Dressage Foundations

The Scales of Training

Dressage training, whether competitive or for enjoyment at home, should be based on a set of principles which help us to remember what we are looking for at every stage. So whether it’s basics like large circles and turns, or more advanced movements like half passes, the scales of training apply. The scales also give us a way forward when training the younger horse, and may help to give a means of assessing progress. Indeed, the marks given in a test are awarded based on the adherence to the scales, applicable to the level of test.

Here we take a look at the Scales of Training, and explain what each stage means.  Firstly, the scales are as follows: Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection.

PAGE 1The idea is that the stages are approached in this order, and generally, we think of them as building blocks which are best built in the right order to achieve a stable outcome. However, there are many times in training horses when things need to be approached from a slightly different angle, and in these cases one may seem to skip over a certain stage in order to work on a particular issue or get a point across, but eventually returning to the scales in order is essential, as without correct foundations, the future training for that horse is not built on solid basics.


The first building block for our future dressage horse is rhythm. This is a term we hear a lot in dressage, but what does it mean? Rhythm has two meanings here, and both are important. Firstly, and in my opinion most importantly, rhythm describes the way the horse should move his feet in each pace. By this we mean the order in which he places his feet on the ground for each pace, and the gap between each footfall. In the case of trot and canter, this also includes the required moment of suspension.

The Walk: Four clear separate hoof beats, which are regularly spaced, and have a marching beat.

dressage foundations 1The Trot: Two beats, the legs move in diagonal pairs and are separated by a moment of suspension when all four feet are off the ground. This picture clearly shows the diagonal pairs in action in trot. Photo Credit: www.bertaimages.co.uk

dressage foundations 2

The Canter: Three beats, where the middle beat is made by a diagonal pair of legs, and each set of three beats makes one stride, and each stride is separated from the next by a moment of suspension. This picture clearly shows the the first beat of the the single hind leg on the ground, soon to be followed by the diagonal pair of legs.

Photo Credit:www.bigtimemedia.co.uk

Secondly, rhythm concerns the tempo with which the horse moves, or the speed of the beat. The tempo will vary greatly from horse to horse and especially between types and sizes of horse, but the important thing to remember is that whatever the natural tempo of your horse, the goal is for the horse to keep the same tempo through all movements performed within that pace. So whether its trotting round a corner, or performing extended trot, ideally the tempo should remain consistent. This applies to whatever tempo your horse has in walk, trot and canter.


Suppleness refers to the horse’s ability to move and carry the rider with his muscles working in a toned way, with power but free from resistance and stiffness. In particular we refer to the muscles of the horse’s top line. The horse should be able to bend his neck and body equally in both directions, and indeed the suppleness of the top line muscles should allow the horse’s spine to have flexibility and swing, which allows the horse to work with a rounded outline, and the test of the horse’s suppleness in these muscles is that when the contact is held forward, that the horse will seek down and forward to follow the contact, and not become hollow in his outline. Without a certain level of suppleness, it is not possible to develop the contact we now move on to describe.


The word contact here describes the connection from the rider to the horse’s mouth via the reins and bit. The contact we strive for is light, elastic feeling, and even in both hands. This contact is achieved, however, by establishing the connection through so much more than the hands and bit. To achieve lightness, elasticity and evenness the rider must create a connection through the horse’s body, instigated by the driving aids of the legs which ask the horse to step more under with the hind legs. This energy is then balanced by the rider’s seat and works to create the suppleness we discussed above, creating a connection between the hindquarters and the forehand. This connection ultimately arrives as contact in the rider’s hands, and as we said previously, should ideally be light, elastic and even. Without the development of appropriate correct contact, it is not possible to move on to the higher levels of dressage, which require impulsion and eventually collection.


Impulsion can be described as contained energy or power, the appearance of having power stored within the horse’s body that he happily allows to be contained by the rein contact so that the power does not get turned into extra speed. The skill in the rider here lies in the ability to gauge the amount of impulsion the horse can cope with, and not to create so much power that the horse ends up heavy on the reins and speeding up instead. This is obviously a much more advanced concept and some horses may never have the physical ability to display a high level of impulsion due to the required levels of suppleness, contact and power, which have to result from the horse’s athletic ability to step under his body with the hind legs. An example of impulsion is the horse in a superb extended trot, where he appears to go ‘bigger’ not faster, his energy levels are obvious due to the explosion of power, but this power is contained and does not result in the horse seeming heavy in the hand or falling forward. This last point is proved by the ability to make a good transition back to collection from extension.


Straightness is not as easy to achieve as it may sound, as horses are like people in that they generally favour one side and will often move with a natural curve to their bodies. Through correct training, and therefore the development of suppleness and contact, the horse can become straighter and carry his body so that the hind legs always follow in the tracks of the front legs when performing straight lines or circles. This straightness in the way of going should result in an even feel on the reins, and in turn make it easier to develop further impulsion.


Collection is achieved when the horse has learned to adjust his weight distribution more towards the hindquarters than towards the forehand, and he then begins to carry the rider in a very efficient way. Collection can begin to develop when the horse has begun to support more of his weight behind, and uses this tendency to make movements easier, such as stopping quickly, turning smoothly, and travelling sideways. At its highest levels, collection is displayed in the highly trained and developed Grand Prix horse, who is able to perform Piaffe (to trot almost on the spot), and indeed the highest level of canter pirouette, where he turns almost on the spot in canter. Collection makes the horse lighter in his shoulders, more manoeuvrable and athletic, and ultimately better to ride. It is not possible to develop good collection unless the horse has become straighter in his way of going, as of course, collection is achieved by the taking of more weight on the hind legs, and this cannot be done if the horse’s body is not correctly aligned as the hind legs will not be stepping under, but to the side. We can see now, that without the development of correct and consistent rhythm, without encouraging ease of movement and suppleness, and then without achieving appropriate contact, it is not possible to develop the impulsion and straightness required to develop collection, which is the goal of dressage. To make the horse the best ride he can be, removing through training unevenness and tension, whilst maintaining the best qualities of his natural movement.

Cheryl Hammerson BHSAI Regd Bsc Hons Freelance Dressage Trainer 07879 424330 www.cheryl-hammerson-dressage.co.uk

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