse deal with the new facts of life. Where there was play, there is now work. The Alfa horse in the field has been replaced by a human. This young horse has to adjust from living in the great outdoors to apartment dwelling. From doing pretty much as it pleased, it must now obey at all times. For the horse there are many changes beyond what meets the eye, and time and patience are well spent here to allow the youngster to overcome insecurities, maybe even fear, and develop confidence in itself and its rider.
Allow me to digress a little from explaining the pyramid to mention two more points that are not directly parts of it but will, in my opinion, contribute a great deal to its success. One is the need to have an experienced and sensitive rider guide the horse through the first three steps. If that is not possible, an experienced professional should act as the mentor of a sensitive rider with a secure seat. The youngster is just too impressionable at this stage of his training and mistakes made now, especially if they stay uncorrected, will negatively affect all future training. The second point I want to mention is to please vary the location of your training as much as possible and include riding outdoors. If you can do it in the company of experienced horses, that is even better. Riding in a field or on trails will help so much to settle the nerves of a young horse. It will make it surefooted and at the same time will encourage it to move out, instilling in the horse the desire to go forward. That is step four in the pyramid and will have to wait until the next ride.
Impulsion is step four of the training pyramid. It is (like suppleness, connection, straightness, and collection) a condition that improves and grows through the correct training of the horse. So far our goal has been to familiarize the young horse with his work under a rider. We also helped him find his balance with extra weight on his back and asked him to step forward with confidence into the bit. By doing this his movement became rhythmic and his back relaxed, allowing him to stretch forward over his back into the bit and connect with his rider. If the rider has taken great care not to ask too much too soon and has been generous with praise for every little improvement that the young horse has shown, he has made him confident and willing to try more.
“Wow”, you say, “It has been only three months and I am already halfway through the training pyramid! Another three months like that and I will be done.” Not so fast, please. Do you remember that I said the hard part of training was the development of strength and the change of direction in which the horse must move? You have not done any of that yet. Students and readers often ask me how long it takes to fulfill the requirements of the pyramid. As with most answers regarding training it starts with “that depends”. So many factors play a roll in the speed in which you progress. Some of them include your horse’s talent, attitude, and conformation as well as your riding ability, experience, and time available to ride. Your horse should be able to perform a second level test comfortably, jump a course of small fences confidently and canter in balance cross country. In most cases this will take about two years.
At liberty, your horse moves forward-downward and it still does. To help me explain the reason why this may now appear as a moment of pause in your progress while you prepare your horse for the next big step upward on the pyramid, I want to introduce a new term: Momentum. Imagine yourself running down a hill. It does not take much to keep you going forward since momentum carries you and you use more strength to maintain your balance than to run. This is how a horse feels that is trotting along on the forehand. One important difference is, however, that your horse has four legs and his front legs are built perfectly for bracing. Next, imagine yourself running down that hill again and somebody is pushing on your back every step of the way. You would find yourself running faster and faster until you need something to brace against or fall down. Your horse will feel exactly like that when, while he is still on the forehand, you prod him to go forward more and more in order to create impulsion. He will look for and find an additional brace in the reins; a highly undesirable outcome.
It is definition time again. What exactly do we mean by forward when it comes to the horse’s movement? I would like to define it as the horse’s attitude “to want to move” and the resulting activity of the hind leg, not to be mistaken with speed. This is also how I describe the term, impulsion. It is the horse’s desire to go forward, controlled by the rider. Forward also indicates a direction. In this article we distinguish between forward-downward (on the forehand), forward (in balance), and forward-upward (collected).
In order to illustrate the difficulties the horse has with its balance while on the forehand, I have used the problems of a person running downhill. If this person now were to run on level terrain, it would not encounter those difficulties. The same holds true for the horse. The level terrain is like a balance in the horse that distributes equal weight over all four feet. We must, therefore, ask the horse to adopt an artificial direction of movement; from the natural forward-downward to forward. Many of you will disagree with me on the term artificial. While I admit that a horse will, when in an excited mood move in this balance, it will only do so for a very short period. The rider expects the horse to maintain this balance at all times while working, without the benefit of excitement. You will not see a horse at liberty do that and, therefore, I see it as artificial in a horse. There is also no conflict with the idea that in dressage we will only ask the horse to move in ways that are natural to it since we do not change its gaits, only the direction of its balance. The reason is to help it better deal with the load on its back.
We have branded the horse leaning on the bit as highly undesirable yet even with the best of careful riding it is almost inevitable that it will happen. Do not let those moments of imbalance bother you. Your horse wants to be on the forehand because that is natural to him and, therefore, he loses his balance forward and you wind up with his weight in your hand. With correct training, those occasional imbalances will become less frequent and shorter in duration.
It always frustrates me when a so-called expert writing an article advises me to improve my horse through correct training. Of course I want to train my horse correctly. That is why I am reading this article! I would like some concrete advice about what to do and what not to do. Also, to me advice makes a great deal more sense and I would be more inclined to use it when it comes with an explanation of why the author believes I should give his way a try.
In order for me to be concrete in my advice as to how to proceed, I must first make sure you clearly understand where you are with your horse. You also should have a clear picture in your mind as to where you are going. Those of us who have trained young horses before know how they can run us up and down an emotional roller coaster and, therefore, I call this moment a reality check. As I stated earlier, in the high your horse gave you after the last ride, you believed you had fulfilled the requirements of step three of the pyramid. You have, but please remember the fact that steps two and three are progressive and you are, on the scale of one to ten, at one. To start at this point with serious work on impulsion would be counter productive, but by continuing to improve steps two and three you are laying the groundwork that will allow you to proceed toward that goal later on. Steps one to three are labeled the familiarization phase and as of step two, you have also begun the development of the horse’s pushing power. Please read the sidebar (click here to view the sidebar) that deals with the overlapping of steps and phases of the training pyramid.
There is a good reason why I am so emphatic about slowing down and taking baby steps at this point. I see too many horses at this stage of training just run off their feet. You just simply cannot ask your horse to move stronger than it can balance. Fast does not mean forward and slow does not mean without impulsion. Remember the movement called Piaffe? It is rather slow but full of impulsion. Of course I am not suggesting that you slow your horse down to that extreme. I simply want you to help your horse find the strongest movement in the gaits that it can balance at this time. Then ride it at that pace on straight lines, through corners, and on circles. In the corners and on circles he may at first need some active intervention from you to maintain his balance. You will find that as he becomes stronger and learns to bend better, you can venture onto smaller circles and deeper into the corners. I personally like to spiral in and let the horse show me how small a circle he can travel before balance becomes a problem. When a fifteen meter circle is no longer a problem, I try a little lengthening for a few steps on the open side of a twenty meter circle and see what happens.
You may ask, “see what happens”? Yes, how else are you going to know where your horse’s limits are at that time? Ask him by pushing him so you can find his maximum level and then respect it by not continuing to want more. Working him at that level will strengthen him and soon he will be ready for more. See yourself barely able to lift 100 pounds and then imagine someone with authority over you giving you 110 pounds to lift and threatening you with punishment if you fail. You may do it but it may be the beginning of the end of your healthy back and you will be sore the next day. Now comes the next day and you will be asked to lift 110 pounds again and if your sore back just can’t handle it, you are punished for being lazy. Justification: You did it yesterday! This is not good for morale and you have learned that the best way to protect yourself is not to try too hard in the first place. Horses cannot reason like that. The best will continue to give their all and they are, therefore, the first ones to physically break down. To return to our example, had you been given time to strengthen your back by lifting 100 pounds for awhile, you then could move up to 110 pounds without inflicting any harm.
If you were to ask an expert for some exercises you could ride to help you develop impulsion in your horse, he would probably tell you to ride in active gaits, ride many transitions from gait to gait as well as within the gaits, from working gaits to lengthening and back. He would also warn you to stay within your horse’s power and tolerance to deal with stress. Most of all he would ask you to listen closely to your horse for signs of fatigue or confusion. Loss of, or change in rhythm would usually be the first indicators that it is time for a break. Since the exercises that have been recommended to you are the same that you have gradually worked your way up to already, I think it is time for us to take a break also.
The last time you worked your horse, your goal was to improve his impulsion. At the end of the work he showed a great desire to move forward and did not resist at all in the transitions from working to medium gaits and back. He could have taken a stronger first step to the mediums, but then you are not finished with him yet. In the transitions down to the working gaits it felt as though he might have stiffened in his hind legs on occasion. In addition, since this seemed to increase as he tired, you concluded that while his power to push is well developed, he still lacks the strength to carry over any period of time.
Reflecting back over the work you have done so far and identifying problems you had to overcome is very important since it tells you a great deal about your horse. It shows you his strengths and weaknesses as well as the effectiveness and correctness of your work until now. These are important factors in determining how to proceed from here. Judging by your last ride, your training is right on target according to the training pyramid. Your next goal must be to make sure that your horse travels straight so that you can begin to concentrate more on exercises designed to improve his carrying power.
Sometimes it is hard for us to realize that these powerful animals may lack the strength to do the things we ask of them. To illustrate how the horse feels, I like to have my readers and students experience similar situations for themselves. On the one I am going to suggest you try now, I think you should go off by yourself somewhere so that you will not be hauled off to have your head examined. I want you to just slowly run and notice how the muscles in your thighs feel. Then go and run the same distance with your knees bent slightly and listen to your thighs. Now run with knees bent deeply. Boy, did you slow down! Your thighs are burning and you know that you cannot make it the same distance as before. The last situation was like a horse working in collection. The horse will slow down and it will have to have breaks in order to rest its muscles. The horse you have been training will probably fare better than you did because you have already begun to condition his muscles for this kind of work ever since you began to develop his impulsion.
It is worth a closer look to understand why it takes so much more strength to run with your knees bent. The reason just simply is gravity. With your knees bent only slightly, you have to lift your weight only a short distance. The deeper you bend your knee, the farther you have to lift your body to straighten out your leg. When your knee is straight, your muscles carry no weight at all and can rest. In addition, the time of rest shortens since your muscles must spend more time to straighten the leg. In the forward swing, your leg carries no burden and can rest. That means that the longer the stride, the longer the rest, and running with a straighter knee produces a longer stride. All of this is obvious. Another factor that is extremely important for the rider is the stretch of the muscles between bending and straightening of the knee. This is the body’s protection of the joint from the shock of the foot hitting the ground. It is why a horse with joint problems will show a much greater degree of discomfort on a harder surface. Because they are elastic, muscles are much better equipped to absorb shock than bones and cartilage. This elasticity allows the muscle to stretch a little as the foot strikes the ground and before it contracts to straighten the joint in order to lift the body and propel it forward. It is like the action of a coil. The weight stretched the muscle (compressing of the coil) and the muscle then returned to its original length (expansion of the coil) to be further contracted by its own action to stretch the joint. We call this the spring power of the muscle.
This spring power of the horse’s muscles allows us to sit the trot of a horse without suffering a concussion. Because of it, the motion of the horse’s back no longer feels like the jolt of a jackhammer but more like the swing of a trampoline. Observe a horse trotting around with his tail up, head up, all excited, and imagine sitting on him. This horse is tense and has contracted his muscles to where they will not stretch and his strides have turned into bounces. Such a situation is most difficult for the rider and damaging for the joints of the horse.
The reason I spent a great deal of time explaining the spring power of the muscles is that as we strengthen the horse, we will feel it more and we will also have a greater need for it. The observer notices this power through the increased expression of the horse’s movement and the rider appreciates the greater comfort in the saddle. This spring power is the physical reason why suppleness is the condition at the early stages of the training pyramid since it protects the joints from damage caused by the shock of the hoof hitting the ground. This same damage will also occur in the older horse when it works with tension. Therefore, my constant reminder that we must not ignore any of the conditions of the pyramid once we have moved past them in our training.
Horses are very quick learners. Since they are animals of prey, they do not get many chances to make mistakes. Trainers use this ability to teach their horses through conditioning. I have talked about this technique in other articles. Let me just point out that the rewards the horse looks for the most are comfort and survival. In the realm of training, survival means that the horse realizes that a situation it perceives as dangerous is removed or proven harmless. We achieve this by showing the horse an obstacle it fears while petting it or talking to it in a soothing voice. We use every opportunity we can to take the horse into strange environments so it can become familiar with many different objects and situations. The best chance of accomplishing this is to ride cross-country. My point here is the fact that comfort is one of the main motivators of the horse and you can only achieve the goal of training by making the horse uncomfortable at times. This is why I believe that good trainers must be angels, at least while they are around a horse. These trainers must deny their own predatory natural instinct in order to accommodate the instincts of their pupil, a beast of prey. It is our natural behavior to become aggressive when we are denied satisfaction. This will, however, instill fear in the horse and his entire focus will be to get away from that situation and not to learn. The horse is also a herd animal and looks for a leader to show it what to do in order to be safe. This means that a horse will follow its leader into a situation that it may perceive as dangerous or that is uncomfortable. The trainer must, therefore, always look for the fine line between the discomfort his horse will tolerate and the amount of discomfort that will bring about resistance.
It is important to recognize that line, since once we cross it, we will have to retreat or we may cause problems for our future training. Until now we have asked very little of the horse that would cause it discomfort. We have been careful to prepare the horse physically for the greater demands. So far we have stayed within its natural way of moving and asked for just a slightly greater bend in the joints of the hind leg. Through much praise, the discomfort-comfort scale clearly tilted towards comfort. Making the horse travel straight is about to change that. We now must tap into another source of motivation for the horse. I believe that at this point we meet the great divide between the experienced and thinking trainer and the, “riding by the seat of the britches,” type. You, of course, are in the former category.
The new motivation for the horse is its enjoyment of learning. No, I do not believe that horses like to work, but I believe they look forward to the many benefits working will give them such as all that attention, the treats, the breaks, often a chance to interact (limited) with other horses and just the general socializing that comes with work. I also believe that having had to learn a language and performing tasks has stimulated their intelligence and their desire to learn more. Horses, in my opinion, are highly intelligent as far as their ability to learn and their memory about learned lessons goes. I do not dare question that since it probably exceeds mine. As for reasoning, I do not think horses are capable of it. That is the only reason they are working for us and not us working for them. I would like to paraphrase a circus trainer who, when asked about the incredible feats his horses performed, said that horses like to perform because horses like to eat. Eating is part of the need to survive, the strongest motivator of the horse.
As we ride the exercises that will help our horse travel straight, we are well into the phase of developing carrying power. Survival means, run first and check later. That run is, if possible, in a straight line as fast as the legs can push. Positioning, bending, turning, spinning, even stepping backwards, are not skills needed for survival. Moving with joints more bent slows the speed down and is, therefore, a hindrance. Burning muscles, fatigue, sweat, and the tugs in the mouth every time the horse looks for relief by shifting weight back onto the forehand is not considered comfort, and so the level of motivation drops way down. Here the trainer is confronted with the Herculean dilemma; Do I take the apparently easy route by using bigger spurs, tougher bits, and or draw reins, or do I take the tough road that promises hard work and slow progress? Unlike Hercules, we know the results of both approaches and, therefore, the decision to go the long route should be easy. Still many try the gadgets. The trainer has encountered tough resistance and believes that only force can overcome it. The intentions are of course to remove these artificial aids as soon as she has solved this particular problem. What was such hard work before, these aids made so easy and therein lies their narcotic effect. The next time the horse shows just the least bit of resistance the trainer is back to them and soon she believes she cannot overcome any resistance without them.
In most of these cases, the trainer would have been able to solve the problem without the help of artificial aids. Taking time to analyze and thinking of some exercise to strengthen and better prepare the horse might have helped to remove the resistance. It would for sure have preserved the horse’s motivation to tackle future tough spots as well as any soundness problems that may not show up until later. For those among you who think I have hit the, “Be careful with your horse,” soapbox hard enough, please also read the part about hard work and sweat. If you want your horse to jump a good canter pirouette, he must take the weight on the hind legs and he must be strong enough to jump the canter. Such strength you cannot just wish for. You must work to gain it. With the help of such equipment, you can force the horse to do it even though he is not ready, but I will guarantee you that the time will come when you wish you had not done it.
This is also the time when the horse’s talent for dressage becomes apparent. Often in ads for the dressage horse you will read that the horse is demonstrating a willingness to collect. This means that the horse finds it relatively easy to do so. This will help the trainer teach the horse the increasingly more difficult exercises and the horse will stay motivated to try for more the next day.
The subject of motivation deserves much more space then this article can give it. Just look at it as a trade off between you and your horse. Make sure that he understands that the harder he tries, the greater his rewards will be. Constantly work at your horse’s limits, not past them, and be very consistent and fair with your rewards as well as with your corrections. Punish only deliberate misbehavior, and do it immediately so there can be no doubt in the horse’s mind as to what action on his part brought about that painful reaction from you. Make sure that you take care of all his creature comforts and he will thank you with his work. The horse that likes to work is not the result of luck, but his response to your attention to his needs while you ride him and during the rest of his day.
You have worked him with our emphasis on making him straight so that he is better able to carry more weight on his hindquarters. This work has already begun to ask him to step under his center of gravity a bit more. You have asked him at the same time to continue to move out so he can overcome the natural tendency to slow down as the steps become shorter and he has to work harder just to maintain his rhythm. You have also conditioned him to trust you and stay cool as the work makes his muscles sore. He has learned a language and it has become much easier for you to be precise in your commands.
In reading the last paragraph you would think that the most difficult part of training him is over and you are on the home stretch. Unfortunately it is not so because you must now ask him to change his direction of movement even more; enough that he will want to resist it. It will feel unnatural to him but you will not only have to teach him to move forward-upward but confirm this movement to such a degree that it becomes second nature to him. Give your horse and yourself a day off before you start with collection.
Collection is the last step in the basic training of the young horse. This is also the time when we have to make the decision regarding what area of the equestrian sport the horse is most suited for. Through the efforts of our breeders there are few horses born today that are so poor in their conformation that they cannot perform the work that will be asked of them in their basic training. All but a few can collect to a satisfactory degree for the expectations of second level. Should an otherwise willing horse show a great deal of resistance or a clear difficulty in executing a shoulder-in for instance, this horse is not a candidate for dressage. The reason I bring this decision up again at this point is that I think it unfair to the horse to have to deal with a frustrated rider because it just simply cannot do the task. Poor training or incompetent riding can bring about the same situation for the horse, but you can remedy that through your work.
You listen to the best and most successful instructors, read all the books, and you find out that collection means a lightening of the forehand by shifting the horse’s weight a bit farther back over the hindquarters. Sometimes you will hear it explained as the horse stepping farther forward under the center of gravity. This is a logical explanation that does help us understand why we train the horse according to the pyramid and why that then allows the horse to develop into the beautifully moving creature that is comfortable to ride, obedient and powerful. Because we have been patient and correct in our training we have preserved his joints and he will, therefore, give us many years of service.
While obedience, comfort and power are the goals we have worked toward, beauty and long service are the by-products of our success. I am, however, not quite satisfied with the explanation I gave for what happened to the horse that brought about these goals. Yes, it sounds very logical and makes a great deal of sense and it even looks like that change in the horse’s balance is exactly what happened. The horse appears to move in an uphill frame, the hind legs are very active. The horse also moves with so much more lightness in the forehand and improved self-carriage that you just know it has less weight to lift in the front. Now you sit on such a horse and you ride it. Yes, everything you saw, you now feel.
Once more technology has complicated matters. It has enabled us to measure more precisely and see more clearly every limb of the horse. We can zoom in, slow down, and freeze any moment of suspension or stance to evaluate exactly how the horse moves at liberty or ridden in collection. What we see in the ridden horse is a slight elevation of the forehand, an increased bend in the joints of the hindquarter, a shorter more elevated stride and a slight shift of the center of gravity towards the rear of the horse. That is precisely what the old masters described and what you saw and felt while observing and riding a well-trained horse. The complication is not in the effect of our training but in what exactly did change in the horse to create that effect. To me it was easy to see how, by lowering the hindquarters, we created a relative elevation of the forehand. This is still true today but it no longer is the whole story. We now know that the horse also lifts its withers by contracting the muscles between the shoulder blades that carry the front end of the horse. Therefore, we actually have two reasons the horse appears taller in the front; the lowering of the croup and the actual raising of the withers. Slow motion also allows us to see that the leg is already moving backwards as the hoof strikes the ground. This prevents the braking action a leg would have if it were fully extended forward at that moment. The hind leg does move farther under the center of gravity of the horse as we can clearly see in the piaffe and the canter pirouette. The horse accomplishes this by bending the entire croup down which brings the hip joint farther forward and that way allows the hind leg to also reach more forward. Such a degree of collection is, however, well beyond the scope of the training pyramid and left to the dressage specialists.
The worst indigestion I had to deal with happened when I read that the front leg of a horse ridden in collection pushed harder against the scale when ridden in collection than when it moved on the forehand. I was going to write a letter to the editor, cancel my subscription and then petition Congress to pass a law to prosecute editors that allowed false information to be published in their magazines. The problem was that the author of that article was a veterinarian by the name of Hilary Clayton who does her research at a major university and has more letters behind her name than fit on an average business card. So I cooled off, got on a horse and thought about what I felt happening under me. I knew I was right about the lighter forehand because about two centuries ago they had already proven that just by raising the head and neck of a horse while standing, its center of gravity moved back and loaded the hind legs down more. Therefore, if Dr. Clayton’s scale did not lie, there had to be another reason that the leg pushed harder against it. At first I thought of the force of braking (slowing down the movement) but that could not be it because that would have caused more stress on the joints. Experience shows that more stress causes more wear and tear on the front legs of the horse and, therefore, may cause early retirement of the horse. One of the reasons for riding uphill, however, is to save its joints. Then it dawned on me, more lift requires more push. That has to be it! The elevation of the forehand was not only the result of a more active hind leg but also that of a more active forehand. That made me feel better and I went back inside to finish reading the article. Dr. Clayton had already come to the same conclusion. As I say repeatedly, horses will keep you humble.
It just occurred to me. Listen to a horse cantering on the forehand and you can hear the front legs hit the ground, even in a dirt arena. The horse cantering in collection barely makes a sound. That proves it. The additional pressure the horse puts against the ground is not the result of more weight hitting the ground but of a harder push to lift the weight higher off the ground.
You have worked your horse for about two years now and reflecting back you realize that horse truly does not look like the one you started with. His once lean appearance has become full and round. Especially the topline, the hindquarters and shoulder are packed with muscles. The new strength also seems to have added a confidence that changed his attitude from timid to positive. This is clearly visible in his eye and his carriage. They radiate a heightened spirit and at the same time, a calmness that shows your horse feels ready for the work ahead. If this is the impression your horse gives to the people observing him, you have done a great job preparing him for the training yet to come in his area of specialty.
Now I have to take you back on the hill to explain in more detail why riding our horses in an uphill balance saves their front legs from early wear. Go ahead, jog down that hill and soon you will lean back a little and catch your weight with the heel of your foot. You will also notice that you are trying to have your knee slightly bent to avoid the jarring effect of your heel catching your weight and breaking the momentum of your run. That is quite strenuous on the muscles but it saves the joints. Next, imagine a horse landing after a jump. It touches the ground first with one leg and then with the other. The first leg does not catch the weight of the horse but only pushes it in a new direction, from moving forward-downward to forward. This causes a significant difference in the amount of stress that leg has to endure. Imagine yourself and some friends playing with a medicine ball. You have formed a circle and are throwing the ball at each other. When your friend throws the ball at you and you catch it, you must really brace yourself in order to stop that ball. If you, however, pass the ball on just by deflecting it with your hands in the direction of your friend next to you, its impact on you is greatly reduced. This same logic applies to the front leg of the horse. By moving the leg backward before it strikes the ground, it is not in direct opposition to the weight of the horse (catching the medicine ball) and deflects the weight of the horse from forward-downward to forward before its other front leg hits the ground and pushes it forward-upward again. Not only has the horse, by deflecting the weight, reduced the impact on the joint but it also has, by involving the muscles controlling the joints, used their ability to protect the joint by absorbing some of the shock.
The reason I explained this aspect of the benefits of correct training is because that was very much on the mind of the masters responsible for the training pyramid. They were military men dealing with hundreds of horses every day and had to keep the cost down in order to stay within their budget. They also had to report about the readiness of their troops. A lame horse meant a veterinary bill and a trooper unable to perform his duties.
Obedience and comfort are also important goals that we want to achieve in our basic training. We can examine them as one since their development in the horse runs about parallel. Both are determined by the horse’s power and his attitude. Obedience also depends on the horse’s understanding of the system of aids the rider uses to communicate with the horse. The training pyramid concentrates on the physical development of the horse. It assumes that the horse has been taught a sufficient understanding of the aids. The area in which comfort differs from obedience is the conformation of the horse. Some horses just simply cannot be as comfortable as others because the angles of their joints or proportions of their body do not allow for good shock absorption and, therefore, they are rougher in their gaits.
As you take a closer look at the pyramid (see above drawing), you will notice that five of the six steps serve to strengthen the horse. First we develop the pushing power and then the carrying power. To explain how this effects the obedience of the horse I am going to have you imagine you are standing on a moving vehicle and have you jump off it. Please do not try this at home! As you first hit the ground, you cannot stop because the momentum of the vehicle’s movement carries you forward and you will have to first balance yourself in order to stop without falling on your face. Had someone told you to stop at that time, you would have been unable to do so no matter how much you wanted to be obedient. The horse experiences a similar dilemma when it moves on the forehand. By asking the horse to increasingly move in an upward direction and developing its power to do so with ease we have enabled the horse to move in a balance that allows it to be obedient at all times. No matter how strong the horse has become, working in its natural direction will always be easier for it. Along with the strength we must develop the attitude of obedience. We must keep the horse motivated to want to work in harmony with us.
Motivating horses is a topic that deserves more attention than I can give it here. Let me just mention the three most important considerations that the trainer must keep in mind.
Before we domesticated the horse it was perfectly capable of taking care of itself. It thrived for millions of years and grew in size and numbers and enlarged the territory in which it roamed on this planet. When the horse began to serve man, it became dependent on its master for its needs to survive. A horse that is not well taken care of is not going to be motivated to work. Nutrition, adequate stabling, hoof care, grooming, routine veterinary care and a relaxed environment are some of the needs the trainer has to make sure to fill to keep the horse ready to serve him.
Fairness best describes the attitude the trainer must have towards her horse while working with him. She must understand that he is an animal and that he will be guided by instinct and not by reason. His senses are in most cases much better developed than hers are and he may react to situations she is not even aware of.
Self-confidence and trust in his rider are the only remedies for the horse to overcome his instinct of flight in a threatening situation. Only patient persistence in the rider’s demands and absolute consistency in the way the rider treats her horse will bring about this attitude in the horse.
Now that the horse has completed its basic training we must not forget about the training pyramid. Every time we ride our horse we should warm him up by taking him through the six steps of the pyramid before we can proceed with the continued work in dressage, jumping, eventing or just riding the trails. Even if showing is not in your plan for your horse, you should train him through the basics because beyond the above stated goals there is the consideration of safety. Most riding accidents happen on horses that have not been thoroughly trained on the basics.
Before we end this short trip through the theories of the training pyramid, please let me remind you one more time that in my opinion there is more honor and satisfaction in riding a precise circle with a horse staying relaxed and on the aids, than to ride a poor pirouette. To paraphrase Alfred Knopfhart in evaluating a horse: Don’t tell me what he knows, tell me how he goes.
by Paul Kathen ©2004