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How to Use the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid

dressage scales of training pyramid

If you’re just beginning your journey into the world of dressage, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid.

The Training Scales are your first port of call when things go wrong, as they form the foundation of your training. Work your way methodically along the Scales, and you’re paving the way for dressage success!

So, how do you use the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid?

Read on to learn how!

What is the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid?

The dressage training scale was originally conceived by the German military as a way of ensuring that the classical principles of schooling and training the horse were carried on through generations of riders.

The Training Scales are usually depicted as a pyramid, with rhythm as the foundation through to collection as the pinnacle.

The Scales of Training are:

  1. Rhythm
  2. Suppleness
  3. Contact
  4. Impulsion
  5. Straightness
  6. Collection

The Scales are interdependent. In other words, they are like building blocks. However, the most important Scale is rhythm. If the rhythm is not pure and correct, it’s impossible for the horse to progress.

For example, you can’t have a good elastic contact if the horse isn’t working through a supple back and in a good rhythm. That said, if you focus on one individual element of the Training Scale, you will most likely improve one or more of the others.

Judging dressage tests and the Scales of Training

Dressage judges are trained to assess the horse’s training in line with the Scales of Training, and the dressage tests are designed around the training pyramid.

So, at the lower levels, the emphasis is on rhythm, suppleness, and contact.

On USEF test sheets, the purpose of the test is shown. For example, in training level tests, the purpose is to:

confirm that the horse’s muscles are supple and loose and that the horse moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit.

In BD dressage tests, the Training Scale is reflected in the directives column on the sheet and in the collective definitions.

Using The Training Scales

In this part of our guide, we look at each of the Scales, explain why each is important, and give you some exercises to work on to develop each Scale.

1. Rhythm

The correct rhythm is crucial in dressage. The horse’s gaits must be pure, showing four beats in the walk, two beats in the trot, and three beats in the canter. The rhythm must be regular and the tempo (speed of the rhythm) appropriate for the work that the horse is doing.

Exercise 1 – Finding Your Horse’s Natural Rhythm

The best way to find your horse’s natural rhythm is to do so without the interference of a rider on his back.

Step 1

Lunge your horse in each gait, and watch how he naturally moves. Adjust the horse’s tempo so that he doesn’t rush or move too slowly.

Step 2

Once the horse is working in a good rhythm, introduce a few transitions. Aim for the transitions between the paces and within them to be smooth and unhurried.

Without you on his back, the horse will learn to find his own balance.

Step 3

Make the circle smaller and then larger again. That helps to develop the horse’s balance and consolidates the tempo and rhythm.

Exercise 2 – Under Saddle

Now, repeat the same exercises but from the saddle.

Be careful that you don’t push your horse out of the rhythm and tempo that you established on the lunge.

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2. Suppleness

In nutshell, suppleness refers to the swing through the horse’s back and topline and his ability to bend uniformly and evenly from side to side.

The muscles and joints that run from the hind legs, over the quarters, croup, front of the withers, and up to the poll must be loose and without tension.

Exercise 3 – Circles, serpentines, changes of direction

Circles, serpentines, and changes of direction are excellent tools for helping to develop suppleness.

Get inventive so that your schooling sessions aren’t boring for the horse, and use lots of different patterns, remembering to keep the horse working in the correct rhythm and tempo for the pace you’re riding in.

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3. Contact

Your contact with the horse’s mouth should be elastic, and the horse should seek your hand. You should never ‘take’ the contact from the horse or impose a contact upon him. Think of riding from the back to the front and never the other way around.

You can’t hold or fiddle the horse’s head into the correct outline! The horse will only work into an elastic contact and true connection when he is working forward through a supple topline and in a correct rhythm. If the horse is hollow through his back, he will most likely work above the bit, and you won’t have the elasticity of contact that you’re looking for.

So, if you have contact issues, revisit the exercises for suppleness.

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4. Impulsion

Impulsion does not mean speed.

Impulsion refers to the power and thrust that’s generated by the horse’s hindquarters, pushing the horse forward and upward. The impulsion that you create is contained by the elastic contact.

So, if your horse isn’t working through his back into an elastic contact, you cannot create impulsion.

Use half-halts to harness and control the impulsion so that the horse doesn’t increase his tempo or hurry out of his rhythm.

Exercise 4 – Transitions

You can develop more impulsion by making sure that the horse is responsive to your forward leg aids.

To do that, use lots of transitions between the gaits and within the paces, too. When making transitions within the pace, use half-halts to contain the energy you have, and then ride the horse forward to lengthen his stride.

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5. Straightness

The horse must move straight both on a straight line and on a circle.

When viewed from behind, the horse’s hind feet should step into the footprints left by his front feet (unless you’re riding lateral movements). Effectively, the horse should appear to be moving along a railway track.

For the horse to move straight, he must be supple to the bend. That sounds a little contradictory. However, if the horse is stiff laterally, he won’t be able to uniformly bend his body around the curve of a circle. Horses that are not straight often push their quarters out around circles and through the corners of the arena.

Exercise 5 – Shoulder-in, shoulder-fore, travers, counter-canter

The most helpful exercises for improving suppleness to the bend and, therefore, straightness, are lateral exercises.

When correctly ridden, shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, travers, and counter-canter encourage your horse to bend around your inside leg and bring his hind legs more underneath his body. These exercises can be ridden on a straight line and around a circle. Use combinations of all three exercises to develop your horse’s lateral suppleness and straightness.

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6. Collection

Collection is the ultimate aim of the dressage rider and is the pinnacle of the Dressage Scales of Training pyramid.

Collection is not created by shortening the horse’s stride, but by teaching him to transfer his weight back onto this hindquarters, making his balance more uphill and working in self-carriage. For this to be achieved, the horse must be physically and mentally strong enough.

When the horse is collected, he will be able to perform more advanced movements with apparent ease, and his paces will have more elevation and expression.

True collection is only possible when the horse has been schooled correctly and systematically, following the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid. Until the horse can work in a correct rhythm, through a supple topline, into a light elastic contact, with plenty of energy, and straight, he cannot be collected.

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Troubleshooting using The Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid

No matter what level your horse is working at, when things go wrong, you must revisit the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid and play dressage detective! Think about each of the scales and work out where the weak link is that’s causing the issue.

For example, if your horse tends to work above the bit, the issue is most likely with the suppleness, rather than the contact itself. If the horse is tense, he will stiffen through his back. So, you need to work on encouraging the horse to relax. Once your horse has relaxed, you can work on encouraging him to work through his back, which naturally leads to the horse seeking your contact and working into a rounder frame and more elastic contact. Problem solved!

In conclusion

Every aspiring dressage rider should familiarize themselves with the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid. School your horse with the Scales always at the forefront of your mind.

When things don’t go according to plan, take a step back and consider which of the Scales is likely to be the cause of the problem.

Remember that all the Scales are intertwined; you can’t have one without the others. So, take a holistic approach to your training, using the Scales to formulate a plan.

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