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How to Build a Good Dressage Foundation

How to Build a Good Dressage Foundation

In the past, dressage riders and trainers spent much time developing their horses’ basic training and building a solid foundation before attempting to progress up the levels.

Before the advent of all-weather riding arenas and year-round competitions, riders spent the winter months working on their horse’s basic way of going in readiness for the new season in the spring.

Unfortunately, today, many riders neglect to develop a solid training foundation in an effort to progress up the levels. Because of that, dressage judges see many combinations who are competing at a level that’s way out of their comfort zone.

In this article, we discuss the importance of why building a solid dressage foundation is so important, and we look at how to do it.

Dressage basics

To build a good dressage foundation, you must get the basics right.

The key things that you must work on as a rider, including the following:

  1. Developing a correct dressage seat.
  2. Riding in proper balance so that you are independent of the reins and stirrups.
  3. Being able to use a half-halt to prepare your horse for transitions and changes of direction. The half-halt should come as second-nature to you, just like riding a bike!
  4. Developing an understanding of your horse’s mental and physical wellbeing so that you instinctually know when there’s a problem and can work to put it right.
  5. Working with your trainer to recognize your horse’s strong and weak points and putting in place a plan to address problems and improve areas of weakness.
  6. Spending time reading and educating yourself in dressage theory. You must also familiarize yourself with the current dressage rules for your location and affiliations.
  7. Training your horse with patience and determination. You must be willing to sacrifice your time, money, and energy to get where you want to be ultimately.

Never make the mistake of taking short cuts in your horse’s training. Some horses learn more quickly than others, so you may need to accept that your dressage journey may take you longer than you hoped.

You must also learn to accept and work on improving your shortcomings as a rider. If that means losing weight, getting fitter, or overcoming a physical disability, then that’s what you must do!

The Dressage Scales of Training

Back in the 1980s, the German Training Scale was introduced to the U.S. dressage world. Over the last 20 years, the Dressage Scales of Training have been universally accepted and applied worldwide.

The training pyramid, as it’s also known, clearly outlines the way in which your horse’s training should progress, from the basics of establishing the correct rhythm in all three paces, through to developing the collection that’s required for advanced work.

The Scales of Training are:

  1. Rhythm
  2. Suppleness (through the horse’s back)
  3. Contact
  4. Impulsion
  5. Straightness (including suppleness to the bend)
  6. Collection (refers to balance at the lower levels)

The Scales of Training serve as the basic framework of training for all dressage horses. The scale is generally sequential, and if you stick to working your horse in this way, your training will ultimately pay off.

Now, training your horse in line with the Scales of Training is all very well, but how does that relate to the various levels of competition?


The first requirement for a good dressage foundation is that the horse works in the correct rhythm in all the paces.

So, the walk should be clearly four-time. The trot should be clearly two-time. The canter should be clearly three-time.

Within each pace, the tempo of the rhythm should be appropriate, i.e., not too quick or too slow. Also, the footfalls at each pace must be correct. For example, the walk must not become lateral.

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Suppleness refers to swing through the horse’s back.

To achieve suppleness, the horse must be relaxed. The horse’ muscles must be loose and elastic, with no signs of tension.

When the horse is working correctly over the back, the steps will become more elevated and cover more ground.

There will be a clear moment of suspension in trot and canter.

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A correct contact is elastic and constant.

The horse is quiet in his mouth. He does not open his mouth against the rider’s hand, nor does he put his tongue out in an effort to escape the effect of the bit.

Only when the contact is correct will the horse work into the bridle, seeking and following the contact without resistance.

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Once the horse is working freely through his back into an elastic contact, the rider can ask for more energy and forward thrust from the horse’s quarters.

Greater impulsion does not mean greater speed.

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The horse can only work freely forward through his back if he is straight. Similarly, the horse will only be able to show supple bend around circles and through turns if he is straight.

To be straight, the horse must move on one track only, both on straight lines and around curves and circles.

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At the lower levels, collection refers to the horse’s balance. The rider will only be able to use effective half-halts if the preceding Scales of Training have been put in place.

If the horse is tight through his back, against the rider’s hand, or crooked, it will be impossible for the rider to engage the horse’s quarters, improve his balance, and ultimately develop the collection.

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What’s the purpose of dressage tests?

Every dressage test is designed to allow the dressage judge to assess the horse’s competence at that level. If the training has been skimped on and the basic foundations are not in place, each test will expose any shortcomings!

The tests are designed to be tackled in order. The lower the number of the test, the easier it is.

Each test contains exercises that are specifically formulated to assess how the horse’s basic training is progressing.

Training/Preliminary level tests

The purpose of training/preliminary level tests is to show that the horse demonstrates the first three aspects of the Scales of Training:

  • The horse should work in the correct rhythm and steady tempo at each pace.
  • The horse’s back should be loose and supple, without tension.
  • The contact should be elastic and consistent, and the outline should be correct and steady.

First/Novice level tests

The first/novice level tests are designed to show that the horse can demonstrate the correct basics required at training/preliminary level.

By now, the horse should also be able to show that he is beginning to develop impulsion so that he works forward from behind, through a supple back, into a steady, elastic contact.

Second, third, fourth/elementary/medium level tests

Once the horse reaches elementary level, the first four Scales of Training should be in place. The horse should demonstrate a greater level of straightness, suppleness to the bend, balance, self-carriage, and throughness than was present in the earlier levels.

Elementary and medium level tests ask for more well-defined and engaged transitions between the paces. The straightness, suppleness to the bend, self-carriage, throughness, and balance should now be well-established.

In conclusion

Building a good dressage foundation relies on how successfully you implement the Dressage Scales of Training.

Without the diligent application of the basics, you will remain an average rider on an average horse who never quite reaches their full potential.

The difference between good riders and great riders is simply that great riders pay close attention to the basics, whereas others let them slide.

The time you spend paying close attention to the basics and putting a good dressage foundation in place will enable you to move smoothly up the grades. You may even finish up competing successfully at a much higher level than you ever thought you could!

If you have any tips you’d like to share or any questions you’d like to ask, please do so in the comments box below. Alternatively, you may be able to find what you’re looking for in our training forum.

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