It is always nice to have a plan or a map to follow when learning something new. The training scale is that map for many riders when they begin schooling their horse. However, the training scale can be equally as valuable for you, the rider. It is a road map to help keep you on track with your riding.
So before we begin, let’s be clear about what the training scale actually is. The training scale is sequence of different aspects of training which, when worked through, has been found to develop horses correctly for being ridden.
While each step is an individual aspect of training, none of them will be worked on individually. There is a relationship between all of the steps – and that association must be maintained throughout the horses training.
For the sake this blog post, we are going to call each of these aspects ‘steps’. Another way to look at them is as blocks. One must be laid down in order for the next to be placed on top.
They take a horse from the very foundational ‘basics’ of rhythm and relaxation and, when used correctly and thoughtfully, build up to the ‘pinnacle’, which is collection.
Many riders think of the training scale as being a ‘check list’ of sorts. They feel that once they have reached step 1, they should only focus on mastering step 2 and so on. When you consider the training scale, it is worth noting that no one step can be correctly achieved when another step has been ignored or cast aside in order to do so.
The training scale should rather be approached with a more holistic mindset. Yes, the bottom steps need to be in place in order to successfully build on the next step – but while mastering the bottom steps, a keen eye should be kept on all the steps. This same principle applies when working on the top steps, the bottom steps need to be the basis of that work.
No one step of the training scale can be taken and worked on independently and in a vacuum
So taking this all into account, let’s have a quick overview of those steps and how they look for both horse and rider moving forward.
The Foundation – Relaxation
Relaxation is often included with or instead of the first two steps of the training scale. However, I believe that relaxation starts before a saddle is ever even place on the horse. The term relaxation is a confusing one for many riders; mostly due to our pre-programmed ideas of relaxation including a swimming pool, a lounger and a beverage!
True relaxation is when horses and their riders lack excess tension, physically and mentally
Some tension is needed in order for the horse to carry himself. This is also true of the rider, a certain amount of tension is necessary. It is the excess tension, caused by anxiety, stiffness, fear, nervousness, excitement and a whole list of other basic feelings, that causes the lack of true relaxation in the horse.
The amount of relaxation required will depend on both horse and riders level of training. Relaxation is relative, however it is also essential to correct riding – in both horse and rider.
Step 1 – Rhythm
Rhythm can be defined as a “strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound”. The key words in that description are regular, repeated pattern. Each horse has their own natural rhythm. This is equally true of riders.
Rhythm, like relaxation, starts on the ground. The rhythm of the routine you have created for your horse. What works, what doesn’t. Learning to know your horses natural rhythm begins here
In the saddle, the repeated pattern is the footfalls or hoofbeats. The rhythm should not change. It can be repeated more or less in a given time – and this the tempo that is being changed – but the rhythm itself should remain the same.
As a rider, you must learn to first follow the rhythm. Many riders try to force a rhythm on their horse, however forcing the rhythm will actually break your horses natural rhythm.
Rhythm must initially be worked with, not worked on
A loss of rhythm will immediately direct your attention to a loss of balance. It is learning to pin point that very first beat out of your horses natural rhythm that will determine your success as a rider. Once the break in rhythm is identified, you can work at re-establishing it again.
Rhythm & relaxation must be present in all other steps of the trainings scale in order for them to be correct and true
Step 2 – Suppleness
Suppleness, rhythm and relaxation are often shuffled around on the first two steps, depending on what training scale you are working from. However, rather than allowing this to confuse you, think of all three as being equally as essential in order to begin building things further. Visually, it would look like a triangle, all parts being necessary to maintain each other.
Suppleness is the elasticity or ‘loosey gooseyness’ that your horse needs in order to use himself to the best of his abilities. It is the ease at which he can perform the work required of him
Many riders think suppleness is address solely in the warm up phase of riding and schooling, however your horse must have suppleness throughout all his movements when being ridden.
Stiffness will stop the energy flowing through your horse; and in order to truly connect your horses back-end and front ends together, that energy must be allowed to flow as easily as possible
From the riders perspective, a lack of suppleness will negatively impact the horses way of going. Riders often make the mistake of focusing only on their horses suppleness. They then become frustrated as their progress seems to stall. The rider must try to consistently improve their own suppleness if they wish to be effective in the saddle. Remember, the training scale is equally as important for the rider as it is for the horse.
Due to its direct impact on the flow of the energy through your horse, suppleness, along with relaxation and rhythm, must be present before your horse can begin working on step 3 of the training scale.
Step 3 – Contact & Connection
Once both you and your horse can perform work to a certain level while effectively maintaining relaxation, rhythm and suppleness, you can begin working on improving your contact and connection.
I like to think of the contact as being a conversation with your horse. A good conversation has a certain give and take, and ebb and flow, to it – and it is important to consider this when it comes to your contact
Many riders think of contact as being the thing that creates the ‘head carriage’ in their horses ‘frame’. Unfortunately if you approach contact or connection in this way, you will actually set your training – and your riding – backwards.
Contact must first of all be established and then maintained as the horse is being ridden. It requires soft hands, soft elbows and also good posture and position in the saddle. A fixed contact will lead to the disappearance of the relaxation and suppleness in both you and your horse.
Contact and connection are like the ‘banks’ of the river that is your horses flow of energy. They are how you can begin to direct, influence and channel that energy as your horse is working
For this reason, it is important to consider your overall position, seat and leg aids as being a part of the contact. If you seat is heavy or if you are pushing, or shoving with your seat, that energy cannot flow, which will then prevent you from having that elastic contact you need in order to correctly work your horse.
Steps 4, 5 and 6 – Impulsion, Straightness & Collection
As your horse works through the first three steps of the training scale, rhythm, suppleness and contact, it is important to keep the next steps in mind.
For example, there is a certain amount of energy needed to come from behind, impulsion, in order to truly maintain a working contact. There is also a certain amount of straightness needed when working on truly suppling your horse.
I will go into more detail on the other three steps of the training scale next week. However, I strong suggest working on your relaxation and rhythm with the end in mind.
It is also worth noting that, as I mentioned at the beginning, the training scale is not a checklist. You cannot forget about rhythm as soon as you begin working on suppleness, or even collection. Each of the steps need the previous steps to be in place and operating correctly in order for that step to be mastered. Collection cannot happen without rhythm being present.
And all of the steps have the potential to test the abilities of both you and your horse, even at the most basic levels of your training. Investing the time and effort in learning to master the basics will see both you and your horse progress correctly later.
If you download the free poster of the training scale, I will send you some information on each of the ‘steps’ in more detail. It is 100% free and you can sign up HERE to access it.