The “Training Scale” was initially invented in Germany almost a century ago. It is called "Skala der Ausbildung" and was first formulated in the famous Heeresdienstvorschrift (army training manual) from 1912 (HDV 12) by General von Redwitz and Colonel Hans von Heydebreck. Heydebreck and the last director of the cavalry riding school in Hannover, Colonel Felix Bürkner, were in charge of the last two editions of the HDV (I believe it was 1927 and 1935). In these last versions, the modern training scale was canonized. After WWII, The German FN published its "Richtlinien für Reiten und Fahren" (guidelines for riding and driving) based on the old HDV, including the training scale.
During the last decade or so, the training scale, or training pyramid, as it is often called, has found its way to the US and has become increasingly popular. Most readers will be familiar with it, but it does not hurt to repeat the elements of the scale as a reminder. There are six elements that are generally listed in this order: Rhythm/Tempo (Takt), Relaxation (Losgelassenheit), Rein Contact (Anlehnung), Impulsion (Schwung), Straightness (Geraderichtung), Collection (Versammlung). All six items on the list are categories of gymnastic training.
There are quite a few articles that have been written about the training scale already, so I don’t want to add yet another detailed explanation of these six main constituents. Instead, I would like to explore a few thoughts that generally don’t seem to enter into the discussion.
One of the most important points that I would like to make is that the training scale should not be taken as a cooking recipe. The order in which the terms are listed is not rigidly binding for all horses and all circumstances. Reality is too complex to be compartmentalized in neat little chunks that can be placed in a simple one dimensional order. That’s why discussions that you frequently hear on whether you should start the training with relaxation or with rhythm, or whatever, are not very productive, as there is no simple answer that works for all horses all the time. All the items on the list are very closely interconnected. They affect each other in many complex ways, and the needs of the individual horse play a major role in this context as well.
On a horse who is very nervous, it may seem that establishing relaxation is the most important thing, because a fearful, nervous horse cannot learn anything. However, how do you “work on relaxation”? A very effective way to get a fearful horse to calm down is through replacing whatever worries him with something interesting to do. This starts with riding an accurate arena pattern in a steady tempo. This is something very simple, that is not intimidating for the horse, but it requires the full attention of both the horse and the rider. Riding circles that are truly round and straight lines that are truly straight, focuses the horse and the rider on the current job. Every time the horse leaves the line of travel or changes the tempo, it is an opportunity for the rider to talk to him and make a correction, which brings the horse’s wandering mind back to the task at hand. This focus on the rider and the work leads to a mental balance, and together with the accuracy of the arena pattern and the steadiness of the tempo it leads to a physical balance. Mental and physical balance lead to relaxation.
What if a horse is very phlegmatic and lazy? He would go to sleep if he were any more relaxed. This type of horse has to be woken up first. You have to “rev his engine” a little, which may make him a little nervous for a short period of time, until he realizes that nothing bad will happen, but that he needs to pay attention to the rider and apply himself wholeheartedly to whatever is being asked of him. Then a better kind of relaxation will be established.
Another example is the rein contact. A common problem is that a horse will lean on one rein, reluctant to bend towards the side where the rein contact is heavier. Although the problem shows up in the rein contact, it is not a rein contact issue, i.e. it cannot be solved through rein aids, or “working on the rein contact”. The problem is caused by crookedness which leads to an imbalance. If the horse is hollow right/stiff left, he will lean onto his left shoulder and rein, and it will be more or less difficult to obtain a good bend to the left. The situation will not improve by repeatedly bending the horse with the left rein without addressing the underlying cause. First, the rider has to remedy the right to left imbalance by aligning the hips and shoulders of the horse correctly in front of each other. Then he can transfer the excess weight from the left side of the horse to the right side, so that both sides are loaded equally. As a correction, it is sometimes useful to load the right side more than the left, which will then enable the horse to bend left, and only now does it make sense to use the left rein in order to bend and stretch the neck towards the left side. In other words, what appears to be a “rein contact issue” is in reality a straightness and balance issue. Addressing the rein contact alone will never solve this problem. Only correcting the underlying crookedness and imbalance will lead to an improvement in the rein contact. In other words, straightness sometimes has to come before contact.
On the other hand, the rider cannot straighten the horse without rein contact. From this perspective the horse has to step into the rider’s hands, however imperfectly, before the rider can place the horse’s shoulders with any kind of precision in front of the haunches. This shows the mutual interdependencies a little bit. In discussions of the training scale, we have to be specific as to whether we are talking about rein contact or straightness in its most primitive form or in a more sophisticated sense of the word. For instance, rein contact in the most basic sense of the word has to be established right away, even with a young horse, in order to be able to establish a circle of aids. It is necessary in regulating the tempo and the alignment of the hips and shoulders. If the horse does not reach for the bit and the rider does not receive the thrust of the hind legs in his hands, the energy cannot be recycled, and he cannot help horse find his balance. The horse will remain strung out and on the forehand. In a more sophisticated sense, the quality of the rein contact tells the rider how straight, how supple, how balanced, and how collected the horse is.
Another good example would be a horse who bears down on both reins heavily, because he is on the forehand. Again, the problem manifests itself as a rein contact issue. However, no manipulation of the reins alone will improve the rein contact. The real issue is that the haunches are not carrying enough weight. In most cases, the hind legs are too far out behind, and the croup is pushed up, so that the joints of the hind legs are straight and braced in an extended position. The rein contact will become light, as soon as the hind legs are flexing in their upper joints and assuming a larger share of the weight. The haunches can only flex if they are engaged well enough under the body. They can only engage if the rider’s seat allows the horse’s back to rise and fall freely, and if the rider’s hands allow the hind legs to advance under the body. This flexion of the haunches is synonymous with collection, which means that in this example, which is quite common, you have to improve the collection first, before you can obtain a satisfactory rein contact.
Impulsion is listed before straightness and collection in the training scale. On the other hand, impulsion can only develop if the horse is straight, balanced, and supple in his body, because all the joints have to extend and compress more energetically. Stiffness kills impulsion. Imbalance always leads to stiffness and bracing. Crookedness is a left/right imbalance and causes the horse to lean onto the shoulder of the stiffer side. Ergo, there is no impulsion without straightness. Furthermore, in order for joints to extend more powerfully, they have to be compressed first. The more you compress them, the more eagerly they will bounce back to a more relaxed position. That is the reason why the extended trot becomes more powerful, the more the horse is collected beforehand. For humans it is no different. You can jump higher or farther if you flex your leg joints before the jump. If your legs are stiff, braced and unflexed, you won’t be able to jump very high or very far. Therefore, a certain degree of collection is necessary to develop better impulsion. On the other hand, the elastic rebound effect of impulsion will help to flex the joints of the hind legs more in the next stride, which will lead to greater collection. There is no collection without impulsion. But there is also no true impulsion without a certain degree of collection.
On a basic level, thrust and the desire to go forward have to be there right from the beginning as the seed from which impulsion grows, and they need to be cultivated by the rider. Otherwise, the horse will not make contact with the bit, he cannot develop self carriage, and the rider cannot straighten him. But true impulsion in a more sophisticated sense will only develop as a result of balance, suppleness, and a certain degree of collection.
That’s why it might be better to adopt the other German term “Beurteilungsskala” – the “judging scale”, instead of “training scale”, because it is used to evaluate the training of the horse, whether it is during a training session or during a competition test. It can help in determining what is still missing from the training, and it does not suggest a certain set order of progression in the practical training.
Oddly enough, the creators of the “training scale” did not include some key concepts that the Old Masters considered to be of the utmost importance in the training of the riding horse, such as balance and suppleness. Louis Seeger states on the very first page of his 1844 book ‘System der Reitkunst’ (System of Equestrian Art): “All books that deal with the training of the horse under saddle postulate the establishment of balance in the horse as the main goal of dressage. It is unanimously recognized that a horse can move with the greatest ease, safety, power, and stamina possible only if he moves in balance.” Almost half a century earlier, Ludwig Hünersdorf (1800, translation: TR) summed it up in a nutshell: “We work by two main principles on which the entire system of equestrian art, i.e., all movements and all rules, is based. That is balance and flexibility. From balance follow mobility and lightness, and out of flexibility develop agility, submission and with it obedience.”
Both authors recognize that an even weight distribution among the horse’s legs and the ability to move the body mass quickly and seamlessly from one leg to another are indispensable prerequisites for lightness, surefootedness, maneuverability, soundness, and stamina. A balanced horse resembles a big ball that can be rolled effortlessly in any direction at any time. It also conserves energy, since there is no energy loss through friction within the horse’s body. Finally, a balanced, supple horse absorbs the impact of his legs on the ground through the participation of all joints in the body, whereas a stiff, unbalanced horse will hit the ground hard with his legs in every stride. That’s why a balanced horse is comfortable to sit and stays sound, whereas an unbalanced horse is uncomfortable to ride and much more likely to go lame from unnecessary wear and tear.
The flexibility that Hünersdorf mentions is contained in the term Losgelassenheit, but it goes farther. It really refers to the ability to open and close all joints with the maximum range of motion and to bend evenly in both directions. Gustav Steinbrecht organized his “Gymnasium of the Horse” in chapters that discuss the horse’s ability to bend the neck and poll, the back, and the haunches, because of the great importance of flexibility or the ability to bend its joints for the rideability of the horse.
I would like to see focus, balance, and suppleness included in the training scale. They are too often neglected by riders, trainers, and judges. Focus, mutual attentiveness of horse and rider is the first prerequisite for successful riding and training. Without it, there can be no meaningful conversation between horse and rider, and without a dialogue there can be no high quality training. Balance is established as a result of a steady tempo that is ridden on accurate arena patterns with the correct alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders. The even weight distribution over all four legs allows the horse to relax and to let go of all negative muscle tension. As a result, the rider is able to detect which muscles are stiff from lack of use or from habitual tension. Bending exercises can then stretch and strengthen these stiff muscles in order to make the horse fully supple. The rein contact will become light, steady, and even once the horse is balanced and supple. Impulsion and collection in a more sophisticated sense will then develop on this foundation over time.
If balance played a bigger role in training and judging, perhaps we wouldn’t see so many horses that are going on the forehand with a high croup, a short, low neck, and the nose behind the vertical. If suppleness of the entire body were a priority, more horses would be able to execute sequences of turns and lateral movements that involve quick weight shifts from one side of the body to the other, and horses would overall stay sounder longer.
What is important to remember about the training scale is that it does not represent a fixed sequence that must be followed slavishly with each horse. Since there is no simple linear, one directional relationship between the items on the list, but rather a complex, multifaceted interdependency between them, the order in which they are addressed is flexible, but not random. It is dictated by the horse’s current needs.
The other important fact is that balance and suppleness should really be included in the training scale, since they are the essential prerequisites that lead to relaxation, a good rein contact, impulsion, and collection.