Welcome to this six-part series on the scales of training. Here, you’ll learn what the scales are, why they’re useful, and how they all relate to one another. Each article will address one of the six scales in more detail, so you can learn exactly what each one means and why it’s important in your horse’s training.
In the first of these six articles, we’ll look at the first scale – rhythm. But first, what exactly are the scales of training?
What Are the Scales of Training?
The scales of training are sometimes also called the pyramid of training or even the German training scale. If you ride dressage, you’ll hear the concept spoken about a lot.
It was developed from the German cavalry, and basically provides an outline for the way a horse’s training should progress. It is also used to judge dressage competitions worldwide.
The scales, in order of progression, are:
The first scale forms the base of the pyramid, and the sixth one the top – meaning that rhythm is the foundation that all other scales should be built upon. They are usually considered to be sequential, so each level becomes easier as the ones before it improve. That is, you can’t have collection without good connection and impulsion, for instance. But as the horse’s ability to collect improves, so should the impulsion and connection.
So as you can see, the scales of training aren’t always linear or clear cut, as with most things in dressage. Sometimes, you might work on two simultaneously, or find yourself needing to work on an element of a higher scale before cementing a lower one. And each level of the scale is interrelated. It can be quite confusing. Michael Eilberg has a great explanation of how the overall scales of training connect to one another, which you can read here.
Generally though, the scales at the bottom should always be kept in mind as you work on improving the ones at the top. For example, you shouldn’t be sacrificing rhythm in search of impulsion.
The First Scale – Rhythm
USDF defines rhythm as “the term used for the characteristic sequence of footfalls and timing of a pure walk, pure trot and pure canter. The rhythm should be expressed with energy and in a suitable and consistent tempo with the horse remaining in balance and self-carriage appropriate to [his] level of training.”
There are three main things that make up what we refer to as rhythm in a horse, no matter the gaits. The FEI describes these three elements as:
- Regularity of the beats
- The correct sequence of footfalls
- Tempo (the speed of the rhythm)
Over time, a horse’s gaits can develop more elasticity, expression, suspension, and range of movement—so they will likely look flashier and more graceful. This is why top dressage riders can make an ordinary horse quite extraordinary over time.
But regardless of how much “fancier” the paces become, the rhythm itself must always remain pure; a clear four-beat walk, two-beat trot, and three-beat canter all in balance and tempo which is appropriate to their schooling level.
And for each of these paces, the footfall has to be right too. The correct sequence of footfalls for walk, trot, and canter is outlined below:
- Walk: four separate beats. For example, left hind, left front, right hind and right front.
- Trot: two beats. The legs move in diagonal pairs. For example, right hind foot and left forefoot together, followed by a moment of suspension (where all feet are off the floor), then the diagonal pairs swap with the left hind and right fore together.
- Canter: three beats. For example, right hind, left hind and right front together, then left front and a moment of suspension. This is for the left lead canter.
So, a horse who (for instance) demonstrates a four-beat canter would be showing a loss of rhythm. For a horse to be in good rhythm, the natural gait of the horse should be preserved. As your horse becomes more schooled, their natural gaits will improve – just like a human dancer or swimmer can improve their performance with training. Or a rider, for that matter!
The gaits should also always be regular. This means your horse should take the same length of stride each time and take the same amount of time. So each collected trot step would be the same as the one before or the one after. And the same goes for an extended trot. Or a canter. This is what makes a horse look even – and a horse who takes a stride which isn’t regular will usually look lame or unsound in some way.
Finally, tempo should be maintained. The tempo refers to the speed of the rhythm. Some horses take shorter, faster strides than others. Neither is incorrect, but the tempo should stay the same within a gait, and should be suitable for the horse. You can see a change in tempo if a horse looks rushed (or the opposite; lazy) when being ridden, or if they don’t stay at a consistent speed.
How Do You Work on and Improve Rhythm?
Working on rhythm is a case of improving the basics, as well as ensuring your horse is responsive to the aids. Some horses naturally have a very well-defined rhythm, whereas others lose the clarity of rhythm a bit more easily.
The rider has to make sure the horse is forward and active enough to be energetic and balanced, but not so forward that they rush or start to fall on the forehand. If the horse is too fast or too slow, the rhythm will be impacted.
Good exercises include transitions, shoulder in, and polework. All of these help to activate the hind legs and get your horse to use themselves more effectively. Remember that the correct rhythm needs to be maintained through circles, turns, lateral work, and straight lines, as well as transitions.
So, that’s the first scale. Now there’s only five more to master! In parts two to six of our series, we’ll look at each of the other training scales. Part Two examines suppleness.