These are the six building blocks of the German Training Scale. The German words in brackets have a more encompassing meaning than their vague English counterparts. They are interdependent and interwoven each stage should be achieved before moving on to the next. They are not, however, a checklist of success. The lower rungs should always be revisited to check that progress is genuine and that the horse is fulfilling all the preceding requirements.
The elements can be further subdivided into three other categories:
Relaxation, Rhythm and Contact are part of the ‘familiarisation phase’ when a horse is encouraged to rediscover his natural balance when carrying a rider. He is encouraged to relax, to find his natural rhythm and to seek an elastic connection to the rider via the rein
The second phase is the development of the thrust from the hindquarters an takes in impulsion and straightness.
The third phase develops the carrying power of the hind legs; collection.
Because Balance and Flexion are inextricably linked in dressage some believe these should be included in the Training Scale. Balance is connected to Rhythm and Straightness and without straightness there is no Relaxation, the horse cannot come into self carriage through accepting the bit evenly—on a Contact—neither can there be any true Impulsion unless the horse moves in a relaxed, straight manner.
Flexion is entwined with Straightness as you can’t straighten a horse if you can’t bend him. If, during your ride you think to work on the elements of rhythm, balance and straightness, you should find yourself achieving relaxation, impulsion and collection as a matter of course.
Looking in more detail at the elements; the following is taken from ‘The Principles of Riding’, which is part of the ‘Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation’.
Looseness is a prerequisite for all further training and, along with rhythm, is and 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 can it work with looseness and can it use itself to the full. 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 it's work. Indications of looseness are a swinging back, snorting, and a closed but not immobile mouth. Looseness had been achieved when the horse will stretch its head and neck forwards and downwards in all three gaits.
The term ‘rhythm’ refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait: They should cover equal distances and also be of equal duration. The rhythm should be maintained through transitions and turns as well as on straight lines. No exercise or movement can be good if the rhythm falters; and the training is incorrect if it results in loss of rhythm.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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).
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. 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 both sides of the body equally. Most horses are crooked. Like right and left-handed people, this crookedness has its origins in the brain and is something the horse is born with. If the horse is straight, the hind legs will push exactly in the direction of the centre of gravity. The restraining aids will then also pass through the horse correctly, via the moth, poll, neck and back to the hindquarters, and they will act on 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 to create the forward movement. 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.
I have been taken to task more than once for placing Relaxation before Rhythm on the scale. But the scales are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ linear progression that you check off one-by-one. Whether you need to begin with ‘relaxing’ a hot horse or ‘waking up’ a more phlegmatic one determines your starting point. Choosing Relaxation or Rhythm as your foundation is not so important as how you build the rest of the training. Maybe the training hexagon would be a better term where all the points on the scale touch in the middle as they are all interdependent on each other.
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Classical Dressage Notebook