The Classical Horsemanship Training Scale
Updated: Feb 13
Historically the training of horses was mainly developed for military purposes. Horses were considered a valuable economic asset; it made sense to train them with careful and correct methods. Books dating as far back as 400 BC, written by Greek generals, document the same training principles which became what is known today as ‘Classical Horsemanship.’ I like the term ‘Classical Horsemanship’ over ‘Classical Dressage’ because the training scale is based on proven historical training and handling methods of horses which have stood the test of time.
Horses are no longer used for military purposes, but have become partners in equestrian sports. Though their use has changed, the nature of the horse has remained fundamentally the same. Classical principles have not lost their soundness, and these same principles helped to develop today’s modern training scale. Followed correctly, they can help produce a dressage horse that will become a real work of art. The training scale can be applied to almost all equestrian disciplines to help improve both horse and rider.
The Pyramid of Training or Training Scale was developed to ensure classical training principles. It is important to note that the steps themselves are interrelated. A horse & rider pair isn’t supposed to perfect each level of the scale before attempting the next, but should use the range as a reference for progression and development.
The Training Scale
Rhythm, relaxation, and contact form the first phase of the training scale. In this part of the training, the horse gets accustomed to accepting the rider's aids. The warm-up in daily work should use this phase.
Rhythm – refers to the sequence of footfalls in each gait of the horse. The horse should be energetic with a consistent tempo in the walk, trot, and canter.
Relaxation – (also referred to as suppleness) refers to the horse's mental and physical state. The horse learns to accept the rider's influence without becoming tense or anxious. He should acquire the correct muscle tone as he moves with suppleness and a swinging back. The horse should allow the rider to bend him laterally, as well as lengthen and shorten his stride.
Used together, relaxation, connection, impulsion, and straightness develop the driving power of the horse through their hind legs. In this phase, the rider asks the horse to step under their body more and diligently push forward from behind. This phase focuses on many gymnastic exercises to build the horse's flexibility and strength. Straightness in this phase is essential, which teaches the horse to use its back correctly and move with more freedom.
Connection – is when the energy of the horse is generated from driving aids, which flow through the horse's body to the rider's hands. The contact between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth must be elastic and adjustable. Acceptance of the contact is identified by the horse quietly chewing on the bit. The quality of the connection can be tested by "releasing the reins" for a few steps to demonstrate self-carriage or allowing the horse to chew the reins out of the hands to demonstrate relaxation.
Impulsion – describes the horse's eagerness to move, yet control the energy generated from the hindquarters. Impulsion increases the horse's suspension in the trot and canter, but not the walk. It is a necessary step to develop medium paces within the gates and later on with collection, the extended paces.
Straightness – is when the footfalls of the forehand and the hindquarters are aligned appropriately on straight and curved lines. By nature, every horse and rider are crooked. Horses are usually crooked or hollow on one side and stiff on the other side. This also causes uneven contact in the connection. Gymnastic and lateral exercises help develop symmetry in the horse. Straightness allows the horse to engage both hind legs evenly and prepare him for collection.
Impulsion, straightness, and collection develop the carrying power of the hind legs. This strengthens the horse to bear more weight on its hindquarters. This phase is required to reach higher levels of Dressage. Some older books also mention a seventh element of the training scale, which is elevation. Head carriage and front-end elevation are directly related to the degree of collection achieved; however, in today's version of the training scale, elevation is not considered.
Collection – The horse shows collection when he fully engages his hindquarters and shortens his base of support, resulting in lightness on the forehand. Because his center of mass shifts backward, the forehand is also more elevated. The horse feels more "uphill," his neck is arched, and his whole topline extends. The horse shows powerful cadence and impulsion in his steps and strides. Collection helps improve the balance and equilibrium of the horse, which is essentially displaced by the weight of the rider. A collected horse should be engaged, light in the forehand, and more pleasurable to ride. Collection develops over many years through exercises such as shoulder-in, half-pass, travers, renvers, transitions up and down, and half-halts.