I wrote the following to the Classical Dressage discussion group. I accidentally transposed Straightening and Impulsion, but it made for a very interesting reply.

The Training Scales as I know them are:

Relaxation (losgelassenheit)

Rhythm (takt)

Contact (anlehnung )

Straightening (geraderichten)

Impulsion (schwung)

Collection (versammlung)

Traditionally, Schwung is listed before Geraderichten. However, there is no need to argue about it, because on the one hand you have to activate the haunches more, in order for the horse to maintain his tempo and stride length within the gait when you straighten him. But on the other hand, Schwung in the narrower sense of the word will not manifest itself until the horse has achieved a certain degree of straightness.

Can you tell me when they first appeared? Or are they relatively modern?

To my knowledge, the first "Skala der Ausbildung" was formulated in the famous Heeresdienstvorschrift from 1912 (HDV 12) by general von Redwitz and colonel Hans von Heydebreck. Heydebreck and colonel Felix Buerkner were in charge of the last two revisions of the HDV (I believe it was 1927 and 1935, or close to these dates). In these last editions, the modern training scale was canonized. After W.W.II, The German FN published its "Richtlinien fuer Reiten und Fahren" based on the old HDV, including the training scale.

If the horse isn't straight how can it move rhythmically? If it isn't straight how can you have an acceptable contact?

That's a good question. In my own riding I pay a great deal of attention to straightness right from the start. The only thing that has to come first is sufficient thrust in a good rhythm. When you sit on a horse that was taught by his rider to suck back you will often experience that any attempt at moving the shoulders will result in the horse stopping and refusing to go forward. These are seriously spoilt horses, on the point of becoming dangerous, because they are so disobedient. Yet, they are more common than you would think, and their owners generally have no idea that their horse is sucked back - or how bad things really are, how close they are to getting hurt by their horse.

The reason why I try to adjust the shoulders in front of the haunches early on is because crookedness is imbalance. Imbalance causes tension and resistance. A tense and unbalanced horse will not be able to accomplish relaxation, the 1st element on the training scale, and without balance, relaxation and straightness, it is impossible to accomplish a light, even, ‘live’ rein contact, the 3rd element on the training pyramid.

I think it is important not to take the sequence of the elements of the training scale as an absolutely binding linear sequence. The reality behind these concepts is much more complex and multidimensional than a single, one-dimensional list is able to express. To do reality justice, you would have to design a 3 D model with reciprocal connections from each individual element to all other elements. Due to the complexity, you can make plausible arguments for several different sequences that reflect different reciprocal relationships and cause-effect chains. They may all be equally reasonable. Yet they all capture only a small part of the true nature of things.

You may find that with different horses you have to follow a slightly different sequence, depending on their personality, conformation and previous training history. In bad correction cases, you may have to begin with collection in order get to balance and relaxation. Those of you who have corrected enough horses have probably encountered cases in which you had to start the work somewhere in the middle of the standard curriculum, work your way back to novice level from there, before being able to build up again. It's a little like a house that is built half way, with a lot of holes in the walls and a shaky foundation. You come in and remove brick by brick, layer by layer, until you have worked your way down to the foundation. At that time you are back to ground zero, where the completely green horse starts out. And now you can begin the conventional training. Before you have reached this ground zero, you are still correcting the mistakes of your esteemed predecessor(s).

In the worst cases, where the horse's soul is damaged, you can't even ride the horse, but you have to go back to the socialisation phase that the pre-green horse goes through, before you can even begin any physical work on the horse's musculature. Trust and discipline issues may be so pressing that they need to be dealt with before you can sit on the horse. These horses have to be started over from scratch, beginning with lungeing in a round pen, with the help of an assistant. Trust and respect have to be restored. The horse has to come out of his shell and bond with his trainer, take an interest in his work. Without that, all the physical work you do will remain worthless.

To return to the issue of straightness. There are many ways in which we can correct the horse's crookedness, such as dropping one seat bone more than the other, keeping one seat bone more forward than the other, bringing our shoulders closer to one particular leg, letting him bounce off one knee, calf, or rein, if he should deviate from his track. Even regulating the thrust and carriage of the hind legs leads to straightness, because if both hind legs thrust exactly to the same degree, and in the same direction (towards the centre of gravity), the horse is straight. Bending and lateral movements are valuable as well, but their application follows, and is added to, the above mentioned measures.

Even on a fairly green horse, the rider will try to animate the lagging hind leg more and to prevent the weaker hind leg from escaping sideways. The rider will also try to catch the "aberrant" shoulder and "pop" it back in line, because otherwise the horse will lean on the rein of that side. Horses should never learn to lean. If we allow the young horse to go crooked "because he is green", "because he is not ready to be straight" we don't do your horse any favours. All we accomplish is that you practice the wrong things and build the wrong musculature. Every minute that the horse is allowed to go crooked confirms the crookedness and cements the asymmetry, the stiffness and resistance - until they become too difficult to handle for the average rider.

If we work towards the purity of the gaits right from the start, the horse will never acquire any major bad habits, and even very young horses learn quickly to balance themselves under the rider and to go with good rhythm, good impulsion, and a light even rein contact. They also stay sounder longer, because encouraging rhythm, balance, a good work ethic (i.e. the honest forward), and straightness, while discouraging laziness, crookedness, and irregularity enables the horse to use himself effectively without wearing himself out by having muscle groups working against each other.

More on the Training Scales


If your browser doesn’t open your email client, click here)

Classical Dressage Notebook