The German Scales of Training
Adapted from “The Principles of Riding”Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation (Book 1, pp.136–141)
The purpose of dressage training is to develop to the fullest the horse’s natural physical and mental aptitudes, making him into an obedient riding horse that is a pleasure to ride.
The Training Scale sets out, in the order they are obtained, the basic qualities of the riding horse and the phases in the development of these qualities. None of the six qualities can be considered in isolation, however—they are all interdependent. They must be developed in accordance with a systematic plan, though not singly and in a rigid order. There are, instead, three main stages of training that overlap (preliminary ridden training/familiarization, development of forward thrust/pushing power and development of carrying capacity) that are links between the different concepts.
Rhythm, looseness and contact/acceptance of the bit (the first three qualities in the training scale) will be of primary importance during the stage of familiarization, but as the horse is to develop thrust and pushing power, impulsion and straightness will also become important, and collection will be necessary as well for the development of carrying capacity.
The six qualities are:
These qualities are essential for the dressage horses, however all horses (show jumping, cross-country and even leisure horses) should still receive the same systematic basic training to ensure that they are sufficiently supple and ‘through’ at all times (Durchlässigkeit or ‘letting the aids through’). This ensures that they can be ridden harmoniously and also helps to keep them sound.
The training scale can be used for both the systematic basic training of the young horse or as a basis for a training session with an older horse (i.e., each individual lesson contains this training plan in a condensed form).
The late Reiner Klimke considered Suppleness ‘Losgelassenheit’ before Rhythm and described it as a “horse which freely gives all its muscles to use its whole body without resistance; the horse is supple and unconstrained.”
Sarah personally subscribes to Klimke's view and places fundamental emphasis on Suppleness (Looseness).
Rhythm refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait: they should cover equal distances and also be of equal duration. For example, in working trot, the step taken by one diagonal should cover the same amount of ground as the other, and the beat should be regular. To be able to judge the correctness of the rhythm, the trainer needs a good understanding of how the horse moves in the basic gaits.
Looseness is a prerequisite for all further training and, along with rhythm, is an essential aim of the preliminary training phase. Even if the rhythm is maintained, the movement cannot be considered correct unless the horse is working through its back, and the muscles are free from tension. Only if the horse is physically and mentally free from tension or constraint (in German: Zwanglosigkeit) can it work with looseness and can it use itself to the fullest.
The horse’s joints should bend and straighten equally on each side of its body and with each step or stride, and the horse should convey the impression that it is putting its whole mind and body into its work.
Indications of looseness (and mental relaxation) are:
• A contented, happy expression (eyes, ear movements)
• A rhythmically swinging back
• A closed but not immobile mouth (the horse should mouth the bit gently)
• Tail lifted slightly (‘carried’) and swinging in time with the movement
• ‘Snorting’, which is a sign that the horse is mentally relaxed
Looseness has been achieved when the horse will stretch its head and neck forwards and downwards in all three gaits. A horse working with looseness should swing through its back and move with rhythmic unspoilt natural paces; it should not rush forward, quickening its steps, i.e. ‘running’. It should accept the forward-driving aids, and the rider should be able to sit the movement and not be thrown out of the saddle.
Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and ‘seek’ a contact with the rider’s hand, thus ‘going onto’ the contact. As they say in Germany, ‘the horse seeks the contact and the rider provides it’.
A correct steady contact allows the horse to find its balance under the rider and find a rhythm in each of the gaits. The poll should always be the highest point of the neck, except when the horse is being ridden forwards and downwards, i.e., in an extended outline. THE CONTACT SHOULD NEVER BE ACHIEVED THROUGH A BACKWARD ACTION OF THE HANDS. It should result from the correctly delivered forward thrust of the hind legs. The horse should go forward confidently onto the contact in response to the rider’s driving aids.
Taking a contact gradually evolves into being on the bit, which entails flexion at the poll. This should not be considered as an aim in itself: the horse should come onto the bit as a consequence and byproduct of correct schooling. When working with young horses at the basic stage of training, or when performing ‘loosening’ work with older horses, the trainer should avoid trying to ‘get the horse onto the bit’ prematurely. If this is achieved by use of the hands alone, it detracts from the looseness and the activity of the hind legs and so defeats the object of the training.
A horse is said to have impulsion when the energy created by the hind legs is being transmitted into the gait and into every aspect of the forward movement. A horse can be said to be working with impulsion when it pushes off energetically from the ground and swings its feet well forward.
To be able to work with impulsion in trot and canter, the horse needs first to be able to show looseness (Losgelassenheit), a springy, swinging back, and a soft, correct contact. Impulsion is only possible in the trot and canter. There can be no impulsion in the walk because there is no moment of suspension.
The impulsion is of good quality if the hocks are carrier energetically forwards and upwards immediately after the feet leave the ground, rather than being carried only upwards, or being drawn backwards. The movements are absorbed by the horse’s back muscles, so that the rider can sit softly and ‘go with’ the movement, and while still feeling the powerful forward thrust of the hind legs: the horse is said to ‘take the rider with it’.
Impulsion is created by training. The rider makes use of the horse’s natural paces, but ‘adds’ to them looseness, forward thrust (originating in the hindquarters) and suppleness (Durchlässigkeit).
If the horse is pushed too hard so that it quickens its steps, the moment of suspension (suspension phase) is shortened because it puts its feet down sooner. Even if the rhythm is maintained, if the tempo is too fast, the impulsion will suffer as a result.
A horse is said to be straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters, that is when its longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following. In Germany, the horse is then also said to be ‘covering the track’.
Straightness is necessary in order for the weight to be evenly distributed over the two halves of the body. It is developed through systematically training and suppling (‘gymnasticizing’) both sides of the body equally.
Most horses are naturally crooked. Like right- and left-handedness in humans, this crookedness has its origins in the brain and is something the horse is born with. Also, the horse’s shoulders are narrower than its hindquarters which further encourages it to be crooked.
In most cases, the right hind foot is set down further to the right than the right forefoot. As a result, the right hind leg has to push forward more while the left hind leg is required to bend more. Also, the left foreleg is subjected to more wear and tear.
If more weight is transferred onto the hindquarters, so that the hind legs are required to bend more, the left hind leg will be able to bend but the right leg will try to avoid doing so by stepping sideways, outside the track of the right forefoot.
Straightness is necessary for the following reasons:
• So that the horse’s weight is evenly distributed on both sides, and to avoid excessive wear and tear on the limbs on one side
• So that the horse can push equally and effectively with its hind legs (to optimize the forward thrust)
• So that the rider can keep the horse on the aids properly and develops its suppleness (Durchlässigkeit)
• To enable the horse to have an even contact on both sides
• In order to obtain collection
Only if the horse is straight can it be equally supple an’through’ (Durchlässigkeit) on both reins.
If the horse is straight, the hind legs will push exactly in the direction of the center of gravity. The restraining aids will then also pass through the horse correctly, via the mouth, poll, and neck and back to the hindquarters, and they will act on both hind legs equally.
Straightening the horse is a never-ending task, since every horse has some degree of natural crookedness.
Straightness is a precondition for collection since only if the horse is straight can the weight be transferred onto both hind legs equally.
The aim of all gymnastic training is to create a horse which is useful and ready and willing to perform. For the horse to meet these conditions, its weight, plus that of its rider, must be distributed as evenly as possible over all four legs. This means reducing the amount of weight on the forelegs, which naturally carry more of the load than the hind legs, and increasing by the same amount the weight on the hind legs, which were originally intended mainly for creating the forward movement.
In collection, the hind legs (the hock and stifle joints) bend more, stepping further underneath the horse in the direction of the center of gravity, and taking a greater share of the load. This is its turn lightens the forehand, giving more freedom to the movements of the forelegs. The horse looks and feels more ‘uphill’. The steps become shorter but without losing their energy or activity. The impulsion is maintained in full in the trot and canter, and as a result the steps become more expressive and ‘stately’. The horse is built in such a way that there is more weight on its forehand than on its hindquarters. By sitting just behind the shoulders, and so placing even more weight on the forehand, the riders makes the weight distribution even more uneven. Hence training the horse to carry more of the weight on its hindquarters also makes it safer to rider (allowing it to balance and keep its footing), and helps to keep it sound. Every horse will therefore benefit from some degree of collection.
By training and developing the relevant muscles, it is possible to increase the carrying capacity of the hindquarters. On the other hand, the forelegs, which support rather than push, can only be strengthened to a very limited degree through training. It is therefore more sensible, and indeed necessary, to transfer some of the weight to the hindquarters.
The increased flexion of the hind legs results in the neck being raised. The horse is then in a position, if the carrying capacity of the hindquarters is sufficiently developed, to move in balance and self-carriage in all three gaits.
Being ‘through’, or ‘letting the aids through’ means that the horse is prepared to accept the rider’s aids obediently and without tension. It should respond to the driving aids without hesitation, i.e., its hind legs should ‘swing though’ actively, creating forward thrust. At the same time, the rein aids should pass through, i.e., be ‘allowed through’ from the mouth, via the poll, neck and back, to the hindquarters, without being blocked by tension at any point. The horse can be said to be ‘through’ or to ‘let the aids through’ when it remains loose and responds obediently, and equally on both reins, to the driving, restraining and sideways-acting aids. This quality is the hallmark of the correctly schooled horse.
A horse which can be collected at any time and in all three gaits has attained the highest level of Durchlässigkeit.